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Donna Perry: Why Jon Brien Matters

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Taxpayers in Woonsocket will get the chance to right a wrong –or write a wrong-- in less than two weeks when they go to the polls. Ousted House Representative Jon Brien, who was overtaken in September’s Democratic Primary battle against firefighter candidate Stephen Casey, is back on the ballot on November 6. Brien is waging an energetic write-in campaign to retake his District 50 seat, urging taxpayers that if they don’t want to see their city’s shaky financial condition grow worse, they need to be ready to use a pen when they go to vote.

The saga of why union interests sought to prop up the firefighter candidate Casey and take Brien out in the Primary is pretty predictable stuff at this point. Brien has repeatedly and visibly stood up to union excesses ranging from contracts and pensions to hallway behavior in court houses, and in many instances in between. He represents a centrist, even conservative breed of Democrat in the state, and he’s hardly alone. But his style of unapologetic defense of the taxpayers’ best interests, whether in his home city or statewide, has made him not only a notable figure in the reformer ranks, but also guaranteed the placing of a target on his back.

He has played visible roles in advocating for reforms to public employee compensation and pensions in the Legislature in recent years. He served on the House Special Commission on Municipal Finances in 2011, which produced a report depicting 24 of 36 local pension plans in trouble. During deliberations over the landmark 2011 statewide pension reform legislation, Brien noted his own cash strapped city would save $6 million this year alone from the changes. When Governor Chafee put forward his ill-fated Municipal Relief bill package, which called for contract and pension changes in local cities and towns, Brien was a co-sponsor of some of the measures.

But the event that truly propelled Brien into his most notable “line in the sand” public moment—and many believe triggered the highly contentious political fight that he now wages--- centers around last spring’s widely covered battle over a proposal to enact a 13% supplemental tax on Woonsocket property owners. Brien joined fellow lawmakers Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Robert Phillips to block Mayor Leo Fontaine’s proposal for the steep tax increase as a way to make up a $10 million School Department shortfall that had the city literally running out of cash.

But the controversial tax required General Assembly approval and the city’s delegation would not advance it. That battle led to the city’s present status as having a state appointed Budget Commission-- but not a Receiver—overseeing finances and it’s become clear that public union concessions are needed going forward. Brien maintained that no bargaining unit would “give an inch” if the tax hike had been enacted and the budget got balanced. He is certainly correct, but for stating that truth and holding his ground, he now has to canvass the city in his write-in campaign to regain his seat.

In recent weeks, his campaign has attempted to educate the voters about his opponent and the self-interest driven nature of his candidacy. The campaign points to which entities are financially propelling Casey, noting that while Brien has put $12,000 of his own resources into the battle, at least $12,000 of Casey’s war chest has come from public union PAC donations. On it goes.

The broader view is that Woonsocket, like many aging communities in the state, has a proud heritage where most residents once owned homes, ran local businesses, and raised families in a close-knit and vibrant community. But shifting demographics, the erosion of the local manufacturing industry and overall shrinking business opportunities, combined with mounting local public pension plan debt and bloated local city departments have taken their toll, and by last spring, a runaway school department budget was all it took to bring the city to the brink of fiscal collapse.

Those who seek to silence and sideline voices like Jon Brien’s may believe they’ve achieved a victory if his effort comes up short November 6th. But perhaps Woonsocket voters need to go ask Mr. Casey and those bankrolling him what spoils they believe they can extract going forward from a fading city? If Jon Brien’s brand of fearlessly advocating for tough, but necessary choices does not prevail on Election Day, it will represent a much wider loss for Woonsocket than one individual’s defeat at the ballot box.


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