Wednesday, April 9, 2014

If it quacks like a duck, it might be lame

Red Sox fans have started the season with our bellies full of 2013 glory and looking forward to warmer days and good games. The first bad series is behind us and only a huge string of losses will turn our full stomachs into full agida with memories of what our last super-confident team did in 2011 by turning a winning season into a losing one with drumsticks and cheap beer. Closer to home, we’ve had changes in our state leadership lineup and many more ahead, so I thought I’d take a quick look at the latest from Governor Lincoln Chafee as we push through the legislative session and look ahead to the fall elections.

The phrase “lame duck” was first used in political circles 150 years ago and today refers to an elected official who will not be seeking re-election. Lame ducks are often thought to be powerless since their imminent departure leaves them with little political sway. Alternatively, some lame ducks have used this time to give voice to issues that are near and dear to them, fill vacancies on boards and commissions and generally leave a mark on the government they are leaving behind.

With his term winding down, Governor Chafee has decided to do something a little different than most lame ducks and do a grand tour. Last week he celebrated his birthday in Wyoming and recently he’s taken jaunts to Minnesota and Texas for speeches. He even hopped over to Connecticut last month to visit with his friend President Obama and did a little surfing in Costa Rica. To some observers of politics, this is just fine since he is almost powerless with his lame duck status and his low approval ratings, but I have to say that I think it’s kind of a “fried chicken and beer” approach to governing. In fact, I find it maddening.

When one signs up to run for office, they take an oath to serve. It’s not in the oath, but the assumption is that one will execute his or her duties for the entirety of his or her term, not just for the part that is appealing or fun. Governor Chafee has started to treat his job like the “no-show” jobs that people are always talking about. He gets paid whether he’s doing the people’s business or not — and its certainly hard to justify how he’s promoting the best interests of Rhode Islanders if he’s giving speeches in other states. I could justify his travels (and the expense we’ve incurred by sending his staff too) if they were promoting Rhode Island to companies wishing to relocate here but there’s no evidence that his travels are much beyond opportunities to muse about his career in politics. His absence would also be less obvious if there weren’t so much happening here — he was gone during key moments of the pension settlement discussions and when Speaker Fox’s office was raided — both times when it would be nice to know that the leader of the state was up to speed.

Several times Governor Chafee has noted that his administration is like a swimming duck that is moving its feet even as it appears to be doing nothing.  That’s definitely the impression I get — and it’s lame.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Managing Expectations

Last weekend I had the chance to take in a Red Sox spring training game at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida. It was the last game of the preseason and despite impending rain, the crowd was enthusiastic to see the team’s last warm up before Opening Day. Before the game I stood in a narrow hallway as the players crossed between the clubhouse and the dugout, many of them smiling and nodding as they walked past. Further down the passageway towards the field, fans of all ages hung over the railing hoping to get a glimpse of a favorite player and perhaps even an autograph.

“Do the Sox ever cut through that way?” I asked my new friend Jerry, a member of the security team. “Nope, never — but the other team walks through there and then once one of our minor league guys stood there and signed for an hour. He was having a ball.” I realized that this was the moment when expectations were highest — for the fans who would might never get this close to a player, for the minor league journeyman who would never again get nearer to the majors and even for the team itself. The team is nearly identical to the championship squad, there are few worrisome injuries to track (knocking on wood) and few pending contracts to worry about. Even with these stars aligned, the team can hardly plan to repeat the magic of 2013 because it was just that — magic. Managing the expectations of the fans, the players and the media for the upcoming season must be a daunting task for John Farrell and his staff.

While my jaunt to Florida kept me outside of Rhode Island’s borders during the election of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello last week, the magic of Twitter (and a reasonably patient family) gave me a front row seat to the action. Like John Farrell, Speaker Mattiello has to manage high expectations as he assumes his new leadership position in the House of Representatives. So far he’s been decisive – promptly replacing committee chairs and saying he would focus on “ jobs and the economy” — four magic words that Rhode Islanders are desperate to hear. Moderate Democrats did a happy dance watching the progressive wing of the party pick the losing side in the leadership battle and even some Republicans were pleased to see one of their own — Representative Doreen Costa — be awarded a vice chairmanship on the House Judiciary Committee. In the East Bay, the rise of Representative Raymond Gallison to chair of the House Finance Committee and Representative Jay Edwards as the new Majority Whip gives our regional issues a little more voice on Smith Hill.

With week one behind him, the honeymoon may be short-lived as the General Assembly has a load of work ahead and Speaker Mattiello has some thorny issues to wrap his arms around with just two months left to go in the session. He needs to decide whether the House will take up the pension reform settlement (if it is approved by the unions) and he will need to pass a budget through a chamber whose members were (at least initially) not unified in their support of him. And unlike John Farrell, his season is a short one and his success or failure will likely ride on the how the next few months play out. One thing is for certain, whether or not Speaker Mattiello can manage the high expectations that have been set — and the daunting challenges ahead — he won’t be slipping a shiny new World Series ring on his finger anytime soon, so relishing day-to-day wins and riding out the losses will have to suffice for now.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Can he make a comeback?

There’s no better storyline in baseball or politics than a compelling comeback. Whether it’s the “worst to first” Red Sox in 2013 or Buddy Cianci in 1992 (who “never stopped caring about Providence” even while incarcerated), fans and voters love an underdog and someone who has been down-and-out before clawing back to the top.

Down at JetBlue Park, Grady Sizemore, the former all-star centerfielder for the Cleveland Indians is hoping to be the comeback kid for the Red Sox this year. A phenom for his first four seasons in the majors, he hasn’t played a full season of baseball since 2009 — or a single game since 2011. I’m knocking on wood and crossing my fingers as I write this, but the Red Sox are cautiously optimistic that he could contribute to the team in a meaningful way this year.

Unwittingly, Clay Pell may have put himself in the underdog position in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. The odd rollout of his campaign with the never-ending “Clay is IN” web ads featuring Michelle n’ Clay (IN where?) and the incredible story about his car running away from home/ being stolen have definitely put him behind his two primary opponents in terms of appearing ready from day one. I won’t count him out yet — quirky sometimes wins (see current governor) and a big bank account can make that happen (again, see current governor), but the car story might tell a tale that inspires some voters to opt for another candidate.

I’ve done some dippy things with my car. Once I left a cup of coffee on the roof and drove down Hope Street wondering why people were gesticulating and giggling. I have a friend who briefly lost her car when she drove to work, walked home and then wondered where her car went. We laugh at ourselves and move on. But the story of the Pell Prius says a little more about the candidate than he might want voters to know.

In December when he first reported it had been stolen, he simply parked it somewhere and walked home, forgetting where he parked it. These things happen but his response lacked some basic common sense. He went out of his way to criticize the Providence Police for responding slowly saying he waited in the cold for two hours with the car once he found it. A regular Rhode Islander would be embarrassed for being dippy but grateful to have found the car unharmed. He would drive the car home, call the police and go down to the station to do the paperwork, not wanting to waste one more minute of patrol time.  He also would not publicly criticize a law enforcement officer for a slow response to such a non-emergency.

When Pell misplaced his car the second time, he left it unlocked with the keys inside. A Prius has a button start and so whoever borrowed the car simply opened the door and pressed a button. Knowingly leaving your keys in your car in an area where cars are frequently stolen is either na├»ve, dumb or too rich to care. But I am not sure that this is even an accurate picture of what occurred since he and Ms. Kwan spent a significant amount of time driving around looking for the car as if it were a lost cat. Perhaps they weren’t sure that it just hadn’t been misplaced again — or didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to be certain on which street they’d parked.  Either way, this episode illustrates a lack of gravitas. Rhode Island needs “West Wing” leadership, not reruns of “Laverne & Shirley.”

A Grady Sizemore comeback this year would confirm that Red Sox scouting and management continues to be incredibly adept at assessing talent and potential. A Clay Pell comeback might say just the opposite about Rhode Island voters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Getting out of our potholes

While elected officials have the ability to enact laws, institute policies and make regulations, sports stars and actors can make the media — and the masses — pay attention to the issues that they care about. As the debate over legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island has sparked up — primarily with the help of Governor Chafee’s “pot for potholes” interview — I was fascinated to read about a Houston Astros player, Jon Singleton, who talked about his addiction to marijuana and how it almost ruined his professional career. While Chafee waxed on about the amount of revenue marijuana could bring from users, Singleton gave a sobering interview about what the drug almost cost him.

We don’t need to hear from a long line of celebrities or read the many studies on the health impacts of marijuana to know that legalizing it is a bad idea. Let’s face it, smoking pot is not good for you and it never will be. I’m tired of hearing people say that marijuana is no worse than cigarettes or alcohol. No, marijuana is not heroin, but it’s not harmless either. Remember that “pothead” from high school? Where’s he now?  We have plenty of proof that pot is harmful and addictive and cracking open the Pandora’s box of regulating it and taxing it is shortsighted and irresponsible. Marijuana is an “entry level drug” that hampers one’s ability to think straight and can lead to more serious drug use. According to the NIH, 61% of persons under 15 entering rehab reported marijuana as their primary drug of abuse. What more do we need to know?

The truth is that we wouldn’t be having a conversation about legalizing marijuana if there weren’t many millions of dollars in tax revenue attached to the proposal. Governor Chafee and others looking to “regulate” marijuana are not interested in controlling the drug trade or acting in the best interests of public health, they simply want to add more money to the pile that they get to spend, leaving Rhode Islanders with less. The message to children is horrible: “Just say no to drugs, but Mommy should have a bong hit before breakfast because it will fund our roads and bridges.” It’s a sad day when we look to fill government coffers by selling drugs to our citizens.

While we don’t have a sports star like Singleton to make the case in Rhode Island, I am hopeful that former Congressman Patrick Kennedy will use his considerable clout to battle this unfortunate proposal. As an addict and someone who spent his fair share of time in rehab, his perspective and his passion will be valuable if clearer heads are to prevail.

Rhode Island has some serious problems. Our economy needs to grow, people need jobs and we need to make sure that all of our children have the best shot at a successful adulthood. Debating the relative harm of marijuana versus alcohol or analyzing the potential revenues that could be gleaned from this predatory proposal is a waste of time and misses the big picture. Let’s get our heads out of our potholes and get back to the issues at hand.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

First, just show up

That pesky groundhog saw his shadow and we’ll be looking at snow and slush for several more weeks here in New England. I don’t mind though because the real harbinger of spring — the day when pitchers and catchers report — has arrived right on time. Unlike years past when Red Sox fans spent the offseason complaining about how the season ended, we closed 2013 with eyes bright and pride restored.

The first thing the Red Sox need to do to have a successful season is to show up. That’s right, just having everyone report to spring training with no drama is a good start. Remember the days when Manny’s grandmother died (twice) and made him late? Manny could have  - and perhaps should have – been fined for his absence. After all, he gets paid to do a job, so shouldn’t he show up?  Perhaps we should ask certain Providence City Council members the same question.

I was stunned to see the recent WPRI report about the no-show Providence City councilors. While a few had decent attendance records, some had an appalling number of absences. One of the worst offenders had missed 100% of the meetings for a subcommittee he sits on while another had missed 24% of the full council meetings. Let’s be clear, these council members run for the position voluntarily and are paid to serve. In return they are expected to attend full council meetings and sit on a few subcommittees. The salary is more than $18,000 a year, plus benefits, which include a full health and dental plan along with a cell phone.

Tara Pinsky, the chair of the mini-but-mighty Providence Republican City Committee had a great idea proposing an attendance policy that would allow for a certain number of absences before docking the member’s pay on a per-meeting-missed rate. While I expect her idea to get as much traction as a 1975 Pacer on icy College Hill, we must admit that the concept of getting penalized for not showing up is a novel one in a city known for no-show nepotism, accounting wizardry, and downright corruption.

For those of us who don’t live there, the problems in Providence are still our concern. The ongoing mismanagement is a weight holding the whole state back. Our taxes fund the problems caused by corruption or just plain lazy leadership. If the fifteen people who are supposed to be the most committed to making the city a better place can’t be bothered to show up for work, we can’t expect anyone else to care either. Every time the mayor’s office changes hands we’re promised aggressive, youthful reform. And every time it’s the same old, same old.

This fall Providence voters will have another chance to make a change in the mayor’s office and in the fifteen council seats. In 2010, ten of the fifteen seats were uncontested. It seems like all of Providence is just waiting for someone to show up.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The only game in town

For many of us, the Superbowl is less about crowning a football champion and more about getting back to baseball. About halfway through the game my thoughts turned to the pitchers and catchers making their way to Florida to open spring training camps this week. I freely admit that long before Peyton Manning mumbled his last “Omaha,” my focus was on the 2014 Red Sox and what the next eight months will bring to this championship team.

But fans of Little Rhody — and others who live here — should not let our minds wander from the game at hand when thinking about politics this year. We need to be focused on one thing these days: how we can pull our state back from the brink. You may have seen a little corner of the Providence Journal last week noting that thanks to Nevada’s improving jobs climate, Rhode Island has taken ownership of the highest unemployment rate in the country at 9.1 percent. The rest of the country has officially climbed out of the recession but thanks to our poor education system, weak infrastructure, relatively high taxes and government regulation, we’re the worst in the country. No wonder Peyton Manning obsesses about Omaha — the unemployment rate there is just 3.6 percent. He’s not calling plays — he’s telling Rhode Islanders where to go to find jobs!

All kidding aside, thought leaders, elected officials, candidates and voters need to have a singular focus: getting Rhode Islanders back to work. Our high unemployment rate affects everything – people have less money to spend, hurting local businesses. Others fall behind on their mortgages and foreclosures clog our already depressed housing market. Everything else can wait; there should be no burning social issues on the agenda and we do not need to revisit any previously enacted legislation. We simply need to take action that will make Rhode Island a place where job growth is not an oxymoron. We have piles of studies that show how certain taxes drive away business and how making ourselves competitive with Massachusetts and Connecticut will slow the creeping tide of businesses moving away. Once we stop the bleeding, we can start to attract businesses, encourage growth and get back on track.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but those who are running for statewide office should be able to articulate their plans by now. There shouldn’t be a candidate in the race for governor who cannot give you specific ideas on how he or she would lead the way out of this funk. If a candidate starts an answer with “we need to have a conversation” then he’s clearly not been listening because we’ve been talking for four years about jobs and the need for policies that will grow our economy and lift us out of recession. Voters are to blame too. When we contact General Assembly members or even see them on the street, don’t ask them for a license plate — ask them what they’re doing to get Rhode Islanders back to work. After all, it’s the only game we should be focused on.

P.S. Red Sox pitchers and catchers report on February 15.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Everyone needs to ride the bus

As boys grow up with dreams of playing professional baseball, I doubt that many of them think longingly of time they’ll spend on a bus between minor league cities like Pawtucket and Scranton. However, this is the experience that most players in professional baseball will have and they don’t get to shag flies in Fenway or pitch in Yankee stadium without riding the bus, eating bad food and playing in some decidedly unglamorous towns. Minor league experience is a virtual prerequisite for major league players and only 21 players have skipped the minors since 1965 (according to Baseball Almanac). Clearly the coaches, managers and baseball executives know that the skills and mileage that these players gain in the minors is something that will make them better players at “the show.” 

Rhode Island has a big league too – it’s serving as the governor or in a federal office. You shouldn’t run for one of these offices unless you have had considerable, relevant experience. Lincoln Almond was Rhode Island’s U.S. Attorney for 21 years. Bruce Sundlun had been a CEO, a civic leader, a federal prosecutor and a WWII bomber pilot. There are just some jobs that require seasoning as well as smarts and governor of Rhode Island is one of them.

Could someone break this to Clay Pell? He seems well meaning and his wife is lovely, but he needs to know that he should spend some time getting involved in all things Rhode Island before coming down from on high to share his deep thoughts on public policy and ask to be elected to the big chair. I appreciate that in the last three years he’s had three really great jobs (in D.C.) but this isn’t speed dating, it’s an election for the leader of our state. I’m sure that there are some among us that will vote for him based on his name or a catchy campaign tagline – I think some might like the ring of “Trust Pell” – but our state is at a crossroads and we need candidates who are running because they’ll be ready from day one to deal with the issues that are already on the Governor’s desk, as well as those that might get dropped there at any moment. 

Decision-making skills are critical. Governor Sundlun liked to tease his staff with “what would you do if the Russians were in South Attleboro?” While we weren’t expecting an invasion, his words are a reminder that it’s the unexpected challenges that show true leadership.  We need a governor who can lead through natural disasters and man-made ones as well. Whether it’s closing the credit unions to protect depositors, comforting the families of Station victims or donning a flannel shirt to direct blizzard recovery efforts, being qualified for governor is more than just memorizing facts and making the rubber-chicken rounds. It’s not a job for someone just learning his way around state government or someone with little or no executive experience. 

One of my favorite political movies is "The American President.” It’s a bit cheesy, but Michael Douglas delivers a great line that describes Rhode Island today: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” Clay Pell, if you want to be serious, get on the bus and take a ride through the minors. The big leagues will be there when you’re ready.