Monday, November 3, 2014

Get off the bench and vote

For people who work in and around politics, a general election is like jamming four World Series into thirteen hours but only finding out whether you scored any runs after the game is over. It’s a long day at the end of a long campaign and can turn into a long night if things aren’t going your way. Losing brings a lot of regret and “what ifs” but nothing is more infuriating than hearing someone complain about government and then admitting that they do not vote. 
Voting is not hard. Polls open early (most at 7am) and all close at 8pm. Chances are good that your polling place is in your neighborhood or very close by. If you can’t get to the polls during that time, no excuse absentee ballots can be cast ahead of time. If you have a last minute change of plans that takes you out of town, go to the Town Clerk and you can cast an emergency absentee ballot. Our local election officials are accommodating. 
I certainly understand that many people are not interested in politics and are truly turned off by the process, but we all have a stake in how we are governed. From the policies that guide our school systems to the money we ask the state to invest on our behalf, elections matter and have an impact on all our lives. We are lucky to live in a place where we can participate in the process. For anyone who says “my vote doesn’t matter,” there are plenty of races in recent Rhode Island elections that were decided by the tiniest of margins. In fact, one state representative race in 2012 was decided by just one vote. Ask Carlos Tobon if one vote matters — he knows that it does. 
This year turnout will be especially important. While turnout surges when the office of president is on the ballot, the midterm elections for Rhode Island’s general officers frequently see a precipitous drop in turnout. In 2010 — when Governor Chafee was elected — less than 47% of eligible Rhode Islanders chose to vote. Since he won with about 36% of the vote, that low turnout gave him a victory with the votes from only 17% of Rhode Island’s eligible voters. With such low numbers from the voters and no party to draw support from, it’s not a surprise that he was a lame duck from day one. Our state cannot afford another four years of a governor without the public support to move our state forward. We have been the butt of jokes for far too long and have to find a way to be competitive and prosperous again. 
So consider this column another annoying robocall. I am not plugging a candidate or an issue - I am simply asking you to take a few minutes and participate. It's time to get off the bench and vote. 

We don’t need a wild card in every contest

Many of us in Red Sox Nation remember this week ten years ago as being the greatest in sports history. After securing the AL wild card spot in the playoffs, the Red Sox beat the Angels in the American League Division Series before facing the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. After being down three games to none, the Red Sox came back to win four games in a row and beat the Yankees for the American League title. By October 27, 2004, the AL wild card Red Sox were World Series Champions and the generations-long streak of gut-wrenching losses was over.

Since the baseball gods did not smile on the Red Sox this year, I’m forced to reminisce and focus on political races instead of baseball playoffs. In RI we have a wild card in the race for governor. Local attorney Bob Healey was a last minute entry for the Moderate Party, dropping the Cool Moose label and swapping positions with another candidate who was too ill to run. Mr. Healey is well-regarded as a smart man who reflects the common-sense values of our area, so I am puzzled by why he would allow himself to used as a spoiler in such an important race. He insists that his campaign is a serious one but in my opinion, using a loophole to join a race less than eight weeks from Election Day is a stunt, not what one would expect from a person who wants to move Rhode Island forward.

From a constitutional standpoint, Rhode Island’s governor is weak. There is no line-item veto and a governor cannot place a referendum on the ballot. However, the job is nevertheless an immense responsibility as the governor serves as the administrator for state government and the public-facing representative of our state. For most candidates, the decision to run is a difficult one because the campaign — and serving in the office — is an incredible commitment and requires an investment of time and money. I’m sure many candidates would like to slide into the race after the primary, saving money and an entire summer on the campaign trail.

And while I certainly understand Mr. Healey’s dislike for the influence of money in politics and respect his decision not to raise any money or to self-fund, it shows that he’s not in this to win.  The simple truth is that one needs to spend some money to compete in politics. A serious hockey player would never try and play without skates, pads, a stick and ice time and a serious candidate for public office needs basic campaign infrastructure — and that requires money. This is not a revelation: Bob Healey has been running for statewide office over the course of the last 30 years and he has yet to do two things: raise money and win.

While I respect anyone willing to put his or her name on the ballot, I think it’s important to do it the right way and to respect our democratic process. While finding the loophole, dropping the Cool Moose banner and sliding in as a Moderate has been okayed by the lawyers, it still won’t sit well with many voters. Rhode Island needs serious candidates for these difficult days and fewer wild cards on the ballot.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Opportunity awaits in off year

The baseball playoffs have been a bit of a snooze — literally. Try as a I might I cannot seem to stay awake for games played in far away stadiums between teams I have little interest in. The Dodgers are probably the most interesting to me because their lineup is filled with former Red Sox. I did have to feel a tinge badly for Detroit since they failed to beat the Orioles in the ALDS (yes, the Orioles!) despite having the best pitching in the league, great hitters and good chances to win in every game. They just didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.

I am hoping that Rhode Island voters are paying a little more attention to the “down ballot” races than I am to the baseball playoffs. While some races could be snoozers, this is the once-every-four-years opportunity to elect the five people who run our state, so I am hopeful that voters will spend a few minutes to educate themselves on their choices. While Rhode Island is one of the most heavily Democratic states in the country, the fact that our general officers are not elected the same year as the Presidential candidates means that less people vote.

These off-year elections may be the reason why Rhode Island has only elected Republican (or those who had at one point been Republican) governors since the first four year term was won by Lincoln Almond in 1994 since conservative voters tend to show up to vote more regularly. While each race has a story and some begin and end with bad Democratic campaigns or fractured primaries, the truth is that this year could be a good one for Republicans.

With the emphasis on women’s candidates, I think Catherine Taylor may be the beneficiary of this Republican ripple (too small to be a wave) as she has run a very good campaign with a sharp focus on issues and bipartisanship. Catherine cut her political teeth as a staffer to Senator John Chafee in Washington and most recently worked for Governor Lincoln Chafee in the Department of Elderly Affairs, so she is comfortable talking about a wide range of state and federal issues and can count friends across the political spectrum.  Ms. Taylor may also be helped by the fact that Democratic opponent, Dan McKee, can’t count on the love (and election day support) from organized labor because he has been the driving force behind mayoral academies — publicly funded charter schools — in Rhode Island. Labor’s non-support of McKee, coupled with a higher GOP turnout could create a perfect storm for Taylor and she could be the right candidate to cut across party lines for her win.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ode to Jeter

Last weekend not only marked the end of a really bad Red Sox season, but the end of the great career of Derek Jeter. As a Red Sox fan, I always dreaded seeing the ball hit to short knowing that he would turn a double play in a most spectacular and athletic fashion. His plate appearances against the Red Sox always seemed to end with him on base starting a Yankee rally. I won’t bore anyone with the endless statistics about games played, runs saved, hits made or women dated, but it’s pretty clear that he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. The only question is whether or not it will be unanimous.

The thing I appreciate most about Derek Jeter is that he managed to play well consistently for almost 20 years, on the same team, win multiple awards and be universally respected. I learned over the weekend that he leads the Yankees in being hit by pitches and yet has never been ejected from a game. How he managed to keep his cool after getting drilled 170 times is beyond me. While his off-the-field behavior got some tabloid attention, it was pretty much just gossip about who he was dating or no longer dating. The only time his shiny image was clouded was for a brief period of time when he was hanging around with Alex Rodriguez.

People in politics could learn a lot from Derek Jeter. The old adage “it’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game” is probably the first takeaway that Jeter embodied and that candidates should remember. While it’s much easier to be a gracious winner than to be a good loser, candidates have to prepare for either scenario. There is only one winner in an election, but most still live here after the fact so good conduct in the election — and afterwards — is important. In these post primary days, much has been made of party “unity” and some candidates have really been “walking the walk.” In Providence Michael Solomon has been campaigning for Jorge Elorza, hoping that their combined efforts will keep Buddy Cianci out of the Mayor’s chair. Clay Pell has continued to be a positive voice in Rhode Island politics, appearing recently at a veterans event. Losing candidates will further their own goals, politically and otherwise, by being as “classy” as Jeter. 

So while we all salute Jeter for the player he was and the character he embodied, I have to say that the real reason I will always love Derek Jeter: there’s a play he didn’t make. He was a millisecond too late with that swipe tag to Dave Roberts in 2004, making “the steal” one of the best moments in sports and not just another bone-crushing, heart-wrenching defeat for Red Sox fans. He could not have known what lay ahead but the fact that he didn’t whine, pout or have a tantrum — at a play that looks closer every time I watch it — was enough for me. So thanks for playing #2 — and thanks for missing too.

Sometimes voting is like football

The Red Sox season is winding down quickly and while I won’t miss seeing them lose game after game, I do not like my options for fall sports. In our house there seem to be two options: pro football or college football — and neither is the least bit appealing.

I have several issues with football. The first is that it just seems to be about hurting your opponents. There are really really big guys whose only job is to push against the other team’s really really big guys so that none of them have the option to squish the somewhat smaller quarterback. These really big guys do not seem like athletes to me and I am sad to think about how they are encouraged to gain more mass than a healthy human should carry. People have argued to me that injuries are incidental — and part of any sport — and that the really big guys can run really fast. I’ll argue that there aren’t too many sports that require a player to pounce on each other at full speed or have to discipline professional coaches for putting bounties on opposing players’ knees.

The other reason I like baseball better than football is that the league seems to be a lot more concerned about the behavior of its players. Former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon made an obscene gesture at a fan and was almost immediately suspended for seven games. Ray Rice knocks his fiancĂ© out cold during a brawl in an elevator and seven months later and many alleged cover ups later, he finally gets suspended. I admit that it took baseball a long time to deal with their performance-enhancing drug policies, but as Alex Rodriguez contemplates his existence during his year-long suspension, the NFL has recently decided that off season amphetamine use is actually okay, clearing the way for Wes Welker to play for the Broncos this season. What kind of message does that send to kids? I’m hearing, “it’s okay to do drugs that may be bad for you, just don’t let them catch you during the season.”

So while football season — and my spouse — provide me few options for fall entertainment, the Superbowl of politics is just around the corner. Election Day is less than six weeks away and I am looking forward to making my voting choices. It’s unfortunate that voters don’t have as many choices as they should. Too many incumbents go unchallenged and without two strong parties in our state, sometimes policies are not properly debated and accountability goes out the window. Elections are about choices and if there aren’t any, I try not to give in to the urge to just draw a bunch of lines. Sometimes I look at my ballot and vote against someone or write in a name or only pick two when I could actually pick five (like for Town Council). There’s still very little I can do about the overwhelming amount of football watching in my house, but like my ballot, I often I pick “none of the above” and make other plans.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dust yourself off and stay engaged

Every year, one team emerges at the end of the MLB season as World Series Champion and that franchise gets to carry that honor until another champion is crowned. It’s worth noting that the other 29 teams that do not win the title do not pack it in or send their players home with a stain on their resume. And yet in politics this is exactly what happens — losing candidates often disappear from the scene and the people who worked for them have a “loser” label on their resume. This is not unique to Rhode Island — losing candidates are treated like pariahs everywhere — but in Little Rhody it actually hurts us all more because we don’t have a deep bench in the “best and brightest” category. This year the leading candidates for governor all had some good ideas we will lose more by not encouraging the candidates who lost to stay engaged.

Staying engaged can be painful. One candidate I have spoken with several times post-loss told me that he can’t go anywhere without hearing “you should have won” and “why don’t you run again?”  Losing is hard — he didn’t want to talk to anyone about the loss — especially not the guy in front of him at Dunkin Donuts. Running again is frequently not an option for candidates that can’t self-fund (i.e. those that aren’t multi-millionaires) since raising money becomes twice as hard when you’ve lost a race. There’s also a fine line between staying engaged and being constructive and seeming like a sore loser who just wants to take a few shots at his former opponent. 

For campaign staff, the loss can be exceptionally difficult as well. Not only do you wake up Wednesday unemployed, but you very quickly lose the camaraderie of being on a team when people — including your former teammates — start to try to pin the loss on you. Whether it was bad fundraising, a disorganized field operation, lame commercials or poor media strategy, there’s always a blame game that feels more like a firing line for losing campaign staffers. Having a losing campaign on someone’s resume should not equate to a black mark. Some of the smartest people I’ve worked with have worked on disastrous campaigns at every level and none of them were responsible for the loss. Campaigns create McGyver-like skills that can’t be replicated in any other environment and train people to prioritize and focus like few other jobs can. Campaign experience is valuable, win or lose.

It’s too early to give much solace to those who lost Tuesday so my unsolicited advice is actually for the winners. Engage your opponents and invite them to join your team. We need more people in the political process, not less. Talk to your opponents about their ideas and incorporate what makes sense. Hire your opponents’ staffers and bring them onto your campaign. In 1990, Governor-elect Sundlun hired “Paolino people” and “Flaherty people” to key administration jobs recognizing their talents and wanting them on his team. Following on the heels of a very bitter primary, the move raised a few eyebrows but Sundlun’s determination to get the best people in his administration was the best thing for Rhode Island. Truth be told, the “Paolino people” still get a ribbing every once in a while (and they give it right back) but we all recognize that asking them to join the administration was key to steering the state through some very tough times. Rhode Island faces similar challenges today and we will all be better off if the losing candidates stay engaged and the winners welcome them into the fold.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Pitch a clean campaign

As the end of primary season comes to a close, I look forward to general election that draws starker contrasts between the candidates and the issues they support. Rhode Island is a state in decline and we need what we’ve been lacking: strong and effective leadership in the State House. As the polls have tightened, candidates are competing for every vote and those precious few “undecided” voters are getting a barrage of phone calls and mail to try and win them over. Serious candidates have developed plans while some have just developed a few platitudes and have unleashed their attack surrogates to do their dirty work.

Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that “going negative” is part of every campaign. Just as players take another base when their opponent makes an error, pointing out your opponent’s flaws, missteps and bad ideas is what candidates do to compete in an election. With a stretched-too-thin media, opposition research is one way to keep elected officials accountable and allow the public to have the facts they need to make informed choices. There are some things you don’t do: in baseball, you don’t intentionally pitch at a player’s head and in politics you don’t ever say anything about someone’s children. Some candidates who want to keep their hands clean have surrogates or outside organizations that will do their negative campaigning for them and for the most part, they stick to the unwritten rule. It has been a long time since I’ve seen negative comments aimed at minor children and so my eyes burned when I read a nasty tweet from a high-level teacher’s union official about Gina Raimondo’s children.

NEARI has been supporting Clay Pell since the moment he found his way to Rhode Island to try and buy this election and I am certain he appreciates their support, but it is the height of hypocrisy for a candidate to wave his hands and whine about the negativity in the race (as Pell has) while cozying up to special interests who would “go after” kids. It’s even more stunning to me that there was no public rebuke — even Joba Chamberlain heard it from New York fans when he threw at Kevin Youkilis’ head. This person represents the people we entrust to educate our kids and he’s just given us a textbook example of bullying. I would think a lot more of Clay Pell — and perhaps believe that he wants to run a positive campaign — if there was any indication from him that this garbage was unacceptable.

This campaign season can be measured in hours, but candidates will carry the burden of what they say and do for years to come. My (unsolicited) advice to candidates in these last few days: don’t throw at anyone’s head and don’t tolerate it from anyone around you.


Providence has a bench full of talent

Providence is a great city with some enormous problems. Some of them are typical urban problems like crime and the high cost of housing while others are uniquely Rhode Island: there are jobs to be had, but no residents with the skills to fill them.  We all know that Providence has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for at least five years and only a series of clever accounting tricks and last minute infusions of cash have allowed the city to make payroll. If the last mayor inherited a category 5 hurricane, the next one will have the responsibility of doing the post-disaster clean up.

While more than 80% of Rhode Islanders don’t live in Providence, the problems of the city impact all of us: our income taxes go to Providence and a big chunk of them never leave the capital city. For no other reason that this, people all over the state should care about who fills the leadership vacuum in Providence. It goes without saying that Providence has a great fan base of residents committed to the city’s future and the last few weeks have shown that there are real stars in her clubhouse.

When Buddy Cianci first declared his intention to run for mayor once again – this time as an independent – much of the political chatter focused around who, if anyone, could beat him in what began as a four-way race. The thought was that despite his record, Buddy has a real base and could find 30% of voters at almost any time, making a four-way race an ideal situation for the rise of Buddy. When that became clear, Lorne Adrain (I) dropped out, making Buddy’s math more difficult by creating a three-way race.

In recent weeks, revelations about the Democratic frontrunner, Michael Solomon, have led some observers to call him “Buddy lite” suggesting that he would be no better than Buddy at moving Providence forward. The Providence fan base realized that even if Solomon could beat Buddy in a three-way, the same insider politics would once again rule the city and so last week Brett Smiley left the race, throwing his support to the anti-Buddy/ anti-Solomon candidate, squeaky clean former judge Jorge Elorza.

Ego usually keeps candidates in races they cannot win, declaring themselves contenders to the end and I have to admit that I thought this race would be no different. I can’t remember a time when two candidates have dropped out of a race not because of lack of money or support – Adrain and Smiley had both – but because they wanted their supporters’ votes to matter and for their city to be in the best hands possible when the dust settles.

Providence is a lucky city to have these stars on the bench and their commitment to the city’s future bodes well for everyone in our little city-state. The primary election is now in the hands of the voters and for many, the choice is now clearer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rhode Island must not concede vacationers

I have been on a vacation for more than a week traveling with my family in an RV around Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Being offline means that I'm behind on the latest in Rhode Island politics and that I have not seen a Red Sox game since leaving the land of NESN. I know I didn't miss much since the Sox season was over long ago and then truly dead when they traded four of five starting pitchers. Perhaps they should just forfeit the remaining games and rest up until spring training.

Being unplugged has been nice but my mind wanders back to something I always think about when I travel - how RI compares to where I am. We have seen plenty of evidence that shows Rhode Island at the bottom of almost every measure of success and that people leave Rhode Island and don't come back. While I don't plan to change my address (ever) I do like checking out the things that other states do better. It's clear that Rhode Island definitely has room for improvement.

These western states could not be any different from Little Rhody. In the "where are you from" conversation that inevitably occurs locals have been quick to remind us that both Rhode Island and Delaware could fit into Yellowstone Park together. We went to a dinner show where one of the jokes was based on the fact that no one from Rhode Island is ever there. On three separate occasions people have said some variation of "Rhode Island is the only state I haven't been to and I don't know why I would go." While it's nice to live in the country's best kept secret, we would benefit tremendously from a boost in visitors. 

While the Sox have conceded for the season, I think it's time that Rhode Island fought to be a contender in tourism revenue but our state's puny budget for promotion - $400,000 - shows that growing this sector of our economy is not a priority.  Our tourism website ( is embarrassing and to confuse matters, there seems to be two "official" sites since displays alongside the state site. A smart investment in attracting more visitors will pay off by creating jobs and generating tax revenue, but this scattershot effort is clearly not working. Locally we have seen this kind of success through the efforts of Explore Bristol. Can you imagine if this effort were replicated statewide?

Several candidates for governor have seized on this issue and have pledged to put more money into tourism promotion. I would like to see the General Assembly share that commitment as well since a governor can propose whatever he or she wants but without General Assembly support, a governor's initiatives go nowhere. Rhode Island has so much to offer in such a small place that promoting all our assets together with a significant investment is the smart way to go. In a typical "Rhode Island" our individual tourism bureaus are allocated funds but left to design and promote their own campaigns. Visitors from other states will be willing - if not thrilled - to move around the state taking in the sights. After all, they aren't Rhode Islanders so driving from Providence to Newport and back is not considered a multi-day journey.

One thing I have missed about home since we've been out here: a Rhode Island license plate. Day 10 of the license plate game and we've yet to spot one. It's a good reminder that Rhode Island is a great place to staycation in the summer. Now it's time to open our doors and invite the rest of the country over for a vacation.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Trading players and candidates

Every year July 31st is circled on our calendar because what happens on that day — the non-waiver trade deadline — is a big indicator of whether the Red Sox can hope to contend in the playoffs. (I should also mention that it’s our wedding anniversary so perhaps it is circled for two reasons.) This year is a big one (15th) and I am expecting a bit of a fire sale at Fenway since the team seems to have taken up residence in the basement of the American League East. For many teams, the trade deadline symbolizes the end of the season for many teams — even with two full months to play — because trades made on that day might hamper their performance in the current year but allow them to rebuild the roster for the following seasons. While it’s a sad day for Red Sox fans who won’t see October baseball, it probably is a great day for traded players that might end up on a contending team.

 The day after the election — the day when the cold, hard reality of losing sets in for more than half the people who run for office — provides no soft landing for losing candidates. One minute they are hopeful, the next minute they are crushed. Many losing campaigns know well in advance that they have no shot (and yet some candidates continue to run year after year) but for candidates and staff that have poured blood, sweat and tears into a race, the loss can be overwhelming. Everyone handles that disappointment differently — some candidates and their staffs disappear entirely from the public arena and some seem to take to social media to fight their battles there. Some folks do the smart thing and switch teams gracefully and professionally.

During the 1990 Democratic primary for governor, I worked for Bruce Sundlun. During much of the race, we were probably viewed as the misfits. Most of the insiders supported either Providence Mayor Joe Paolino or Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty and the “good money” was not on Sundlun who was a three-time loser at that point. We were a bit rag-tag on the outside, but inside that headquarters, an amazing amount of work was being done day and night. The gloves came off early and Sundlun poured a tremendous amount of money into paid advertising to get out his core messages. “I am a businessman, not a politician” seemed to echo in every television. Primary night was a phenomenal win for the Sundlun team but when the smoke cleared we welcomed Paolino and Flaherty staffers and supporters into the tent. I won’t lie — my favorite “Paolino People” still get teased today — but Sundlun made it clear that a new team would form.

As primary day approaches and the war of rhetoric heats up on the airwaves, it’s great to remind staffers and supporters that the trade deadline in politics comes on September 10th. Even if the results are disappointing, remember that you may end up with the opportunity to work for another team that can contend for the big prize. It’s a lot more satisfying and professionally enriching to be part of a win in November than to be whining on Facebook about what could have been.

Time to end the finger pointing and fix the problem

I don't know if it's just me but it seems that the way things are going for President Obama, he will be lucky to leave the White House with the dignity that was afforded Richard Nixon. The latest blow to the administration has been its appalling bungling of the migration of tens of thousands of undocumented children into the United States.

While it's been front page news around the country in recent weeks, the surge of undocumented children - most of them teens - has been going on for more than a year. Unlike what some conspiracy theorists are saying, this is a humanitarian crisis and the majority of these children are fleeing poverty and unspeakable violence in their home countries - they are runaways and many of them are candidates for asylum. Sadly, they were inspired to make the dangerous journey north with the knowledge that they could slip across our weak border and that if they were caught, there would be few repercussions. Much of the surge began after President Obama announced during his reelection bid that the U.S. Would stop deporting certain undocumented children living in the United States. I'm not sure what was lost in translation, but clearly some viewed it as a opening to head north.

Immigration reform has been a front-and-center issue for several years, but partisan feuding (and there is plenty of blame to go around) has prevented anything from getting done. Whether it's hubris or stupidity, the Obama administration has refused to budge towards the middle and now - with a humanitarian crisis in his hands and on his watch - he is in the unenviable position of having to beg Congress for the money to handle a problem that he has been trying to sweep under the rug for many months. Recent news stories reveal that the White House was warned in 2012 about the high number of children coming across the border but the administration did little to acknowledge the crisis until it began looking for places to house these children around the country when facilities in border states were overloaded.

Justifiably many governors - even Democrats- have told President Obama publicly and privately that their states cannot afford to take on the burden of housing and caring for thousands of parentless children. Controlling immigration and processing those that cross into this country - even to seek amnesty - is the responsibility of the federal government and falls to a system that needs to be reformed.

While the Obama administration has surfed through many scandals, I think this is the one that may damage his legacy. Hiding a humanitarian crisis at one's border for political reasons is something a third world dictator would condone - not a U.S. President. There's time to turn the tide by showing some decisive leadership but the clock is ticking.

Red Sox GOTV failure

At the midway point of the season, the Red Sox delegation to the All-Star game is puny with no position players being selected and only Jon Lester and Koji Uehara representing the pitching staff. Considering the World Series win and the massive campaign put behind trying to get Red Sox on the team, this has got to be seen as a loss for the Red Sox marketing team because they failed to get their voters out. Let their loss be an early reminder to candidates: you need a get-out-the-vote plan.

Campaigns are a complicated recipe of fundraising, messaging, endorsements, media and public appearances, but the most important piece of any campaign is identifying and turning out supporters. I don’t care if you are running for President or county coroner, (surprisingly, coroner is an elected position in some areas), making sure that “your” voters cast their ballot is the most critical piece — and often most overlooked — part of a winning campaign. It’s so basic that it’s almost odd to talk about it, but I have spoken with several candidates who have lost close races and they were horrified to learn that people whose votes they were counting on never voted because they had a last minute trip or were simply not in their hometown during voting hours.

As lines at polling places have grown longer, voting has also become more of a time commitment, so even people who intend to vote might get discouraged by the sight of a long line out the door. While I could write a book about ways that Rhode Island could improve its voting processes — because we are almost twenty years behind other states — I’m just going to make one point today: you don’t need to wait until Election Day to vote.

Recent changes to Rhode Island voting laws have ushered in the era of  “no excuse” absentee voting in Rhode Island. In the past, Rhode Island had some of the most strict absentee voting requirements in the country and only allowed absentee ballots only under a prescribed set of circumstances. Now any Rhode Island voter can request an absentee ballot and cast their vote without ever setting foot in a polling place.

There’s a bit of a process involved, but for people like me who know they want to vote, and have a good idea who they will vote for, it’s a great way to make sure that nothing gets in the way of casting a ballot. The process is pretty simple: fill out an application for a mail ballot at the Board of Canvassers (you can download the form online from the Secretary of State but it requires an original signature so a hard copy to your local Board of Canvassers is required). When you receive your mail ballot, follow the instructions to return it. Make sure that you mail it several days in advance of the election because the ballot has to be received by the Board of Elections in Providence by Election Day. The deadline to get an application for this year’s primary is August 19 and for the general election it is October 14.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to voting absentee is that you don’t get a nifty “I voted” sticker to wear for the rest of the day. But I’ll skip the sticker — and the line — this year because my ballot will already be cast when the polling places open. Maybe I’ll even write in Dustin Pedroia.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Some seasons need to end

Although this has not been great year for the Red Sox, as the All-Star break approaches, I am a little sad to know that we are almost halfway through the baseball season. Unlike some who think that the games and the season are far too long, I wish it were even longer and that some sports (particularly professional basketball) were only played in alternate years.

The never-ending season is also an issue for the Rhode Island General Assembly. I bring this up not because Capitol TV impinges on my enjoyment of baseball, but because I think it’s a major roadblock to running for office. Much has been made of the fact that more than 40 of our 113 legislators will be unopposed this year, but the truth is that every year an enormous percentage of the seats are uncontested. While others might say that the “power of incumbency” scares off newcomers, I believe that the job hours and responsibilities are so completely out of whack with the pay and the benefits that the logistics of actually serving in the General Assembly are far more intimidating to a newcomer than campaigning against an entrenched incumbent.

The legislative session lasts about 24 or 25 weeks each year for three days a week. Even if very little business is being done on the floor of either Chamber, legislators have committee hearings and events to attend as well as constituent meetings, policy briefings  and legislative work. Nights and weekends are often filled with must-attend events that include everything from fundraisers to community events. During the session, it is far more than a part-time job. Over the years I have closely observed the hours of several members and spoken with others who spend at least 20 hours a week during session on their General Assembly duties.  Next year the pay will be $15,171.55 with health benefits.

While some people would like a $15,171.55 part-year job that comes with benefits, the truth is that for most Rhode Islanders, the General Assembly salary neither pays the bills nor allows a person to have a traditional nine-to-five job. And let’s be honest: we need highly-qualified people to serve and many of the most qualified are not attracted by this salary level — or even triple it — so we are not going to get more candidates to run even with significantly higher compensation. I know one legislator who takes his vacation time in hourly increments to attend session so he can keep his day job, but I am certain he runs out of vacation time long before the end of session. Despite the focus on legislative salaries, people serve because they want to and real the challenge to getting more people is not about money, it’s about time.

Thankfully there are 49 other states with similar challenges that we can look to for solutions. While some states like California and Pennsylvania have full-time legislatures and pay their legislators full-time salaries, other states like Texas, Florida and Kentucky limit the length and frequency of their legislative sessions. In Kentucky, session is limited to 30 days in odd numbered years and 60 days in even years. Texas’ legislature only meets every other year and Florida’s is limited to 60 day sessions every year. These are states with far bigger budgets and many more residents but much tighter legislative sessions. It should also be noted that no other state has an official state appetizer, so I suspect that the shorter legislative session does not allow for discussion of truly trivial matters as they wrestle with real policy issues and challenges. Perhaps Rhode Island would do better with a two-year budget addressed in a 60-day session in even years and a 30-day session in odd years for everything else.

Bottom line: before assuming that apathy and a fear of incumbency prevents people from running, we should take a long hard look at the job we are asking folks to take on and think about whether we’d want to do it ourselves. If the answer is “heck no” perhaps it’s time to shorten the season.

Love him or hate him, Buddy’s back

Last week the conversation in Rhode Island political circles changed quickly from "will he run" to "can he win" as Buddy Cianci announced that he would once again run for mayor of Providence. Love him or hate him, he's in the race to win and has aligned the stars to give him the best possible chance to win. While several people I've spoken with said his entry in the race was "bad" for Providence, the reality is that without an extraordinary - and coordinated — effort to defeat him, he stands a good chance of being sworn in as Providence's next mayor, despite the horrified protests of some Rhode Islanders. 

Like Buddy, chances are good that when Alex Rodriguez returns to professional baseball next year he'll get a chilly reception from certain circles who think that a PED user with such a lucrative contract is bad for baseball. The Yankees will be a different team than the one he left in 2013. There will be no Mariano Rivera, no Andy Pettitte and no Derek Jeter to have his back and although it's too early to tell how a post-suspension A-Rod will play, there will be many of us quick to point out any decline in his performance. Like Buddy, A-Rod has a resume to point to that shows he is perhaps a better player than his his “convictions” might indicate — and then of course, there are the “intangibles.” A-Rod’s return will drive up viewership and ticket sales in a way that introducing a new Yankee player named Brett, Lorne, Anthony, Dan or Jorge (unless it was Posada) would not. And again, love him or hate him, Providence flourished during Buddy’s tenure and no other man in the race can say that he has had equivalent experience.

While A-Rod has a valid contract, the only guarantees for Buddy are the ones that he has created for himself. At 73, Buddy is a generation older than several of the candidates for mayor and many of his voters have left the city, so he needed certain circumstances to come together to make his candidacy viable. By filing as an Independent, he places himself on the November ballot and into a 4-way race where the strongest candidate (one of the Democrats) will already have been battered by a primary. While a certain percentage of Providence voters will never vote for him, there are some that will always vote for him and by placing himself into a crowded field of lesser-known candidates, he has created the scenario in which he has the best chance to win.

For those in Providence who are tearing their hair out as Buddy 3.0 takes shape, there is one way to beat him: create a united front. Two of the four remaining candidates need to drop out of the race, deconstructing the ideal electoral situation for Cianci and putting one candidate forward as the alternative to Buddy. The Democratic primary would have to be more about coming together and less about ripping each other apart. With an overwhelming party affiliation, a non-Democrat should never have a chance in Providence but a divisive primary that gives the winner a short eight-week window to woo general election voters is just what Buddy needs to win.

As the battle to be the anti-Buddy candidate commences now, there’s two things that are nearly indisputable: there is no one in politics more astute than Buddy Cianci and there’s no doubt that he’s got his eyes set on City Hall.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Swooping in from centerfield in the Treasurer's race

As the Red Sox continue their June swoon, one of the very few high points this season has been the emergence of Brock Holt. At a time when some major leaguers complain about being moved down in the batting order or being asked to play first instead of third, Brock Holt has jumped in to do almost everything except for roll out the tarp — and I am quite sure he would do that if asked. I was at Fenway last week when he came flying out of center field to make a leap-n-roll catch when Jonny Gomes lost the ball in the twilight sky. He then led off the next inning with a double, stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly.  In fact, he scored both Boston runs that night and in almost every game, his play has brought a bit of excitement to what has otherwise been a disappointing season.

There’s a new face on the Rhode Island political scene who just might turn out to be the Brock Holt of the 2014 election. While Frank Caprio runs the insider game to get his old job back and Ernie Almonte’s campaign seems to be stuck in first gear, Seth Magaziner has emerged as the candidate to watch in the race for General Treasurer.

In a recent WPRI poll of Democratic primary voters, Caprio was leading the pack with 29%, Magaziner had 11% and Almonte had 9%. While Caprio’s lead might seem insurmountable for either trailing candidate, the truth is that 29% had to be a bitterly disappointing result for Caprio since he has held statewide office before, spent millions on advertising in 2010 and comes from a very prominent Rhode Island political family. Chances are good that the 46% of undecided voters know who Frank Caprio is and are planning to vote for someone else in 2014.

Ernie Almonte also underperformed in the WPRI poll. While Almonte seems to be well-liked and well-respected, accountants don’t make compelling candidates and he seems to have very little name recognition from his sixteen-year service as Rhode Island’s Auditor General. He’s also spent more than two years running for office — first as governor, now treasurer — and seems to have little support to show for it. While he has collected a few town committee endorsements, without a significant uptick in fundraising or a groundswell of grassroots support, it is likely that he will continue to track where he is.

In contrast to Caprio and Almonte, the upside looks good for Magaziner. His 11% in the WPRI poll was quite respectable considering that he has never run for office before, had a public job or spent any money on paid advertising. He has some of the “intangibles” that help win races: a big rolodex (with Bill Clinton’s cell phone in it) and outside-of-Rhode Island experience and perspective. He’s also proven himself to be a versatile campaigner too, raising more money than Almonte and Caprio in each of the last three quarters and collecting numerous endorsements along the way. Most telling was the Narragansett Democrats endorsement of Magaziner. Narrangansett has long been a Caprio stronghold and that endorsement should have been an easy one for Frank, but like the ball the got lost in the twilight, Magaziner jumped in and grabbed it.

While the race for governor is going to get Ortiz-type attention, I can see some real excitement down ballot as well. And who knows: before Brock Holt has earned a single vote for Rookie of the Year, there’s a good chance that Seth Magaziner will have secured enough votes to be General Treasurer of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Celebrating the big win on the bridge

While the Sox fan in me is a bit sickened by every loss — and this month there seem to be plenty of them — I am determined not to let the afterglow of the huge 2013 win fade anytime soon. This year I have to remind myself to enjoy the game, get excited about some of the new talent and not fret about the standings right now. In some ways this is also a great way to think about the outcome with the Sakonnet River Bridge toll — we need to be happy about the win before we reflect on what almost went wrong and what’s next.

Make no mistake about it — the bridge win was critical. There will be no toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, easing fear and uncertainty that business owners and residents had been dealing with for several years. Even in some of the earliest information sessions with DOT Director Michael Lewis, it was clear that putting a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge was going to hurt local businesses, drive away tourism and saddle local residents with what should be a shared burden: bridge and road maintenance. The sudden shift in power after the resignation of Speaker Fox gave several East Bay legislators (Edwards, Gallison, and Marshall) a stronger voice in the House and they fought to reverse the toll decision. Most importantly, the fix is not short term: the General Assembly leaders hammered out a plan that will create a fund for maintaining bridges and roads moving forward, very smartly providing a long-term solution to an ongoing problem.

The issue has been a contentious one for all involved. Even Governor Chafee felt the heat, noting at a recent event that he may not march in the Bristol 4th of July parade this year because he “didn’t have fun” in 2013 when he was booed over the bridge toll. We can’t promise a warm welcome this year, but he won’t be able to blame bridge-related anger for the heckling he’ll receive

Just as I’d rather not think about whether there will be October baseball, I can’t help but think a bit about the bridge toll as a near calamity that should have never happened. At times RIBTA has seemed like a runaway train — purchasing and installing millions of dollars in tolling equipment while the issue was very clearly up for debate and threatening to increase the toll on the Pell bridge if things didn’t go as they wanted. It makes me wonder why RIBTA has so much power. Who has eyes on RIBTA and why do we need a somewhat independent agency that oversees just four bridges when the Department of Transportation manages every other bridge and stretch of state-owned road? And by the way, who decided that those hideous lights on the Sakonnet River Bridge were attractive or money well spent? During the bridge debate this year, some legislators favored eliminating RIBTA and rolling its duties into DOT — should this be the next step in streamlining state government and making sure that our money is not wasted? These questions should be asked and answered to ensure that this “near miss” turns into “never again.”

The Sox are on track to finish near the bottom of the AL East, but I just can’t worry about it. They are World Series Champions and I’ve got tickets to a game this week. More importantly, there’s a new stripe down the middle of Hope Street and I’m planning to follow it out of town and over to Foglands for a day at the beach — toll-free.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mending the rift in the political clubhouse

Last week’s return of the 2004 Red Sox to Fenway was highlighted by the first attempt to bring Manny Ramirez back into fold of Red Sox Nation. Most will recall that in addition to being the most feared right handed hitter in baseball, Manny was a bit of disaster off the field and acted like an overgrown child in the clubhouse. He almost never reported to Spring Training on time, got in fights with team staff and his own teammates in the dugout, skipped out on high profile team events like visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and even quit on his team several times. Manny left Boston at the trade deadline in 2008 after several of his own teammates approached the management and asked them to get rid of him. He is the only MLB player to get caught using PEDs three times in his career. Considering that other 2004 heroes — with stellar reputations — were standing on the field without a starring role, it’s no wonder that there has been considerable grumbling from the media about the team’s choice to honor Manny.

In every election cycle there is period of clubhouse fighting (the primary) where candidates from the same party duke it out to become their party’s endorsed candidate. This is a tough time for many candidates to negotiate because sometimes they focus so intently on appealing to their party’s primary core voters that they position themselves far to the left or right of the more centrist general election voter. In Rhode Island, we have our primary late (this year it’s September 9th) giving candidates very little opportunity to reshape their image for the general election on November 4th. In the past, this has worked particularly well for Republican gubernatorial candidates who have been able to run their race towards the middle as Democratic candidates have fought for the left side of the political spectrum. Rhode Island political pundits agree that bloody Democratic primaries helped elected Governors Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri because the Democratic primary process produced a candidate that was weakened and too far to the left to win the general.

This year is especially interesting because there are hotly contested primaries on both sides of the aisle and surprisingly, the first negative ad — from the Fung campaign — has already been launched. While negative ads are frequently described as “comparative” by candidates’ camps, this one is negative — with a dash of humor — depicting Block supporters as less than intelligent “blockheads” while talking about why they support his candidacy. The timing of the ad is particularly interesting since negative ads are usually much later in the cycle, indicating to me that the Fung campaign wants to deliver a knockout punch early before focusing on general election voters later in the summer and into the fall. This might be like “counting your chickens before they hatch” but also shows that the Fung camp is aware that their only shot at winning depends on Democrats shredding each other in September, not toiling with Ken Block to prove who the real conservative is.

With the Republican candidates already tussling, it’s just a matter of time before the Democrats turn on each other and offer more than just competing visions for the state’s future. I make no predictions but am fairly certain that the two candidates that emerge from September clubhouse fights will have to do a better job than Manny to appeal to Rhode Island voters who are turned off by their antics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Batter's Box Awaits

The Red Sox are going through a long period of stinking it up right now and looking less and less like champions and more like a team that got lucky in 2013. I was at a game last week and the boo birds and the grumblers were out. A woman behind me said, “oh my gawd, can’t he just hit the bawl??” While I felt the same frustration, I was also tempted to tell her that she might take a swing or two before her next heckling gig. Stepping into the batters box and seeing a 95 MPH fastball whiz by her head might make her choose different words — or keep her mouth shut entirely.

As I was sitting in the basement of State House last night in hour four of a House Finance Committee meeting I was watching the members of the committee listen intently to testimony on subjects ranging from bonds to the corporate tax rate. I will admit — a lot of it was boring — and I thought how difficult it would have been to stay engaged, appear interested and to ask thoughtful questions for even one session, forget about doing the same thing night after night and year after year.

The familiar refrain about Rhode Island is that we have a lot of problems and most of them can be blamed on decades of bad leadership and corruption in the State House. Talk radio provides endless anecdotes and entertainment to get ones blood boiling and very few reasonable solutions.  For better or worse, Rhode Island won’t change and the leadership won’t change unless new people are willing to step up to the plate and endure the extremely painful process of serving in state government. The stipend that legislators receive is small and the hours that they put in are long. I talked to one local legislator about how he did it and he said that he took his vacation time from work in hours-long chunks so that he could attend session and keep his full-time private sector job. How many of us are willing to forego our vacation time to sit through hours of monotone discussion in a windowless room? If you might be, then I’ve got a date for you: June 25, 2014.

June 25, 2014 is the last day for a candidate to decide to run for local, state or federal office in Rhode Island. Anyone who wants to run must file a declaration of candidacy by that date. In a lot of ways that day is more important than Election Day because some years, less than 50% of all incumbents have an opponent. I am a firm believer that every race should be contested and that every officeholder should be accountable for their decisions. This isn’t always an option in Rhode Island with so few people willing to step up.

So, if you follow politics and think team Rhode Island stinks, step up to the plate and run for office. And for those that prefer to heckle rather than consider the batter’s box, remember the windowless basement room and the four hours of testimony. Perhaps you’ll consider a more constructive way of contributing to the conversation.

Why bother to go to college if you refuse to learn?

While rivalries in sports are generally considered to be healthy and fun, I am beginning to think that our college campuses are teaching students to stifle differences rather than learn from them. From coast to coast we seem to be teaching a generation of Americans that “free speech” extends only to those with whom they agree. I am so disgusted with what has transpired on college campuses this year: several guest speakers either have been shouted down or been forced to cancel their appearances because students simply did not want to hear from them. It would be like Red Sox fans blocking the Yankee bus from pulling into the parking lot at Fenway to try and force a forfeit. What’s the point of joining a discussion if you only want to hear from people with whom you agree?

And let’s be clear — the people who have been the focus of the students’ ire are not skinheads or members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are world leaders like for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). And while the uber-liberal campuses of Smith and Haverford have been among the most high-profile schools to publicly reject their scheduled speakers, Rutgers University (the state university of New Jersey) was the campus that made Condoleezza Rice feel so unwelcome that she declined her invitation. Think about it — thousands of interested — not necessarily indoctrinated — students and their families have been robbed of the chance to hear from the first African-American female Secretary of State because a vocal minority did not agree with the politics of the administration for which she served. Shameful.

I blame some of this on what appears to be the most narcissistic generation of all time — and the problem seems to be as much local as national. Bryant President Machtley had to institute “no selfie” with him rule so that the conferring of degrees didn’t take 6 hours.   And how about the college kids who thought that the Mount Hope Bridge would be a good place for a full public display of affection? Did they tweet: “#busted #MtHopeBridge #300footclub”? But truly, it comes down to thinking that your opinion is the only one that matters. Last fall, New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, was heckled off the stage at Brown University because student groups had gotten themselves whipped up about alleged racial profiling in the New York Police Department. So rather than having the opportunity to learn about what steps the NYPD had taken to minimize profiling, they shouted down a public servant who has spent his life keeping their spoiled selves safe in his big bad city.

I also blame part of this self-absorbed, my-way-or-the-highway attitude on the mindset that appears to permeate Congress right now. Both Republicans and Democrats can take their share of the blame for finger-pointing across the aisle about why things don’t get done. There are few voices left in the middle and even fewer on each side who can see the damage that is done by a government by stalemate and are willing to put their political necks on the line to fix the problem. If nothing else, the navel-gazing college students of today will be perfectly suited to serve in Congress.

As a not-so-recent college graduate, I remember my graduation speaker (Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder D-CO) for being kind of boring and really predictable. Would her talk have been more memorable if she said something that got me fired up? Maybe. Would listening to someone with whom I disagreed been a fitting end to a challenging and academically rigorous experience? Definitely.

I’m clearly not qualified to give a commencement speech, but if I did, I’d tell students that you learn more from listening to your opponent than you ever will from your supporters and that leadership is not about getting people to do what you say, it’s about getting others to respect what you think — even if they disagree. Of course, I won’t wait for that invitation since I know they won’t like what I’d have to say.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

We didn't need instant replay on pension reform

For as infuriating as it has always been when an umpire blows a call, I am not sure I like instant replay. It changes the pace of the game and it takes away the intimacy of having the outcome of games decided on the field of play. It seems strange to have a decision on a key play made by a nameless, faceless person somewhere in New York (of all places) when the umpires have always had the final say on the field.

The process behind the now-failed pension reform settlements seems very much like instant replay gone awry. Full disclosure: I worked to promote pension reform and believe that the result served the best interests of all Rhode Islanders. Public employees’ pensions were preserved without further gutting funding for infrastructure, education and social services. Taxpayers took a hit, but the unfunded liability was cut by $3 billion, so the long-term savings are substantial. It seemed like Rhode Island had finally done something the right way. Months of informational sessions, dozens of hours of legislative hearings and endless briefings brought Rhode Island to a place where the General Assembly was able to take a tough vote and with a stroke of his pen, Governor Chafee signed the pension reform bill into law. It felt like good things were going to happen for Rhode Island — we led the nation in something besides unemployment and mental illness. This time there was no backroom deal, no secret meetings. The process had been open and transparent. Everyone played by the rules.

Just six months later, the public employee unions filed suit — as they had every right to — challenging the constitutionality of the statute with the argument that the existing law implied a contract and the statute could not be altered to change employee benefits. It was assigned to Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, a judge whose mother and uncle are drawing pensions and who — along with her son — will someday draw a pension too. As lawyers prepared to bring the case to trial, it appeared as if case law was on the side of the defense because the unions had often used legislation — instead of collective bargaining — to increase or change benefits over the years. As the court date drew nearer — and Judge Taft-Carter’s clear conflict of interest even landed on the front page of the New York Times — she abruptly changed the rules. She ordered mediation, instituted a gag order and started running up the state’s tab on mediation services.

We went from a fair, transparent process that complied with the Separation of Powers to a judicial tyranny where a conflicted, activist judge let a pile of lawyers — none of whom are elected — try to rewrite a law that only elected representatives have the legal right to change — all while running up more than $500,000 mediation bill. The rest of the parties in the case were left to scramble — the unions wanted to save face and didn’t want to have case law go against them. Treasurer Raimondo wanted to preserve her signature accomplishment without giving so little that she looked uncompromising. All of this while being forced to work under a gag order so that Judge Taft-Carter would never have to hear her work called into question and or fear that mistakes made in open court would get her decision overturned. Instead of seeing a blemish on her win-loss record, she simply decided to change the rules.

As disturbing as it was to see a judge corrupt our legislative process, at least the failure of the settlement puts the process back on track. It’s unfortunate that the judicial hijacking has forced a court date of September 15, a week after the Democratic primary for governor. Both sides want to be done by then — and the truth is that this case should have been heard long ago. Had it not been for the gross mismanagement by Judge Taft-Carter and the “only in Rhode Island” scenario where the politicians are on the side of transparency while the judicial system is contaminated with conflict, we might have gotten it right the first time — without the instant replay.