Thursday, July 10, 2014

Some seasons need to end

Although this has not been great year for the Red Sox, as the All-Star break approaches, I am a little sad to know that we are almost halfway through the baseball season. Unlike some who think that the games and the season are far too long, I wish it were even longer and that some sports (particularly professional basketball) were only played in alternate years.

The never-ending season is also an issue for the Rhode Island General Assembly. I bring this up not because Capitol TV impinges on my enjoyment of baseball, but because I think it’s a major roadblock to running for office. Much has been made of the fact that more than 40 of our 113 legislators will be unopposed this year, but the truth is that every year an enormous percentage of the seats are uncontested. While others might say that the “power of incumbency” scares off newcomers, I believe that the job hours and responsibilities are so completely out of whack with the pay and the benefits that the logistics of actually serving in the General Assembly are far more intimidating to a newcomer than campaigning against an entrenched incumbent.

The legislative session lasts about 24 or 25 weeks each year for three days a week. Even if very little business is being done on the floor of either Chamber, legislators have committee hearings and events to attend as well as constituent meetings, policy briefings  and legislative work. Nights and weekends are often filled with must-attend events that include everything from fundraisers to community events. During the session, it is far more than a part-time job. Over the years I have closely observed the hours of several members and spoken with others who spend at least 20 hours a week during session on their General Assembly duties.  Next year the pay will be $15,171.55 with health benefits.

While some people would like a $15,171.55 part-year job that comes with benefits, the truth is that for most Rhode Islanders, the General Assembly salary neither pays the bills nor allows a person to have a traditional nine-to-five job. And let’s be honest: we need highly-qualified people to serve and many of the most qualified are not attracted by this salary level — or even triple it — so we are not going to get more candidates to run even with significantly higher compensation. I know one legislator who takes his vacation time in hourly increments to attend session so he can keep his day job, but I am certain he runs out of vacation time long before the end of session. Despite the focus on legislative salaries, people serve because they want to and real the challenge to getting more people is not about money, it’s about time.

Thankfully there are 49 other states with similar challenges that we can look to for solutions. While some states like California and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures and pay their legislators full-time salaries, other states like Texas, Florida and Kentucky limit the length and frequency of their legislative sessions. In Kentucky, session is limited to 30 days in odd numbered years and 60 days in even years. Texas’ legislature only meets every other year and Florida’s is limited to 60 day sessions every year. These are states with far bigger budgets and many more residents but much tighter legislative sessions. It should also be noted that no other state has an official state appetizer, so I suspect that the shorter legislative session does not allow for discussion of truly trivial matters as they wrestle with real policy issues and challenges. Perhaps Rhode Island would do better with a two-year budget addressed in a 60-day session in even years and a 30-day session in odd years for everything else.

Bottom line: before assuming that apathy and a fear of incumbency prevents people from running, we should take a long hard look at the job we are asking folks to take on and think about whether we’d want to do it ourselves. If the answer is “heck no” perhaps it’s time to shorten the season.

Love him or hate him, Buddy’s back

Last week the conversation in Rhode Island political circles changed quickly from "will he run" to "can he win" as Buddy Cianci announced that he would once again run for mayor of Providence. Love him or hate him, he's in the race to win and has aligned the stars to give him the best possible chance to win. While several people I've spoken with said his entry in the race was "bad" for Providence, the reality is that without an extraordinary - and coordinated — effort to defeat him, he stands a good chance of being sworn in as Providence's next mayor, despite the horrified protests of some Rhode Islanders. 

Like Buddy, chances are good that when Alex Rodriguez returns to professional baseball next year he'll get a chilly reception from certain circles who think that a PED user with such a lucrative contract is bad for baseball. The Yankees will be a different team than the one he left in 2013. There will be no Mariano Rivera, no Andy Pettitte and no Derek Jeter to have his back and although it's too early to tell how a post-suspension A-Rod will play, there will be many of us quick to point out any decline in his performance. Like Buddy, A-Rod has a resume to point to that shows he is perhaps a better player than his his “convictions” might indicate — and then of course, there are the “intangibles.” A-Rod’s return will drive up viewership and ticket sales in a way that introducing a new Yankee player named Brett, Lorne, Anthony, Dan or Jorge (unless it was Posada) would not. And again, love him or hate him, Providence flourished during Buddy’s tenure and no other man in the race can say that he has had equivalent experience.

While A-Rod has a valid contract, the only guarantees for Buddy are the ones that he has created for himself. At 73, Buddy is a generation older than several of the candidates for mayor and many of his voters have left the city, so he needed certain circumstances to come together to make his candidacy viable. By filing as an Independent, he places himself on the November ballot and into a 4-way race where the strongest candidate (one of the Democrats) will already have been battered by a primary. While a certain percentage of Providence voters will never vote for him, there are some that will always vote for him and by placing himself into a crowded field of lesser-known candidates, he has created the scenario in which he has the best chance to win.

For those in Providence who are tearing their hair out as Buddy 3.0 takes shape, there is one way to beat him: create a united front. Two of the four remaining candidates need to drop out of the race, deconstructing the ideal electoral situation for Cianci and putting one candidate forward as the alternative to Buddy. The Democratic primary would have to be more about coming together and less about ripping each other apart. With an overwhelming party affiliation, a non-Democrat should never have a chance in Providence but a divisive primary that gives the winner a short eight-week window to woo general election voters is just what Buddy needs to win.

As the battle to be the anti-Buddy candidate commences now, there’s two things that are nearly indisputable: there is no one in politics more astute than Buddy Cianci and there’s no doubt that he’s got his eyes set on City Hall.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Swooping in from centerfield in the Treasurer's race

As the Red Sox continue their June swoon, one of the very few high points this season has been the emergence of Brock Holt. At a time when some major leaguers complain about being moved down in the batting order or being asked to play first instead of third, Brock Holt has jumped in to do almost everything except for roll out the tarp — and I am quite sure he would do that if asked. I was at Fenway last week when he came flying out of center field to make a leap-n-roll catch when Jonny Gomes lost the ball in the twilight sky. He then led off the next inning with a double, stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly.  In fact, he scored both Boston runs that night and in almost every game, his play has brought a bit of excitement to what has otherwise been a disappointing season.

There’s a new face on the Rhode Island political scene who just might turn out to be the Brock Holt of the 2014 election. While Frank Caprio runs the insider game to get his old job back and Ernie Almonte’s campaign seems to be stuck in first gear, Seth Magaziner has emerged as the candidate to watch in the race for General Treasurer.

In a recent WPRI poll of Democratic primary voters, Caprio was leading the pack with 29%, Magaziner had 11% and Almonte had 9%. While Caprio’s lead might seem insurmountable for either trailing candidate, the truth is that 29% had to be a bitterly disappointing result for Caprio since he has held statewide office before, spent millions on advertising in 2010 and comes from a very prominent Rhode Island political family. Chances are good that the 46% of undecided voters know who Frank Caprio is and are planning to vote for someone else in 2014.

Ernie Almonte also underperformed in the WPRI poll. While Almonte seems to be well-liked and well-respected, accountants don’t make compelling candidates and he seems to have very little name recognition from his sixteen-year service as Rhode Island’s Auditor General. He’s also spent more than two years running for office — first as governor, now treasurer — and seems to have little support to show for it. While he has collected a few town committee endorsements, without a significant uptick in fundraising or a groundswell of grassroots support, it is likely that he will continue to track where he is.

In contrast to Caprio and Almonte, the upside looks good for Magaziner. His 11% in the WPRI poll was quite respectable considering that he has never run for office before, had a public job or spent any money on paid advertising. He has some of the “intangibles” that help win races: a big rolodex (with Bill Clinton’s cell phone in it) and outside-of-Rhode Island experience and perspective. He’s also proven himself to be a versatile campaigner too, raising more money than Almonte and Caprio in each of the last three quarters and collecting numerous endorsements along the way. Most telling was the Narragansett Democrats endorsement of Magaziner. Narrangansett has long been a Caprio stronghold and that endorsement should have been an easy one for Frank, but like the ball the got lost in the twilight, Magaziner jumped in and grabbed it.

While the race for governor is going to get Ortiz-type attention, I can see some real excitement down ballot as well. And who knows: before Brock Holt has earned a single vote for Rookie of the Year, there’s a good chance that Seth Magaziner will have secured enough votes to be General Treasurer of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Celebrating the big win on the bridge

While the Sox fan in me is a bit sickened by every loss — and this month there seem to be plenty of them — I am determined not to let the afterglow of the huge 2013 win fade anytime soon. This year I have to remind myself to enjoy the game, get excited about some of the new talent and not fret about the standings right now. In some ways this is also a great way to think about the outcome with the Sakonnet River Bridge toll — we need to be happy about the win before we reflect on what almost went wrong and what’s next.

Make no mistake about it — the bridge win was critical. There will be no toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, easing fear and uncertainty that business owners and residents had been dealing with for several years. Even in some of the earliest information sessions with DOT Director Michael Lewis, it was clear that putting a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge was going to hurt local businesses, drive away tourism and saddle local residents with what should be a shared burden: bridge and road maintenance. The sudden shift in power after the resignation of Speaker Fox gave several East Bay legislators (Edwards, Gallison, and Marshall) a stronger voice in the House and they fought to reverse the toll decision. Most importantly, the fix is not short term: the General Assembly leaders hammered out a plan that will create a fund for maintaining bridges and roads moving forward, very smartly providing a long-term solution to an ongoing problem.

The issue has been a contentious one for all involved. Even Governor Chafee felt the heat, noting at a recent event that he may not march in the Bristol 4th of July parade this year because he “didn’t have fun” in 2013 when he was booed over the bridge toll. We can’t promise a warm welcome this year, but he won’t be able to blame bridge-related anger for the heckling he’ll receive

Just as I’d rather not think about whether there will be October baseball, I can’t help but think a bit about the bridge toll as a near calamity that should have never happened. At times RIBTA has seemed like a runaway train — purchasing and installing millions of dollars in tolling equipment while the issue was very clearly up for debate and threatening to increase the toll on the Pell bridge if things didn’t go as they wanted. It makes me wonder why RIBTA has so much power. Who has eyes on RIBTA and why do we need a somewhat independent agency that oversees just four bridges when the Department of Transportation manages every other bridge and stretch of state-owned road? And by the way, who decided that those hideous lights on the Sakonnet River Bridge were attractive or money well spent? During the bridge debate this year, some legislators favored eliminating RIBTA and rolling its duties into DOT — should this be the next step in streamlining state government and making sure that our money is not wasted? These questions should be asked and answered to ensure that this “near miss” turns into “never again.”

The Sox are on track to finish near the bottom of the AL East, but I just can’t worry about it. They are World Series Champions and I’ve got tickets to a game this week. More importantly, there’s a new stripe down the middle of Hope Street and I’m planning to follow it out of town and over to Foglands for a day at the beach — toll-free.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mending the rift in the political clubhouse

Last week’s return of the 2004 Red Sox to Fenway was highlighted by the first attempt to bring Manny Ramirez back into fold of Red Sox Nation. Most will recall that in addition to being the most feared right handed hitter in baseball, Manny was a bit of disaster off the field and acted like an overgrown child in the clubhouse. He almost never reported to Spring Training on time, got in fights with team staff and his own teammates in the dugout, skipped out on high profile team events like visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and even quit on his team several times. Manny left Boston at the trade deadline in 2008 after several of his own teammates approached the management and asked them to get rid of him. He is the only MLB player to get caught using PEDs three times in his career. Considering that other 2004 heroes — with stellar reputations — were standing on the field without a starring role, it’s no wonder that there has been considerable grumbling from the media about the team’s choice to honor Manny.

In every election cycle there is period of clubhouse fighting (the primary) where candidates from the same party duke it out to become their party’s endorsed candidate. This is a tough time for many candidates to negotiate because sometimes they focus so intently on appealing to their party’s primary core voters that they position themselves far to the left or right of the more centrist general election voter. In Rhode Island, we have our primary late (this year it’s September 9th) giving candidates very little opportunity to reshape their image for the general election on November 4th. In the past, this has worked particularly well for Republican gubernatorial candidates who have been able to run their race towards the middle as Democratic candidates have fought for the left side of the political spectrum. Rhode Island political pundits agree that bloody Democratic primaries helped elected Governors Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri because the Democratic primary process produced a candidate that was weakened and too far to the left to win the general.

This year is especially interesting because there are hotly contested primaries on both sides of the aisle and surprisingly, the first negative ad — from the Fung campaign — has already been launched. While negative ads are frequently described as “comparative” by candidates’ camps, this one is negative — with a dash of humor — depicting Block supporters as less than intelligent “blockheads” while talking about why they support his candidacy. The timing of the ad is particularly interesting since negative ads are usually much later in the cycle, indicating to me that the Fung campaign wants to deliver a knockout punch early before focusing on general election voters later in the summer and into the fall. This might be like “counting your chickens before they hatch” but also shows that the Fung camp is aware that their only shot at winning depends on Democrats shredding each other in September, not toiling with Ken Block to prove who the real conservative is.

With the Republican candidates already tussling, it’s just a matter of time before the Democrats turn on each other and offer more than just competing visions for the state’s future. I make no predictions but am fairly certain that the two candidates that emerge from September clubhouse fights will have to do a better job than Manny to appeal to Rhode Island voters who are turned off by their antics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Batter's Box Awaits

The Red Sox are going through a long period of stinking it up right now and looking less and less like champions and more like a team that got lucky in 2013. I was at a game last week and the boo birds and the grumblers were out. A woman behind me said, “oh my gawd, can’t he just hit the bawl??” While I felt the same frustration, I was also tempted to tell her that she might take a swing or two before her next heckling gig. Stepping into the batters box and seeing a 95 MPH fastball whiz by her head might make her choose different words — or keep her mouth shut entirely.

As I was sitting in the basement of State House last night in hour four of a House Finance Committee meeting I was watching the members of the committee listen intently to testimony on subjects ranging from bonds to the corporate tax rate. I will admit — a lot of it was boring — and I thought how difficult it would have been to stay engaged, appear interested and to ask thoughtful questions for even one session, forget about doing the same thing night after night and year after year.

The familiar refrain about Rhode Island is that we have a lot of problems and most of them can be blamed on decades of bad leadership and corruption in the State House. Talk radio provides endless anecdotes and entertainment to get ones blood boiling and very few reasonable solutions.  For better or worse, Rhode Island won’t change and the leadership won’t change unless new people are willing to step up to the plate and endure the extremely painful process of serving in state government. The stipend that legislators receive is small and the hours that they put in are long. I talked to one local legislator about how he did it and he said that he took his vacation time from work in hours-long chunks so that he could attend session and keep his full-time private sector job. How many of us are willing to forego our vacation time to sit through hours of monotone discussion in a windowless room? If you might be, then I’ve got a date for you: June 25, 2014.

June 25, 2014 is the last day for a candidate to decide to run for local, state or federal office in Rhode Island. Anyone who wants to run must file a declaration of candidacy by that date. In a lot of ways that day is more important than Election Day because some years, less than 50% of all incumbents have an opponent. I am a firm believer that every race should be contested and that every officeholder should be accountable for their decisions. This isn’t always an option in Rhode Island with so few people willing to step up.

So, if you follow politics and think team Rhode Island stinks, step up to the plate and run for office. And for those that prefer to heckle rather than consider the batter’s box, remember the windowless basement room and the four hours of testimony. Perhaps you’ll consider a more constructive way of contributing to the conversation.

Why bother to go to college if you refuse to learn?

While rivalries in sports are generally considered to be healthy and fun, I am beginning to think that our college campuses are teaching students to stifle differences rather than learn from them. From coast to coast we seem to be teaching a generation of Americans that “free speech” extends only to those with whom they agree. I am so disgusted with what has transpired on college campuses this year: several guest speakers either have been shouted down or been forced to cancel their appearances because students simply did not want to hear from them. It would be like Red Sox fans blocking the Yankee bus from pulling into the parking lot at Fenway to try and force a forfeit. What’s the point of joining a discussion if you only want to hear from people with whom you agree?

And let’s be clear — the people who have been the focus of the students’ ire are not skinheads or members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are world leaders like for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). And while the uber-liberal campuses of Smith and Haverford have been among the most high-profile schools to publicly reject their scheduled speakers, Rutgers University (the state university of New Jersey) was the campus that made Condoleezza Rice feel so unwelcome that she declined her invitation. Think about it — thousands of interested — not necessarily indoctrinated — students and their families have been robbed of the chance to hear from the first African-American female Secretary of State because a vocal minority did not agree with the politics of the administration for which she served. Shameful.

I blame some of this on what appears to be the most narcissistic generation of all time — and the problem seems to be as much local as national. Bryant President Machtley had to institute “no selfie” with him rule so that the conferring of degrees didn’t take 6 hours.   And how about the college kids who thought that the Mount Hope Bridge would be a good place for a full public display of affection? Did they tweet: “#busted #MtHopeBridge #300footclub”? But truly, it comes down to thinking that your opinion is the only one that matters. Last fall, New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, was heckled off the stage at Brown University because student groups had gotten themselves whipped up about alleged racial profiling in the New York Police Department. So rather than having the opportunity to learn about what steps the NYPD had taken to minimize profiling, they shouted down a public servant who has spent his life keeping their spoiled selves safe in his big bad city.

I also blame part of this self-absorbed, my-way-or-the-highway attitude on the mindset that appears to permeate Congress right now. Both Republicans and Democrats can take their share of the blame for finger-pointing across the aisle about why things don’t get done. There are few voices left in the middle and even fewer on each side who can see the damage that is done by a government by stalemate and are willing to put their political necks on the line to fix the problem. If nothing else, the navel-gazing college students of today will be perfectly suited to serve in Congress.

As a not-so-recent college graduate, I remember my graduation speaker (Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder D-CO) for being kind of boring and really predictable. Would her talk have been more memorable if she said something that got me fired up? Maybe. Would listening to someone with whom I disagreed been a fitting end to a challenging and academically rigorous experience? Definitely.

I’m clearly not qualified to give a commencement speech, but if I did, I’d tell students that you learn more from listening to your opponent than you ever will from your supporters and that leadership is not about getting people to do what you say, it’s about getting others to respect what you think — even if they disagree. Of course, I won’t wait for that invitation since I know they won’t like what I’d have to say.