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Gary Sasse: Gubernatorial Leadership—The Defining Issue in 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


The 2014 gubernatorial election has the potential to be a watershed event, believes Gary Sasse.

In 2020 will the Ocean State’s economy be characterized by 4% unemployment, plenty of skilled workers and an attractive business climate? Or will it have more in common with a “third world” economy? The answer to these questions will be influenced by the person elected to be Rhode Island's next Governor.

The 2014 gubernatorial election has the potential to be a watershed event. It can go a long way to determine how we solve the problems of stubbornly high unemployment, a shrinking labor force, transformational demographic changes, a decade of fiscal imbalance and deep-rooted self-doubt.

In choosing the next Governor voter’s should focus like a laser on the question. Which candidate has the greatest potential to tell it like it is and be an effective and visionary leader? In making this judgment the people of Rhode Island need to assess each candidate’s understanding of the context in which he or she must operate, his or her ability to set priorities, how they will choose senior staff as well as their approach to fiscal responsibility.

Effective Governance

The National Governors Association (NGA) observed that to successfully move an agenda a governor must “Know the rules. Know the players. Know the field of play.” During the campaign try to evaluate each candidate’s understanding of the environment in which he or she must work. An effective governor must make sure that his or her policies are not only articulated but that they are adopted and implemented. Executive experience is an important asset. At this point in Rhode Island’s history there is no time for “amateur hour”.

Candidates for high public office sometimes base their positions on the findings of public opinion polls. As a result they may promise simple solutions to complex problems. The people of Rhode Island deserve better leadership on the issues that affect their daily lives.

Effective candidates must lead by demonstrating an understanding of the fundamental causes of a problem and offer evidence-based solutions. Campaign promises that do not include transparent and measurable outcomes should not be taken seriously. Those that aspire to be Governor should tell Rhode Islanders where we are, where we need to be and how we are going to get there. It is that simple.

When governors try to do too much they usually end up doing nothing. Effective governance requires focus and concentration.

The importance of prioritizing

The NGA’s Office of Management Consulting and Training noted “Governors bring two critical resources to the table: time and political capital.” These are finite resources; therefore, effective leaders have to set a limited number of priorities.

Articulating priorities during a campaign may be politically difficult. Special interests tend to feel slighted if their “pet project” is not included in a candidate’s platform. Persons seeking high public office must demonstrate that they can make tough choices and sometimes say “no”.

The NGA’s Seminar for New Governors stresses the importance of limiting the number of gubernatorial priorities. Governors serving as Seminar faculty recommend “that new governors select no more than three to five priorities.” Beware of candidates proposing ten point programs. Implementation of ten priorities is not practical and it may represent nothing but political pandering to gain votes. According to United States Senator and former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander the governor’s role is to “see the state’s few most urgent needs, develop strategies to address them, and persuade at least half of the people that he is right.”

Gubernatorial Staff

There was a saying in the Reagan White House - “Personnel is policy.” Governors are only as effective as their staffs. Senior appointees are a governor’s primary asset as well as his or her greatest potential liability. A governor’s staff is responsible for interacting with the General Assembly, state agencies, media, local governments, and the business, labor and advocacy communities.

It would be a breath of fresh air if each gubernatorial candidate would disclose the type of staff that they intend to recruit. Don’t the voters have a right to know? As Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal “Political operatives intoxicated with victory think that they can get away with anything.” Roll out of the ObamaCare health exchange and the New Jersey “bridgegate” scandal are two of the most recent examples.

Holding the candidates accountable

As stewards of the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollar candidates should provide fiscal notes to show how they will finance programs included in their platforms. During the campaign taxpayers should demand that all candidates discuss the tools their administration plans to use in dealing with Rhode Island’s structural budget problems while financing their campaign promises. Such tools might include the following: enterprise solutions, private-public partnerships, reorganizations, reducing fraud and abuse, shares service agreements and employee initiatives.

Rhode Island’s next Governor will be in a unique position to mobilize the collective talents and energy of all interests to address the challenges that the State faces. To achieve this, all the gubernatorial candidates must articulate a clear vision of effective public leadership and how it will function.

As written in the Book of Proverbs “Where there is no vision the people perish.”


Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Gina Raimondo Has to Answer When Running for Governor

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10. Money

Can she explain the amount of out of state money?

Most of the candidates for Governor need to answer the question, can they raise enough to be competitive? That is not a problem for Raimondo. She has proven to be the most skilled fundraiser, but her issue is justifying that the vast majority of the money is coming from out-of-state.

Raimondo will face a number of questions regarding who is really behind her campaign - the amount of out-of-state dollars is just one of the questions.

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9. Pension Reform

Did she only reform certain pensions?

Raimondo rose to celebrity status because of her leadership on pension reform. Her efforts helped to stabilize the pension system, but the reform was hardly democratic.

Teachers took the vast majority of the hit, while major groups of pensioners escaped reform including the judges, state police and disability pensioners. Raimondo has some explaining to do.

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8. Lack of Transparency

If she lacks transparency as Treasurer, what will it be like as Governor?

From her deepest critics to the media and even members of the retirement board, many have questioned her and her office's willingness to share information and provide the public insights into her management of the investment commission and the performance of the fund under her leadership.

Data which historically was easily accessed by the public and media is now locked behind the Raimondo wall. Often this raises serious questions and forces the media to seek the simplest information via FOIA requests.

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7. Wall Street

Why is Wall Street spending so much money supporting Raimondo?

Raimondo is the queen of fundraising and so much of it derives from the major players on Wall Street.

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6. Performance

Has Raimondo managed the pension fund competently?

The most important job of the General Treasurer might be the management of the state's retirement fund. The blockbuster investigative piece by Stephen Beale unveiled that the pension system under Raimondo lost $200 million

While she may be able to blitz the airwaves with positive messages about her bio and her leadership in pension reform, her Democratic primary competitors and/or her GOP opponent in the General Election may be able to destroy her credibility by playing up her "mismanagement of the pension system."

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5. Hedge Funds

Will Raimondo pay the price for shifting so much of the assets into Hedge Funds?

For the past six months, Raimondo has been under constant critique for shifting more than 20% of the State's retirement dollars into unregulated Hedge Funds. The critics has included forensic auditor/Forbes contributor Ted Siedle, Rolling Stones magazine's star reporter Matt Taibbi, former General Treasurer and candidate again, Frank Caprio, as well as many of the public unions. The combination of where she gets her campaign dollars, coupled with the shift in investment strategy and the under performance of the fund may all build into a snowball effect.

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4. Connect to RIers

Educated at Yale and Harvard, a Rhode Scholar and a millionaire, can she connect to the average RIer?

Raimondo is a born and bred Rhode Islander, but for her adult life she has been educated at the best colleges in the world and living a professional life aligned with many of America's super rich associated with Wall Street. In her announcement she mentioned a number of times she was a mother, but did not mention that her husband is a partner at Mckinsey - and according to Forbes magazine probably takes home $2 million or so per year.

Raimondo talks a lot about her father losing his job when she was a child, but she has come a long way since then. She could come across as the ultimate RI success story or be perceived as an out of touch venture capitalist.

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3. Siedle and Taibbi

Neither Ted Siedle or Matt Taibbi are going away - can she deflect their questions and charges?

In the past two months, both forensic auditor/Forbes columnist Ted Siedle and Rolling Stone's star reporter Matt Taibbi have raised serious issues about Raimondo's motivation and judgment.

As Taibbi wrote, "The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast."

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/looting-the-pension-funds-20130926#ixzz2o2bLhqKW

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2. Is she a Democrat?

Will Taveras and Pell paint her to be too conservative?

Raimondo is simply hated by the teachers unions and others - big blocks of voters in the Democratic primary. Both Clay Pell and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will tack to the left and may compete for the same voters allowing her to sneak through to the general. However, progressives and unions may decide to pick Pell over Taveras (who is struggling to raise money and whose track record in Providence may come under fire) and then Pell can take the left leaning primary.

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1. SEC Investigation

Can Raimondo survive an SEC investigation?

Both Siedle and a state senator have written to the SEC calling for an investigation into the investment practices of Raimondo. A federal investigation would be at a minimum a black eye to the General Treasurer and an enforcement action might end a credible campaign. Timing may prove to be everything.


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