Reading this Sunday front page article from the Providence Journal, about consummate Rhode Island insider James Skeffington, one gets the sense of a community-minded figure pulling together beloved public projects:
Friendship, sports, business, government and charity mix together for Skeffington. It’s a recipe that’s served him well through 40-plus years as a corporate lawyer and political adviser.
You won’t find Skeffington’s name on public buildings or laws in Rhode Island, but you’ll see his hand in many high-profile projects.
It could be realigning a Navy base in North Kingstown into a business park, building a convention center and a mall in Providence, attracting a global financial firm to Smithfield, keeping a lottery giant from fleeing to Massachusetts, developing a state airport parking garage or a private retirement home. He’s had a hand in all of these projects.
To bring it back to a Rhode Island cliché, Skeffington doesn’t just know a guy; he’s a guy you wanna know. Of course, it’s not all friendship and charity. Scion of a funeral home–operating family, he’s made himself very wealthy fulfilling his role in the Ocean State’s back rooms. Indeed, the following paragraph could be the pivot point from the pro-government worldview to the government-skeptic worldview:
He joined the Edwards & Angell law firm in Providence after college and made himself an expert bond counsel, later importing to Rhode Island an economic-development tool devised in New York — moral-obligation bonds. Such bonds allow quasi-public agencies to issue debt without voter approval, a provision often criticized by government watchdogs.
The poster child for moral-obligation bonds in Rhode Island is 38 Studios.
It’s an easy principle to forget, as we get caught up in debating one public policy proposal after another, but every time Rhode Island undertakes economic development projects, a small group of people whose names Rhode Islanders don’t know do very well for their personal economies. Bonds, tax credits, development, and public-private partnerships all require lawyers, brokers, dealers, negotiators, advisers, lobbyists, and on and on.
All they have to do to keep their game going is to keep friends in office and voters falling for one scheme after another.