Monday, June 15, 2015

Hitting rock bottom

That high pitched scraping noise you hear is the sound of the Boston Red Sox hitting rock bottom. In recent memory, we’ve been worst and we’ve been first, but since 2003 the team has always seemed like it could be one win away from an extended win streak. I will be happy to eat my words, but after watching several weeks of really bad baseball, I am ready to say that a string of wins isn’t coming and that this team isn’t going to the playoffs. 

These days I’d like to say that prospects for Team Rhode Island are looking up, but we can’t move on without another embarrassing reminder that we’ve been stagnating for far too long. Gordon Fox’s sentencing last week closed the chapter on his public life but in so many ways was just another short story on the corruption that has been so pervasive in Rhode Island politics for so long. There are few states — except perhaps Louisiana — that have a history of greed and graft that is as long and storied as ours and while we recognize it and we are ashamed by it, we can’t seem to do a thing to change it and we even seem to embrace it.

My theory is that we are far too forgiving. I was stunned to read how many people wrote to the judge and asked her to be lenient with Fox’s sentencing. What!? He admitted stealing money and selling the public trust to finance his personal life. What about this is okay? He was an attorney and the most powerful politician in Rhode Island. This was not a mistake — he knowingly and willfully broke the law and took money in exchange for a liquor license. There have been fewer clear-cut cases of corruption and greed in recent memory than this one and yet plenty of Rhode Islanders — perhaps even those in positions of power — asked the judge to cut him some slack. 

After leaving office, Governor Sundlun always said that he was most proud that no one on his staff or in his administration was ever accused of acting unethically. Considering everything he accomplished to move Rhode Island forward, I have always struck with the simplicity of this thought. After all, this is the man who believed that no one was above the law and who turned himself in at the State Police barracks (driven by his State Police security detail) for violating a Newport City Ordinance. He was not one to dwell on “what ifs” but if someone had ruined his perfect ethic record, I can only imagine the withering stare that would have been dealt upon him or her. I am also quite certain that he would not have lobbied the court for leniency. Willfully violating the public trust is inexcusable and it’s high time that we all had higher expectations for Team Rhode Island so we can lift ourselves up from rock bottom.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Another also ran

I’ve been “horsey” all my life, but have a similar watch-through-my fingers approach to thoroughbred racing as I do for Red Sox playoff games. Racing has incredible highs and lows and for as exciting as it was to have American Pharoah win the Triple Crown, there are tens of thousands of “also rans” whose careers on the track end in a far less magnificent fashion or downright tragically. While most American politicians head into retirement far more gracefully after being an “also ran” in a presidential election, I’m going to make the bold prediction that Lincoln Chafee will be the exception and will come up lame at the end of this race.

While some among us were hoping that our own “horsey” former Governor Lincoln Chafee was putting himself out to pasture, last week he launched his campaign for President the only way he seems to do things: strangely. No web video, no home state rally, no tweet to supporters. He officially launched his run for President in a darkened auditorium at George Mason University in Virginia as a guest speaker in a lecture series. Earlier, his wife posted a public plea to former staff looking for his Facebook password. To say that he stumbled at the start would be an understatement.

Chafee has been clear that he’s planning to spend his campaign attacking Hillary Clinton for voting for the Iraq War (along with 76 other U.S. Senators) and his speech reflected his obsession with this one vote. He detailed what he saw as the deceitful and dishonest nature of the Bush-Cheney administration and made it clear that he views that one vote — taken in 2002 — as a litmus test for those who are qualified to be President, implying that anyone who supported our efforts in Iraq (i.e. Clinton) to be less trustworthy than he is.

And this is where he is going to come up lame, because the “thing” about Lincoln Chafee is that we really couldn’t “Trust Chafee” to do the things that most elected officials are supposed to do: lead, be transparent and yes, sometimes bite his tongue. He was quick to take a quirky stand — against Christmas trees, in support of a murderer — and slow to lead our state out of recession. His affiliations were murky: a Republican when it his name would get him elected then an Independent when he couldn’t survive a Republican primary. And now after a lifetime in politics and thirty years on the ballot, he’ll run as a Democrat for the first time in 2016. I witnessed him tell an auditorium full of elementary school students that he wouldn’t march in the 2014 Bristol 4th of July parade because he “didn’t have fun” the year before because “your parents and other adults” booed him for “doing the right thing” and putting tolls on the bridges. It was hardly a profile in courage moment.

I’m sure some of his stands were principled — at least in his own mind — but now he’s running on a new track, with billions invested in support of other candidates. The national media will cover his attacks on Clinton in case his ripping her down has an impact on the race. They have mocked his odd embrace of the metric system and noted that he “wouldn’t rule out” opening up negotiations with ISIS. That’s right, he’s indicated that he’s open to negotiating with terrorists. Yep, early indicators are that this race isn’t going to end well for Linc Chafee.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Presidential politics and the Mirabelli strategy

Every season there seems to be a stretch when watching the Red Sox is so frustrating that I just turn off the TV and walk away. Sometimes the team is appallingly bad for a few days, sometimes the stretch lasts for a week or two. This bout of horrendous play seems to be lasting longer than most so I started to do some poking around on the 2016 presidential campaigns to get a reprieve from bad baseball. The cast of characters vying to be president is nearly as big as the Sox roster and many of them have spent less time in the “big leagues” than Brock Holt.

In the time it took to establish that we need more pitching and a stronger offense (about 6 weeks), it seems like the field of presidential candidates tripled. Not too long ago I could name most of the major candidates running for president, but today I am quite sure I’d leave out several Republicans and a few Democrats too. While it’s still early, the field has expanded so quickly that they fill in the normal categories of left, right, center and cuckoo.

Whether it’s a state representative race in South Kingstown or a White House contest, having a huge field of candidates with diverse views is usually indicative of a divided and unhappy electorate. If so many different candidates can look at polling data and see that their message may resonate, it means that Americans are looking for a wide range of different policies and qualities from their president. Having a lot candidates in a primary process that is waged across many states in the span of more than a year could turn this into one of the most costly and down-to-the-wire presidential campaigns in recent history. It is incredibly expensive to wage an effective presidential primary campaign in several states at the same time, so only the most wealthy candidates will be able to have a presence in each primary, but marathon-like nature of a primary campaign could give some of the also-rans a moment their moment in the spotlight — and enough delegates to wrangle some influence at the conventions.

This field full of also-rans will have to employ what I think of as the Doug Mirabelli strategy, where a person has one strength (in Mirabelli’s case, being able to follow the trajectory of Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball) and he or she leverages that asset as long and as much as possible. Lincoln Chafee’s vote against the war in Iraq will be the center point of his campaign while Bernie Saunders will use a “you can’t get lefter than me” mantra to attract the most liberal voters. On the Republican side, the field is so rich with candidates with thin resumes and similar politics that some of the earliest contests could have a winner capturing less than 20% of the votes.

The 2016 presidential race is looking like a long and expensive slog with a few stars and a bunch of also-rans to make things interesting — in other words, just about the same as the 2015 Red Sox season.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Making the right investments

If you’ve spent any time watching the Red Sox this year, you’ve probably caught yourself chanting “we need a pitcher, not a belly itcher”. You are not alone. While Porcello and Buccholz have been decent, I have been left with the feeling that the Red Sox should have invested more money in the offseason to fill out the rotation after trading Lester, Lackey, Peavy and Miller late in the ’14 season. The team has a history of proving people wrong (lots of writers are still eating their words over the mini 2nd baseman) but I’ll go on record wishing we’d grabbed Max Scherzer when he was a free agent.

While regrets in baseball usually last a season — 86 years in the case of the Babe Ruth trade would be the exception — the ramifications in politics and government can be felt far longer. I recently talked to someone about how upset they were about the Navy leaving Newport in 1973 and there’s no doubt that singular event shaped — and damaged — Rhode Island’s economy for a generation. As Rhode Island looks to move ahead, we need to make sure that we invest smartly in the things that make us stronger and fix our weaknesses along the way.

Last weekend I joined more than 125,000 others who spent some time in Newport to attend the events around the Volvo Ocean Race at Fort Adams. The weather was amazing and the event was jammed with sailing enthusiasts from all over the world. Newport was chosen as the ONLY North American stop for the race and was chosen in large part because of the infrastructure upgrades (read: investments) made at Fort Adams in recent years that were championed by local legislators with the hopes of attracting big regattas like this one. While we’ve been following the Volvo Ocean Race for every mile because of our hometown skipper (go Charlie!), I will admit that seeing thousands of people enjoying a perfect day gave me a little jolt of Rhode Island pride and the sense that “if we build it, they will come.”

Investments need to make sense of course. We’ve thrown public money in the wrong direction before and we’ve also been pennywise and pound foolish. The “we don’t do incentives” policy of the Chafee administration contributed to our sloth-like recovery from the great recession while other New England states leveraged resources to land new companies. There’s a balance between rolling out the welcome mat and giving away the store and it’s budget time, so we need to find that balance and invest in our assets that will lead to growth — just like we did at Fort Adams.

The great news is that the Newport Volvo stopover wasn’t just a success in my eyes. Newport had four times as many visitors as the last North American stopover and the race organizers announced that Newport has first dibs on a stop in 2018. While the race isn’t over yet, Newport and Rhode Island are already winners. P.S. Go Alvimedica!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Seeing where the game is played

Whenever I go to a baseball game I love to see children when they catch sight of the field for the first time. It’s not a “Field of Dreams” moment because I don’t think they are so much mesmerized by the grass or fascinated by the game. They’re usually thinking “how’d they get THIS in HERE?” What goes on during the game is probably an afterthought too and any love of the game is fueled by memories of cotton candy, hot dogs and a stuffed green monster. One of my earliest memories is of Fenway Park, but not because of the glory of the 1977 team. I overheated in the summer sun and had to be taken to the first aid station to cool off.  There was a TV mounted on the wall and I remember thinking how neat it was that what I was watching was happening right outside the door. I’m sure my father was thinking the same thing (not). Still, that early exposure is probably why I still love the game today.

Last week I chaperoned a group of children representing Colt-Andrews Student Government on a field trip to the State House. Most of them had never been there and were in awe of the architecture, art and number of light bulbs in the chandelier. Thanks to Representative Gallison the students had the opportunity to learn about some of the issues that are currently being debated and even had a chance to cast a vote.  We also had coveted guest seating on the floor of the House Chamber to listen to the evening’s proceedings. While I’d like to say that the students understood the whirl of activity that occurred as they whipped through the agenda, I’d be lying. I think most of them just enjoyed the opportunity to watch the goings on and to hear their names being read into the record. I hope that some of them thought about how they’d like to be there again someday.

As our little group of 25 left the building I thought about the thousands of other Rhode Island school children who have never been to the State House — and about their parents — who have not idea about what goes on inside the building. The truth is that we rely on a very small group of people in the media to keep us informed on what happens in state government. There are few Rhode Islanders that run for office, leaving far more of us outside the process and for the most part unaware of the decisions that impact all of us. Many legislators get little or no feedback from their constituents and don’t have staff, making session a grueling and frustrating time. State government is also decidedly inconvenient — the children weren’t home until 6 and legislators are often there well into the evening — a long day for those with “real” jobs and families that would like to see them.

Our behind-the-scenes look was like a trip through the locker room — pretty cool, even if it can be stinky. I just hope some of these will might grow up and want to play the political game.