Dan Lawlor: The Carcieri Tragedy

Saturday, June 02, 2012


“Forgive my intrusion but fine as those sentiments sound, Little has changed for us peasants down here on the ground.” - Che from Evita

How fitting that Rhode Island will be the starting location for the national tour of Evita next year. While we certainly have our share of New England Perons (from Montalbano to Diprete, from Harwood to Celona), Don Carcieri may be one of the more curious of late. About a decade ago, he campaigned as strongly pro-business, strongly anti-corruption, and supportive of traditional values. The Carcieri tragedy - the amiable business man, serving as a lobbyist for the public - was that he did not use his talents in ways to unleash productive growth across the state.

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Back in 2002, the state was at a turning point. Myrth York was in her third campaign for Governor, once again securing the Democratic nomination, only to lose the General Election. The William Jennings Bryan of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, York was unable to convince enough Rhode Islanders to support her candidacy. Don Carcieri, a political newcomer, had come on the scene promising to "change the way we do business" and emphasized his lack of inside connections.

Carcieri's first few years were marked by a tumult of activity, and generally was considered successful. The Phoenix had a great piece back in 2006, "Can Carcieri be Beat?", noting several accomplishments and two flaws were noted after Carcieri's first term. The ex-governor responded and coordinated with the tragedy of the Station Fire, supported families of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and began a push to drastically shrink the size of state government. One of his signature moves was the "Big Audit" designed to eliminate waste in government. A supporter of the Separation of Powers Amendment, Carcieri worked successfully to better balance Rhode Island's government, weakening the power of the Speaker of the House. As the article noted, major mistakes included a raid on Narragansett Territory, halting a smoke shop that did not pay sales tax, and a proposed local Homeland Security Bill so egregious in its free speech restrictions that the Journal used their front page to protest it.

In 2006, Carcieri was active in two campaigns – one for re-election, the other to oppose a Narragansett Indian tribe Casino in West Warwick. Despite some slime ball accusations by a former Democratic Party chair (Guy Dufault), and in spite of a strong year for Democrats nationally, Carcieri was successful in both campaigns, defeating his Democratic opponent, Charlie Fogarty (who himself ran on an anti-corruption platform), and watching as the public voted down the proposed Narragansett Casino in West Warwick. For disclosure, I am an opponent of additional casino gambling in RI, and was excited the Governor (and other officials) campaigned against it. I was dismayed when shortly after re-election, after campaigning to prevent the Narragansetts Casino, Carcieri authorized a massive expansion of state-run gambling facilities, specifically creating the current mini-casino that is Twin Rivers. Talk about a bait and switch.

Fresh off his victories in office and against the Narragansetts, Carcieri worked with General Assembly leaders Fox and Paiva Weed to shrink the state workforce, and authorize a tax cut scheme for Rhode Islanders. Aid to cities and towns was also cut drastically. Carcieri hoped this would result in a type of belt-tightening, but instead has resulted in higher property taxes to maintain services.

During his tenure, the Welcome Arnold Homeless Shelter was famously knocked down for a police barracks that was never built, and a new juvenile prison was built that was too small for the existing prison population.

When cuts to social services resulted in fewer translators in Providence Schools, a South East Asian student group, PRYSM, protested, and called the policies racist. Carcieri's wife compared the student activists to terrorists who killed Benazir Bhutto. Carcieri didn't apologize.

By the end of his second term, the happy warrior, out to fight entrenched interests, with visions of growth and development, had morphed into an angry social conservative, bemoaning welfare, Head Start, illegal immigration, gay marriage, and student youth workers. As the state workforce shrank and taxes decreased, the Governor varied between big deal, state-backed visions for change (Wind Farms across the South County Coast!) and firm insistence on tradition (marriage is between a man and a woman). It is remarkable how much of his vision was enacted, sometimes excitedly, by the Democratic General Assembly and its leaders, specifically Gordon Fox and Theresa Paiva Weed.

In some ways, the scattered philosophy of this socially conservative, state-building Governor all made sense. Carcieri had been an international relations major at Brown and had lived and worked in Jamaica doing relief work. Perhaps Carcieri was mimicking developing states overseas, and the structural adjustment policies behind them. Carcieri was shrinking state sector employment, and shifting funds to supporting and attracting large industries. Don't worry about the details - we could be somebody! Just like a developing country with loans from the IMF, Rhode Island was trying to cut back on public sector employees, defund the welfare state, cut taxes, and use state resources to support and fund a business elite. The hope was that dynamic, big-deal state-supported industries (gambling outfits like GTECH, video gaming outfights like 38 studios, environmental projects like Deepwater) and good government policies (Separation of Powers) would propel the state forward, perhaps to become a Singapore of New England.

Remember the excitement when all those now empty condo towers were being built? Remember all the jargon and building models - creating a “Power Block,” “110 Westminster,” towers off Broad St, on Atwells, across from the Hilton, the sky's the limit! In the end, Carcieri and the General Assembly leaders (including one who was running for mayor) shared grandiose visions of Providence as a video game hub, and a suburb of high-income Boston commuters. If it worked, the region would be dynamic for those with the skills to compete. Yet, there are no short cuts to development.

You can't poison the roots, and expect a tree to grow. Carcieri did not invest in computer training in K-12 schools and local colleges to build up the workforce, did not provide easy capital to large numbers of small start ups, did not work to create affordable housing, and did not work to keep property taxes low. Instead of helping more people gain the benefits that had been won by union workers, he helped fan resentment against some of the few workers with middle class wages left in the state. That said, corruption and incompetence by some state workers certainly made the criticism easier.

The outsider (the elite Liberal Arts educated, Business Executive Outsider) had become the insider, wheeling and dealing with the Democratic Assembly leaders he had once scorned, creating a beautiful, state-funded dream. Of course, those funds could have been used to repair all crumbling middle schools, add bus lines in rural and urban Rhode Island, provide start up capital for a plethora of businesses, end chronic homelessness and the like. But why complain? Just listen to the music. Oh, wait. It stopped.


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