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Solomon’s Choice

Michael Solomon is wearing several hats these days: Providence City Council president, candidate for mayor and veteran businessman, a job Solomon had long before he got into politics. Solomon’s most high-profile business is Wes’s Rib House in Olneyville. He also owns a catering company off Mount Pleasant Avenue. But it’s a business project in this building on Westminster Street where Solomon is a part-owner that has been his most challenging. With the campaign for mayor in full swing, Solomon is once again answering questions about a business loan he and several partners took out from the city of Providence 27 years ago. A loan that is still largely unpaid.

“That loan did what it set out to do: create jobs, and promote economic development and downtown living,” Solomon told The Hummel Report. “And we continue to pay on it.”

The loan was to develop condominiums at the Conrad Building and it sounded like a promising project in 1987. Solomon and his partners received a $500,000 loan from what was then known as the Providence Economic Development Commission. They also arranged $3.5 million in private financing. Several years later they took out an additional $100,000 from the city.

Solomon says the group sold 20 units on the upper floors to pay off the $3.5 million in private financing. Two years ago they converted the unit they still own on the ground floor into the Providence Coal Fired Pizza restaurant hoping to generate enough money to pay off the remainder of the loan over the next decade.

We got a look inside the restaurant, which bills itself as having the state’s only authentic coal fired oven, just before it opened in 2012. And we talked to Solomon about both the business and the outstanding loan. He pledged to pay off the debt, which at the time was $454,000. And, records show, the partners are making progress on the loan, paying down nearly $50,000 over the past two years. The balance as of last month was $408,576, with payments averaging  about $2,500 a month. But Solomon raised some eyebrows earlier this year when he loaned his campaign approximately $300,000 of his own money, while the Conrad loan remains outstanding.

Hummel: You’ve put a lot of personal money into the campaign and some people would say, “Why don’t you take care of your debt to the city first?”

Solomon: First of all, I’m a minority partner in the corporation, so that corporation is owned by a bunch of people. It’s not just me who has that loan and we continue to pay on that loan like we would pay on a mortgage on a house.

But the terms are much better than a mortgage. A decade ago, after years of delinquent payments, Solomon and his partners were able to renegotiate the loan from 6 percent interest down to 1 percent, retroactive to 2001. Joshua Teverow, the legal counsel for what by then had become the Providence Economic Development Partnership, recommended the loan conversion.

Hummel: But the public perception is “Look, this guy has a quarter of a million dollars that he could satisfy the city with and then have people pay him back.” What about that?

Solomon: We are paying our mortgage. We are paying our loan off. That loan has been looked at. The partners are paying that loan off.

Hummel: After years of moratoriums, though.

Solomon: Well, there have been modifications.

Hummel: There were interest-only years.

Solomon: Not years. One year of interest only.

The records we reviewed show two years of interest-only payments, which ended in July 2012 when the corporation resumed paying down the principal.

The Conrad loan, the oldest issued by the city under a program funded with federal taxpayer dollars, was part of an overall review two years ago by the feds of the PEDP. Under the administration of Mayor David Cicilline it had a nearly 65 percent default rate. Solomon argues he could have defaulted, but was determined to stick it out.

Hummel: How much money of your own have you put into the campaign?

Solomon: What’s that have to do with my personal life?

Hummel: You’re running for office and it’s money that comes out of your pocket. And your name is on that loan.

Solomon: That’s right. And we continue to pay that loan.

Which is scheduled to be fully paid off in 2024 – 37 years after it was first issued.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.hummelreport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.org.




Motif’s Angry Outlier Talks About the Issues

Being Libertarian-leaning, I am not overly interested in what a political hack promises to do for me or my causes. I am more interested in what a candidate can do to get government out of my life.  Having a candidate tell me what government can do about any issue is an assault on my own choices and freedoms.

I do not really care what a candidate promises about social issues since social issues should not be government business. Government doesn’t create jobs, smoke pot or appreciate the arts — people do. Think of it this way: If abortion is a personal choice, then why is government involved in it?

My premise is that politicians manipulate a disengaged and politically handicapped electorate by focusing on social issues.

What a candidate thinks or promises about any issue is meaningless. Read my Lips, Hope and Change, Trust Chafee — all a bunch of cheery, positive, Pollyannaish garbage lacking either substance or genuineness, or both. People buy into this shit and then have buyer’s remorse. Are the lying politicians to blame?

I posit that no one has ever lost an election underestimating the stupidity of the electorate. Using social issues to fragment an already vulnerable population is what needs to end.

I really don’t see the role of government beyond its constitutional responsibilities. Why should government care if a person smokes cigarettes, has an abortion, gambles or has a big soda? Making government a parent simply creates a dysfunctional family.

Consider this: If legalizing marijuana was so important to the operation of government, why don’t candidates spark one up at a press conference? Maybe candidates should get high before the debates. Hell, it would be far more interesting. Someone might actually come up with a great idea (as inevitably happens when you’re high) and there will be people there to write it down.

Legalizing marijuana as an issue — really? I never understood why it was illegal in the first place. It was probably a social issue in the 1938 gubernatorial race. I appreciate and actually support legalization, if only because it demonstrates how government has regulated our existence.

Social issues come and go, but the government restrictions they encourage is a boot stomping on your face, forever. Involvement in any issue other than the operation of government at its leanest is little more than an assault on everyone’s personal freedoms and choices.

Real economic growth occurs when government gets out of its own way, not when a candidate floats some half-baked plan. Instead of listening to a candidate talk about creating jobs, consider it a better use of your time to get high and start an art project.

The bottom line is this: A candidate can do squat about jobs, other than promote an environment conducive to business. Like it or not. Any other thought is just creative big government expansionism.

As to the issue of support of the arts, ask yourself this: What candidate is going to say that the arts are a complete waste of social resources? You want your candidates to tell you that they are in favor of the arts, yet you find the chirping bird sounds so annoying when you are going to the Kent County courthouse to face a possession charge or a tax foreclosure.

If the arts were the key issue, then we should have candidates produce stubs from concerts, art exhibits and performances. Then you would see who actually supports the arts and who only attended the posh events. This would tell me more about the candidate’s interest in the arts than merely mouthing some platitude.

Hell, why not go to the debate and have the candidates write a 300-word essay about the impact of the Dada movement, the role of Caliban in The Tempest or whether Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is a theft of The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”? Show me you support (or at least, understand) the arts. Just asking if you support the arts is asking whether having a mother is a good idea.

As voters, we are a selfish lot, conditioned to listen to candidates who promise us what we want. Wake up, folks, government is not a department store Santa (although who would not elect Santa if he promises to fix this mess?).

We have money-controlled politics because we want candidates who agree with us on social issues, largely unrelated to actual governmental operations. A chicken in every pot is a great idea if you are not the chicken and if you didn’t have to pay for the chicken some day by selling your grandchildren into government-sponsored economic slavery.

I agree repealing marijuana laws is long overdue, that jobs are a good idea, and that the arts are important in society, but I don’t vote because the candidate promised me such. If a candidate promises you more, put that promise in one hand and spit into the other. What do you have?

Elections should be more than a vote for superlatives in a high school yearbook, but even then, who would you want to run your life, the Most Popular or the Most Likely to Succeed?




It’s the Economy, Stupid!

It’s hardly any secret that the Rhode Island economy is in bad shape.

In the most recent monthly data from June 2014, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 7.9 percent – a tie for worst in the nation between Rhode Island and Mississippi. It has been a lot worse, and Rhode Island improved since June 2013 with unemployment dropping from 9.5 percent. What the oft-quoted unemployment rate actually means is a surprisingly complicated matter in dispute, taking into account problems such as people who have been unemployed so long that they count as “discouraged” and roll off the unemployment numbers.

While the unemployment data has been stealing the headlines, far too little attention has been given to the state budget deficit, arguably the most grave single political problem facing the state. We are collectively in denial about the fiscal situation, with projections for the deficit to balloon to nearly a half-billion dollars per year. Even the 38 Studios scandal is a drop in the bucket in terms of pure numbers compared to that.

Although official projections in the state budget (“Appendix F – Five-Year Financial Projection”) contain a lot of weasely words about the unpredictability of Federal Reserve interest rate policy and federal defense contracting, annual operating deficits are expected to increase each fiscal year (FY): “$151.1 million in FY 2016, $256.7 million in FY 2017, $330.5 million in FY 2018, and $419.3 million in FY 2019. In percentage terms, the deficits are projected to range from 4.2 percent of spending in FY 2016 to 10.4 percent of spending in FY 2019.”

A significant contributor to these expected growing deficits is that Rhode Island depends far more than it should upon income from gambling, according to state budget documents: “The expected opening of gaming facilities in Massachusetts in the coming years is projected to significantly impact [future] year revenues. Lottery transfers to the State general fund are projected to diminish by a total of $422.1 million over the five-year forecast period, due to the increased competition to Rhode Island’s gaming facilities in Lincoln and Newport.”

This looming fiscal crisis could result in Providence looking like Detroit within a shockingly short time if nothing is done. In five years, will cities and towns be unable to pay teachers, police officers, fire fighters and even trash collectors? Central Falls went bankrupt in 2011, resulting in tax increases, pension cuts by nearly half and a reduction in the number of city employees from 174 to 118.

Woonsocket in recent years operated with cash flow so inadequate that there was doubt the city could meet payroll without state aid. On July 9, Moody’s Investor Service confirmed its B3 rating of Woonsocket’s general obligation (GO) bonds. According to Moody’s, “Obligations rated B are considered speculative and are subject to high credit risk.” (The suffix “3” indicates that the bonds are in the lowest quality tertile within that rating.) In the Moody’s system of nine rating groups, the top four (Aaa, Aa, A, Baa) are generally considered investment grade, while the bottom five (Ba, B, Caa, Ca, C) are generally considered risky “junk” bonds.

By contrast, Providence general obligation bonds on June 17 were rated Baa1, and those of the state itself on April 9 were rated Aa2, although with a negative outlook. Even Central Falls, having emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, on June 23 had its GO bonds upgraded from B1 to Ba3 – still “junk,” but not as bad as Woonsocket.

Perusing the web sites of the various candidates for governor, none seem even to acknowledge the depth of the budget deficits the state is likely to be facing within their coming four-year term of office. Republicans Ken Block and Allan Fung offer various proposals for cutting taxes, but whatever merits that may have, I am unable to find any statements from them about how to compensate for the resulting lost revenue. Democrats Clay Pell, Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras talk about economic issues almost entirely in terms of job creation, but also never address the budget deficit squarely.

It’s very easy for politicians to promise job creation. After all, who in their right mind would oppose it? The devil is in the details, and ultimately job growth depends primarily on factors far outside the control of state and local officials, such as the conditions of the broader national economy, interest rates, international currency and trade imbalances that drive exports and imports, and so forth. Even actions that state government could undertake to promote job creation will tend to be so indirect as to take five or 10 years to bear fruit.

Control of the state budget, however, lies entirely and immediately in the hands of the governor and the General Assembly. They will be forced to make some difficult choices, and the electorate should be prepared to accept that painful process provided that the pain is distributed fairly and equitably, and provided that the process is transparent and clearly explained. Voters understand that the state cannot indefinitely live beyond its means. Silence on this issue from politicians is, quite simply, irresponsible.

Fiscal management is the lynchpin of everything else: If the state cannot pay its bills, worrying about arts and tourism will be pointless.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/lau/tables.htm

R.I. State Budget, FY 2015, Appendix F: budget.ri.gov/Documents/CurrentFY/ExecutiveSummary/13_Appendix%20F%20Five-Year%20Financial%20Projection.pdf

Moody’s definitons of ratings: moodys.com/researchdocumentcontentpage.aspx?docid=PBC_79004

Candidates for governor on economic policy (listed alphabetically):
Ken Block: blockforgovernor.com/theblockplan
Allan Fung: fungforgovernor.com/taxreform.html
Clay Pell: claypell.com/issues/economy-jobs
Gina Raimondo: ginaraimondo.com/issues/jobs-and-economy
Angel Taveras: angel2014.com/issues/jobs-economic-development




The Female Playwrights Issue Takes Center Stage

I’ve been lamenting the representation of women playwrights on the American stage since I learned that only 17 percent of all plays produced in the U.S. are written by women. And women playwrights are lamenting as well.

In a 2008 New York Times article, playwright Gina Gionfriddo protested the lack of women’s plays produced in New York. “Producers, directors and perhaps audiences,” she said, “seem much more willing to accept unappealing male characters than unappealing women.”

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman addressed this issue a year later in “Not There Yet:  What Will it Take to Achieve Equality for Women in the Theatre?” published in Theatre Communications Group. She writes that “the U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be ‘untraditional’ for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women … If it goes on like this, women will either quit writing plays, all start using pseudonyms, or move to musicals and TV, where the bias against women’s work is not so pervasive.”

Five years later, in a June 16, 2014, New York Times article, a group of women playwrights and producers, who call themselves The Kilroys, submitted 46 plays by women to theaters encouraging them to produce more plays by women. This list was developed to help artistic directors, “who have good intentions,” while “confronting others” who might be biased toward male playwrights.

For example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is sometimes considered one of the best plays ever written, an excellent representation of the human struggle, effective in its ability to connect with “everyman.” And while I love much of what Mr. Miller put down on paper, this play does not represent MY struggle. I feel alienated from that play, particularly as a woman, and even more so because of the way women are portrayed in it. On the other side, numerous plays by women have not been mainstreamed because they were too much about a woman’s experience rather than the human one.

Huh? Are women aliens and nobody told me?

This problem plays out on Rhode Island stages as well.  Let’s look at 3 of RI’s more prominent theaters: The Gamm in Pawtucket, 2nd Story in Warren (where, full disclosure, I have been a long time subscriber and actor) and Trinity Rep in Providence. In an analysis of three seasons from these theaters, 12 out of 62 plays were written by women. I have debated this subject with many a talented male director or actor, people I consider friends and even feminists.  The excuses are 1) I couldn’t get the rights to any of the plays by women I wanted to produce; 2) The shows I am producing include strong female characters in lead roles; 3) I produce plays written by gay men; and 4) Women haven’t won many Tonys (thus there are no good plays by women).

The Gamm has no women playwrights in their upcoming season. Trinity has one. 2nd Story has not announced their season yet.

For some time, I blamed this local “miss representation” on the fact that the people choosing these seasons and running these theaters were white men (Tony Estrella at The Gamm, Ed Shea at 2nd Story, and Curt Columbus at Trinity Rep). However, out of six plays produced last season at ART (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston, only one was written by a woman, and ART’s Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, is a woman.

There is hope. Maybe not on the big stages, but on the smaller ones. Epic Theatre’s Artistic Director, Kevin Broccoli, put together an upcoming season of nine shows featuring six women playwrights. I asked Kevin why he thinks artistic directors don’t care about diversity. “I don’t think it’s that they don’t care, I think they don’t realize what it means to include diversity in your season. It doesn’t just happen. I think that’s the problem: A lot of people assume it’s just going to happen on its own. You have to make it a point to strive for diversity and make it happen.”

He continues, “It’s a problem that starts from the top and works its way down. If more women playwrights don’t start getting produced on Broadway and in major regional theaters, you’re not going to see smaller theaters taking those leaps. And since Broadway is the furthest thing from daring, it’s up to the regional theaters to take the lead.” His advice to his brother artistic directors is this: “You have to make it a priority — maybe the top priority even. Deciding that you want a diverse season makes the entire season better because it forces you to constantly rethink your choices and your play selections. It forces you to read more plays, and become more familiar with who’s out there.”

What can you do to promote the representation of women playwrights? To start, take a look at the seasons offered by your local theaters. What percentage of the playwrights are women? What percentage of the playwrights are people of color? Write to those theaters and ask for a better representation. Write op-eds. Don’t subscribe to theaters that don’t demonstrate a commitment to diversity and social justice. Remind them they are missing half of the HUMAN experience.




The Gubernatorial Races — A Prediction

As we enter the final stretch of the Rhode Island Gubernatorial primary races, we are faced with four viable Democrats and two viable Republicans. I will immediately eliminate one of the Democrats involved in the contest. Sorry Mr. Giroux. You are an interesting man. But, barring a catastrophic event that vaporizes the three other Democrats in the race, I don’t see a path to victory for you. And, as a Democratic operative, I will only spin myself into a tizzy by analyzing Mayor Fung and Ken Block. Mr. Block wants to put a price tag on the state of Rhode Island with a parenthetical of “or best offer.” And Mayor Fung wants standardized testing of three-year olds.

So that leaves Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Clay Pell, and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. I am going to make a statement here that I think very few, if any political analysts have been willing to make. Clay Pell is going to win. I am sure some readers are expressing disbelief in varying forms of expulsion of breath: laughter, exasperated sighing, myriad expletives, etc. But let’s look at this from a perspective that involves neither pedantry nor Prius.

Raimondo

Gina Raimondo has been the Madam Treasurer of Multiple Personalities. She flies the banner of a strong Democratic woman, progressive in her stances of equal opportunity, sensible firearm regulation, bringing people together and (of course) solving Rhode Island’s pension crisis. Might I coin a phrase here: Sybil disobedience.

Forbes Magazine published a list of the Wall Street firms that are where the best investors really want to work. Cross reference that list with public records of Raimondo’s campaign contributors and one finds a shocking amount of overlapping names and employers. Yet this woman has the audacity to talk openly about “leveling the playing field,” a phrase made famous by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who preaches the antithesis of what Raimondo has done. Which, by the way, was not “solving the pension crisis.” News flash, Madam Treasurer: the pension cuts architected and pushed through the general assembly are scheduled for a class action court battle that could stretch on for years.

She has succeeded in pitting public sector employees against the rest of Rhode Island by conveniently forgetting that  over 13,000 state employees are taxpayers too. Plain old Gina from Smithfield, whose father was a factory worker who was laid off from manufacturing is actually, Madam Treasurer Raimondo from the wealthy east side of Providence whose late father (my condolences) was a metallurgist at a watch company. With all due respect to the man who recently passed, he was not exactly stamping parts for eight hours during third shift.

She is the one percent. At least she is at the cocktail reception fundraisers with Wall Street’s wealthy elite writing checks. At the State House she is fist-pumping Gina, bursting with excitement at the statutory breaking of the last middle-class bastion of defined benefit retirement security. In her ads she’s mom, sharing her meatloaf recipe and riding her bikes through the city while her son narrates. Gina Raimondo is, to her credit, an excellent politician. She is a brilliant and well educated opportunist who looks in the mirror and sees Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces.” But, other than those staunch supporters of her deconstruction of defined benefits for public service employees, Raimondo hasn’t built momentum beyond an extraordinary ability to fundraise. But, with less than 40 days until the primary elections, the two things money cannot buy are more time and the image of working class Rhode Island.

Taveras

In 2010, Mayor Angel Taveras was welcomed with open arms into the highest executive office in Rhode Island’s capital city. He has enjoyed the highest approval ratings of any current Rhode Island elected official. He has a higher return on Providence municipal pension investments than the state of Rhode Island’s, which are run by the office of the general treasurer. And, for a while, he showed  the highest poll percentages of the Democratic primary candidates for governor. And, in spite of having the highest number of in-state individual contributors to his campaign, he shows the lowest level of campaign finances of the three war chests.

Taveras has been the head-start to Harvard success story that Providence needed after the shame of Plunderdome and the subsequent fiscal mismanagement by the mayor turned congressman. Angel ran a fantastic campaign that united the disenfranchised minority populations and the wealthy East Side liberals to forge a path to victory. Using his narrative of being the son of a single mother who worked third-shift in a factory who made it all the way to the most prestigious ivy league in the nation was the footbridge over the route 6/10 connector. He surrounded himself with strong progressive Democrats.

The city of Providence, however, had allied itself with the rest of the state’s (and the nation’s) fiscal crisis to form a dream team of economic stagnation. All of the grand plans for the city that had painted a landscape of a bright and forward-thinking Providence were drowning in the storm surge of a “category five fiscal hurricane.” So Angel made some changes. He cut his own pay. He conferred with his best economic advisors. He fired all the teachers. Wait … what?

Taveras openly admits his mistake saying he had acted on bad advice. But to terminate the contracts of almost 2,000 teachers was a show of power that went too far in forcing concessions from the public sector That move, in combination with his promotion of for-profit charter school company, Achievement First started to lose him some of that new car smell. It also lost him the backing of NEA RI, one of the largest and most politically powerful unions. He was able to rehire the teachers and negotiate concessions from the municipal unions. However, his mistake had marred that gleaming reputation indelibly.

A wave of unpopular decisions and circumstances followed that resulted in property tax hikes, commercial property tax hikes, regressive car taxes, reduction in police resources, the seeming “revolving door” of staff such as Matt Jerzyk and Arianne Lynch, the closing of the Davey Lopes pool, the pension fund investments that rivaled Raimondo’s in their percentage of risky and fee-layered hedge fund investment. Providence was holding its own with Angel Taveras in a battle of idealism versus ruthless pragmatism. Perhaps, if given more time, Taveras could have redeemed himself with the lessons learned and people would have time to forget his mistakes and remember him for the way he won millions of dollars for a groundbreaking education research project or continuing to reduce the city’s cumulative debt as well as the structural debt.

However, much like his predecessor, Angel Taveras chose to use the second half of his first term as a launchpad for higher office. That is probably the single biggest mistake he made as mayor. Angel Taveras decided not to finish the job. Had he run for a second term, he would have cruised to victory. Rather, Angel chose to run for governor. After a single term in an office in a city at a time in which success can only be determined by proving a negative — the economy didn’t get worse — Mayor Taveras abandoned full focus on what’s best for the city and split his focus on what’s best for the city and what’s best for the campaign.

Pell

Clay Pell comes in with a clean slate. Are there disadvantages to Clay as a candidate? Absolutely. His lack of experience in elected office? Yes. His relatively new permanent residency in the state? Check. His youth? Surely. An angry wave of supporters of other candidates who see him as a spoiler to their own plans for opportunism on investment in another campaign? Definitely. A ridiculously overblown habit of losing his car? Well … yeah, there’s that.

Another local political reporter said early on that Clay Pell has a short time to earn the trust of Rhode Islanders. I disagree. Clay Pell doesn’t have to earn their trust nearly as much as he has to avoid earning their distrust. In the current Rhode Island political universe, people are exhausted by wariness in government. They are not merely lacking confidence in certain politicians or even a certain party. Rhode Islanders are disgusted with government, elected officials, and politics.

In comes Clay Pell. He is a young Coast Guard Lieutenant with a background in the Obama administration’s National Security team and the US Department of Education. He was a prosecuting attorney on a Marine Corps base whose job it was to persuade Marines to testify against their own. He speaks four languages. His wife is the most decorated figure skater in American history. He has a bridge named after his grandfather. Furthermore, he is dedicated to integrity, pledging immediately to take no money from state lobbyists or PACs. He is exactly the opposite of what Rhode Islanders despise about politics. He is the antithesis of the “know a guy” way of doing the “business” of politics.

So why, one might ask, does he think he has a chance at beating seasoned campaign machines like Taveras and Raimondo? Pell is not walking into a firefight without his weapons. He has combined Rhode Island veteran campaign operatives with some of the best Democratic field directors from key battleground states in the 2012 presidential election. He has mustered an army of volunteers to march forward a ground game bigger and better than either of his opponents.

The media has been, thus far, unfair to Pell. He has rolled out plans as detailed and accessible as any other candidate. He has been appearing at any and every event and, rather than just glad handing and photo ops, he has been listening to the concerns of each and every person who wishes to hype or gripe about his or her concerns. Much of the media, however, still refuses to acknowledge him as a viable candidate.

But he is. And I think he’s going to win. To quote an early adopter of Pell, NEA RI Director, Bob Walsh (who was, I believe, quoting Ghandi), “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”




Zombies, Budgets and Arts Education

Zombies, Brains and the FY 15 Budget

Rhode Island has officially entered the race to the bottom. The new Speaker of the House chanted the phrase “jobs and the economy” the way a staggering zombie bellows the word “brains.” And, much like the dreaded infectious bite of the undead, the chant became a chorus of mindless followers, without the capacity for concern of implementing any real change. There is no mistaking the fact that Rhode Island Island is encountering a stagnant recovery as compared to other states. However, this year’s budget proposal made no effort to treat the cause of the state’s fiscal doldrums. Rather, like the doctor who graduates last in his class receives the same license to practice medicine as the doctor who graduated first, the budget architects waited until the last minute to conduct a diagnosis and treated only the symptoms.

The overall problem with the approach to reviving economic life in Rhode Island’s economy is the voodoo economic theory that has been comatose since the end of the Reagan administration. Rewarding the wealthy with more money by nickel and diming the middle class until they become the working poor does not grow a thriving economy. Instead, it hamstrings the majority from rising from a crawl to a walk, and then allowing them to run. Like every good myth or fable, there are a few instances of truth to the tale of the poor kid who, through hard work and dedication, became a millionaire. But there are infinitely more instances of the poor kid who gets an underfunded public education, gets her hours cut back on her big box store retail job and becomes evicted from her apartment.

The FY 15 budget’s approach is to continue the moratorium on schoolhouse construction funding in favor of an increase in the inheritance tax threshold. So public schools can stay cold, wet and dangerous while retired millionaires aren’t tempted to move out of state. Tax rates on the wealthiest earners remain at low levels, while property taxes continue to rise. State employees, who have been determined by the administration to be undercompensated as compared to both private sector counterparts and other states around the nation, are granted the contractual raises they haven’t seen in almost four years, but each state department must find the money for the raises in each departmental budget respectively. The state employs over 13,000 Rhode Islanders. How many other employers can boast that?

Jobs and the economy. One budget article prohibits cities, towns and municipalities from raising the minimum wage higher than the minimum wage set by the state. The budget, to my understanding, is meant as a statute of appropriations of general revenue, restricted receipt, and any federal and grant funding as determined by the electorate of the state of Rhode Island. How does a superseding restriction on the minimum wage have anything to do with the appropriation of state-controlled funding? Because jobs and the economy.

Other states that have experienced true economic recovery have invested in their middle class. By expanding the middle class through investments in education and health, these states have been able to grow their way out of economic illness, rather than tax their way out. Furthermore, these states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, have retained and attracted actual job creators by making the state an attractive location to live. By investing in infrastructure, education, health and overall quality of life, a pool of talent is fostered and drawn to the area and all boats rise with the tide.

But Rhode Island’s leadership has adopted the alternative “quick fix” solution, which is to dangle a carrot on a stick and hope the burros of industry will chase. By blaming big government for waste and taking any money swept up after chipping away at public services (e.g., state and municipal retirement and health care, public schools, police, fire, emergency services, roads, bridges) and offering them as tax breaks and corporate incentives, they effectively pin a clearance sign on the state. The bright orange sticker has a price tag that aims to be lower than that of other states and that price is followed by “or best offer.” Thus, the Rhode Island FY 15 budget competes in the race to the bottom for more bad jobs and less regulation, and sacrifices overall quality of life for better rankings on lists created by studies funded by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation. For the record, Rhode Island boasts the second lowest levels of government employment per capita in the country.

Unfortunately, the new speaker has (to his credit) proven himself to be a surprisingly masterful politician and his leadership does not appear to be going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Let us hope, for the sake of Rhode Island’s long-term economic future, Mr. Speaker considers adding just a single word to his chant so it becomes “good jobs and the economy.” That single word will make all the difference in the state.

Investing in Arts Education Earns Creative Capital

Rhode Island has a problem. Despite its reputation as a creative hub and an arts haven, it has lost its way in the very place where such excellence is fostered: schools. Education has become so competitively focused on math and science that it lost its momentum investing in creativity.

Rhode Island prides itself on being home to a world-class design school, a fantastic culinary institute and a jewel of performing arts venues. But the public education system is driven by tests focused primarily on quantitative learning. This is in no way meant to devalue the maths and sciences. But what separates the innovative from the derivative and uninspired is the fostering of creative learning.

I was recently admitted to law school. I work in a public agency that requires me to provide customer service and perform cognitive arithmetic. I also work as a political operative, conducting research and analyzing policy in order to try and sway political opinion at the polls and implement change at a legislative level. I have a degree in theater studies with a minor in English. I have read everything from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Kushner and have a deep understanding of the human spirit, as well as a fearlessness to improvise publicly. Do I wish I was a little better with double-entry bookkeeping? Sure. But what I may lack in arithmetic expertise, I make up for in my ability to improvise and think around corners. This will help me in law school and beyond.

This is what Rhode Island needs more of in schools. By emphasizing the arts and humanities as much as the maths and sciences, the term “well-rounded student” can be resurrected and Rhode Island can begin depositing creative capital into its innovation talent bank.




Alt Parenting: Beach Etiquette 101

gullMy mother is a certifiable beach Nazi. If a child throws so much as a grain of sand her way, she will shoot him a look so deadly he will run cowering to his parents. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, really, and quite effective as kids often steer clear of our blanket. As a result, however, I’m a bit paranoid about my own children’s beach behavior and have become certifiable in my own right. After witnessing weeks of bad beach etiquette, I feel the need to share this list of beach dos and don’ts that would make my mom proud:

1. Don’t throw sand – ever. Don’t walk to the shore and shake out your towel. Don’t let your kids run amongst the blankets, kicking up sand in their wake. Do teach them to deposit their shovel full of sand low to the ground, rather than vigorously throw it over their shoulder. Do take your flip-flops off before walking by my blanket. Sand has its place and it’s not between my teeth.

2. Mind your balls. Everyone loves throwing a football or playing paddle ball, but engaging in these activities at the shore of a crowded beach is just plain rude. Everyone must scrupulously avoid you and your balls. You keep hitting people, running into them and splashing them. Your balls land on people’s lunches. Take your balls and go to a field or park, or come back in October. Speaking of balls, gentlemen, please do not wear your sport shorts to the beach, sans underwear. That’s why they put that little mesh thing inside your bathing suit. It’s a ball catcher. Wear it, or, at the very least, keep those legs closed.

3. Personal space, people. I know there are those days when the temperature climbs to 100 degrees and everyone flocks to South County, so much so that you feel the entire state will tip right into the Atlantic. On those days, I accept that our blankets will be touching. Most days, however, there’s ample sand for all of us. Why, then, must people plop themselves so obtrusively close to my beach camp? If you’re planning a beach day with 18 of your closest friends and relatives, don’t show up at noon on a Sunday in July and expect to get prime real estate by squeezing yourself in between two families. Get there early, like the rest of us did. If you’re not sure about the boundaries, ask yourself these questions:

Are you sitting so close that no one can discern where your party ends and mine begins?
Are people unable to walk between my camp and yours without stepping on my blanket?
If a strong breeze blows, will I catch of whiff of your body odor and/or salami and cheese sandwich?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have your answer:  You’re too close.

4. Go home with your toys, and only your toys. The beach is a veritable key party for toys, as most of us come with one set and leave with another. You can almost hear the toys plotting their exit: “Hey you, in the Hello Kitty bikini. I came with her, but I’m going home with YOU.” While I like the idea of a fair swap, I don’t like that my kids’ toys are so vulnerable. I know it’s just a shovel, but it’s my shovel, damn it, and I’d like to go home with the one with which I arrived. Please tell your kids to leave my toys alone, even if they beg to be taken home. I’ll do the same.

5. Finally, and most importantly, stop feeding the seagulls. It’s hard to believe this rule needs to be said, but every summer some morons decide that last clamcake would make a great seagull snack. There they stand, large grin on their faces, as the seagulls surround them like a scene from “The Birds.” The rest of us, however, are getting pummeled with bird shit and must rush to cover our bags of chips as these rats with wings descend upon our blankets. If you want to feed birds, do it in your own backyard where they’ll crap all over YOU and YOUR stuff. As for that last clamcake, eat it or throw it in the garbage.  Seagulls don’t need grease and carbs.

I apologize if I come off as a curmudgeon. I just want to enjoy my day at the beach without being covered in seagull poop and getting hit by stray balls. If you disagree with my rules, or have a rule or two you’d like to share, please comment. I’d love to hear from you. That said, Number 5 is not up for debate.




Wear Aspirin and Save Lives

Met High School Students Pursuit to Save Lives with Wear Aspirin

hummelIt is a presentation Christian Rijos has given dozens of times over the past year, a pitch from a young entrepreneur with a company and an idea aimed at saving lives.

Christian, a 16-year-old sophomore at The Met School in Providence, is co-owner of a business called Wear Aspirin. Its goal is for people to have aspirin with them and readily available if someone nearby is having a heart attack. Last month he gave his final school presentation — one that has been worked and reworked over the past year — to his fellow students at The Met. But this is an idea Christian wants to sell to the world.

“The key message we’re sending to people is you’re not wearing it for yourself, you’re wearing it to save someone else’s life,” he said, adding that a third of the 1.5 million Americans who have a heart attack this year will die.

“There’s a lot about aspirin that would surprise people,” Christian said. “Every single time I presented, I asked people, ‘Do you have aspirin on you?’ They would always say, ‘No, I have it at my desk, I have it at home,’ and by some chance if they did have it, they’d have it in an inconspicuous place and they probably didn’t know it helps a heart attack victim.”

Nick Kondon, who spent a career starting technology companies, is one of Christian’s mentors and now his business partner. Wear Aspirin is an idea he had been kicking around for years. As a volunteer at The Met, Nick spotted a then-15-year-old who was intelligent and savvy beyond his years. Nick recalls one of their first conversations. “I was thinking you’d be my partner and you’d own about 7% of the company. And Christian, without any pause, said to me, ‘I’m young, but I’m not stupid.'”

Before the partnership was struck, Nick gave Christian an assignment. Christian recalled the conversation: “I want a small container that can hold .4175 inches of a pill and it has to be small enough to be discreet, but big enough to be noticeable so people ask about it. And it has to hold one pill and it has to be configured to fit in five different places.”

Early prototypes included a wristwatch attachment, a magnet and a ring, all of which were eventually discarded. After some trial and error they arrived on five different Wear Aspirin containers: a key ring, a cell phone, a hat, a lapel pin and a charm attachment for a bracelet.

“Easy to get to,” Christian said. “If somebody’s having a heart attack, you pop it out, you administer it to them, you tell them to chew it, then they swallow. The stats show that if you administer a 325 mg aspirin to a victim, it reduces 80% of the platelets heading to the clot in the blood stream and increases their chances of surviving by 30%.’’

That’s the medical part, but at the end of the day this is a business, which is what students in the E Ventures class discover. Christian and other students at The Met’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship are learning that a good idea also needs a good business plan.

The proposed retail price for all five, including aspirin: $17.95.

Over the past year he has enlisted the help of a variety of people and earlier this spring decided to try crowdfunding for the initial startup costs on the website Indiegogo.

“The plan was to go on a crowdfunding site and raise enough capital for us to make this in the US and market it in Rhode Island, so that it starts as a Rhode Island company. Then we branch out into the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association and national organizations and start programs with them,” Christian said. “Right now, we think our demographics are women over the age of 40 — because if a woman buys this she’s buying it for her husband, kids, friends and family.’’

And that may be why going the crowdfunding route for seed money has not produced the results they had originally hoped for. So they’re going to revise the plan, as partners often have to do in any business.
Christian says while operating a successful company that makes money is an incentive to succeed, there is another side to his motivation.

“It became personal with me a long time ago. My mother told me that most people in my family die from heart attacks; it’s in our genes. Genes affect just a small percentage of the chances you’ll have a heart attack. It’s also eating habits and things like that. But my chances of having a small heart attack one day have increased because of my genes from both sides of my family, so it’s become personal.’’

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org




Nikola Tesla: (Not Quite) Celebrated Visionary

Forefront of Electricity, Nikola Tesla

nikolaThere have been many golden ages throughout history, times of enlightenment and unbound creativity when the human race advanced forward by leaps and bounds. Times when we dared the impossible and soared beyond our wildest dreams. Times such as the Renaissance, The Industrial Age, the Space Age and the Electric Age. The Electric Age was marked by the transition from candles and hand cranks to lightbulbs and motors. It was also during this time when the infamous “War of the Currents” was waged and we decided whether alternating current or direct current would be welcomed to power our homes. (Fortunately, in 1973 we came to our senses and decided AC/DC was the way to go, but that’s another story.) While most people are familiar with names like Edison and Westinghouse, there’s one that’s been largely forgotten until recently: Tesla. No, I’m not I’m not talking about the car, but the man for whom it was named.

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian immigrant who came to our shores in 1884 and was central to some of the most important technologies we have today. He worked for Edison and sold patents to Westinghouse and was a firm believer in alternating current. Tesla was also responsible for inventing the AC induction motor used in applications all over the world for industrial applications all the way down to that fan that’s keeping you from sticking to the couch. Induction motors were an important advance since they required fewer mechanical parts and could offer better durability and speed control. Hydroelectric power is also credited to Tesla and now powers a portion of the US. Hydroelectric dams such as the one at Niagara powers all of the Northeast and the Hoover Dam in Nevada powers Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and the surrounding areas of California, Nevada and Arizona. Hydroelectricity is also one of the cleanest types of renewable energy out there.

Not only was Tesla at the forefront of electricity, he was envisioning the next set of wireless technologies. Yes, wireless technologies … before the 20th century had even dawned. He created a wirelessly controlled boat, sent messages wirelessly and even built a wireless power transmitter in New York. Known as Wardenclyffe Tower, it was built to be an intercontinental radio transmitter and power transmitter, but it never became operational due to funding issues. In short, investors at the time couldn’t see the promise of free wireless electricity for all. Wardenclyffe Tower was related closely to the Tesla Coil we have today. While you won’t see many practical applications for the coil itself outside of an electricity demonstration, it would be the basis for a wireless electrical transmission system. The coil’s design is also simple enough that it could be built in your home, and people already have. The wireless boat gave rise to cellular phones in that it proved that not only could information be encoded into radio waves, but that an unlimited number of channels within those waves were accessible. Frequency hopping cellphones employ this idea to great effect. And while Edison may typically get credit for inventing the incandescent lightbulb, it was Tesla who invented the neon lightbulb, a far cheaper alternative that lights most businesses, factories and some homes today.

While researching this article I asked myself the almost hackneyed question, “What if Tesla could see the world today, a mere 70 years after his death?” I figured he’d probably say, “I told you so,” but after speaking with Tesla expert Marc Seifer, PhD and author of Wizard: the Life & Times of Nikola Tesla and Transcending the Speed of Light: Quantum Physics and Consciousness, I’d like to change my answer. Marc writes:

Tesla would be very concerned that we are still running our world on coal, nuclear power and oil. He would compel us to use renewable forms of clean energy such as hydroelectric power, wind, solar and geo-thermal. Tesla wrote about this throughout his entire life with major articles on this topic in the 1930s.

By now you’re probably wondering, if he was so great, why is he relatively unknown? Tesla was a great engineer and a visionary, but he wasn’t a great businessman. Unfortunately, his employers and rivals usually got the credit for his bits of genius. On the bright side there is a growing movement to remember this remarkable man and what he contributed to the world. Comic artist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, helped run a crowdfunded campaign to purchase the old Wardenclyffe Tower and turn it into a Tesla Museum. It was an electrifying success. There will also be a large conference about everything Tesla in Toronto on his birthday. Others in the community are trying to get July 10, Tesla’s birthday, marked as a world holiday so we can all recognize and unite behind his world changing visions.

I only have enough room on this page to scratch the surface of everything that Tesla did for the world; I highly recommend you spend a few minutes reading about him at your local library. Oh, and one more thing, he even had a theory that would explain away the Higgs-Boson and provide an alternate explanation for how gravity works. No big deal or anything …




Growing Awareness: The Story of Seeds

How a RI Whole Foods Market and an independent director are shedding light on the seed crisis

Open Sesame Poster

by Despina Durand

The upcoming July screenings of Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds are the end result of a serendipitous ambition sparked by the film itself. Bonnie Combs, Marketing team leader at the University Heights Whole Foods Market, saw the film when it screened at the Cable Car Cinema & Cafe this past April after a friend of hers in the bakery at Whole Foods told her about how she had contributed to the Kickstarter that funded the film.

Open Sesame is a documentary that looks at the struggle between seed farmers and big agri businesses, such as Monsanto, over who has the rights to seeds. Seeds, the film argues, are the source of all life, and the basis of civilization. Without them, none of the things that we have today would exist. The move to patent seeds has gravely endangered biodiversity and farming.

Open Sesame director Sean Kaminsky, based out of Brooklyn, did not intend to make a full length film about seeds. The project started as an idea for a short film when he realized that the things he had been reading about seed patenting had a lot in common with the conversations happening around proprietary formats in digital media. (Proprietary formats are processes of encoding files that mean that they can be only opened with a specific program. For example, .doc, .ppt, and other Microsoft file formats.)

“I felt like they were turning seeds more into information than food,” Kaminsky explained.

But he discovered as he set off to his interviews that it was a very emotional topic. Sophia Maravell of the Brickyard Education Farm, one of his subjects, told him that 95% of the vegetable biodiversity has disappeared in the last 100 years. Each interviewee prompted him to speak with another on the subject, snowballing the project to a new level.

“It crept up on me.”

Combs originally approached the RISD Metcalf auditorium to screen the film, but while she awaited a response, she learned that the Cranston Public Library had started a seed library of their own, and they quickly agreed to host a screening of Open Sesame. Combs still wanted a screening in Providence, and ultimately Metcalf got back to her with an affirmative.

Kaminsky will be at the screening at the William Hall Library in Cranston, on July 30, to talk with the audience about the film. The following day representatives from the Seed Savers Exchange will lead a workshop on saving and sharing seeds.

“What I felt was that I wanted to leave people feeling inspired and hopeful, rather than in a place of anger and sadness,” Kaminsky explained of Open Sesame’s contrast with the trend of food documentaries to leave viewers drained or frustrated by the actions and indifference of big business. Kaminsky’s hope is that the film will inspire people to engage in learning more about seeds, advocating for them, and even saving them.

And from the way Combs has reacted, it seems he has already succeeded. Combs described how the film left her wanting to bring people together to educate them about seeds. And she has already thrown herself head first into the issue; she is going on a retreat to Decorah, Iowa for a summer conference hosted by the Seed Savers Exchange.

“It takes so much to make a film– you want to believe it will make a difference, and to know that it impacted someone so much. It’s been really inspiring,” Kaminsky said of Combs.

But Kaminsky does not want to tell people how they should engage with what they learn, and realizes that not everyone will in the same way.

“If there is only one thing you can do, plant a seed,” he said. The experience of planting a seed is powerful, he explained. Putting it into the earth and watching it grow connects us to our ancestors who created civilization through the millions of seeds they planted and cultivated.

Combs’ journey has mirrored Kaminsky’s. From that first screening, she has tapped into the local seed saving culture. She learned that the person who requested that first screening of the film at the Cable Car was Bill Braun who runs the Ivory Silo Seed Project in Westport. He will be one of the speakers at the Providence screening of Open Sesame. The issue has swept her up. She wants to make it a priority for people to know about the importance of seeds. And she has high hopes.

“Bringing people together with an interest in a topic is the greatest thing. It’s so rewarding,” Combs said.

Open Sesame: the Story of Seeds will be screening July 24 at 7pm at Metcalf Auditorium. And July 30 at 6pm at William Hall Library. The seed saving workshop will be July 31 at 6:30pm. For more on the film visit  www.opensesamemovie.com.