We’re painfully aware that another political scandal has erupted at the State House. Like Gordon Fox’s fall from grace, the details will likely come out weeks or months from now, but as investigators dig into former Representative Ray Gallison’s alleged misdeeds the discussion has quickly turned into a pitchforks n’ torches march to the State House with everyone offering their two cents on what we can do to make sure this never happens again. Ho hum. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this game before and bringing about a different result will require more than just voter anger.
I worked for Governor Sundlun when the banking crisis hit in 1991. Trust me, people were angry: bang-their-fists on doors and scream-in-the-halls angry. In the aftermath —and as a result of other scandals that followed — a wave of new legislators came into office in 1992 (Gordon Fox among them), four-year terms for statewide offices were approved on the ballot and later, separation of powers was instituted to further harness the power of the General Assembly. In recent years it seems that some of that progress has eroded as the General Assembly (using separation of powers as justification) took away the right of a governor to put a non-binding question on the ballot and the Ethics Commission no longer has oversight over the General Assembly.
While the pitchforks n’ torches gang will tell you that the key to success lies in getting the governor a line item veto and ending the secrecy of the legislative grants program, I see a bigger problem that needs to be solved. Call it participation, citizen engagement or just YOU and ME.
If you want to know who to blame, look in the mirror. Do you vote in every election? Do you know the names of your state representative and your state senator? Have you written a letter-to-the-editor and taken a public position on an important issue? Have you helped a candidate who is not an incumbent? Have you testified for or against a bill at the State House? Have you corresponded with your legislator about their legislative grants or their stance on the line item veto? Have you run for office? If you can’t say yes to at least three of the above, you have no ground to complain. If you have three or more, keep at it. Every election year dozens of General Assembly seats go uncontested and that’s inexcusable. This little experiment called Democracy requires participation from all of us to be successful and just and when only a small number engage, things are bound to go wrong because too few are too powerful.
Too busy working and paying taxes to get involved? Corruption is a tax on all of us. Corruption costs us dollars that are lining someone’s pockets, paying for less-than-adequate state services or funding a pet project of a powerful person. Corruption drives good people away from politics, repulses the business community and prevents us from landing companies that could bring good jobs and boost our tax base. Corruption drives down morale and civic pride, making Rhode Island a place that college graduates and retired people want to escape costing us smart minds and people with time to give. The only real way to battle corruption is for more good people to get involved.
So yes, please, push for the line item veto and yes, please let’s rein in the legislative grants program, but first and foremost, please engage public service. If not now, when? WE are the reason that we can’t have nice things and it’s time for that to change.