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The Importance of Opposition

The indictment of Mattiello campaign contractor Jeff Britt raises an important theme that all Rhode Islanders should think about:  the importance of political opposition:

The investigation dates back three years, to the fall of 2016, when Mattiello was in the political fight of his life against Republican Steven Frias. Mattiello defeated Frias by just 85 votes after his campaign coordinated a supportive mailer from Frias’s one-time Republican rival Shawna Lawton, who had lost to him in that year’s GOP primary.

But for the political pressure from Frias, Mattiello’s campaign would have felt no need to be so brazen.  But for the RIGOP’s pursuit of the matter, the unusual campaign activity never would have become an issue:

As Lawton had only $43.34 in her campaign account at the time, state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell filed a complaint with the Board of Elections questioning how she could have paid for the $2,150 mailer. That led to a two-year, stop-and-start investigation by the elections board, the initiation of contempt proceedings, and now, to the doorstep of the state’s attorney general — and a second look on the now-closed case against Mattiello.

One could go even farther and suggest that Attorney General Peter Neronha has political competition as a reinforcing incentive to pursue these matters.  In this episode, we’re getting faint glimpses of the sort of corrections that would be natural and unexceptional in a healthier polity.

This principle extends across government in Rhode Island.  Political competition keeps politicians honest and ensures that there is always somebody who benefits by looking for better ways to serve the community and respond to constituents.  When everything is locked up in a one-party system with an insider mentality, those in power are freer to serve each other.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Cracks in the Wall of Corruption

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for September 23, included talk a political operative’s indictment, other political operatives’ hemp biz, Block’s complaint against government operatives, Wyatt protesters, and an unpopular governor.

Open post for full audio.

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An Imbalance in the Testimony Competition

Katherine Gregg’s article providing some insight into how political consultants helped IGT get its employees to the State House to testify on its proposed 20-year, no-bid deal with the state provides tremendous insight into the process:

First came a “Dear Colleagues” email from a senior vice president in IGT’s Global Brand, Marketing and Communications division. Provided to The Journal by an employee who asked to remain anonymous, it said, in part:

“As you are aware, this is a critical week for our RI lottery agreement …. Select employees are testifying at the House hearing. But we need as many as possible employees at the State House on Thursday October 3, 2019 …. We are asking employees to bring friends and family along as well.”

The series of emails informs employees that they’ll be able to dress down that day and maybe work from home the next.  It promises reimbursement for parking, instructions on how to secure a seat in the hearing room and move around the State House, and assures participants of a free dinner.

Anybody who has made a go at grassroots organization at the State House will see the value of this — and the imbalance it indicates between special interests and the public at large.  For the public at large, testifying on legislation is a bear.  Where do they park?  When should they arrive?  What should they wear?  The hearing rooms are either frigid or sweltering.  There’s no food other than a vending machine tucked in the hallway (which is none too modern, to my recollection).

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with a private company hiring political consultants and giving employees incentive to support the organization’s mission.  Still, IGT appears to have required managers located in Rhode Island to attend and to have provided amenities of some value to all employees.  At what point should these things be reportable as lobbying activities?  I remember when unpaid Tea Party members were registering as lobbyists simply so they wouldn’t be tripped up.

My preference is to minimize all such regulation of political activity, but consistency and equal application are crucial if we’re going to have it.

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Candidacy as a Corruption Shield

A column by Marc Thiessen in the New York Post and a related post by Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit raise an interesting implication.  Here’s Thiessen:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking foreign heads of state or intelligence officials to cooperate with an official Justice Department investigation.

As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley explains, “It is not uncommon for an attorney general, or even a president, to ask foreign leaders to assist with ongoing investigations. Such calls can shortcut bureaucratic red tape, particularly if the evidence is held, as in this case, by national security or justice officials.”

Taking opponents of President Trump at their word, then, what is the complaint?  Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Joe Biden, whose family is the subject of the investigation, is running for president.  This presents the impression of the current president attempting to dig up dirt on an opponent.

Note one thing, here:  President Trump didn’t put this in the news; a “whistleblower” did, in order to damage him.  The Bidens’ curious activities in the Ukraine may never have become an issue unless there turned out to be evidence of actual corruption on their part.

Put all that aside, though, for the sake of a deeper, nonpartisan question.  Should we be wary of a standard by which it is more difficult to investigate people because they’re running for offices of public trust?  If President Trump had asked the president of the Ukraine for help investigating some corporate interest — an oil tycoon, for instance — it’s hard to imagine very much outcry, especially from the side of the aisle that periodically cites the International Criminal Court as a legitimate authority over Americans.

Of course, this is all academic, to some extent, because we know we’re observing a one-way standard.  Because they’ve done it already, we know that a left-wing president or candidate favored by the news media could work closely with foreign governments to dig up dirt on their opposition and, as Thiessen notes, it would hardly rate as news coverage.  One side’s impeachable offense is the other side’s “just the way it’s done.”

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Freedom… From the Progressive Point of View

Perhaps the most clarifying statement in Rhode Island politics, recently, came from one of the candidates now involved with Matt Brown’s Political Cooperative (which, despite the name, is not an alt-country band):

“Thought I may be the epitome of the American dream I cannot sit around and watch while many of my brothers and sisters are denied a shot at that very dream,″ said Jonathan Acosta, tracing his own story from “first generation American born to undocumented migrants from Colombia″ to the Ivy League.

“I believe that we are not free until we have dismantled structural inequality, developed sustainable clean energy, enacted a $15 minimum wage that pays equal pay for equal work, extended healthcare for all, provide[d] affordable housing, ensured quality public education starting at Pre-K, undergone campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, and implemented sensible gun control,″ said Acosta, running for the Senate seat currently held by Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls.

So, to Mr. Acosta, we’re not free until we’ve taken from some categories of people to give to others, limited people’s energy options to benefit fashionable technologies, forbidden employers and employees from setting a mutually agreeable value on work to be done, taken money from some people in order to pay for others’ health care (as defined by a vote-buying government) and/or put price controls on what providers can charge, placed restrictions on who can live where and what they can build, tightened the regulation of politics with limits on the donations and privacy of those who become politically active, and reduced the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.

If that doesn’t match your understanding of “freedom,” you’re not alone.  Indeed, by its mission, this “cooperative” is cooperating against anybody whose understanding of freedom differs, because it cannot possibly cooperate with anybody who disagrees.  You simply can’t hold a definition of freedom that doesn’t have satisfactory outcomes for the interest groups that progressives have targeted.

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Progressive Regunberg Defames the Working Man

Maybe it’s an echo of my angry-young-man laborer days, but statements like this continue to grate on me:

Former state Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg issued a statement Friday on behalf of Never Again Action: “We are glad to hear that a grand jury is looking into this incident. Our hope is that justice will be served. That means holding accountable the individuals who attacked peaceful protesters with pepper spray and a truck. It also means holding the Wyatt accountable as an institution.”

He continued: “These were Wyatt employees, in uniform and on the job. If they were willing to assault peaceful protesters, in public and on camera, we know that this violence is just a shadow of what happens behind the walls.”

Let’s review who the speaker is, here.  Regunberg graduated from an Ivy League school.  Since graduation, his work appears to extend to progressive activist and legislator.  When he failed to win the lieutenant governor seat (for which he ran with copious help from out-of-state funders), the progressive mayor of Providence gave him an $80,000-a-year job as, it seems, a professional activist to tide him over until he started at Harvard Law.

In short, this is a guy with a golden ticket who is going to be just fine in life.  And here he is saying that he knows the working stiffs at Wyatt are perpetrating acts of violence against the inmates.  Worse, he’s doing so as an official statement in the state’s major newspaper.  Even worse, I haven’t seen anybody, anywhere call him out on it.

Meanwhile, here’s a news tidbit from another prison in Rhode Island:

A guard in the high security unit of Rhode Island’s state prison has been assaulted by an inmate. …

The guard was taken to the hospital, treated for a wound and released.

My 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, taught me not to make accusative statements about people or organizations without more-substantial evidence than “everybody knows.”  Apparently, it’s possible to get through Brown University without learning that lesson, and apparently, it’s possible to rise to the top of progressives’ activist network while exploiting that educational deficit.

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The Essence of Educational Freedom… for Providence Pols

Ian Donnis’s article looking into the educational choices of government officials who live in Providence has received much-deserved attention.  I don’t think anybody has adequately noted how telling it really is.

The upshot is that, out of 38 officials he reviewed, Donnis found only eight with school-aged children, of whom there were 13 between them.  Of these:

  • Four go to private schools (religious or otherwise)
  • Three go to charter schools
  • Six go to regular district schools

That’s not the whole story, though.  One of the children in district schools went to charters before entering high school.  He and one other politician’s child go to Classical, which has been ranked #1 in the state.  Two more go to a particular elementary school, which Erika Sanzi implies is “on the fancy side of town,” with a lottery even for children in the neighborhood.

This scenario illustrates the essence of educational freedom that wealthier families enjoy.  If they are interested in utilizing public schools, they’ll move to specific zip codes for that purpose.  If that isn’t an option, or if the schools change, they apply for charter schools.  If they don’t win that gamble, or if a particular school has an entrance exam and their children don’t succeed on the test, then they’ll turn to private schools.  (I’ve long suggested that charter schools’ introduction was in some respects an attempt to capture those families that were escaping to private schools.)

If we consider education to be as critical as politicians like to claim, then it shouldn’t only be families of means who can make these decisions.

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The Lamentable Process of Rhode Island Reform

During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:

“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools

Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.

On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:

  1. Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
  2. Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
  3. Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
  4. Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
  5. Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.

Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials.  We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.

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The Target of an Ethics Investigation

It isn’t mere pedantry to see something conspicuously off about the Providence Journal headline, “Ethics Commission to probe GOP ethics complaint vs. Raimondo, IGT.”  The Boston Globe might be slightly better inasmuch as it leaves the GOP out of the headline, with “State Ethics Commission to investigate complaint against Governor Raimondo.”

The problem, of course, is that the commission is investigating the governor, not the GOP or its complaint.  As WPRI correctly puts it, “Ethics Commission to investigate Raimondo over IGT deal“:

The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to open a formal investigation into Gov. Gina Raimondo’s dealings with gaming giant IGT in response to a complaint filed by the state Republican Party.

The GOP alleged that Raimondo violated the state ethics code by negotiating a proposed 20-year extension of IGT’s state contact to run lottery and casino games. The Republicans cited Raimondo’s relationship with Don Sweitzer, IGT’s former chairman and current lobbyist, who was tapped by the governor to be treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association. Raimondo is the current chair of the national group.

Tuesday’s vote was an initial step based on the facts put forward by the GOP. “The decision to investigate does not address the validity of the complaint; rather, it merely indicates that the allegations properly fall under the provisions of the Code of Ethics,” the commission’s website says. “Neither the complainant nor the respondent participates in the initial determination.”

This is the sort of detail that used to give conservatives the impression of media bias back in the days before it was open and explicit.  Whether it’s deliberate or an indication of the mental tics of the editors, errors or ambiguous language unfailingly makes it more likely to think the conservative or Republican side of dispute has done something unseemly, rather than the other way around.

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Another Big Casino Player Enters the Ring

News and commentary in Rhode Island have focused on the battle of the two big players in our gambling market.  Casino.org reports that the dispute has attracted another interested party:

The ongoing spat between Twin River Worldwide Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:TRWH) and International Game Technology Plc (NYSE:IGT) regarding the latter’s dominance in Rhode Island’s gaming machine market has a new participant: Scientific Games Corp. (NASDAQ: SGMS).

Scientific Games, one of IGT’s primary rivals, is reportedly in talks with Twin River, the operator of Rhode Island’s two casinos, to bid for Ocean State business. …

Earlier this week, two SG lobbyists met with Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-RI). Mattiello has previously expressed dismay with Raimondo’s dealings with IGT, while questioning whether the governor’s proposal could hold up to legislative scrutiny.

Gambling is big business and, thanks to the government’s having claimed a monopoly, that business operates in a restrictive market that doesn’t spread out leverage very well.  Now that gambling isn’t restricted to lotteries, bingos, and isolated casino districts, the number of players will grow, but they’ll still be big, making every policy change highly political.

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The National Story for the Governor

Michael Graham, who can be credited with ramping up questions about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s dealings with IGT and Donald Sweitzer, is out with another column asking whether the air of scandal that now lingers around her will be good for Democrats elsewhere, especially in swing states:

“[The Democratic Governor’s Association’s fundraising windfall is] great, until GOP oppo researchers in Kentucky and Louisiana start putting together DGA donations to Democrats in those states and the ethics scrap back in Rhode Island,” one national Democratic strategist told InsideSources. The strategist requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Democratic campaigns. …

Veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley doesn’t agree that it’s a problem. “Sure, the GOP will try to make an issue out of it, but in the grand scheme of things, the 2020 election is going to come down to Donald Trump,” he told InsideSources.

And having one of the nation’s most unpopular governors as the public face of the DGA?

“Now that’s a good question,” Manley concedes.

For Rhode Islanders who believe our governor is best predicted, at this point, by her national ambitions, this is a conspicuous trend.  So far, Raimondo’s PR army has managed to get her good press nationally no matter what was going on in Rhode Island.  We’ll see how well that holds as she gets an increasingly real sense of the national stage, where not everybody who has substantial influence is more inclined to be on her side than not.

By the same token, Rhode Islanders who are frustrated with our state’s inability to address its systemic corruption can take a lesson:  Where there are competing groups, there is accountability.

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A Culture of Pay to Play

Yesterday, I suggested that IGT’s $150,000 donation to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) looks kind of quid-pro-quo-ish, given that the organization’s chairwoman is Gina Raimondo, who was at the time preparing a long-term, no-bid contract for the country in her role as Rhode Island’s governor.  WPRI’s Eli Sherman now reports that this instance was actually part of a much more pervasive culture of pay to play:

IGT and Twin River Worldwide Holdings – the state’s leading gambling companies – contributed $150,000 and $100,000 to the DGA through the first half of the year, respectively. The national organization announced Wednesday it raised a record-breaking $19 million during the same period. …

… IRS records show IGT on average has contributed $159,285 each year since 2013, including $175,000 last year and $160,000 in 2017.

For Twin River, the $100,000 it contributed this year marks the first time in at least the last five years the company has given money to the DGA, according to a company spokesperson.

This inevitable mixture of politics and profit is important to keep in mind whenever government gets involved in a line of business, as it is with gambling.  The development of a pay-to-play environment becomes absolutely critical to remember when allowing a state to do as Rhode Island has been doing — involving itself deeply in economic development.  The more central government is in the economy, the more campaign donations increase in importance and the less relevant business viability or the health of the economy becomes.

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Raimondo-IGT Shows Some Campaign Finance Rules Are Good

Having posted this morning on the problem with overly aggressive campaign finance laws, I should point out the latest evidence pointing in the other direction.  This news about casino-game-company IGT’s big contribution to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) shows that some level of transparency is a good thing, indeed, especially considering that the DGA has been bragging about its record fundraising under Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s leadership:

Records show that IGT donated $150,000 to the Democratic Governors Association in the last six months, while Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo was leading the group as chairwoman and former IGT Chairman Donald Sweitzer was serving as treasurer.

The contributions came while the Raimondo administration was negotiating a 20-year, no-bid Lottery contract extension with IGT. Twin River, which has led opposition to the proposed contract extension, donated $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association on Feb. 28.

The association said Tuesday that it had broken its previous fundraising record during the first six months of the year.

Campaign finance regulations can become a way for political insiders to trip up newcomers.  They also allow activists to create the impression of improper relationships based on the likelihood of people knowing each other in a small state like Rhode Island.

That said, the governor’s bringing in a giant donation for a political organization that she leads while also preparing a long-term, no-bid deal with the donor company looks a lot like a quid pro quo.

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Education to Build Sturdier Bubbles

As Glenn Reynolds suggests, news like this isn’t exactly “startling”:

In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%. …

… But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.

Democrats without high school diplomas are three times more likely to understand members of the opposing party than Democrats with PhDs.  That may not actually be that surprising, but one odd finding is that ignorance of the opposition’s beliefs increases as people become more politically engaged.

Of course, we should layer on the caveats.  The questions by which the study collected its data deserve scrutiny, and there could be all sorts of distinctions that might correlate with party affiliation and/or education, such that neither is really a cause of the effect.

That said, the study makes intuitive sense that corresponds with conservatives’ interpretation of modern political dynamics.  Working class Democrats are more likely to be conservative, which would give them more sympathy with Republicans; if you hold a particular political view, for example, you’ll be able to see that it isn’t implicitly racist.  Moreover, at lower levels, occupations are less likely to be a matter of choice, so perhaps those who hold them are more likely to be thrown together with people in similar circumstances who have different political affiliations.

At the same time, education has shifted toward indoctrination, which means that it teaches and prioritizes judgment, not understanding.  This, in turn, changes the nature of political engagement, as being politically active shifts away from an emphasis on addressing real problems and toward the dominance of an ideology.

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A Political Explanation for a Local Contract

Michael Graham offers a national political perspective as an explanation for the strange long-term, no-bid contract that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed for IGT’s video slot machines:

To outsiders, the story sounds like an episode of the TV show “Scandal:” A governor with close ties to a lottery company secretly negotiates a no-bid, twenty-year, $1 billion contract, while the company’s former chairman works as her top fundraiser.

But in Rhode Island, the home of legendary political operator Buddy Cianci, some consider it business as usual.

The governor is Gina Raimondo (D-R.I.), the new head of the Democratic Governor’s Association. The corporate exec is Donald Sweitzer, who until recently was chairman of IGT Global Solutions Corporation, the company that currently has Rhode Island’s lottery and electronic gaming contract.

Beyond the shady politics, Graham emphasizes the length of the deal.  In an evolving gambling market on a rapidly changing technological landscape, can a 20-year contract even conceivably be worthwhile for taxpayers?

Andrew Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank, adds that a 20-year contract, regardless of transparency, also raises questions about whether taxpayers are the priority in this deal.

“Setting aside the question of who the vendors are and what the contract says, the idea of any 20-year contract with the government is a problem, particularly for taxpayers,” Cline said. “It takes the pressure off the vendor to compete and improve. Give them a five-year contract and they know that they’re going to have to find ways to lower costs and improve quality if they’re going to compete.”

What are we getting in exchange for all that fiscal certainty for the company?

Naturally, in Graham’s view, it all comes down to the political ambitions of the governor, with which a guy like Sweitzer could be extremely helpful.  Given new poll results showing Raimondo to be (just barely) the second least popular governor in the country, Raimondo will need all the help she can get.

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