Monday, May 9, 2016

We’ve seen this game before

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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Whiners don’t like rules

Last weekend brought the first Red Sox-Yankees action of the season to Fenway Park and ended with the first Red Sox sweep of the Yankees since 2013. The final game was an 8-7 thriller that featured a bomb off the bat of Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez. As New England did a collective happy dance, I’m sure the Yankees would like to bank some of those wasted runs for a future win. Thankfully the rules are clear: you can’t save runs for a rainy day.

Ah, those annoying rules. Children hate them, teens ignore them and most adults have learned it’s easier to follow them, but it doesn’t seem to end the bellyaching when someone doesn’t like them. This primary season, I’ve heard far too much whining about the dreadful primary rules. Everybody has an opinion about what state’s rules are “fair” and which are not. The latest gripes came from team Sanders as they feel “entitled” to all of Rhode Island’s delegates — even the super delegates that Hillary Clinton wooed into her camp long ago. Readers may recall that team Trump spent a fair amount of time and energy early in the campaign protesting the process through which delegates are divvied up. Now that he’s closing in on the required 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination, he’s pointing his finger at the rules every day to ensure that all the loopholes are closed in his favor.

The common thread amongst the whiners is it appears to be that few (if any) of the people who are complaining about the rules actually participate regularly in the parties that create said rules or are familiar with the logic that created the process. Reminder: primaries and caucuses are not supposed to be a democratic process. Party leadership in each state defines how delegates will be awarded with some degree of guidance coming from the national party. On the Democratic side the process is a consistent formula — although far from “democratic” — with unbound super delegates and scenarios that award more delegates to congressional districts that are heavily Democratic. This formula favors an establishment candidate with a strong organization and ensures that a party outsider (like socialist Bernie Sanders) has an uphill battle to capturing the nomination.

The Republican process (not surprisingly) leaves it up to each state party to decide how it will divide up its delegates. We now know that the Republican system is far more easy for an outsider (named Trump) to hijack and many of the #neverTrump folks are now furiously reading up on the convention rules to find their opportunities to take back the party — and the nomination — before it’s too late. Heads up to #neverTrump: it’s probably too late.

When the dust settles after the conventions, there will be plenty of time for the parties to reassess their nominating practices and fine-tune their nominating methods. With the general election now six months away there will be an opportunity to find some other election-related rules to grouse about, but it seems as if everyone’s time would be better spent becoming part of the process instead of a critic of it.