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.