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John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Heeding Block’s Call for Bold Actions

Monday, March 03, 2014


Ken Block has a plan to “fix” Rhode Island. The software engineer, entrepreneur and political maverick held a press conference last week at Taco to roll out his ideas to the media. Calling himself an outside “fix it” agent for change, he outlined a serious of concrete steps to lower the cost of government, make the Ocean State more competitive, and return money to every Rhode Islander. It was an impressive presentation and it challenges his opponents in the governor’s race to be as specific in their own behalf. (Block says, being traditional establishment politicians, they lack such detailed plans.)

Better on his feet responding to a peppering of questions than in his opening remarks, it also became clear that Ken Block is a going to be a formidable debater. The guy’s very smart; asked about whether he would support a call in a constitutional convention for county style government for Rhode Island, he said he would prefer to focus on less sweeping but more realistic changes like reforming the crazy patchwork of fire districts and then proceeded to demonstrate how much he knew on that arcane subject.

Tax reductions

He is proposing to decrease the car tax, reduce the corporate tax, eliminate the annual minimum corporate tax of $500 for new businesses in the first two years of operations, reform the estate tax by increasing the tax exemption threshold, and improve the capital gains tax exemption by exempting any capital gains realized on new investments in RI-based businesses.

He proposes cutting the costs of the state’s wasteful TDI program by half, saving $80 million annually, and reforming the deficit-ridden unemployment insurance system by refining the definition of seasonal employment. He claims we can save money and improve efficiencies at the DMV by simply eliminating old-style employee paper time cards. He even wants to experiment with lowering the sales tax by creating a reduced sales tax zone in a border community.

Block supports holding a constitutional convention, which voters will be voting to authorize or not come November, as a means to rebuild fairness and trust in government. Specifically, he wants to enhance the chief executive’s power through the grant of a line-item veto. He wants to re-empower a weakened Ethics Commission and abolish the master lever, which he and I advocated last year, as did many others, to no avail.

RI "going out of business"

The backdrop to Ken Block’s agenda, and the reason for his urgency, is of course the woeful state of the state. He describes Rhode Island as a state “slowly going out of business” and more pointedly – are you ready? – the “national hall of shame” because of the scandals and mismanagement that’s gone on. Whether Rhode Islanders, who can’t help themselves when it comes to reelecting the same politicians who have so ill-served them in the past, accepts his bluntness will be tested in the campaign ahead. He could get labeled as the negative, half-empty candidate.

But I think he’s right and we need to heed his call for bold actions. This state is a like a plane that is gradually losing altitude and our leaders are not alarmed by the alerts going off; the governor says things are getting better every day and the House Speaker says the agenda on Smith Hill is to keep things steady as they go. Block mentioned Detroit in his opening remarks; it’s not inconceivable that Rhode Island could land in the same situation when we start losing $100 million or more a year to Massachusetts’s casinos and a nearby Plainridge slot parlor, on top of everything else that’s dragging us down.

I was not endorsing Ken Block by providing him space in my building to present his plan nor I am endorsing him in this column. But I do think he’s a very substantive candidate who voters need to get acquainted with and take seriously. We could use a governor with entrepreneurial ideas and experience. We could use a governor who is not willing accept the status quo as our options dwindle in front of us.

Back in 2002 I hosted a gubernatorial debate at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick with all the candidates (a race that Don Carcieri eventually won), so I have a record of providing a forum for the presentation of candidates’ ideas. Before Ken Block presented his proposals at Taco, Allan Fung announced his candidacy in the same room. Likewise, if any of other candidates would like to use our space to present their ideas on how to save Rhode Island we’d be happy to host them as well. In the interest of informing the public about the most important issues facing the state, I’m an equal opportunity promoter.

To see a full presentation of Ken Block’s Let’s Fix RI plan, go to www.kenblockforgovernor.com.


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Block Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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10. Can Block convince voters he is more than a third party player?


To win in the GOP primary, Block is going to need to convince GOP primary voters that his ideals align with the fundamental beliefs of the Republican Party. 


He did get a political gift.  As GoLocalProv reported - Blocks opponent in the GOP primary, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has been a consistent donor for a decade to many of the top Democrats in the Party.


Both Block and Fung will be challenged to explain their GOP credentials.

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9. Is Block too much of a techno-candidate?


Block, the founder of a software company, love to talk about technology solutions to public policy problems. He is going to have to define his solutions to problems in a tangible way.  Often, voters connect to simple themes, "Hope and Change" or from "Head Start to Harvard." 


Block is going to need to be able to show he can connect to all Rhode Islanders - we are a retail political state.

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8. Can Block raise money?


Block has demonstrated he is serious about running - he has already invested $500,000 of his own money to win the GOP primary, but he will need an estimated $3 million to win the primary and General Election next November.


To date, his fundraising base has been small and while Fung is no Gina Raimondo in fundraising, he does have a modest Republican fundraising base.

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7. Will Block defend the behavior of National Republicans?


If 15 months from now Ted Cruz works tirelessly to close the federal government over the implementation of Obamacare, will GOP Governor Ken Block speak out on the issue? 


Will Block praise or criticize Cruz? In the primary, conservative voters may want him to praise Cruz and in the General election, the majority of voters may want him to condemn Cruz.

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6. Can Block attract RI GOP leaders?


A few weeks ago Fung announced an advisory group of prominent Republicans.  The announcement gave Fung's efforts some momentum. Block would pick up a lot of credibility if he were to peel some Fung supporters over to his team.


In addition, a number of leading Republicans have yet to make an announcement - if they break to Block it may create momentum.

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5. Can Block connect with voters in the General Election?


Assuming Block beat Fung in a GOP primary and went on to face a progressive Democrat like Providence Mayor Angel Taveras or rising star Clay Pell, can Block work the Greek Festival in Cranston or the Scituate Art Festival as well as these Democrats?


Will undecided voters connect to Block?

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4. Will Block's lack of previous elected office help or hinder?


It can be argued that never having been elected before could be perceived as a negative.


Sure, Governor Don Carcieri was never previously elected to office and Governor Bruce Sundlun had only been elected to the state's Constitutional Congress, but voters may want to be sure that Block will know a federal emergency declaration from a new software version - or will each new storm be deemed Sandy 2.0 and so on.

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3. Is Block the smartest guy in the room?


Make no mistake about it, Block is smart. Business smart, policy smart, but could he be too smart and then not be able to connect to voters.


Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar (so was Gina Raimondo), but one thing about Bill Clinton was that he could play the role of a good ol' boy as good as anyone. He could make any voter feel right at home.


Block will need to channel his intelligence into a language and approach that connects to the CEO he is asking to support his effort as equally as asking a unemployed mom in Pawtucket.

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2. How will he handle the plethora of special interests?


This time Block will have to answer the questionnaire from the FOP, the Right-to-Life groups, the Environment Council, MADD, the Teamsters, The Northern RI Chamber of Commerce, NEA-RI, arts advocacy groups, the NAACP, and you get the picture.


Consistency will matter. One group's endorsement will spark another groups condemnation. Mr. Block, welcome to the 2014 governor's race.

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1. Can he handle the hot lights?


The one thing about being the third or fourth candidate in a race is people remember the smart things you said, but don't pay much attention to the dumb things you said. Heck, you really didn't have a real chance to win so the assessment is not very stringent.


This time will be different. He needs to run not one but two nearly flawless races to be the next Governor of Rhode Island. His effort in 2010 will help him, but this time he has a real chance to win and the stakes are much higher


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