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.
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.
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.
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.”