Monday, August 29, 2016

The Dirty Sprint

While baseball players often talk about the grind of their long season, people running for office in Rhode Island face more of sprint. It probably doesn’t feel that way since they have probably considered running for office for years, but the time they have to put a campaign together and make themselves known is actually quite short. The filing deadline for declaring one’s candidacy is late in June (after many states have already held their primaries) and then in mid-July signatures are turned in and then certified. Once a candidate knows that he or she has qualified for the primary ballot, there’s less than eight weeks to run an effective campaign, particularly since few people pay attention to local primaries unless and until they are walking into the polling place.

The time between the primary and the general election is equally brief and a newcomer without a primary may feel flat-footed for that sprint. Rhode Island’s primary is the latest in the country and there is always discussion about moving it earlier since it barely allows for overseas military mail ballots to be printed, sent and returned before the deadline, but in 2016, our primary is wicked late: September 13th.

Just because the primary season is so short, it doesn’t mean there’s no time for dirty politics. While we have laws that govern campaign materials including who can pay for them and what has to be disclosed about the sender, in the past the Board of Elections has done very little to enforce their own rules — and has traditionally been glacially slow about any enforcement during the cycle. And so every year flyers appear in people’s door and direct mail pieces arrive from fake organizations making false charges about a candidate. This year’s poster child for violating the disclosure law has got to be the flyer seen in Anastasia Williams’ district that compares her opponent, Michael Gazdacko, to Donald Trump saying that he and Trump have “too much in common” noting that they “vacation in fancy places” and “no minority jobs.” There is of course no “paid for by” or any other indication that it was connected to any campaign, but one would hope that the Board of Elections would make some attempt to find out who is responsible for printing and distributing such a piece. It may not have any impact on the dirty little sprint that is this primary but some enforcement of election laws will certainly help clean up Rhode Island politics in the long run.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Save your praise

Maybe I have been disappointed too many times, but in talking with a friend recently about the Olympics - and how Usain Bolt was an inspiration - I realized that I now expect the biggest athletes to be doping, cheating or morally failing in some way. Whether it's Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong or Ryan Lochte, big-time athletes in the modern era seem to be as likely to be goats as heroes.

People in public life are no different than athletes. John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Gordon Fox, John Carnevale and Ray Gallison are all human — and not only imperfect, but clearly flawed in some way. People in politics are not necessarily blessed with athletic abilities but are instead unusually charming, smart or just plain hard-working. Politics attracts some with narcissist tendencies and others who think that their involvement will be lucrative financially. There are — of course — good people in politics just as there are clean athletes in sport, but the rotten ones do garner the headlines and leave their constituents feeling distrustful and disengaged.

This year’s political cycle — particularly in the race for President — is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about politics being only for flawed candidates with outsized egos and personal ambitions. Both major party candidates come into the race with incredibly high “negatives” in public polls and long lists of failings gathered and shared by their opponents. Other than the diehards, more and more Americans seem committed not to a particular candidate, but to holding their collective noses and casting a vote out of patriotic obligation.

What’s a voter to do? We must remain involved locally — local and state government decisions are truly those that affect our every day lives. It’s far more impactful to help a local candidate with good ideas than to spend an afternoon sharing “make America great again” a zillion times on Facebook. Most importantly we must stop romanticizing and glorifying politicians. None of them can solve all our problems and none of them are perfect in any way. Instead of holding up one person as the answer to every question, we should promote ideas and policies that constitute progress. Yes, it is much more difficult to have to learn about the issues and generate ones own ideas, but just saying “I’m with her” is less important than being able to say why. So, be engaged, be educated and celebrate achievements without pushing personas.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Thankfully someone is minding the store

I am on a mental staycation. The days are long, the weather has been phenomenal, and there’s so many things in a Rhode Island summer to enjoy that don’t involve a lot of thinking. With the Olympics in full swing, I have to admit that I’ve even taken my eye off the Red Sox. They have been wandering through a west coast swing, starting games at our bedtime and not even coming close to the excitement of the Olympics. It’s really the best time of the year to take a mental break — and I’m on one!

It’s a quiet time for voters too. The primaries are just a month away, and candidates in contested races should be knocking on doors, making phone calls and reminding voters why they deserve a vote. For many Rhode Islanders there’s not a big race to entice them to vote in the primary — no statewide candidates are on the ballot and there are no significant primaries for Congress. The presidential race has gotten so crazy that it’s actually become white noise for those of us who have decided how to

Thankfully, Rhode Island’s news media has been on its toes this summer. In June, WPRI’s Tim White caught up with State Representative John Carnevale leaving a Johnston residence with a towel wrapped around his face. By the end of July, the bizarre story had taken many a twist and ended with the Providence Board of Canvassers finding that he was not legally a Providence resident and would be ineligible to run for office representing Providence. It was a case that defied common sense in a lot of ways — why would someone live in a basement with no facilities behind a wall made of a sheet while owning a perfectly good house just a few minutes away? The truth came out — he didn’t — but without the digging and “dog with a bone” reporting, it’s quite likely that this residency fraud would never be exposed.

The Carnevale case underscores the key role media play in keeping our political landscape clean, but it’s important to note that there was strong public outrage, someone “dropped the dime” and public records were available. So even as we are thankful for the on-point reporting, we shouldn’t let the lesson end there. Keeping government accountable is our collective responsibility and I’ll get back to doing my part — right after my mental staycation.