A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the Democrat candidate for the District 11 seat in Rhode Island’s state senate, Jim Seveney, would be following the path of his father, Gardner, who (from what I can easily tell) held the position in the 1980s. In fact, the legislature dedicated a state garage in Portsmouth to Gardner Seveney in 1986, and if I’m not mistaken, the town’s outdoor sports complex on Glen Farm is named after him, as well.
This gives some sense of the dynastic element of Seveney’s campaign, but a campaign letter he sent out last week begins to fill in the blanks of why he might find it worth continuing the legacy. His wife of 39 years is a public school teacher in Portsmouth, where Seveney has served on both the school committee and the town council. With his wife no doubt nearing retirement and with teacher pensions likely to prove a continuing challenge for the state, Seveney has good reason to transfer his influence from the town level to the state level, beyond the $14,000 paycheck.
A quick online search illustrates how this motivation overlaps with the idea of dynasties. Seveney’s mother worked in the school system, too, and his recently deceased uncle retired as a state employee in the late-’80s.
The candidate’s letter also states that, when he returned to Portsmouth in the late ’90s, he “decided to run for public office to try to give something back to the community that had given me and my family so much.” No doubt, Seveney’s sentiment is sincere, but that doesn’t mean Rhode Islanders should continue accepting such expressions of gratitude from people with a special interest in the offices for which they’re running.
When it comes down to decisions critical to the health of the state, how much will Seveney’s personal investment affect his votes as a senator? According to RIOpenGov, in 2014, the average retired teacher received a pension payment of just under $44,000, part of more than $430,000 that the average retired teacher had already received in payments after contributing an average of $78,000 over his or her career. The average estimated lifetime pension benefit for currently retired teachers is estimated at over $1.1 million.
Even with the most altruistic of intentions, that’s a lot of incentive to see “public service” as rewarding in a more direct way than good feelings and public honors.