Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Score one for the terrorists

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, much of the world has responded with one voice, saying “Je Suis Charlie” in support of those journalists who were murdered by radicalized Muslim terrorists. Nearly four million people walked with leaders from around the world in a unity march. Those leaders included British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, EU President Donald Tusk, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Noticeably absent from the list? Any high-ranking official from the Obama administration.

While no official word has come from the White House about exactly why the president, the vice president or a cabinet level official was present, pundits have speculated that it was because of concerns over security. And while keeping our leaders safe is clearly a priority, the whole point of the event was to show that the leaders of the world are unafraid and standing as one against the terrorists. Think about it: if the leaders of Israel and Palestine can be appropriately secured for this event, I have to believe that Vice President Biden could have showed up. By not having a presence at the rally the United States has sent an emboldening message to terrorists: we are afraid.

More than anything else, the U.S. absence has put us on a different message than the rest of the world. At this writing about half of the top media stories are about who was there and what the rally represents and the other half are focused on why there was no U.S. representation. We’re simply off-message and out of touch with the rest of our team. You know how after a Red Sox win, the player with the standout performance gets interviewed on the field and usually says things like, “it was a real team win” and “players up and down the line up contributed” or “our pitching staff really came through.” Today the U.S. is that player who says, “We would have won by 3 if our shortstop could hit.” While the rest of the world is saying, “PEACE,” the message coming out of the U.S. government right now is “stop complaining that we weren’t there, we did make a phone call.”

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, shell-shocked Americans got back to their work and their lives by saying “if we don’t return to normal, then the terrorists will win.” It’s been more than decade for us, but we should do our best to remember how hard it was to be “normal” in those post 9/11 days and do a better job to support our allies in Europe. I am hoping the administration can make this right and that this is the only point the terrorists will score.

Are we ready for a comeback?

We all remember how it happened: after the disastrous 2012 season, the Red Sox assembled a team in 2013 that went from last in the league to first and became World Series Champions. With veterans, rookies and seven free agents from around the league, a team was built that not only competed, but won. Can they do it again in 2015 — or more importantly — can Governor Gina Raimondo launch a similarly epic comeback here in Rhode Island?

I had the opportunity to help out with Governor-elect Raimondo’s Transition and it was clear to me that her singular focus is expanding Rhode Island’s economy and growing jobs here in the Ocean State.  Launching Rhode Island’s comeback — and making sure that all Rhode Islanders are prepared to benefit from long term economic growth — is the central goal of her administration.  And just like a General Manager confidently making plans in January for a World Series win in December, Governor Raimondo has drawn top talent from inside and outside of Rhode Island and assembled a standout team that can deliver a comeback for our state.

In her cabinet Governor Raimondo has retained the best veteran talent in state government including Colonel Steven O’Donnell of the Rhode Island State Police, A.T. Wall at Corrections and Janet Coit at DEM. Governor Raimondo added “all-stars” from out of state like Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor who led successful economic development efforts for the City of Newark under then-Mayor (now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker as well as her new Chief of Staff, Stephen Neuman. Previously, Neuman has worked for three governors in three different states showing that he’s able to successfully adapt to different political cultures with ease. The Raimondo administration will have at least two leaders with impressive GOP credentials: the new Director of Administration, Michael DiBiase was chief of staff to Governor Lincoln Almond and Director of Management and Budget, Jonathan Womer, worked in the White House during Bush II.

Of course it takes more than just good players to make things happen. We need strong leadership and teamwork. That’s why some political observers have noted that Governor Raimondo and the leaders of the General Assembly have been meeting and talking through their respective priorities. This is significant because it’s been 20 years since a governor in Rhode Island has shared a party label — and a good working relationship — with the General Assembly. While I am no fan of one-party rule, the shared priority of bringing our economy back to life is not an ideological one and it is refreshing to see a collaborative spirit.

I don’t want to be too much of a “homer” — especially since Rhode Island’s problems are numerous and complex — but I think that this new team can get our state on the right track and headed for a comeback.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Teams that make us proud

2014 will be remembered as a year most Red Sox fans would like to forget. A miserable record and a weak follow up to the 2013 championship left many of us feeling relieved that the painful season was over. Time will tell if we look back and say it was the year we “lost Lester” or (hopefully) as the point when the team was able to step back from a losing trend.

Thankfully 2014 gave us some other teams to cheer and since we’ll soon be turning to 2015, I’d like to end the year on a positive note with some words about teams we can be proud of today and expect big things from in the years to come.

Cumberland Little League Team. The whole state rooted for these talented boys as they fought their way through the Little League World Series last summer. When their last rally failed, their coach, Dave Belisle, delivered a speech for the ages, reminding all of us why it is so important to encourage our children to compete and why it’s even more important to keep it in perspective.

Team Alvimedica. The Volvo Ocean Race took a dramatic turn earlier this month when Team Vestas Wind ran aground at night on the leg between Cape Town and Abu Dhabi. As the boat was battered by waves, Rhode Island’s sailing community held its collective breath as Team Alvimedica, skippered by Bristol’s own Charlie Enright, pulled out of the race stood by overnight to aid their opponent. Thankfully no one was injured and Alvimedica rejoined the race, but the sportsmanship shown by our local team will not soon be forgotten.

Little Rhody.  After a long slog through the Great Recession and the even longer recovery here in Rhode Island, it seems as if brighter days are finally just ahead.  A spirited race for governor gave all of us a deep dive into the important issues facing our state and fresh faces on Smith Hill should help to restore some optimism to our state’s low self-esteem. While the “A” that Governor Lincoln Chafee gave his term may create some spirited debates, unemployment is finally down and Governor-elect Raimondo is laser-focused on growing our economy— something that we all agree needs to happen.

While we wait for Fenway to defrost and for Opening Day, it’s been fun to have other teams to root for and other causes to support. And don’t forget, there’s always next year: pitchers and catchers report on February 20th.

The real Green Monster

(written 12/15/14)

I like to think that baseball is a game to watch and enjoy, but the truth is that professional baseball is a business. For as much as we’d like to believe that players have an affinity for the club, the city or the fan base, the reality is that they shouldn’t get sentimental about their team since they are often traded with no notice and no regard for their families or their roots. I remember the stunned look on Nomar’s face when he was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs in what he later referred to as a “devastating” trade. He never saw it coming.

Jon Lester’s decision to go to the Cubs has left many fans in Boston disappointed but I’ll argue that at least Lester approached it the right way. He must have been insulted by the lowball offer (less than half of what he ended up getting) that Boston started out with last spring but he never whined or let money become part of the conversation. Even when he was “rented” to the A’s in July, he headed west with nothing but kind words for the Red Sox and their fans.

There’s another contract player in Boston who is learning the hard way about how to conduct himself.  You may have read about Ben Edelman, the Harvard Business School professor who excoriated and threatened a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant over a $4 discrepancy between their published menu price and what he was charged. The matter should have ended with a simple apology, a refund and a promise to update their online prices (which was all offered by the restaurant) but instead has ballooned into a “how not to use your four degrees from Harvard to interact with humanity.” Using phrases like “to wit,” citing Massachusetts consumer law and threatening to contact “the authorities” he attempted to get a $12 settlement from the business. The story — and the revelation that this is not the first local restaurant he has bullied —  have made Mr. Edelman into one of the least-liked people in Boston these days.

Mr. Edelman has a point — no one deserves to be overcharged for Chinese food — or for a pitcher. But if there is a lesson to be shared with his many current and future students, I hope it revolves around how fair and civil negotiation nets more in the long run than intimidation and bullying. One thing is for sure: Jon Lester will never have to pay for a beer in Boston while Mr. Edelman will be lucky to get a table next to the bathroom.

Are we entering a post-sexist era in politics?

(written 11/21/14)

It’s clear that baseball has changed since the steroid era of the late ‘90s when “juice” fueled Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire battled it out to kill the home run record. Today, baseball heroes can come in small packages — like Dustin Pedroia — and hitting 30 home runs is a successful season. While there are still vestiges of baseball’s embarrassing past (i.e. Alex Rodriguez) lurking around the scene, for the most part, the sport has emerged from the post-steroid era and stepped away from its messy past.

Now that Rhode Island has elected its first woman governor, I wonder if we’ve moved into a post-sexist era in politics. Since it’s still remarkable enough to comment on, I imagine that just being a woman is still considered detrimental in politics but I hope we are not far away from a time when gender is no longer an issue upon which to comment.

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of former Sundlun staffers for one of our every-few-years dinner gatherings to catch up and visit with (now) old friends. When we worked for Governor Sundlun, we were together for many hours every week in a really challenging environment and learned a lot from each other.  Most of us were native Rhode Islanders, some with political experience but all with a shared desire to move the state forward from the bad ethical and financial problems of the late 1980s.

Now twenty-plus years later as we joked about how things had changed and laughed about the three “brick” mobile phones that the office shared, I had an eye-opening conversation with one of the women at the table. During the Sundlun years she was a super smart administrative staffer and one of the few who children while we worked in the State House. Every day she wryly shared parenting advice as she juggled sick kids, day care and a challenging job. At dinner he reminded me about how male-dominated and sexist the State House had been and how oppressed we had been as women in that environment. She told me not to forget it and to always tell my girls about what it was like so that it could never happen again.

I have to say I was a bit stunned. As one of the youngest people on staff, I didn’t have much of a frame of reference and perhaps I thought that catcalls in the halls or a “misplaced” hand was the norm. I don’t remember being particularly bothered by the atmosphere and I think I just assumed that it was all part of the working world. But to her point, it’s a world that I don’t want my girls to be part of or to experience in their lifetime. As I looked around the table I was glad to see that the offenders were not there, so perhaps like Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire, time and an intolerance for bad behavior is weeding out the worst of them. Still I feel compelled to pass along her two best pieces of advice: don’t stand for any sexist garbage in the workplace and when your kid says “my stomach feels funny” you have less than thirty seconds to get to a bathroom. If women in politics can remember both of those things, we too can be in a post-sexist era and avoid messes along the way.

There’s no team in Obama

(written 11/17/14)

The weeks between the end of an election and the start of a new Congress are filled with activities similar to those going on behind the scenes with a major league baseball team. Returning players are taking time off before the new season and the leadership is putting together plans for the next year. Upcoming MLB winter meetings will include a job fair and opportunities for teams to come together and discuss the rules that govern the game. Most importantly, the meetings provide a chance for teams to hammer out complicated trades that could be the difference between winning the championship or ending up in last place, like the Sox did in 2014.

In politics the trading took place on Election Day and the midterm losses for the Democratic party should be a wake up call to the leadership and to the Obama administration that many Americans are not happy about the direction of our government and were looking for a little “change.” While presidents typically suffer some midterm losses, the losses of some specific seats — like Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Begich in Alaska —  signal real problems for President Obama. Hagan and Begich are young and engaging and ran good campaigns, so their losses are seen almost exclusively as a referendum on national issues. For most leaders, huge losses — and some near misses — would indicate that something needs to change. However in recent days, President Obama has indicated that instead of working with the new leadership in Congress, he’s planning to dig in on controversial issues during his lame duck years and using executive orders to act on his initiatives. That’s not leadership — it’s petulance — and it can only spell disaster for Democrats in 2016 and beyond.

That’s right — just as the Bush presidency has cast a long shadow over Republicans in New England, an Obama presidency that ends with two years of his acting unilaterally will have a serious impact on the Democrats’ ability to win the presidency in 2016 or to pick up seats in the House and Senate. As a firm occupier of the center, I can’t decide whether having a president who thinks he’s king is worse than having the pendulum of American politics swing too far to the right, but I think we are about to see both scenarios in the coming years.

This week halls of Congress are hosting orientation for new U.S. Senators and Members of Congress (mostly Republicans) as they learn about the nuts and bolts of their new jobs. At the same time the Red Sox are working to reshape their team — starting with a new pitching rotation — to make them winners again in 2015. It’s unfortunate that as others work to learn their jobs and plan next steps that there’s no introspection and little sense of a “lessons learned” coming from the White House. By 2016 this stubbornness will have Democrats wishing that there had been a team in Obama rather than an Obama on the team.

Looking beyond the Munson-Nixon line

(written 11/10/14)

This spring the New York Times featured a fabulous interactive map that used Facebook data to show where support for each Major League Baseball teams is strongest. Not surprisingly, Rhode Island is filled with Red Sox fans and we are just one shade off the deepest shade of red clustered around Boston. In the middle of Connecticut there is a line where pink borders gray and the two fan bases meet. This area is cleverly nicknamed the “Munson-Dixon line” after Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and Red Sox dirt dog Trot Nixon.

I thought of the Munson-Dixon line came to mind on Tuesday night as across the country U.S. Senate seats went from blue to bright red, and it was clear that the pendulum of American politics was swinging to the right. Along with trans fats and reality TV, Americans love a government that is balanced and the party of the sitting president almost always suffers midterm losses. Several people have noted that the GOP wave seemed to stop short in New England: Scott Brown failed to win a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire and not a single Republican was elected to statewide or federal office in Rhode Island, despite having some stronger-than usual candidates. While the results are clear: Governor-Elect Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor-elect Karyn Polito are the only newly elected GOP statewide or federal officeholders in New England, the analysis is not so obvious. Even in deep blue Rhode Island, there has been a slight shift to center.

While Rhode Island elected a slate of Democrats to statewide office, the two at the top of the ticket were not only unendorsed by their own party, but survived bruising primaries in spite of stiff and vocal opposition from big swaths of traditional Democratic voters. Governor-Elect Raimondo is best known for shepherding pension reform through the General Assembly and building a coalition strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the powerful public employee unions. Lieutenant Governor-Elect Dan McKee is also no darling of the teachers’ unions as he made a name for himself as an education reform advocate leading the effort for Mayoral Academies. Pension reform and education reform are not traditional paths to victory for most Democrats, particularly in Rhode Island but I think that these candidates and their wins show a somewhat centrist streak in the new Rhode Island Democrat, particularly around issues of fiscal policy and public education.

So while the political map shows Rhode Island as a deep, deep blue state, I think that the calculation is too simplistic. Beginning on January 6th, we’ll have leaders who have looked beyond their own Munson-Dixon boundaries for ideas and solutions to complex public policy problems. I think we can all be fans of that.