Thursday, December 19, 2013

Next Up: Better Run Elections

These last weeks of December are generally a quiet time in both politics and baseball – giving me the opportunity to tune out, make some cookies and wrap presents. Red Sox tickets are on sale and it looks like they will open spring training with a team that looks remarkably similar to the 2013 World Champions. We can only hope they play as well.

This time next year, Rhode Islanders will be familiarizing themselves with a new lineup at the state house as all the general officers – except Attorney General Kilmartin – are moving on and a new team will be sworn in. As an electoral nerd, I am most interested in who wins the wide-open Secretary of State’s race and whether that person will make any effort to address some of the blatant and embarrassing issues with our elections process.

The Rhode Island General Assembly passed a voter ID law and while some have decried it as anti-someone, I think that if I need an ID to go to the movies, buy alcohol, cash a check, get a library card, sign a lease and receive government benefits, then flashing it to vote should not be a problem. If nothing else, the voter ID law prevents the “black helicopter” crowd from talking about busloads of people driving from polling station to polling station to vote illegally. It likely never happened and with an enforceable voter ID law, the allegation is more easily disregarded.

The challenge for the next Secretary of State is making sure that polls are set up to accommodate ID checks without slowing the line. Two things spring to mind - we need to recruit young civic-minded poll workers and we need to be more aggressive in promoting “no excuse” mail ballots. That’s right folks – you don’t need to wait until election day to cast your ballot and not very many people know about it. While Rhode Island lags behind 32 other U.S. states that allow for in-person early voting, you can still request a mail ballot – and you don’t even need a note from your mother. By making a conscious effort to recruit poll workers as soon as possible and educate people about the no-excuse mail ballot option, the next Secretary of State has the ability to make election day run smoothly.

However I think the most egregious issue with Rhode Island elections is that our primary date is late – so late in fact that it could violate ederal law under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act) that requires ballots for uniformed services and overseas citizen voters be sent at least 45 days prior to a general election for Federal office. While there are actually 55 days between the primary and the general election in 2014, that’s barely enough time to get the ballots out the door – particularly if multiple recounts are required or there is a problem at the printer. Rather than just move the date back a few weeks, there’s a mad rush to get the ballots to the troops in time. As a military spouse, I find it disturbing that our elected officials are more concerned about the inconvenience of showing an ID at a polling place than making sure tour front line troops have the ability to exercise a right they are fighting for on our behalf.

Why not just move the date? It’s one of those things that fall under “incumbent protection.”  Once the dust from the primary settles, a challenger barely has enough time to mount a serious campaign, greatly favoring the person with existing name ID. And make no mistake – this is another area where Rhode Island is last: September 9th is the latest primary date set for 2014. Bottom line - we need a Secretary of State who will step up and advocate for an earlier primary.

So in this quiet time for baseball and politics, take a moment to take a close look at the players – and candidates on the roster for 2014. Unlike the Red Sox, Rhode Island has some important roles to fill and we need to make sure that the candidates are up for the job.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Learning from Bad Deals

Like many Red Sox fans, I’m a bit sad to see one of my favorite players, Jacoby Ellbury, go to the Yankees.  However I’ll admit that news of his seven-year, $153 million contract actually provided a little relief since I will not have to witness his inevitable decline firsthand. With several long stints on the DL in his best years, I expect that he’ll be less durable as he gets older, making the last several years of his contract seem like wasted money. It’s appropriate that he’s in New York since paying old players for past performance seems to be part of the “Yankee way” and I’m happy that the Steinbrenners want to compensate him for the two World Series trophies he helped bring to Boston.

It’s worth noting that the Yankees aren’t the only ones dishing out the dough. Robinson Cano’s ridiculous $240 million ten-year contract with the Mariners shows that baseball teams haven’t learned that these obscene contracts just don’t work out and that putting their “eggs in one basket” is not a prudent path. So when fans like me gripe about wasting money, even though it’s not “our” money, it means we’re frustrated that our teams have not learned any lessons about long-term, big money contracts. I’m hearing the same frustration about Rhode Island’s disastrous, long-term, big money deal with a famous baseball player – and in this case, it is “our” money.

Most readers know the basic facts on the 38 Studios loan guaranty that brought the ailing video game firm to Rhode Island and left taxpayers holding the bag. A generation ago, the credit union crisis rocked Rhode Island and Governor Bruce Sundlun and the General Assembly created a commission to independently investigate what went wrong. Republican State Senator Dawson Hodgson is urging his colleagues to launch a similar investigation into 38 Studios and seems to be getting the silent treatment in response. Is it because many of the legislators voted in favor of financing the deal? Or worse yet, voted in favor of it, but didn’t know what they were voting for? Is there something even worse and we’re looking at a “full Rhode Island’ where someone’s cousin made money because her boyfriend knew a guy who worked with his sister on the deal? Who knows? We certainly won’t until it is appropriately examined.

While I think it’s important to investigate to examine the deal for malfeasance and (once again) embrace a “never again” approach for insider deals, I think it’s even more important to make sure that we have the opportunity to learn from the 38 Studios deal so we don’t cripple our economic development efforts going forward. There is an important role for public investment and partnerships with private companies, but until we know what happened with 38 Studios, the mere mention of that debacle ends any discussion about serious economic development efforts. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves and hamstringing future economic development with a “never again” strategy on public-private partnerships while our neighbors to the north and west attract businesses and give incentives all the time.  All because we don’t know what really happened with 38 Studios and really don’t want to talk about it. This is just dumb.

Baseball executives have an amazing array of statistics at their fingertips when they make a trade and invest in a player. Fans of “Moneyball” know that there are sabermetrics far more useful than old school stats like RBIs and ERA. WAR (wins above replacement) shows how a combination of a players’ skills makes him more valuable than another player at his position. Having these pieces of information allows teams to justify bringing Ellsbury (WAR 5.8 in 2013) and Cano (WAR 6.0 in 2013) on board for ridiculous amounts of money. Here in Rhode Island we need to amass all the information we can to make good decisions in economic development – and future leadership. Otherwise we’ll never be able to compete with our neighbors or know when to replace declining players with new candidates with better skills for the job. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

No Place for Boo Birds

This fall I was in Milwaukee for a business trip and spotted Daniel Bard walking through the hotel lobby. When I said his name, he looked up, obviously surprised that he would be recognized – and likely horrified that a middle-aged woman was so eager to meet him. For those that don’t remember him, Daniel Bard was a top Red Sox pitching prospect – and lights-out pitcher – until he and the rest of the team imploded in September of 2011.  In 2012 they tried to make him into a starter and he spent much of 2013 in Portland, presumably trying to get his groove back. I told him I was a Red Sox fan and he looked at the carpet, saying that he didn’t play for them anymore.

Bard seemed surprised that I knew he’s just been signed by Theo Epstein and the Cubs (and in Milwaukee for the game against the Brewers) and perked up saying he was glad that Theo picked him up. We had a short conversation about his time with the Sox – I thanked him for his many good innings and he was somewhat apologetic about his struggles. I was struck by how young he seemed and how he was clearly embarrassed by his poor performance with the Red Sox. He was not the arrogant and cocky professional baseball player I imagined from TV – he’s just a nice kid trying to pitch like he knows he can. How hurt he would be to know that someone started a “Daniel Bard Sucks” message board online.

I thought of Daniel Bard last week when I read about the controversy surrounding John DePetro calling union protesters “wh__res.”  While Mr. DePetro certainly has a right to use whatever language he’d like – and clearly his employer, WPRO, continues to employ him so they must approve of his behavior, I think that kind of public name-calling is intolerable in a civilized society. Whether you agree with the anti-pension reform union protesters (and I do not) calling them obscene names does not further the debate – it just makes politics more divisive and more unpleasant.

Sadly this kind of name-calling – and the labeling that follows -- is common in politics and accomplishes nothing. Whether it’s calling all Republicans “right wing extremists” (a particularly humorous label in Rhode Island where many Republicans are to the left of leading Democrats on social issues) – or hearing those same anti-pension reform union protesters yell at Treasurer Gina Raimondo, name-calling is literally a waste of breath. We’ve watched the extreme partisanship in Washington lead to a sequester and a government shutdown – it’s time to turn the page, stop the name-calling and figure out what we can do across party lines and in spite of ideological differences.

And so next time you go to a baseball game and a player on your team makes an error or gives up a grand slam, try not to boo or yell “you s_ck!”  That player is someone's son, father or husband and they probably know that they just stunk it up.

Unless of course, you’re a Yankees fan – then go ahead and let them know how you feel.

And FWIW, Daniel Bard takes a great selfie!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Making the Most of the Offseason

Even though memories of the joyous 2013 baseball season burn bright, the truly fanatic baseball fans among us have already started think about the next season – the offseason – and all the excitement that it brings. The offseason officially opens with a variety of awards, continues with blockbuster trades and ends only when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training (that’s February 15 for those of us contemplating a trip to Jet Blue Park). Returning players will take the next few months to spend time with their family and recharge while minor league players and hopefuls will spend the offseason honing their skills and getting in shape for their shot at the big leagues. For political types the offseason is similar as elected officials contemplate whether to run again and candidates scurry to pull their campaigns together while getting duck boatloads of unwanted advice from people they don’t know. Today I thought I’d get the political offseason off to a roaring start by throwing out some tips for 2014 candidates.

As an announced candidate, now is a good time for your campaign to fall apart. If a campaign is going to have a crisis, have it now since election day is a year away, people have short memories and no one is paying attention. If you’ve got some dirty laundry to air or are expecting the departure of a disgruntled staffer, this is the time to “put out your garbage.” Voters are focused on the holidays and no one cares if your campaign has hit the skids. For what it’s worth, the window on free campaign calamities closes just about the same time the last Christmas tree (or Holiday tree if you’re at the Chafees) gets picked up off the curb.

Having said that, know that certain missteps will haunt you. Rhode Island’s political reporters are a small group and for as competitive as they are, they are also friends – with each other. An early blunder with that core group will stay with you. Right now Clay Pell is making the rounds with labor and party groups and blowing off the media calls.  If – or more likely – when he decides to run, he’s notched up the scrutiny he’ll get by not answering their questions. He’s also making folks suspect that he doesn’t know enough about Rhode Island to serve as governor.  The whispering is fierce: he probably can’t tell the difference between John from Alperts and the Cardi brothers.  Or even worse - he probably doesn’t even know where all the Almacs used to be.

If you’re running against an incumbent, you have twice as much work to do since you need to give people a compelling reason to vote for you and against the other person. It’s political Stockholm Syndrome – voters are loyal to incumbents – even if they don’t agree on most issues. Fear of the unknown prevents voters from making the leap and supporting someone new. Of course, some incumbents deserve to be re-elected, but many skate by without being challenged or facing only token opposition. If you’re going to run, don’t just be a placeholder, make a case for why you’ll be better for your opponent and show why they deserved to be replaced. Contested races don’t have to be negative, but they need to be comparative and if you don’t delineate why you would be better than the person holding the office, your chances of winning are negligible. Go big or go home.

And just as a coach might say to a slumping batter or the pitcher with an ERA higher than his age, I’ll add my last piece of advice: “Don’t listen to ‘em.” That’s right – you’ve got to run your own race and try and block out the constant stream of unsolicited input about everything from the insiders you “have” to recruit to the color of your yard signs. Every time you hear a “you oughta” you should nod politely and ask for a campaign contribution. The people who want you to win will keep talking and write a check and those just interested in dispensing their wisest thoughts will zip their lips and leave you alone. Either way, you’ll be in good shape for the 2014 political season and you’ll know who’s truly on your team and who just wants a picture with the trophy.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Clubhouse Guys

Now that we’ve gotten a little rest and a little perspective, I think 2013 could be the best Red Sox season ever. I wasn’t around for the Impossible Dream team in 1967 or really aware of the great 1975 team, but let’s face it, if you don’t win the World Series, the season ends on a down note. 2004 was fantastic -- and the only season that might come close to this one – but the great moments of 2004 were more about vanquishing the Yankees in the ALCS than mowing down the Cardinals. While the storyline in 2004 was about overcoming a curse (and the dreaded Yankees), this year was supposed to about rebuilding: mixing rookies with “clubhouse guys” and hoping to compete with the talent-laden teams in the AL East. The 2013 World Champion Red Sox defied expectations and by all accounts, developed into an all-clubhouse team, winning with grit and playing with maximum effort each day.

I usually use this space to call someone out or criticize a political move, but I’m going to rip a page out of the 2013 Red Sox book and do something unexpected: I’m going to be nice.

Rhode Island is really lucky to have Jack Reed as one of our U.S. Senators. When the John Chafee/ Claiborne Pell era ended, some folks – myself included – were concerned that Rhode Island would get lost in the small state shuffle without those senior members of the Senate to speak up for us. Other states have senators that are more high-profile and more media-hungry (think Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz) to raise their states’ concerns but Senator Reed keeps a far lower profile and focuses on what needs to be done. While he’s never done a turn on the late night talk shows, he’s certainly has been a go-to resource for the Sunday morning hosts who want to interview serious policy makers who can look beyond the politics to talk substance. As a constituent I appreciate that he’s well-informed - even if I don’t agree with some of his votes - but I’m actually a fan because he’s a clubhouse guy.

When I was working on the Sundlun campaign in 1990, then State Senator Jack Reed was running for Congress. After the primary, the democratic candidates would meet periodically for coordinated campaign meetings. One fall morning I was unloading boxes of campaign materials out of my trunk just before one of these meetings. Several of my male co-workers walked by, said hello and walked into the meeting. As I was unloading the last box, a man I didn’t know stopped and asked if he could carry the box for me – I declined since it was the last one – but he waited and opened the door to the office introducing himself. I thought, “Nice guy that Jack Reed. I wonder if he’ll beat Trudy Coxe.”

A generation later, that same nice guy – now Rhode Island’s senior U.S. Senator -- came to Bristol to swear in the new Colt-Andrews Elementary Student Government. He led twenty-five serious little faces through their oath to “be respectful and responsible” and “uphold the honor” of their school. He spoke about how important it was to be honest and to work hard and then congratulated each child on his or her election. Although this group of constituents is still ten years away from casting a ballot, Senator Reed shook every hand and posed for every photo, never looking for the exit or talking about the next thing on his schedule.

So Texas can have both Nelson and Ted Cruz and New York can certainly keep A-Rod and Chuck Schumer. We’re happy here with clubhouse guys like Jonny Gomes and Jack Reed and understand just how lucky we are.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Making the Right Call

As I write, the last chapters of the 2013 World Series story remain unwritten, but between errors, missed opportunities and odd rules, there have been many moments to give Red Sox fans heartburn. Since so many Sox fans are true fanatics, there’s the game after the game where fans on the radio and on social media ripping apart every key moment and each key decision. While “hindsight is 20/20,” sometimes it’s immediately obvious when a manager – or an elected official -- makes a bad decision. And while John Farrell’s decision making might be the difference in a won or lost game, bad public policy choices can do much more damage.

Rhode Islanders are keenly aware that Mayor Taveras took the reins in Providence at a difficult time in the city’s history and that fiscal challenges are ongoing. However, the closing of the Davey Lopes pool in favor of a “spray park” has now blossomed into a PR disaster that threatens to overshadow Taveras’ launch into the 2014 governor’s race. If the issue were simply that he decided to close a neighborhood pool because of budget constraints then his stubborn “guess what, I’m the mayor” answer probably would be less offensive. However with City Councilman Davian Sanchez alleging that Taveras was willing to open the pool in exchange for Sanchez’ budget vote, the “quid pro pool” controversy looks to be yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of the Rhode Island political cesspool.

Providence’s budget woes are indisputable. And yes, Mayor Angel Taveras appears to have the legal authority not only to refuse to open the pool during the unbearably hot summer, but also to spend more than $36,000 to cement it over, ensuring that another Providence child will never learn to swim there. And here is where I think the Mayor is horribly off-base with his pool policy: according to the CDC, African-American children ages 5-14 are three times more likely to drown than their white counterparts. It seems to me that the Mayor of Providence – the leader the capital city of the Ocean State – should be a passionate advocate of inner-city swimming programs, not a purveyor of spray parks. It’s not just about keeping cool, it’s about providing children and families with the opportunity to learn to swim and engage in physical exercise. Not being able to swim not only prevents them from enjoying the water on a hot summer day, it limits opportunity for jobs, college scholarships – even military service. I’ll argue that while the politics and optics around this are bad, the policy is even worse. 

And yes, the politics and optics are very bad. Exchanging a budget vote for a community pool is certainly not the most egregious horse trade in the history of RI politics, but it does cast a shadow over a previously shiny reputation and make those of us outside the urban core wonder if “business as usual” is always going to keep Rhode Island down. The next generation of leaders needs to be better than the last and Mayor Taveras – who is now dipping his toe into the pool of statewide politics -- might find that owning up to his error, accepting the donations that the community has offered and joining the kids for a swim next summer might be the only way to keep his head above water.

Monday, October 21, 2013

We Need More Women at the Plate

Watching Shane Victorino’s grand slam fly over the Green Monster was the perfect way to cap off the Red Sox pennant-winning season. Victorino came to Boston on a contract that seemed far too rich for his resume to join a team that performed way too poorly for what they were paid. While the team showed its grit all year long, it took that blast to secure Victorino’s spot in Boston sports lore and send this improbable team of awesome onto the next chapter of a magical season. Sometimes the right person just has to step up to the plate at the right time.

When the dust from the federal shutdown-showdown settled in Washington last week, there were no grand slams and no winners. Federal workers faced two weeks of uncertainty and financial peril, access to government resources were limited and Congress’ approval rating reached an all-time low. As the impasse ended, several news outlets noted that the brokers of compromise were (wait for it) moderate Republican women!  While the men on the far left and far right were busy bashing their heads against a wall and pointing fingers, Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (NH) stepped into the fray and created the framework for compromise with Democratic colleagues Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD) and Senator Patty Murray (WA).

The New York Times captured the perfect quote from Senator Collins, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate. Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” Without being disrespectful, this sounds like they were able to reduce the shutdown showdown to the politics of a PTO meeting – and kept everyone talking until the bake sale brouhaha was resolved. The truth is that women get things done because we have to – we have far too much #$%^ to do to hang around jawing about ideology, what the Framers (who had someone watching their kids and cooking their meals so they could think) would say and whether it’s going to cost us a Senate seat. In the same New York Times piece, Senator Murkowski said, “I probably will have retribution in my state. That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. If there is backlash, hey, that’s what goes on in D.C., but in the meantime there is a government that is shut down. There are people who are really hurting…Politics be damned.” You go girl!

The one thing that I’ll take away from the federal shutdown is that we need more women in politics. So why don’t more women run for office? The answer is predictable: we’re busy. We’re working, raising children, taking care of parents, volunteering in the community and supporting our spouses (not necessarily in that order). The less politically correct and more uncomfortable truth is that politics and governing has never been “women’s work” in American culture and young women are still reticent to say that they want to lead when they grow up. Sometimes it will get them a pat on the head and sometime the response is “then who will raise your children?”  ARGH.

There are some signs that the tide is turning. This week the Colt-Andrews Student Government swears in its second consecutive all-girl slate of officers (shout out to my little Parliamentarian) and in 2014 we can expect more women to contend for statewide office in Rhode Island. I don’t expect to turn things around in one season, but I will be encouraging more women to step up to the plate – and you should too.