Monday, January 27, 2014

Everyone needs to ride the bus

As boys grow up with dreams of playing professional baseball, I doubt that many of them think longingly of time they’ll spend on a bus between minor league cities like Pawtucket and Scranton. However, this is the experience that most players in professional baseball will have and they don’t get to shag flies in Fenway or pitch in Yankee stadium without riding the bus, eating bad food and playing in some decidedly unglamorous towns. Minor league experience is a virtual prerequisite for major league players and only 21 players have skipped the minors since 1965 (according to Baseball Almanac). Clearly the coaches, managers and baseball executives know that the skills and mileage that these players gain in the minors is something that will make them better players at “the show.” 

Rhode Island has a big league too – it’s serving as the governor or in a federal office. You shouldn’t run for one of these offices unless you have had considerable, relevant experience. Lincoln Almond was Rhode Island’s U.S. Attorney for 21 years. Bruce Sundlun had been a CEO, a civic leader, a federal prosecutor and a WWII bomber pilot. There are just some jobs that require seasoning as well as smarts and governor of Rhode Island is one of them.

Could someone break this to Clay Pell? He seems well meaning and his wife is lovely, but he needs to know that he should spend some time getting involved in all things Rhode Island before coming down from on high to share his deep thoughts on public policy and ask to be elected to the big chair. I appreciate that in the last three years he’s had three really great jobs (in D.C.) but this isn’t speed dating, it’s an election for the leader of our state. I’m sure that there are some among us that will vote for him based on his name or a catchy campaign tagline – I think some might like the ring of “Trust Pell” – but our state is at a crossroads and we need candidates who are running because they’ll be ready from day one to deal with the issues that are already on the Governor’s desk, as well as those that might get dropped there at any moment. 

Decision-making skills are critical. Governor Sundlun liked to tease his staff with “what would you do if the Russians were in South Attleboro?” While we weren’t expecting an invasion, his words are a reminder that it’s the unexpected challenges that show true leadership.  We need a governor who can lead through natural disasters and man-made ones as well. Whether it’s closing the credit unions to protect depositors, comforting the families of Station victims or donning a flannel shirt to direct blizzard recovery efforts, being qualified for governor is more than just memorizing facts and making the rubber-chicken rounds. It’s not a job for someone just learning his way around state government or someone with little or no executive experience. 

One of my favorite political movies is "The American President.” It’s a bit cheesy, but Michael Douglas delivers a great line that describes Rhode Island today: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” Clay Pell, if you want to be serious, get on the bus and take a ride through the minors. The big leagues will be there when you’re ready.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Modern day Goofus and Gallant

When I was growing up, my favorite part of going to see the dentist was reading Highlights for Children magazine in the waiting room. In addition to catching up with the Timbertoes family, I loved cringing at “Goofus and Gallant” and seeing how one boy could never get it right while the other always knew how to behave. 

A giant version of Goofus emerged in the form of Alex Rodriguez as he and his attorneys tried to negotiate away his suspension last week. He just doesn’t seem to understand that it’s time to give up. He’s now officially the black sheep of Major League Baseball and despite his numbers, the Hall of Fame voters may be disinclined to vote for him, just as they have shunned Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. While he’s never failed a test, records from a clinic that distributed performance-enhancing drugs indicate that he was a client. The clinic’s founder admitted that he injected Rodriguez himself. A-Roid needs to own up to what he’s done, accept his punishment and spend the 2014 season trying to figure out a way to look the other players in the eye. He went from having one friend to zero this week when his lawyer insinuated that David Ortiz was a PE user. Clearly there are many other baseball players who have used banned substances, but A-Rod got caught, refused to admit his violation and MLB is going to make an example of him. Sorry Goofus, you need to serve your suspension and start acting more like Gallant. I bet that even your mother thinks you’re a jerk.

Last week I saw Gallant in Mayor Allan Fung. He sat before a roundtable of reporters and described his car accident that killed a man, breaking down with emotion. While he handled the disclosure as well as he could, the truth is that he owned up to it long ago. Even though there is nothing he could have done differently to prevent the accident, he did what he could for the family of the man he killed and made every effort to disclose the accident when a question came up. The most important thing is that he told the truth – the same truth – every time. Because of that, he’s not just a sympathetic figure, but an admirable one. He’s not the flashiest candidate in the race, he’s not going to have the most money and frankly, he’s a bit of a long shot. But if his handling of this accident as a 19 year-old and its disclosure as a 42 year-old is any indication, he’s honest and decent to the core. 

It is unfortunate that politics appears to attract more Goofi than Gallants. From the politicians who have padded their wallets to those that have used it as a platform to attract and prey on women, we hear a lot about the Goofi we’ve elected. While Rhode Island has been in a bit of a lull from corruption (not counting the former legislator who was jailed last week) we have certainly had our share. But as someone who has spent many years in and out of capital buildings, town halls and congressional offices, I can report that the overwhelming majority of people in public service are more similar to Allan Fung than Anthony Weiner. Having said that, Mayor Fung certainly earned his spot on the Gallant list this week and I am hopeful that he can put the past behind him and let his behavior stand as a model for all our Highlights readers around the state.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

True fans only hear what they want to hear

Last week’s revelation that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration may have used a traffic study to create gridlock and exact some political revenge have grabbed  big headlines across the country. Some have speculated that these allegations could lead to criminal charges and that they could surely tank his possible White House bid in 2016. Others have said “fuggedaboutit” noting that it’s “just politics.” 

While I don’t think voters have any stomach for government corruption – and assuming that criminal charges are not filed, I think that how Christie weathers this storm is going to hinge on what people thought of him before this happened. Do they view him as a strong leader or as a bully? Do they see his praise of President Obama after Sandy as traitorous or just honest? In other words, how people will view him after this incident depends largely on whether they were Christie fans to begin with. 

Sports fans also see the world through team-colored glasses. During nationally televised games, it always seems like the commentators are rooting against the Red Sox, particularly this year when it seemed like the focus was more on what the team wasn’t (packed with superstars) than what it was (relentless).  

I had the same sense watching the Patriotss over the weekend – during the final seconds of the playoff game the commentators were talking about the talent of Andrew Luck (intercepted three times) instead of talking about the fantastic and amazing play of Tom Brady. A friend pointed out to me that all sports fans feel like others are “against them” and sure enough, studies support this idea. Fans actually see a game and interpret the call differently based on who they were supporting when they walked into the stadium. It’s part of why “fan” is short for “fanatic." We are all a bit obsessive.

This analogy is good news for Chris Christie, since he was very popular in New Jersey and clearly seen as a rising star nationally before the traffic debacle. Rhode Islanders – and maybe others from the more gritty political climates – are probably even less horrified. We’ve long heard stories about which neighborhoods and streets get plowed first after a big storm, and we can probably all list several people who got a job, a license plate, a seat on a commission or “out of trouble” because they were a friend, brother or "comare" of an elected official. It’s the Vo Dilan way.

While some acts of political retribution never see the light of day, some are actually so obvious that we don’t even notice them. White House tours were shut down for months as part of sequestration. Was it to cut costs? Not really. The people’s house was closed to the people because White House tour tickets are available through your member of Congress. President Obama and his staff knew that members would feel the wrath from constituents whose long-planned trips to Washington would be without this key stop. Instead of traffic cones, the Obama administration just locked the doors. White House fans cluck about what a shame that Congress refused to compromise and the other side rages about the hubris of Obama taking petty politics to a whole new level by denying schoolchildren the opportunity to visit the White House. And the truth is that they’re both on point, just seeing the same thing differently.

Next weekend I’m going watch the AFC Championship game and try to listen to the game impassively – as if I weren’t a fan of either team. I’m sure that the commentators will sound neutral and unbiased until they compliment that has-been Peyton Manning. Then I’ll know for sure that they’re against us. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Are All Politics Still Local?

In our house most televised Red Sox games are at least a four-hour adventure. There’s pre-game, the game itself and then post-game coverage (“Extra Innings” followed by “Extra Innings Extra”). I watch it all and love to chuckle at some of the ridiculous and nonsensical responses that players give to the media. One of my favorite clichés is when a player says that he “stayed within himself.”  I have no idea what that means since so few of us can escape our bodies on a regular basis, but I guess I should be happy since they always seem pleased to have remained whole. I think I am especially tickled by these canned expressions because politics is full of clichés as well. There are a few that we’re sure to hear this election season, like “the only poll that counts is the one taken on election day” (which is actually true and I like to say it when I stay within myself) and “money doesn’t win elections but we will have enough to execute a winning strategy” (which is a desperate non sequitur told by campaigns that are way behind in fundraising).

The only political cliché easier to decipher than “we had to put runs on the board to win” is “all politics is local.” While the origin of the expression has been attributed to others, it was widely used by the late Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill to explain his political philosophy. He believed that congressional elections weren’t decided by national issues, but by how local issues and concerns were addressed. He thought that most voters were practical, not philosophical, and would be more inclined to vote for the politician who had been seen addressing his constituents’ needs. “All politics is local” has played out many times with high-profile members of Congress and U.S. Senators losing touch with their constituents and their seats shortly thereafter, but that tide may be turning. In recent years we saw national issues influence races around here like the Chafee-Whitehouse Senate race in 2006 and the Brown-Coakley special election in 2010. Tip O’Neill died twenty years ago this week and while his “all politics is local” phrase remains a favorite expression among pundits, this may be the year when it goes out of style. Inside the Beltway dysfunction has now become a local issue with the botched rollout of health care reform, and I expect that the Senate Democrats will suffer for it.

Without digging too deeply into the polls (which only matter on election day), a quick look at the 2014 U.S. Senate landscape shows that Democrats have a lot to lose. There are Democratic seats at stake in states like South Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina – states that voted for Mitt Romney, some in a big way.  Some are open seats and others have an incumbent, but they are all likely pickups for the GOP. It’s not that the incumbent lacks a connection with his or her constituents or has failed to appear at the local Jefferson Day dinner – but they're likely losers simply because each supported Obamacare and the White House has done a miserable job of implementing that signature legislation. Politifact ruled President Obama’s “if you like your health care plan you can keep it” as the Lie of the Year for 2013 giving serious ammunition to GOP candidates and creating a monstrous conundrum for those Democrats facing reelection. Do they distance themselves from the White House and risk alienating their base? Do they stick to their guns and hope to survive the anti-Washington fervor? I feel pretty good about making one prediction: I am certain they are hoping that Washington can “stay within itself” and that Tip O’Neill is right for one more year.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year, Same Issues

However short-lived, feelings of hope and optimism ring in the New Year. The gym is full of people determined to lose weight while politicians and baseball players are getting set for a long season. As the calendar changes, the Rhode Island General Assembly will reconvene on January 7th with plenty on its plate for 2014. While spring training games are a little more fun to preview, here’s a quick look at what lies ahead on Smith Hill in 2014.

38 Studios. While the issue for taxpayers and some politicians has been “to pay or not to pay” the bonds associated with the state’s failed investment in the video game company, another issue that needs to be addressed is the investigation of what went wrong in the first place. While the calls for an investigation have been coming primarily from Dawson Hodgson (State Senator and candidate for Attorney General), they are certainly harder to ignore as various news outlets beat the drum for an investigation. And why wouldn’t we want to investigate? The scandal has forced changes at the Economic Development Corporation and jeopardized any future public-private investment partnerships. The 38 Studios vote is a great vote for opponents to use on the campaign trail and it would seem that airing the dirty laundry now would be better than having it stink up the house all year.

Tolls. For those of us who regularly use the Sakonnet River bridge, the fancy decorative lights are as annoying to see as the sign noting the 10-cent toll. Folks from our area have done a good job in keeping up the pressure on the toll issue and most of our legislators have been fairly vocal in their opposition. It is likely that Governor Chafee (whose administration proposed the original Sakonnet River Bridge toll at $4.00) will once again include the toll in his budget when he transmits it to the General Assembly. As a lame duck he has nothing to lose and very little to leverage, so whatever solution that will be hammered out is likely to come out of the General Assembly, not the Governor’s Office, so expect our local legislators to have a key role this session in figuring this one out.

Health Care Reform. While the Rhode Island Health Benefits Exchange is up and running and appears to be functioning better than the federal system, funding to operate the Exchange will run out at the end of 2014, and the state will be responsible for its operating expenses. The General Assembly will have to decide this year how to pay for the cost of the Exchange moving forward – thought to be about $25 million each year. This is not a small nut, even in our enormous state budget and we should all be prepared to discuss how this federal mandate will be paid for in 2015 with some kind of per policy fee a most likely scenario.

As we turn the page on the calendar and make our plans for 2014, it’s amazing how much it seems just like the old year. New year, same issues, same struggles. However, by the end of the year, we’re guaranteed some new leadership in the State House and hopefully some of these issues that have been hanging over our heads for a year will be resolved. In the meantime, I’d better get to the gym.

Size Doesn’t Matter in Rhode Island

(originally posted 12/20)

Last week State Treasurer Gina Raimondo ended months of speculation by announcing her candidacy for governor. I have to admit that I am almost as excited about this race as I am about the opening of the 2014 MLB season. As the mother of two girls and someone who has spent more than twenty years working in the male-dominated political world, the truth is that Rhode Island girls need to see more women competing against men for top jobs in public life and in the business world. Rhode Island has a miserable record of electing women to statewide and federal offices. Like David Hasselhoff, we peaked in the 80s and early 90s with Arlene Violet, Susan Farmer, Nancy Mayer, Barbara Leonard, Kathleen Connell and Claudine Schneider, the only female federal elected official in Rhode Island’s history.

Just a few states away, New Hampshire has managed to have an all-woman Washington delegation while Governor Maggie Hassan leads at home. Our girls shouldn’t have to look to other states and other capitols for role models, but they do and it’s because qualified women just don’t run here. This race provides us with the opportunity to show our girls that a woman can compete for a top job.Raimondo announced by video, promising a campaign kickoff in January and giving the Rhode Island press corps the opportunity to put together this pre-holiday story from the cozy confines of their own offices. I am sure that several of them had even written their pieces long before the embargoed announcement since it was almost certain that Raimondo would run.

So as I read through the coverage of the announcement, I was stunned to see a print piece by Kathy Gregg, one of state’s leading political reporters, noting that the Treasurer is five-foot-three and thought to be “scrappy.” Really? Are the dimensions of her body relevant to the job? I didn’t remember reading anything about Ken Block’s hairline, Allan Fung’s shoe size or Angel Taveras’ weight, so I looked back at the pieces that ran after their announcements, and sure enough, no discussion of the candidates’ proportions – and no terrier-like adjectives. So while the male candidates enter the race with a discussion of their bios and coverage of their announcements, Raimondo gets the additional labels of being short and “scrappy” – a not-so-subtle dig from the reporter. It’s no wonder women don’t want to run in this state – stories might read something like, “Governor Jane Doe, delivering her state of the state this evening in a blue pant suit that makes it appear as though she has gained a few pounds, emphasized that attracting more jobs remains the focus of her administration.”

For the most part our press corps has shown remarkable restraint during the Chafee administration and adjectives like “vacant” and “nonsensical” have barely made it into the lexicon. I hope they will redouble their efforts to keep the language neutral during the next eleven months – these are serious times for our state and no matter what we’re going to get a governor who looks different than what has come before – young, short, bald, female, thin, Asian, Latino – whatever he or she looks like is just not relevant. Let’s save the descriptive language for sports where size matters (just ask short and scrappy Dustin Pedroia) and leave it out of our politics.