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Dan Lawlor: Political Leadership Needs a Shakeup in RI

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

 

Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, there is a time to decide when you're in or out. Will you play the game, work around it, or ignore it?

There are many ways to play the game: activist citizen, lobbyist, legislator, campaigner, writer, and organizer.

Yet, the game has a downside. The downside of favors. It's not unusual. Many of us ask for them.

Favors - 'favors for a good guy, favors for a bad luck story, favors for a cousin, favors for my kid' - are not bad. I've certainly benefited from a favor or two. Yet, when the favors disproportionately go to some and not others, the system is out of whack. We need to change it.

Rhode Island has several political cultures: Activist-Radical (left), Activist-Radical (right), Establishment Liberal, Establishment Conservative, everybody else. Tea Party and Progressive caucuses are organized pressure groups trying to influence the direction of politics in the state. Overall, an establishment - of big business and banks, foundations, major institutions, private or selective public schools, public employee union leaders, corporate lobbyists, and political appointees - forms a vague center, connected to the system - to the institutions that help organize, regulate, care for, and employ Rhode Islanders. The establishment perpetuates itself, and tries to bring some order and stability to our lives.

The issue, as I see it, is that the establishment is inbred. The political leaders, the private school alums, the big business lobbyists, the big time union bosses all know each other, and have for years. It's hard to criticize anyone, because you might need a job in a little while. It's hard to speak ill of so and so, because they know your sister's father-in-law. The circles of power are generational - family connections, friendships formed at private schools, memories made in certain neighborhoods. This is not unique or unheard of, but the state of 2012, is not the state of 1972.

There is a gap in opportunity between the leaders of the city, and the residents in it. Angel Taveras' election in the city certainly is a bit of shake up, yet the old guard - as representatives, as lawyers, as lobbyists, as property owners, as long time reporters, remains. There is a politics behind the politics - which is normal. My big complaint is that the old guard needs to start to find ways to bring in new faces - women, immigrants, young people - or the state will lose out on its future.

The mostly male, mostly middle-aged clique of leaders, from Carcieri to Cicilline, who have run this state, unfortunately, have failed us in many ways. The unemployment levels in Providence and Woonsocket are nearly 14%, in many downtowns and villages store after store is empty, ponds are polluted and forgotten, school buildings in Providence and North Kingston are falling apart, libraries are crumbling, but, hey, at the end of the day you can still go to Capital Grille and reminiscence about the good old days.

The game has been played for a long time - back to Stephen Hopkins' political dealings in the colonial era. Yet, this game works best when the players come from all over the state, not just some schools, not just some neighborhoods, not just some cultures. The leadership class needs a little shaking up. For the well-being of our state's future, I hope the institutions that help produce the establishment - newsmakers, foundations, businesses, high schools -- consider who they are bringing in, and what that means for the future. It's not 1972 anymore- though you wouldn't know that by looking at the state legislature.
 

 

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