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Dan Lawlor: Political Corruption is Nothing New to Rhode Island

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Rhode Island's politics have been corrupt for centuries. In 1904, the famed muckraker Lincoln Steffens decried Rhode Island as a "State for Sale, cheap."

Corruption is not new to the Ocean State. In the 18th Century, an unholy mix of slave traders and privateers made Rhode Island home. In the 19th century, through vote buying, militias, and demagogues, rural Republicans and WASP factory owners formed an alliance that legally disenfranchised the majority of the state (immigrant, Catholic and Asian workers) while stalling efforts at social reform (ie 48 hour work week, anti-child labor laws, etc).

State-level political districts from one hundred years ago were drawn to undermine the voting power of Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants. Republican bosses actively worked to cultivate French-Canadian political figures, notably Aram Pothier and Emery San Souci, to divide Catholic voters, and weaken the state's Democratic Party. Unfortunately for the workers, the animosity among ethnic groups (Irish v Italian, White v Black) contributed to the ease with each Republicans were able to maintain political control.

Boss Brayton (after whom Brayton Point is named after) was a thuggish, 19th Century political character who ensured that Rhode Island's General Assembly had an over-representation of rural Republican voters. Effectively, a minority of the state's population controlled the path for the majority. Rhode Island in 1900 was an urban, Catholic-majority state, ruled by a rural, Protestant Minority, and was a place where many people died from illness, worked long hours with little pay, and went to bed hungry.

One hundred years ago, the RI Senate was under mandated equal representation to all cities and towns, resulting in Providence and Foster having the same representation. This disproportionate power to rural areas gave the Assembly an anti-urban bias. By the 1920s, KKK rallies were held in Northern RI, Catholic Churches burned in Northern RI, English-only language laws (much to the consternation of French-Canadian immigrants) were passed, and most efforts at social welfare reform were still being stunted.

Leaders Fail to Encourage Diverse Economy

William McLaughlin, in a brilliant little book on RI history, noted how the efforts and supporters of T.F. Green and other Democratic leaders (alongside the national desperation brought on by the Depression), switched the state from Republican to Democratic rule in the 1930s. This was accomplished through questionable vote tallies in two contested towns, and the dismissal of the Republican appointed RI Supreme Court. Of course, this was several years after the Republicans had hired a Boston thug to unleash a smoke bomb in a General Assembly meeting discussing reform. More legislation in support of worker rights and welfare was passed shortly after the Democrat's rise to power.

Unfortunately, going back to the early 1900s, both Republican and Democratic leaders failed to encourage a more diverse economy. (That is hardly unique - consider the old rust belt cities in upstate New York). Rhode Island was wedded to the industrial factories, and little effort seems to have been made to diversify the state's economy, even as factory owners began to move south to make more profit (before moving overseas, to do the same). The factory closings (and mall openings) left empty downtowns across the state. The failure of Republican and Democratic leadership in the post-war 20th Century to diversify the state's industries set us up for a Detroit style decline in the 1970s and 1980s.

The loss of industrial jobs were not replaced by other high-paying positions, and schools have not produced or inspired enough people to create new business. At the same time, dozens of businesses have left the urban cores for suburban areas, requiring millions in infrastructure to develop lands, electric lines, sewers, and roads for these growing populations. For instance, why did Navigant build its nice, new headquarters in rural Smithfield, instead of, say, already developed downtown Pawtucket, which has ample office space?

Alongside the industrial decline of Rhode Island were the twin evils of ethnic bigotry and gangsterism. From the Patriarca Crime Family to the race riots of the 1960s, from the destruction of hundreds of working class homes and businesses for the highways and Rt 10 to the ongoing health hazards from industrial pollution, from the Naval Base Closing to the expenses of building suburbs- this state has been hammered with challenges of a changing time.

The tragic-comic rough and ready of Rhode Island politics has left us with many hurt people, lost jobs, and empty hopes. Leaders who betray the public trust don't deserve it. The solution is simply not to switch from one party's rule to another (locally, all parties have some decent people and some deadbeats), but to hold officials, individually, accountable for what they have done or not done to support the health and wealth of our community and their neighborhood.

Politics certainly can't fix everything, but, when held accountable, it can be a support for a healthy community. Paranoia is not going to get us very far. I'm hoping we see a few new faces in next year's Assembly - along with new, imaginative ideas to make little Rhody work better.

Perpetually, our motto is hope.

I'm not losing mine.

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