Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Team to be Named Later

In the winter of 1933, Bruce Sundlun and John Chafee were at Camp Yawgoog playing with a group of boys on a frozen pond.  Suddenly the ice broke and Bruce plunged through into the frigid water.  All of the boys -- except for John Chafee -- ran off the pond to get help.  Chafee, “doing exactly the right thing,” laid his body flat against the ice and pulled Bruce out of the icy water using a hockey stick.  Even at 11 years old, John Chafee was an incredibly brave boy and had the presence of mind to do exactly the right thing.

The story would always give me the chills as Governor Sundlun told it– thinking not only of these young boys facing danger, but about how much of Rhode Island’s future was riding on that thin ice that day.  As I look back, I realize that we could have lost three future governors (along with more than 30 years of Senate service, two World War II heroes, a Secretary of the Navy, and a Warwick mayor who was one heck of a blacksmith) in a matter of minutes.  Governor Sundlun liked to tell the story – and found the opportunity to recount it frequently as he told people why he would never speak ill of John Chafee, despite their political differences.

Now 80 years later, another Chafee is on thin ice and hoping that his political future can be saved – this time by Democrats reaching out a helping hand.  Next week, the entire RI congressional delegation will host a D.C. fundraiser in support of Chafee’s reelection.

Insiders are atwitter wondering why whole delegation would make this surprising show of support for Chafee – particularly when there appears to be a plethora of good candidates from their own party ready to challenge him in 2014.  As someone who is party-free, I guess I should be toasting the shifting sands and the fact that Rhode Island's leading Democrats are throwing party loyalty aside supporting an “I” in his re-election effort.  But I don't think that a wave of non-partisan fervor has swept the delegation.  I think that Governor Chafee is putting the last pieces in place before he switches parties and becomes a Democrat.  

I am not breaking any news - he's alluded to a switch before, noting that it's much easier to raise money when you have a national party to back you.  So perhaps this is why the debut party is in DC, not Rhode Island.  For Democrats on the national scene, Chafee switch is a good thing - they can count one more governor's office as their own and have a great "he saw the light" story to tell about the son of a Republican legend. 

The reality is that Chafee polls best as a Democrat and if he changes parties, he will reap the benefits of being a sitting Democratic governor.  The Democratic Governors Association will invest in keeping his seat – just as the National Republican Senatorial Committee poured money into his 2006 U.S. Senate loss to Senator Whitehouse.  Changing parties may be a no-brainer for Chafee, but this sign of support is a bit riskier for the congressional delegation who could face the ire of the many “real” Democrats who want nothing to do with Chafee and his evolution – and were planning to support some of the young guns (like Raimondo and Taveras) in what was shaping up to be the Democrats’ best shot at the governor’s office in 20 years. 

As the clock ticks down to the fundraiser, are leading Rhode Island Democrats are crossing party lines or do they already know that Chafee’s “team to be named later” is really their own?


Monday, February 4, 2013

Only Manny Would Defend the Master Lever

I’ve been reading Francona: The Red Sox Years for the past week or so.  I’d be done with it by now, but since it’s written chronologically and organized season-by-season, it’s been easy to put down for a few days before tackling some of the more disappointing seasons.  I’m finishing up 2011 now and it is painful to relive the epic implosion.  It’s clear that the wheels had been coming off the team bus for a few years and that if the players hadn’t been so spectacularly talented, they never would have contended at all.

Bad baseball is like bad politics.  When players get lazy and self-serving, they might perform well individually but that doesn’t win games or help build team morale.  Same thing in politics - an elected official that thinks only of his or her political future will not make the right decisions for their constituents or for the city or state he or she is supposed to serve.   The impact might not be immediate – particularly when the economy is booming – but we’ll always pay for not electing good leaders in the end. 

On Team Rhode Island, the wheels came off a long time ago and we’ve been spinning our axles in a ditch for a generation.

I refuse to indict every elected official in Rhode Island – most are in it for the right reasons and have a real passion to serve, but it’s time to shine a light on the folks who are more concerned with getting re-elected than serving their constituents.  And this year, the debate over eliminating the master lever can be that floodlight.

There is absolutely no reason why we should have a straight party voting mechanism in 2013.  Studies have shown that most voters don’t know how to use it and it causes an “under vote” in local races.  It’s not a convenience – there are no longer multiple levers to pull and the voting machines don’t look like this:

If people want to vote a straight ticket, they can do it by using the pen provided to draw a series of lines.  As they are making these choices, they may read the names and find that some of the people on the ballot are not actually model public servants and may wish to skip the race or make another choice.  This is America after all.

I used to think that master lever line was something that was an advantage to Democrats – and certainly it is to some degree -- but I think I am more galled by the votes that Rhode Islanders waste on the master lever line.  In 2012, 9,000 Rhode Islanders in 39 cities and towns used the master lever line to vote for Moderate Party candidates.   Wow!  Too bad there were no Moderates on the ballot in 34 communities where the straight party option was drawn for Moderate.   

For those of you keeping score at home, Ken Block has set up a great website where you can sign a petition and see where legislators, mayors and statewide officials stand on this issue.  Visit it, share it and talk about it.

And no, this isn’t the most important issue on the agenda this year, but it’s a vote that will tell us who is on Team Rhode Island and who is on their own squad.

As I turn to 2012 in Tito’s book, I already know what’s going to happen.  A horrific season is punctuated by the trades of those whining, self-centered baseball players who complain about late games, don’t run out grounders and trash their teammates in the media.  In baseball - unlike politics - the mistakes don't have to carry over.  A week from tomorrow pitchers and catchers report and the 2013 Red Sox start the season with a clean slate while we will continue to pay for our poor choices for generations to come.

As the 2013 General Assembly session plays out, let’s keep an eye on our lineup, and use the master lever vote to see if there are trades that need to happen in November 2014.

It’s clear that continuing to use the master lever line in our elections is not a benefit to anyone except the candidates who are afraid of being judged on their own merits.  If a state representative or state senator can count on getting 15-17% through a straight party vote, why would they vote to eliminate it? 

This year I’m hoping it’s because their constituents tell them to.