John Perilli: The Fallout of Political Retribution
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
This is a quote I heard from former Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean, speaking at the University of Rhode Island in 2011. Until I got deep into studying politics, I did not appreciate what it meant. But during the 2012 election cycle, I learned the serious wisdom of this saying, and it has borne itself out so far in 2014.
The first horns of the 2014 campaign season have been sounded. The horse race is off and running. Rhode Island candidates are declaring left and right, from Democratic candidate for Governor Gina Raimondo on Monday, to Republican candidate for Attorney General Dawson Hodgson yesterday. Before the year is out, we will have heard more than our share of polling data, gaffe dissections, and clever soundbites.
But there are some contentious undercurrents of campaign politics that get less attention. These are the stories of the hiring and firing of staff, the awarding and rescinding of retainers, and the rivalries between powerful insiders. We've had no shortage of these lately.
Angel Taveras, an early Democratic contender for governor, made headlines late last year after three of his most influential staffers––Arianne Lynch, Matt Jerzyk, and Peter Baptista––abruptly resigned. This week, the Mayor's staffing decisions have returned to the spotlight as veteran PR operative Bill Fischer was forced out of a job at the Providence Redevelopment Agency. Fischer had just announced that he would be working for Clay Pell, Taveras's likely opponent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Often, stories like these are dismissed as so much insider baseball. The ugly underbelly of politics that is best left unseen.
After all, political retribution can border on the irrational and the absurd. Candidates might lash out against an operative who wronged them last week, or last decade. Political rivals can duel over a major election, or over just one small line item buried deep in a budget.
The public part of politics is hard enough to stomach. Why should anyone pay attention to this internal bickering?
Because it underscores an important point about why we have politics, period.
Think about this. What do all modern candidates and political operatives in the United States, whether they be Democratic, Republican, Independent or otherwise, have in common?
None of them have been asked to face injury or death in the course of their work.
Candidates and operatives can defame, sue and even fire each other, but nothing more than that. This should not be taken for granted. In less-developed countries with unstable political systems, the penalty for going against the wrong official can be death. Nations like China, North Korea, even Russia come to mind.
Our seemingly ugly and vicious political culture actually serves a purpose. It allows candidates, officials and operatives to do battle with each other, as is often part of their job, without having to resort to physical harm.
Again, I emphasize, this should not be taken for granted. Because there is a dangerously fine line between bloodless retribution and violence.
Politics Gone Wrong
Last week, a bizarre story of political vengeance went to the presses in New Jersey. High-ranking staffers working for Republican Gov. Chris Christie conspired to close two lanes of the George Washington Bridge in an act of retribution against Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mark Sokolich.
This was dirty enough by itself. GoLocalProv MINDSETTER™ Russell Moore offers an incisive look at the damning details. But in the days after the scandal broke, it was revealed that in the ensuing gridlock, first response vehicles were slowed down, and an elderly woman in need of emergency medical care died as a result.
Now, Christie's administration faces an official inquiry into the scandal, as the New Jersey Assembly announced Monday that they would be forming a special investigative committee. The situation has snowballed to a point that Christie directly addressed it in his State of the State address yesterday.
The lesson from this fallout is clear: It does not take much for a scheme of retribution to have real effects on people. This can be direct, such as the bridge case, or indirect, such as a change in military or healthcare policy. In these situations, our political system breaks down, and internal conflicts between officials and insiders boil over and cause collateral damage. Even in our highly developed country, acts of political retribution still have the potential to cause harm.
Politics can bring out the vindictive spirit in the best of us. But we have to remember the purpose of our political system: to keep us from killing each other. So when an intrepid candidate or a brave staffer wants to challenge a fellow operative, they should not have to take their life, and others' lives, into their hands. Only their own reputation.
Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s Most and Least Popular Politicians
The statewide poll conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in October 2013 is the latest public opinion survey by the Ivy League institution.
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