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.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Math of Politics

Whether its sabermetrics, moneyball or just old fashioned batting statistics, applying math to baseball has provided Major League teams with an objective way to assess talent that goes beyond the “gut” of a veteran scouts and managers. It also provides endless (and often useless) material for the commentators who love to string together previously unrelated facts in hopes that they will make an accurate prediction of future events. They say things like “this pitcher has never given up extra bases to a right-handed batter in a postseason game after the 4th inning in a domed stadium.”  Next thing that happens is – of course – a righty triples in the 5th inning, giving them something else to yap about. I must note that our friends at NESN almost never engage in this, but after being subjected to the TBS broadcast of the ALDS this last week, it’s at the top of my peeve list.

In my day job, it’s equally perturbing when a poll is released and in the rush to interpret its significance, it becomes the “extra-base hit that has never occurred inside a domed stadium” stat that just begs to be proven wrong.

A few weeks back Mayor Angel Taveras’ campaign released some tidbits from their internal poll that showed Taveras with a huge 19 point lead over Treasurer Gina Raimondo in their potential Democratic primary matchup. While some media outlets (okay, maybe just AP) practiced restraint, others clamored about the release of the poll while pundits wondered whether it was released to provide a boost to Taveras’ fundraising. Perhaps that poll allowed him significantly outraise Raimondo in the last quarter, but today’s independent poll from Brown University could stymie his 4th quarter efforts. The Brown poll shows Raimondo with a 9 point lead over Taveras and ahead with Democrats, labor, women, men and independents.

So how does one explain a 26 point difference in a matter of weeks?  The answer is that they can’t even be considered together because you have an apple and three scraps from an orange. WPRI’s Ted Nesi did adeep dive with Marion Orr so we know the methodology of the Brown poll but we know very little about the private Taveras poll. What we do know is that the next election is a long way off and there will be many more opportunities for partisans to throw out their meaningless interpretations. It might be hard to do, but I’m tempted to turn off the volume and just follow the action in front of me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Needing a Team to Beat

Regardless of how this magical season ends, the 2013 Red Sox will always be thought of as a team that lifted a city when it needed a boost and defied expectations all year long, beating teams that were supposed to be far superior. And although the Yankees have been weak, the rivalry with the Rays has filled the archenemy void nicely. I was at Fenway last weekend for game 2 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay and the crowd taunted the right fielder as if he were A-Rod. Whether it’s Army-Navy (go Navy!) or Red Sox-Yankees, having a team that’s sweet to beat is part of what makes sports compelling.                                                                           

And while rivalries make games interesting, making sure that there’s competition in politics is far more important. There has been so much ink given to the Rhode Island Republican gun raffle that I hesitate to wade into the critical waters (although I hear it’s warm), but the truth is that this is less about the wisdom of the raffle and more about the long-term consequences it will have on our state.

Some from the RIGOP view the gun raffle as a success: they raised thousands, showed support for the 2nd amendment and got more free media than the party has in recent memory. As the moderate Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from the party, I was left wondering whether the RIGOP is more concerned about being “right” or winning races. I can think of very few RI districts where a credible candidate needs to advocate for gun rights and dozens where the majority of voters want to see guns in the hands of law enforcement only. Making 2nd amendment rights a signature issue – even for a week -- has dragged the party so far off message (which should still be jobs and the lackluster economy) that attracting viable candidates will be a chore.

Some of my Democratic friends would argue that the RIGOP is already irrelevant since certain members of the Democratic party are just like moderate Rhode Island Republicans anyway. While this may be true, the ranks of those centrist Democrats are thinning because they are targeted and “taken out” in low-interest, low-turnout primaries. For Rhode Island, the irrelevance of the RIGOP and the absence of moderate Democrats would mean that there’s no ideological voice of dissent on issues like tolling local bridges or unionizing daycare workers. Bottom line: we need discussion and debate to ensure a healthy representative democracy and we won’t have that without Republicans or moderates of either party.

As we settle into postseason baseball, I’ll be on the edge of my seat and excited to watch some great games between competitive teams.  At the same time, I’m rooting for candidates of every stripe to sign up and take a turn in our General Assembly.  Let’s hope that every party can field a good team and create enough debate so that the whole state wins.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Worst to First

One of the many reasons why I love baseball is because the season itself is an opponent. Players have to live and breathe baseball while getting along with their teammates for eight straight months – close to nine with the postseason. The teams that do well not only have great players, but good “clubhouse” people too. Not one of the 43 ESPN Baseball prognosticators picked the 2013 Red Sox contending for the AL East this year – forget about winning it going away and securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And how could they have predicted it – as the cliché says, the season is a marathon, not a sprint.

The 2014 race for governor seems to be shaping up the same way. We’re more than a year away from election day, a major candidate has dropped out of the race and others, while unannounced, are jockeying for position. I’m not going to predict a winner or even handicap the race but I do know that just like the 2013 Red Sox, early polls don’t matter and the only thing that counts are the numbers on the board the day after.

In 1990 I was a college student and wanted to work on a political campaign. I joined the Sundlun campaign in June as an opposition researcher and planned a long summer of poring over purchasing records and the tax rolls at Providence City Hall. Sundlun had been the sacrificial lamb for the Democrats in 1986 and nearly upset DiPrete in 1988, so in 1990 he looked forward to being the party’s nominee. Two young mayors, Joe Paolino in Providence and Frank Flaherty from Warwick also saw the embattled DiPrete on the ropes and jumped into the race, creating a three-way primary. 

Heading into the party convention at the end of June, we knew that Sundlun was behind the other candidates in state central committee votes and there was some talk that Sundlun may drop out of the race. Mayor Paolino won the endorsement and had the support of key labor unions, but a well-timed poll showed that the outsider message would resonate with Rhode Island voters and so Sundlun doubled-down and stayed in the race.  The campaign centered on a massive field effort would be key to turning out “our” voters. More than 160,000 Rhode Islanders voted in the Democratic primary in 1990 – the highest turnout for a September primary ever – and the rest is history. 

So as election season gets rolling and the chatter about “who’s ahead” starts, I’m going with “who cares.” Just as preseason predictions are once-again shown to be meaningless, that the only poll that counts is the one taken on Election Day. Just ask Governor Paolino and the 2013 AL East Champion Toronto Blue Jays (not).