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.