Monday, December 7, 2015

Make your voice heard in special elections

Red Sox fans got some big news last week with the signing of David Price. He was a phenom in college, and a Red Sox killer for much of his MLB career. Now 30 years old, he signed a whopping $217 million contract with the Red Sox for the next seven years. While we have no reason to think he will be nothing but healthy, I have to believe that we may have just missed the best years of his career. Bu I am happy he’s coming to Boston anyway.  He is exactly what the Red Sox need since he is a legitimate ace, something we haven’t had since we traded away all our best pitchers in 2014. If all goes well, he will be a critical part of the Red Sox rotation for many years to come.

Like the Red Sox, East Bay voters have some critical positions to fill. Last week there was a primary for State Senate district 11. While the candidates have been working (and their campaigns have been covered in this newspaper) I am not sure how many voters were aware of the special election to fill the vacancy left by Dr. Chris Ottiano who served as the district 11 senator for more than two terms. Ottiano recently resigned his seat as he took a new job in the private sector.

When I voted just before 6 pm I was stunned to see that just 29 other people at my polling place had voted. I called as many people as I could think of on my way out the door, but was left feeling a little uneasy that so few people in Bristol would be making such an important decision for our district.

Just as the Red Sox have positions to fill in their rosters, there are two important special elections in the next few weeks in the East Bay. In Barrington, there is a School Committee election on December 15th and the general election for State Senate district 11 is January 5th. None of the winners will be paid millions of dollars for their work, but they will both have a say in spending millions of taxpayer dollars, so make sure your voice is heard and your vote is counted.

Friday, November 13, 2015

It's time to act on NFL's black eye

One thing I truly dread about the end of baseball season is that our TV seems to host an hours-long and seemingly never-ending football game on Sunday afternoons and evenings. I will watch the Patriots but usually spend the rest of the evening mocking the commentators or “the waitin’ on waitin’ on Sunday night” dance that Carrie Underwood does every week in a shrinking sparkly dress. This past week’s featured late game was the Dallas Cowboys v. Denver Broncos and one of the commentators read an awkward statement at the beginning of the program about how the new details that have emerged from Dallas player Greg Hardy’s assault on his girlfriend. Long story short, he beat her up and then paid her off so even with a mountain of evidence against him that included graphic photos and several witness statements, his suspension was reduced to a measly four games and he’s once again making millions of dollars to play a game.
Sadly, Greg Hardy is just the latest in a long line of professional athletes who brutally assault their partners and are not behind bars. Ray Rice, last year’s poster child for assault and battery, was seemingly blacklisted from the NFL after the film of him dragging his unconscious fiancĂ© by her hair became widely available but he has actually been using the media spotlight around Hardy to let people know that he is ready to play in 2015(!). The NFL and the various teams that have been involved with these issues have been complicit in protecting these players and seem intent to ride out the scandal rather than get out in front of the issue and say “no more.” While I am sure that their existing contracts protect these players, now would be a good time for the NFL to issue a policy that does not tolerate domestic abuse from its players. By not taking a strong stand, they are not only setting a precedent for future cases but telling a generation of young men that they can get away with whacking someone if they can afford pay them off.
In the absence of a zero tolerance policy on domestic abuse, I think that fans of football should show their disgust by making a different choice when tempted by NFL merchandise. A piece of every dollar spent on that jersey supports policies that are rewarding and protecting violent men. Unless the league feels a tremendous amount of pressure from fans and their bottom line, they have no real impetus to change their behavior and next season we’ll have another Ray Rice or Greg Hardy to talk about.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Campaign 2016: a game that’s hard to get into

I have a hard time being excited about the Kansas City Royals as World Series Champions. I am sure their fans are thrilled, and super-nice folks, so I’m glad they won, but I will admit that I can’t remember a time when I was less interested in watching the World Series. I am beginning to feel the same way about the presidential race.

I’m not sure if it’s the intensity of the 24/7 news cycle, or the fact that the leading candidates are unappealing, but I think my current disinterest and revulsion around the race centers on the fact that Donald Trump appears to be the current choice of many Americans who lean republican.  Although Ben Carson has been gaining ground, polls have shown Trump ahead in the critical early primary states — the last New Hampshire poll had him up by 26 points. If Halloween costumes were any indication, Trump is clearly the leading candidate — along with a guy from Minecraft and a zombie. Surprisingly, Elsa and Olaf wouldn’t even make the stage in the next debate. The republican race is like watching a predictable horror movie where the characters make all the wrong choices — splitting up, not checking the backseat — you know how this is going to end. Trump is going to flame out and so he’s just not worth watching.

For what it’s worth, the likelihood of a Trump or Carson presidency is slim anyway. It is somewhat reassuring to know that Americans have not elected anyone to the office of president without some prior public service. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last president elected without any elective experience but since he was a five-star general and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, there was little concern that he would choke when making an important decision.

On the Democratic side, there’s another snoozefest. Hillary Clinton isn’t terribly appealing, but there’s no alternative. I am not sure if it’s the fact that she has been in the spotlight for more than twenty years or that there are just too many questions about her trustworthiness, but at a time when the country seems to be in need of fresh leadership, she seems dated. Having said that, with Linc Chafee and Jim Webb out of the Democratic race (after splitting somewhere between 1-2% of the electorate) and Joe Biden taking a pass, Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate that stands between Clinton and the nomination. While he’s clearly the choice of the “anyone but Hillary” camp on the Democratic side, his positions are too far to the left for most Americans, making him about as electable as Trump and making Clinton a total lock for the nomination.

I am sure that the race is an exciting one if you live in Iowa or New Hampshire — or Kansas City — since it’s an exciting week there. But living in a state that never matters in presidential politics makes this race even less compelling. Let’s hope that as things shake out, an inspiring leader emerges. In the meantime, I’ll just wait for spring training and the Red Sox’ return.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Who wins when refugees are given the cold shoulder?

Another reason I love baseball is that the holidays are truly downtime for fans. There are no games and aside from any trade news, there’s nothing to follow. As I’ve watched the presidential candidates traipse around Iowa and New Hampshire I can’t help but think that all except one may regret how they’ve used this time in their lives.

I also suspect that these candidates may regret the hard line they’ve taken on the Syrian refugees. While I certainly understand — and agree — that we need to carefully monitor who comes into our country, I think that some who have adopted a knee-jerk, anti-refugee stance have forgotten not only why the United States is here, but what we continue to fight around the world.

Although most Americans started paying attention to the Syrian refugee crisis sometime this summer, the truth is that a steady stream of Syrians have been fleeing their homeland since 2011 — more than 4 million have registered as refugees. Most are in Turkey and Lebanon and all are fleeing the horrors of a multi-sided civil war with the Assad regime, rebel fighters and Islamic extremists shredding the country to pieces. In January the UN estimated that 220,000 Syrians had died in the war.

As I waded through my own mixed feelings watching news coverage of Syrians flooding into Europe, I thought of my family members who arrived in this area as refugees. They were fortunate to survive the long and dangerous journey from their homeland where they escaped after suffering religious persecution. Although their arrival was 395 years ago, some things about coming to America have changed — and some things never should. Back then, settlers arrived on our shores without having made any arrangements with the locals. They brought diseases (which eventually killed the locals) and a desire to take the land to make their own settlement. Those refugees — or pilgrims — as we’ve kindly named them — had nothing in common with the locals and saw them as inferior.

While it would be a mistake to generalize what today’s refugees are thinking or planning for the future, it’s clear that the vast majority of them are just running for their lives. Even Ben Carson, who recently spent time at a refugee camp, seemed surprised to note that the refugees he spoke with simply wanted to go home. I am certain that some probably hate America and some of them probably wish us harm, but making that wild assumption — and then using it as a reason to ban all refugees — is the wrong approach. I would further argue that by allowing these “what ifs” to shape our foreign policy and our standing as a world power, we’re playing right into the hands of the terrorists. After all, if their purpose is to terrorize us into changing our way of life, then by turning our backs on others in need after an act of terror, we are allowing the terrorists to lead us — and that would be something we would all regret.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Paging Governor Chafee: please return to the bench

After watching the Democratic presidential debate last week, I have only two words for Governor Chafee: please stop.
Every time he spoke — and mercifully it was infrequently — he hit a new low in presidential debate history. He declared himself “a block of granite” on the issues, claiming never to abandon his principles. When he was asked to defend two of his votes in the U.S. Senate, he pretty much said that he didn’t know what he was doing and abandoned his principles to follow the herd. Hmmm. His performance in this debate will go down as one of the worst in the history of televised presidential debates. He wanted a turn in the batters box to hit it out of the park with his anti-war message. Well he struck out and now needs to take a seat.
With just $11,000 raised in the last quarter (which is about what a state rep could expect to raise at a single event), less than 1 percent support and no staff to run his campaign, the Chafee campaign is now a cocktail party joke with nowhere to go but down. And while tittering “oh my gosh did you hear about what Governor Chafee said,” was a constant refrain in Little Rhody, my concern is that his presidential campaign is once again making Rhode Island a laughingstock. For many, it’s unfathomable that he was elected in statewide race twice. We know of course that he only won with a majority in one campaign but without saying “well Rhode Islanders were actually only crazy once — and we really were just hoping he was like his father,” the truth is that his campaign is making us all look dumb.
All evidence indicates that he’s planning to continue the campaign indefinitely. With personal wealth and nothing but time on his hands, I am sure he believes that this time is well spent even if there is no path to victory in one county of one state, forget about the Democratic nomination. I wonder if he has stopped to consider the implications for his family’s reputation or how he’s going to spend his time moving forward. His father was larger than life and I think many of us find it inconceivable that one of Rhode Island’s best and most honorable public servants could have raised such a stubborn “my-way-or-the-highway” politician. I have to believe that this folly will also impact the next chapter in his life. I can’t imagine too many universities will be lining up to ask him to join their faculties and teach the next generation of political leaders. I also feel for people who worked for him in D.C. or Rhode Island. Their experience on a senate staff or in a governor’s office becomes less valuable as Chafee becomes more and more bizarre, tainting their resumes forever.
Some say there’s nothing worse than seeing an athlete who doesn’t know when to quit, but watching Linc Chafee trying to run for president comes pretty close.

Friday, October 9, 2015

38 Studios in the full-length mirror

I have to say that I was a bit surprised at the reaction I got to last week’s post. While I heard several “you betchas,” it seemed that when I said I wanted to put 38 Studios in the rear view mirror, some folks thought I wanted to sweep 38 Studios under a rug and walk away. As I wrote, “Rhode Islanders deserve transparency and we should hold any criminally culpable parties accountable,” so I am game for the examination, but I still think we need to be ready to move on. Rhode Island has been obsessing about 38 Studios for nearly five years and we need to make sure that “never again” doesn’t make Rhode Island even less friendly to businesses and entrepreneurs than it was before. Should the new tourism campaign say, “Welcome to Rhode Island, We’re Bitter About Getting Fleeced”? Of course not—I still contend that it’s time we put our best foot forward—but let’s go ahead and pour some salt in a wound:
Carcieri wanted a success and, for once, had the tailwind of General Assembly support. There was a train to an economic development win and he hopped on. Since the principal brought glory to a cursed franchise, surely he could do the same for Rhode Island. He and his staff were “all in” for the win.
Chafee wanted no part of the project—despite having responsibility for administering it—and maybe even wished it to fail. Perhaps we should have been able to “Trust Chafee” to appoint a special investigator in the days after the collapse of 38 Studios. I can only imagine considering how petulantly he behaved in the deposition that any investigation would reveal he did absolutely nothing to ensure that taxpayer dollars were protected. His “leadership” of the EDC is probably the most painful part of this whole episode. We elected someone who was more focused on being right than doing right by Rhode Island.
For as much as the blame could be laid at the feet of Governor Carcieri and Governor Chafee, the truth is that Rhode Island’s governor can do nothing without the engine of the General Assembly. The office of the Rhode Island governor is one of the weakest constitutionally — and one of only six in the nation without a line item veto. The power imbalance is enhanced by fact that our state government is politically lopsided as well. As a result, the now-jailed speaker was able to ram the “deal” through the General Assembly with very few questions from the rank and file of our part-time, underpaid and understaffed, and overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Most of them had heard Bob Watson railing against something before, so his lone opposition raised no red flags.
Unfortunately, the post-mortem is most unsatisfying because we have no one to blame but ourselves. No one crowned or appointed Gordon Fox: he was elected by the people of his district and he was elected speaker by the people who represent the rest of us. In this debacle we elected the people who steered us wrong (an R, an I and a D) and the vast majority of us are not engaged enough in the process to ensure that it will never happen again. We don’t all need to run for office (but more of us should) and we don’t all need to support good candidates (although many good candidates cannot self-fund) but if we want to get to the bottom of 38 Studios, we need to be willing to look at a full-length shot of ourselves and then decide if we are willing—or capable—of engaging in the process enough to change it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Time to put 38 Studios in the rear view

The last pitch of the year has been thrown at Fenway and all that remains of the Red Sox' 2015 season is a few meaningless games and the inevitable winter-long post mortem. New England sports writers are sharpening their pencils and planning their offseason shredding of the players, the staff and the front office. With the exception of the last few weeks of great games, this was a season to dissect and then forget. We've said it before: there's always next year.

A similar after-action analysis is happening in Rhode Island. With the release of a ridiculous number of documents from the failed 38 Studios deal, all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to wallow in the misery of a deal gone bad and relive the bad decisions that caused a big financial loss for Rhode Island's taxpayers.  Unlike the Red Sox season, there are no bright moments to remember and nothing to build upon - just another sad chapter in the long running Rhode Island series called "How not to run a state." From the desperate attempts of the Carcieri administration to get an economic development win to the backroom machinations of the now-incarcerated Speaker and his cronies, the documents give us insight into how the whole deal came to be — and then became unraveled. While members of the media are providing plenty of coverage and legislative leaders have agreed to hold hearings, I am left wondering whether an endless examination of the 38 Studios debacle is even productive.

Don't get me wrong - Rhode Islanders deserve transparency and we should hold any criminally culpable parties accountable - but the unfortunate truth is that we are unlikely to discover anything that we don't already know or suspect. I'm not sure if it makes me a cynic or an optimist but I think that focusing too much effort bemoaning the mistakes that were made is actually going to hold us back. As locals we don't appreciate some of the best things our state has to offer and our negativity prevents us from seeing - and promoting - our best attributes. Our bad attitude and our willingness to crow about how bad Rhode Island has created a self-fulfilling prophecy and so even the most optimistic Rhode Island cheerleaders are driven away. In order to be competitive, we are going to have to be attractive to businesses and sometimes that means a tax break or an incentive. A “never again” hangover from 38 Studios will stunt our growth as much as high tax rates. Other states have had similar failures in economic development - and certainly Rhode Island has managed to waste millions on other errors over the years - so we need to acknowledge 38 Studios for what it was - a big mistake - and then look ahead to better days.

Just as the Fenway Faithful don't walk away because of one bad season, we shouldn't give up on the Rhode Island’s economic recovery because of one deal gone south.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Delivering in the clutch

The Red Sox have been on a tear for the last few weeks, winning games they would have lost earlier in the season and piling up the runs when I was expecting goose eggs. There will be no playoff baseball in Boston but at least they are ending the season on a high note.
The season’s crescendo was reached on Saturday night when David Ortiz hit his 500th career home run—a feat only accomplished by 27 other major league players. While this alone does not punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame, it certainly adds to his list of qualifications (three world series rings, clutch hits) that will put him in consideration. For many fans, this countdown to 500 was the only reason to continue to watch the team this year so his accomplishment capped off the Red Sox season just as Labor Day weekend ended the official “try not to get run over by someone with New York plates” season in Rhode Island.
It’s all good of course. For as much as we’d like to evolve into something else, Rhode Island will always attract people because of our quaint towns and beautiful coastline. Tourism remains a bright spot since the economic recovery still feels like a wobbly one in Little Rhody: while unemployment is down we know that many people have moved or have just stopped looking. While tax receipts are up, we still look at empty office buildings downtown. We’re not South of the Border, but let’s face it, a lot is riding on our high season and thankfully we have state leaders that see that we need to promote ourselves and invest in key infrastructure to get a larger share of tourism dollars that are headed for New England.
The new ad campaign has yet to be launched but just like Big Papi’s big swing in Tampa, tourism seems to have delivered in the clutch with Newport predicting that this summer may have broken records for tourism dollars. Anchored by the overwhelming success of Newport’s Volvo Ocean Race stop—which attracted more than 125,000 people—Newport’s hotels were near capacity all summer. According to Discover Newport, in July alone, the lodging tax was up 36.5 percent over the previous year. It’s worth noting that the key to hosting the Volvo Ocean Race (which will be back in 2017) was significant public investment in restoring Fort Adams and building a facility that can hold world class sailing events.
People who turn their noses up at tourism efforts are also missing the big picture: when people experience a Rhode Island summer, they don’t want to leave. In order to grow our economy, we must attract new businesses, led by people who want to live here. While states like Alaska, Mississippi and Alabama have far lower taxes, business owners may find Rhode Island more appealing because of our proximity to New York and Boston, our great educational institutions, our culture of innovation—as well as our beautiful landmarks. Just like Papi’s 500th home run won’t be the one thing that gets him to Cooperstown, the sum of our assets will put Rhode Island’s economy back on firm ground again.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Shooting the messenger

As we sweat the last few days of summer, the rhetoric and changing dynamics of the campaign for president has become far more interesting than I would have thought at this early stage of the game. On the Republican side, the plethora of candidates and the willingness of Donald Trump to say whatever is on his mind has created a circus-like atmosphere.

On the Democratic side of the scrum, a primary process that once appeared to be a formality for Hillary Clinton is growing more competitive as left-most Senator Bernie Saunders draws huge crowds and has been closing the gap in polls. While Saunders’ popularity has all but crushed Rhode Island’s own Lincoln Chafee’s plans to be relevant for once, it has also opened a door for Vice President Joe Biden. While Biden has his flaws (again, the tendency to say anything that springs to mind), he would also be the sentimental favorite of many traditional Democrats and a home for the anyone-but-Hillary crowd that pushed Obama to victory over her in 2008.

While voters usually don’t see the behind the scenes chaos at these campaigns, we can imagine the insanity. One of Trump’s advisors was recently fired (although he says he quit first) because he disagreed with the strategic direction of the campaign. He wanted the candidate to do a poll and stay on message while the candidate was intent on attacking the media and calling the moderator “a bimbo.” If he quit, good for him. If he was fired, also good for him, but I think the proverbial messenger got the axe.

Which brings me to the place I usually end up. WHAT is going on with the Red Sox? Last week they managed to fire the one person who has executed his job perfectly for 14 years with few errors, lots of homers and a ton of wins. For those of you living under a rock, NESN announced that Dave O’Brien (who is just fine) would be the play-by-play person for the Red Sox in 2016, taking the chair that Don Orsillo has occupied since 2001. Don has been “the guy” next to Jerry Remy for the best TV years of the franchise and is apparently getting blamed for a drop in NESN’s ratings. WOW. Is Wally going to get canned when the Monster Seats don’t sell out? Maybe they should fire the ticket takers when the attendance drops below 30,000.

While I can’t begin to understand NESN’s thinking, I can say that Don and Jerry have made an unbearable season worth watching and their banter has kept me entertained during some pretty boring stretches of baseball. If you haven’t seen Don and Jerry’s calling of the famous pizza throwing incident at Fenway, it’s worth watching for a good laugh and a good look at why he means so much to Boston fans.

Like Trump’s antics, the team’s bad moves are beginning to wear thin and no amount of promotions and saccharine ads will bring back a fan base if the team is seen as being disloyal to those who have served as its best messengers. I just hope that this doesn’t bring us the curse of the Orsillo — I want to see another World Series win in my lifetime.