Russell Moore: Christie, Taveras and Fung—Politicians Gone Wild

Monday, January 13, 2014


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According to Russell Moore, there are two ways to deal with Mayor Taveras—you can play ball, or not. Kneel at his alter, or suffer the consequences.

A word to the wise: take cover when politicians go bellicose.

Because as New Jersey Governor Christ Christie, Providence Mayor Angel Tavearas, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung have demonstrated, when politicians don’t get their way, the innocents will be collateral damage.

It doesn’t matter if you were sitting in hours and hours of extra traffic on the way through New York City last September, or an underprivileged child in inner city Providence who couldn’t cool off on a sweltering summer day, or someone who was just minding their own business in Cranston trying to get by and got a parking ticket—those with the least culpability pay the heftiest price when egomaniacal politicians go nuts.

While New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is taking some serious heat nationally, let our hearts not be troubled Rhode Island, we take a backseat to nowhere when it comes to political scandals. Anyone paying attention to what’s been going on in Providence or Cranston understands this fact.

The political world was shocked like the hotel manager in Casablanca last week when emails uncovered by New Jersey's The Record showed that top staffers to Chris Christie admitted to intentionally causing massive traffic jams on The George Washington Bridge to enact revenge on the Fort Lee mayor who declined to endorse their boss. A politician taking vengeful action against a rival? The horror! I’d like to welcome everyone to Rhode Island.

How they think

What made the New Jersey scandal so eye opening was the audacity of the comments made by Christie top aides. The statements made by his top staffers were nothing short of myopic, arrogant, and to put it bluntly, disgusting. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote his now former Deputy Chief of Staff. In a separate message referring to the fact that children would be stuck in the ensuing traffic on school buses, David Wildstein, who headed up the Port Authority, replied "they are the children of Buono voters," referring to Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic opponent in the New Jersey election last year in which he prevailed easily.

Give them two points for honesty—it’s how these people actually think.

Cartoonish language aside, Rhode Islanders unfortunately shouldn’t find the situation surprising given what’s gone on in Providence and Cranston lately. Just like Christie in New Jersey, Rhode Island mayors Angel Taveras and Allan Fung have found themselves entangled in scandals thanks to mismanagement—at best. Both men want to be our next Governor, just for the record.

Give Taveras and Fung credit on one point—at least their subordinates weren’t stupid enough to record their actions digitally in emails or otherwise where they would be stored for all posterity. But while the Taveras and Fung administrations have retained plausible deniability, it’s pretty clear that their actions were every bit as vindictive and petty as Christie’s gang of henchman.

Taveras’s heavy-handed tactics

Like Christie, Taveras ran for office in 2010 as an outsider and on a platform of reform. While that kind of rhetoric might have been useful in getting himself elected mayor, his time in office has resembled the days of Boss Tweed more than some progressive reformer.

Earlier this spring, the Providence city council passed a budget by a razor-thin margin. The budget raised property taxes while simultaneously raising the pay of the mayor’s top staffers. It was a good thing for city hall insiders, but for taxpayers….well, not so much. Given those facts, it wasn’t an easy budget for city council members to support.

A Tale of Two Councilmen

There are two ways to deal with Mayor Taveras—you can play ball, or not. Kneel at his alter, or suffer the consequences. City councilman John Igliozzi figured this out rather quickly. Up until last budget season, Igiozzi had been, by and large, a critic of the Taveras administration.

But curiously, Igliozzi supported the budget. The situation became clearer a few weeks later when Igliozzi’s brother David was appointed a municipal judge.

Not everyone on the council had opportunism in mind. Providence Councilman Davian Sanchez just said no. Sanchez claims he was told, in no uncertain terms, that if he didn’t vote for the budget, the Davey Lopes pool, located in his ward, would be closed.

Pool Politics

The rest is history. Sanchez voted against the budget and the pool was closed. The message from the Taveras administration was direct. Go along to get along and you’ll be rewarded. Go your own way, and there will be consequences.

This wasn’t some isolated incident either. Just last week Golocalprov reported that an official at the Rhode Island Urban League was told by the Taveras administration that they saw no reason to help out the struggling agency due to the fact that the agency has a councilman on its board of directors who voted against the Taveras budget last year.

Parking ticket-gate

Taveras’ good friend and former Classical classmate Allan Fung hasn’t exactly been the poster boy for good government either. Given that he’s been long supported by Cranston’s Police Union, Fung gave his supporters a sweetheart deal. When the deal died at the city council, a message was sent: do what Fung wants…or else.

The contract gave the police union raises of a whopping 11.25 percent over three years. It would have cost Cranston’s already over-taxed residents a cool $1 million per year. Given those facts the Democrats on the council said “no thank you” to be super generous with their constituent’s money.

Wash, rinse, repeat

It’s a pretty cool concept (if you’re not a taxpayer). The union supports the politician’s campaign. When the politician is elected, he then uses the public treasury to payback the union for its support in the form of a generous contract. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Except when you get too greedy, the city council might get in the way.

Almost immediately after, police officers went on a ticket writing spree throughout the wards of two of the council members who said no. (Two of the council members who voted no were at large members.) It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this was retribution.

Bungled, waffling response

To say Fung’s response to the situation was milquetoast would be quite the understatement. At first he was confident in allowing an internal investigation to take place. As if the allowing the officers to investigate their own union brothers avoided the appearance of impropriety. He also refused to dismiss the tickets.

But last week, after pressure from the city council as well as the RI Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Fung caved to pressure and announced that he was allowing the state police to take over the investigation. Referencing “new allegations” He also placed police Chief Marco Palombo on paid leave while the state police investigate.

It remains to be seen what Fung’s involvement was in the ticket scandal. Did he order the tickets to be written, or was it merely a case of police officers who felt comfortable going rogue? At the very least, Fung has fostered a culture in Cranston where police officers felt comfortable doing what they did.

How can the mayor of Cranston be objective and a proper boss to the police union when they’re the people, in no small part, who catapulted him into office? If it doesn’t sound like a conflict of interest, I’m not sure what would.

Innocent Bystanders

In all three recent instances of scandals, there’s a common denominator. It’s the innocent people who suffer when politicians go to war. The message is loud and clear—give the powers that be, the strong, if you will, what they desire, and you’ll be fine. Fail to do so and there will be consequences not only for you, but for your constituents.

And we wonder sometimes why people are disgusted by politics?


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A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments.


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Taveras Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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#10 Fundraising

Can Taveras Keep Up with the Big Boys and Girls in Fundraising?

In America today, one issue that is a factor in nearly every election is fundraising. To date, Taveras has yet to demonstrate any consistent ability to keep up with the leading fundraisers in RI.

Taveras will have to compete with General Treasuer Gina Raimondo, who has $2 plus million on hand and a likely run from Clay Pell (grandson of US Senator Claiborne Pell and whose wife is Olympic skater Michelle Kwan).

Raimondo is on pace to raise $5m and Taveras presently has just $692,000 on hand and would be on pace to raise less than $2 mliion. 

Pell's family has access to nearly limitless dollars - back in the 1990's Pell's grandfather was ranked as one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

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#9 Curse

Can Taveras Break the Providence Mayor's Curse?

For more than 60 years, no Providence Mayor has been successful running for Governor of Rhode Island. You have to go back to the 1950 election when Dennis Roberts was elected Governor.

Since Roberts, a number of Providence Mayors have taken their shot at running for Governor and each has failed mightily.

Most notably, Buddy Cianci's run against J. Joseph Garrahy - Cianci got less than 30% of the statewide vote.

Joe Paolino was expected to win the Democratic primary in 1990, but was beaten badly by Bruce Sundlun and then Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty.

Sundlun went on to win the general election and Flaherty was later named to the state Supreme Court.

Taveras will have to break a very long curse.

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#8 Hire or Fire

Can Teachers Trust Taveras - and Will Voters Trust His Relationship with the Teachers Unions?

In the midst of the city's political meltdown, Taveras just into his first few months in office fired all the teachers in Providence.

Taveras received strong public support, but within months he capitulated to pressure from the teachers' unions.

Three years later, he is emerging as the candidate of the teachers' union leadership. Will teachers trust him in a statewide race and will voters trust him if he is perceived as too close to union bosses?

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#7 Hispanics

Will Hispanics Vote as a Block in the Primary for Taveras? Are They Influential Enough in the General?

Conventional wisdom is that Angel Taveras will get a big boost from the Hispanic voting block in the primary, but more recently Council members Luis Aponte, Danian Sanchez and Sabina Matos have all openly battled with the mayor on his tax increases and efforts to close pools in low income wards around the city.

While Taveras can rebound and the impact may be large in the primary, the percentage of voters who are Hispanic in the general election is just 7% according to Pew Research:

  • Rhode Island’s population is 12% Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic population share nationally.
  • There are 54,000 Hispanic eligible voters in Rhode Island—which ranks 35th in Hispanic eligible voter population nationally. California ranks first with 5.9 million.
  • Some 7% of Rhode Island eligible voters are Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic eligible voter population share nationally. New Mexico ranks first with 39%.
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#6 Temperament

Can Taveras Handle the Campaign Pressure and the Office Pressure of Governor?

Taveras had no experience as a chief executive in business or government before taking office in 2011 in Providence. He has increasingly gotten into some very non-productive scrapes.

In 2012, his law office delivered a document to GoLocalProv as part of a FOIA request and those documents included the social security number of every retiree of the City. Instead of taking responsibility he sent his lawyers to court to try to block GoLocal from writing about the mishandling of social security numbers. The judge ruled against Taveras.

In 2013, Taveras has tried to demolish a commuity swimming pool in South Providence because, according to Councilman Danian Sanchez, Sanchez would not vote for Taveras' tax increase.

Will Taveras be able to prove to voters he has the right stuff?

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#5 Base outside Prov

Can Angel Taveras Build a Political Base Outside of Providence?

While Taveras has a strong political base in Providence, it is unclear if he can build a strong political network in critical Democratic strongholds like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence.

It is well known that both Democratic Mayors in North Providence and Johnston have had a strained relationship with Taveras.

This strain has played out over critical matters like mutual emergency aid and in 2012, North Providence, Johnston and East Providence all cancelled emergency aid compacts with Providence.

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#4 Women Voters

Can Taveras Compete for Women Voters?

When Taveras ran for Mayor he won the critical block of East Side Democratic women. Part of his success with this critical block of voters was the support he enjoyed from Democratic power Myrth York. 

The two-time Democratic nominee for Governor went all in for Taveras in 2010, but she no longer is active in the inner circle and reportedly would have supported Governor Lincoln Chafee in the primary.

Taveras will need to compete with Raimondo who has already signed former EMILY's list bigwig Kate Coyne-McCoy.

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#3 Star Power

Can Taveras Keep Up with Clay Pell's Star Power?

In 2010, Taveras ran under the motto of "from Head Start to Harvard."  His claim on the American dream proved a successful juxtaposition to two Democrats who had the same political base - Federal Hill (Steven Costantino and John Lombardi).

Now, Taveras may face the fresh-faced Clay Pell. His bio exceeds Taveras as he can claim the legacy of his grandfather's work and hit the circuit with his superstar wife, Olympian Michelle Kwan.

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#2 Issues and Vision

Can Angel Taveras Articulate a Vision for Rhode Island?

Taveras earned good scores for managing the City of Providence's financial crises, but never seemed to develop major policies for economic development, schools, parking, crime, reducing the cost of government or improving the efficiency.
The Superman building's closure happened on his watch, technology company Dassault Systèmes is moving out of Providence, and no major employers were recruited into the city other than the scrap yard on Allens Avenue.
Taveras will need to define a forward looking vision for Rhode Island.
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#1 Crime and Education

Can Taveras Explain His Record on Crime and Education?

The biggest problem for Taveras is his record in Providence.
Most people care about the basics - their jobs, education for their children, how safe their neighborhood is.  These vary questions could be Taveras' Achilles' heel.
According to GoLocal's study of the FBI crime data, Providence is ranked #2 for violent crime per capita in Rhode Island.
The condition of Providence's schools may be worse. Of the 24 schools ranked as poor (de facto failing) in Rhode Island by the Department of Education, 6 of them were Providence Schools and in the rankings of the best high schools in the state, most of Providence's schools consistently litter the bottom of the rankings.
Taveras lead the city to win the $5 million Bloomberg award. But in a Governor's race one of Taveras' opponents is sure to ask, "Mr. Mayor, are you going to bring the same policies you used on crime and education in Providence to the rest of the state?"

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