Schaper: Fung, Block, Gina, Pell, Angel of Debt

Friday, January 31, 2014


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The 2014 race for Rhode Island Governor is already off to a rough-and-tumble start.

One the Republican side, we have the first Chinese-American governor-maybe, and on the other side, a former Obama supporter who set up his own party before jumping into the Republican fold once again.

Fung Faces Critics

First, about Allan Fung. The Cranston mayor has admitted to being responsible for accidental death during his college days, from which he was cleared. No malice aforethought, no jail time. He stood before the cameras and told all earlier this month, but let’s be clear: he had told all before when he ran for city council a decade ago, but ProJo didn’t care, then.

The real problems reared their ugly heads late last year. With policemen behaving badly, a couple of disgruntled cops targeted two ward reps in Cranston for voting down a lucrative public sector contract. The ticketing scandal involving Cranston police in key wards has set off critics against Fung, because he launched an internal investigation quietly before soliciting the assistance of the state police force.

Could have done more, should have moved sooner. Such is the price for serving the public, however well or poorly. Talk about a blue wall of silence, coupled with a rising wall of debt.
Fung critics further charge that the mayor is playing up the unions, and even signed onto a contract so lavish for the police force, one wonders why some of the police went on a ticket frenzy in the first place. With incremental steps in place along with more sick days, is Fung giving away the city with the water?

Block: A Moderate Fighter

Then there’s former Moderate Party candidate Ken Block, who ran under his own banner in 2010, and now wants to be a Republican.

A couple of problems: he voted for Obama, twice. Hope and change has not worked for the country. A Moderate who voted for a Democrat, running for Rhode Island as a Republican. Governor Chafee part two? RI GOP Communications Director Michael Napolitano, and a strong support of Chairman Mark Smiley is supporting Block anyway, even though his skepticism was high, high, high:

“I had some questions when I spoke to Ken,” Napolitano shared. “And he gave an easy answer: ‘I made a mistake.’”

Fair enough, but I probed further. Why Moderate-to-Republican Ken Block instead of the Cranston mayor:
“He’s a fighter. He was the first to form a group to end binding arbitration for Rhode Island public employees.” Acknowledging the obvious, Napolitano shared the need for a strong candidate who can stand up to the public sector unions in the Ocean state. “Block has led the fight to remove the Master Lever, which contributes in part to the high Democratic turnout in every election.” The Communications Director then reminded me that Block pushed for hearings in the General Assembly to end the out-dated ballot practice.

One hundred people, left and right, Democrat and Republicans, wanted to pull the Master Lever for the last time.

Napolitano has made his choice. Who will primary voters get behind this year?

Democrats at it Too

Now to the Democrats.

General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat with a conscience (or at least a flair for making sure that the numbers add up) has announced her run for governor. While public sector unions hate her for pension reform, other voices despise her progressive outreach. John DePetro has nice things to say about her, but is anyone listening? At least he didn’t call her a fat you-know-what! And there are no lawsuits pending from Gina to Johnny. It amazes me time and again how leaders will make the right decisions when pressed to the wall, but when running for higher office, they will throw common sense and caution to the wind just to get a vote. Will she stand by her own pension reforms as Governor? Will they survive current legal challenges?

Then there’s Pell Junior--er, Clay Pell--grandson of Rhode Island US Senator Claiborne Pell and husband of Olympic skater and Dancing with the Stars #1 Michelle Kwan. Aside from Grandpa Pell’s political legacy (and higher education grants), I like the wife more than the husband: she was born in my home town, Torrance CA, and she’s a great dancer on and off the ice. Maybe she can teach her husband how to tap-dance through the tough questions and the campaign trials.

Finally, Providence mayor Angel Taveras has thrown his hat into the ring (of fire, frenzy, or whatever). He shuts down city pools, and he placates unions. Taveras may take in less money than the police and fire departments on any given day, but they are doubling down on wages and benefits while taking the city for all its worth. Who will protect us from the protectors, one must ask? Taveras has kicked the can of pension liabilities and city governance into tin can crump with nothing to show for it. And “Angel of Debt” Taveras wants to sit in the Governor’s mansion, too?

Rhode Islanders have an interesting slate for 2014: imperfect, improvident, and unproven. Whoever wins, will he (or she) finally tame the tax-and-spend GA?

Arthur Christopher Schaper is a teacher-turned-writer on topics both timeless and timely; political, cultural, and eternal. A life-long Southern California resident, Arthur currently lives in Torrance. 


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Gina Raimondo Has to Answer When Running for Governor

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10. Money

Can she explain the amount of out of state money?

Most of the candidates for Governor need to answer the question, can they raise enough to be competitive? That is not a problem for Raimondo. She has proven to be the most skilled fundraiser, but her issue is justifying that the vast majority of the money is coming from out-of-state.

Raimondo will face a number of questions regarding who is really behind her campaign - the amount of out-of-state dollars is just one of the questions.

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9. Pension Reform

Did she only reform certain pensions?

Raimondo rose to celebrity status because of her leadership on pension reform. Her efforts helped to stabilize the pension system, but the reform was hardly democratic.

Teachers took the vast majority of the hit, while major groups of pensioners escaped reform including the judges, state police and disability pensioners. Raimondo has some explaining to do.

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8. Lack of Transparency

If she lacks transparency as Treasurer, what will it be like as Governor?

From her deepest critics to the media and even members of the retirement board, many have questioned her and her office's willingness to share information and provide the public insights into her management of the investment commission and the performance of the fund under her leadership.

Data which historically was easily accessed by the public and media is now locked behind the Raimondo wall. Often this raises serious questions and forces the media to seek the simplest information via FOIA requests.

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7. Wall Street

Why is Wall Street spending so much money supporting Raimondo?

Raimondo is the queen of fundraising and so much of it derives from the major players on Wall Street.

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6. Performance

Has Raimondo managed the pension fund competently?

The most important job of the General Treasurer might be the management of the state's retirement fund. The blockbuster investigative piece by Stephen Beale unveiled that the pension system under Raimondo lost $200 million

While she may be able to blitz the airwaves with positive messages about her bio and her leadership in pension reform, her Democratic primary competitors and/or her GOP opponent in the General Election may be able to destroy her credibility by playing up her "mismanagement of the pension system."

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5. Hedge Funds

Will Raimondo pay the price for shifting so much of the assets into Hedge Funds?

For the past six months, Raimondo has been under constant critique for shifting more than 20% of the State's retirement dollars into unregulated Hedge Funds. The critics has included forensic auditor/Forbes contributor Ted Siedle, Rolling Stones magazine's star reporter Matt Taibbi, former General Treasurer and candidate again, Frank Caprio, as well as many of the public unions. The combination of where she gets her campaign dollars, coupled with the shift in investment strategy and the under performance of the fund may all build into a snowball effect.

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4. Connect to RIers

Educated at Yale and Harvard, a Rhode Scholar and a millionaire, can she connect to the average RIer?

Raimondo is a born and bred Rhode Islander, but for her adult life she has been educated at the best colleges in the world and living a professional life aligned with many of America's super rich associated with Wall Street. In her announcement she mentioned a number of times she was a mother, but did not mention that her husband is a partner at Mckinsey - and according to Forbes magazine probably takes home $2 million or so per year.

Raimondo talks a lot about her father losing his job when she was a child, but she has come a long way since then. She could come across as the ultimate RI success story or be perceived as an out of touch venture capitalist.

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3. Siedle and Taibbi

Neither Ted Siedle or Matt Taibbi are going away - can she deflect their questions and charges?

In the past two months, both forensic auditor/Forbes columnist Ted Siedle and Rolling Stone's star reporter Matt Taibbi have raised serious issues about Raimondo's motivation and judgment.

As Taibbi wrote, "The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast."

Read more:

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2. Is she a Democrat?

Will Taveras and Pell paint her to be too conservative?

Raimondo is simply hated by the teachers unions and others - big blocks of voters in the Democratic primary. Both Clay Pell and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will tack to the left and may compete for the same voters allowing her to sneak through to the general. However, progressives and unions may decide to pick Pell over Taveras (who is struggling to raise money and whose track record in Providence may come under fire) and then Pell can take the left leaning primary.

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1. SEC Investigation

Can Raimondo survive an SEC investigation?

Both Siedle and a state senator have written to the SEC calling for an investigation into the investment practices of Raimondo. A federal investigation would be at a minimum a black eye to the General Treasurer and an enforcement action might end a credible campaign. Timing may prove to be everything.


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