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Fear Mongering the Constitutional Convention

Don’t let people scare you into what “could” happen at the Constitutional Convention. Vote YES on Question 3 and let’s take this opportunity to fix the government and improve the way Rhode Island works.

Rep. Lally’s Opposition to a Constitutional Convention

My clock for blogging has run out, already, today, but an opinion essay that Representative Donald Lally (D, Narragansett, South Kingstown) sent out through the legislative press office merits a quick response.

The essay, which does not appear to be online, yet, expresses concern about the cost of a Constitutional Convention and about the possibility that “special interests… could hijack the convention and call for changes to the Rhode Island Constitution that actually weaken the rights of the citizens of our state.”  Moreover, he says, “supporters of a Constitutional Convention… tend to also be detractors of the General Assembly.”

While considering Lally’s comments, Rhode Islanders (especially voters in Rep. Lally’s district) should note three things.

First: Lally’s Freedom Index score, from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, was -56.6 for 2014, ranking him 73rd in the whole General Assembly.  According to the interactive Freedom Index Live, Lally’s three-year average score is -60.1, which is handily the worst of any legislator from either town that he represents, including progressive stalwart Teresa Tanzi.

Second: A look at Rep. Lally’s political donors shows he’s got no problem taking money from “special interests.” Here are his top 10 donors since 2002:

  • NRA Political Victory Fund PAC: $3,850
  • RI State Association of Firefighters: $2,700
  • NEARI PAC (National Education Association of RI): $2,450
  • RI Laborer’s Political League: $2,400
  • ATU Cope Special Holding Account (Amalgamated Transit Union): $2,300
  • Brian Goldman (of Goldman Law Offices Attorney/Lobbyist): $2,250
  • NECSA (New England Convenience Store Association): $1,650
  • Realtors PAC of RI: $1,650
  • RI Dental PAC: $1,600
  • Fund for Democratic Priorities: $1,575

It’s enough to make one wonder if Lally’s largest concern is actually that his contributors will have another option for their political donations for a couple of years.

Third: According to the Secretary of State’s candidate list for the General Assembly, Rep. Lally had no competition in his primary and has no competition in the general election in a couple of weeks.

In short, Rhode Islanders who aren’t happy with the laws that Rep. Lally has helped to put in place to weaken their rights and who fear the influence that his special-interest donors have over him have no other option than a Constitutional Convention.

Oversized Signs

Why is one mayoral candidate allowed to flout city ordinances with oversized campaign signs. It’s not the biggest problem facing Providence, but it is indicative of his lack of interest in following laws.

Anthony Gemma, is All (or At Least Some) Forgiven?

Allegations of mail-ballot shenanigans were made, at the very least, in the previous Rhode Island election cycle. In 2012, a private detective hired by Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma produced video of an individual offering to sell completed mail-ballots to a campaign, who was shown with purportedly sealed ballots in his possession as evidence he could deliver. However, according to the Richard C. Dujardin of the Projo, the State Police investigated the case and found some “procedural irregularities, but nothing that rose to the level of criminal conduct”.

One unintended benefit of Buddy Cianci running for mayor of Providence seems to be that people are taking what are at a minimum “procedural irregularities” a little more seriously now. They are now newsworthy in the absence of accompanying video, or maybe on-the-ground sources are a little quicker to drop-a-dime when Cianci is involved…

The state police are investigating possible ballot tampering at the state’s largest homeless shelter after two “official-looking men with clipboards” entered Crossroads Rhode Island on Wednesday and asked residents to hand in their mail ballots — and in one case asked for a resident’s blank ballot. (Tom Mooney, Providence Journal)

A quick memo to the future: If the most recent allegations of vote tampering or voter intimidation turn out to be true, the process should be cleaned up, even in elections where Buddy Cianci is not running and systematic mail ballot “irregularities” or worse are working to the advantage of Democratic candidates.

The Rhode Island state police should also give the public some sense of what would need to happen for prosecutable criminal conduct to occur in this apparently recurring area of Rhode Island get-out-the-vote activity.

Latest on the Central Coventry Fire District Includes Threat by Governor’s Lawyers to Personally Sue Fire Board For Standing Up For Democracy

At the height of election fever, let’s not lose track of the latest developments in the disturbing situation involving the Central Coventry Fire District.

The following report, on “Central Coventry Citizens Taskforce for Fire Protection” letterhead and inclusive of two contact names and phone numbers, was sent out via e-mail this afternoon. It appears that at the Monday meeting and in other venues, Governor Chafee has had no compunction in carrying out the almost certainly unconstitutional order of the General Assembly to the taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District: – an order that could well come to every fire district in the state: No voting; just shut up and pay.

10 News Conference Wingmen, Episode 45 (Secretary of State Debate)

Rob Paquin and Bob Plain discuss a debate between candidates for RI Secretary of State and related topics.

If Not on the Ballot, Where?

Jim Vincent, of the Providence NAACP, quotes the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity in a recent Providence Journal op-ed.  (Naturally, he fails to name his source, because progressive activists aren’t about public debate, they’re about confusing public debate for political reasons.)

Supporters have also suggested that a Constitutional Convention would be a good opportunity to “resolve some thorny cultural issues — one way or another.” Cultural issues have no place on the ballot.

He’s referring to a line, way toward the end of this analysis from the Center, in a section about ways in which Rhode Islanders might use a constitutional convention to “take issues off the table” of the General Assembly, where they come up regularly to distract the public and distort the legislative process.  Most of the points have to do with the operation of government, but here’s the final bullet point:

Resolve some thorny cultural issues — one way or another — though the mechanism that most clearly represents the will of the people

Look, cultural issues have to be resolved.  When the government begins dabbling in them (which it inevitably will do if we let it become as large and invasive as it has become), lines must be drawn by somebody concerning the appropriate scope and, if government is going to take a side, which side it will take.  To people with Vincent’s political philosophy, it’s not a question of whether cultural issues should be resolved within government, but how government should assert authority and make decisions.

In March, Vincent told Bob Plain, of RI Future, that “he will lobby legislative leaders this session to pass a bill that would tax and regulate rather than criminalize pot.”

In other words, the “thorny cultural issues” — which are at the core of defining our society and directing its course for generations — ”have no place on the ballot” because he wants them decided in back rooms by insiders and special interests.  He doesn’t trust the people — black, white, male, female, gay, straight, liberal, conservative — to come to the right decisions, so it’s imperative that their betters — the elite power brokers who’ve manipulated their way into positions of influence — control the system to tell the people what to do and who to be.

Kilmartin’s Gift from the Providence Journal’s PolitiFactRI

Both a statement from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and a related review by PolitiFactRI leave out important context that should have affected the Truth-o-meter rating.

The Providence Journal’s Credibility Problem with Cianci

The Providence Journal’s war against Buddy Cianci feels similar to the battles that the paper regularly conducts against people on the wrong side of its institutional bias.

The Message that’s Opened the Door for Cianci

Boston Globe deputy editorial page editor and Rhode Island native Dante Ramos somewhat misses the mark, in his basic assessment of the Providence Mayoral race…

In Cianci’s Providence, as in James Michael Curley-era Boston or Edwin Edwards-era Louisiana, there’s a sharp divide between good-government reformers and a, well, more instinctive style of politics.

“Instinctive” is an appropriate euphemism for describing Cianci’s brand of politics.

However, “good-government reformers” cannot be used to describe an opposition that’s centered on political players who believe that corruption and mismanagement from a Mayor aren’t issues, as long as they are kept at levels that David Cicilline or Lisa Baldelli-Hunt would tolerate.

Moderation of the General Assembly’s Wrecking Ball

Trends in the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Legislative Freedom Index show the unhealthy attitude of the state’s legislators.

Out-of-State Special Interests and the RI Constitution

We keep hearing complaints that out-of-state special interests are trying to manipulate Rhode Islanders when it comes to our own state constitution.  We hear it from folks like the three special-interest speakers who attended the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s luncheon with Grover Norquist, last week, and managed to grab a good portion of the coverage:

… Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Government, which opposes a convention[, said,] “But today we have the prime evidence that outside wealthy special interests are coming into our state.”

Rodriguez was referring to Norquist, but his own little event did much more to prove his thesis about “outside wealthy special interests.”  As far as I know, of the seventy or so people joining the Center to support the idea of a constitutional convention, only three were from out of state: Norquist and his Massachusetts-resident parents.

It’s true that the special interests with whom Rodriguez was standing were in-state special interests. Kate Brewster of the Economic Progress Institute and Michael Araujo of  the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees were the speakers.  Of the three or four non-speakers at the anti-constitutional-convention rally, I recognized two:  Jenny Norris, the campaign manager for Rodriguez’s group, and James Parisi, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

But the small group wasn’t only representative of in-state wealthy special interests.  Among CRG’s sponsors is Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, which (according to the Providence Journal) donated one-sixth of its initial funding, or $10,000.

Planned Parenthood of Southern New England is actually not a Rhode Island organization.  It operates out of New Haven, Connecticut.  According to the organization’s 990 form for 2013, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England had revenue of $34.2 million that year, with $4.9 million left over after expenses (what some might call its profit), contributing to assets of $28.3 million.

Judith Tabar, its president and CEO received $392,150 in compensation from the corporation and related entities, and the seven members of her executive staff listed on the form each received well over $100,000.

That looks like a wealthy out-of-state special interest, to me.  Meanwhile, actual Rhode Islanders — you know, the in-state non-special-interests — overwhelmingly support a constitutional convention.  I suspect they are who Rodriguez really fears.

The Expanding Nature of Government “Investments”

Here’s the latest word on the major public works program related to the land in Providence formerly occupied by Route 195:

It’s the kind of project the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and state economic leaders have long said they hope to foster on nearly 20 acres of prime real estate. In the spring, [Lawyer Timothy H.] Ehrlich’s team submitted a bid to the commission to create [a biotechnology] incubator.

But after working all summer, Ehrlich is convinced the project needs financial help from the state, and that the help must be more than the life-sciences tax credits outlined in the state law that created the commission.

No doubt a variety of people would jump at the chance to tell me I just don’t understand how these things work.  Government must invest in economic development.  Biotech is a growth sector, and an incubator will attract all those “well-paying jobs” that we hear about.  Every other state is subsidizing this industry.  And yet, somehow Rhode Island will become a hub, even though small and late to the game.  Yadda yadda yadda.

Indeed, the article has Marcel Valois, the executive director of the Commerce Corporation (which was formerly the Economic Development Corporation that invested in 38 Studios), insisting that “the project would ‘absolutely’ help the economy.”

Still, I just can’t get past the plain-language description of this whole process.  The government invested in a project to move a highway because it would free up all sorts of “prime real estate” that could be sold to raise money and make economically productive use of the land.  Now we’re “investing” in the process of luring organizations to the property.  Next, those organizations will need massive subsidies to get off the ground.  And then the start-up companies that this particular project attracts as clients will need additional subsidies to afford its services.

I ain’t a biotech-investment guru by a long shot, but this has all of the common-sense markers of a bad way to go about economic development and all of the common-sense markers of a scheme for empowering government agents and enriching connected individuals.

Timothy H. Ehrlich is, according to Kate Bramson’s Providence Journal article, “very encouraged by gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo’s knowledge and background as a venture-capital investor.”  He’s so encouraged, it appears that he’s given Raimondo’s campaign $1,500 since May 2013, although the campaign refunded $250 of that two weeks ago.

The name on the campaign reports is “Tim Ehrlich,” but the address given belongs to this $1.4 million property in Concord, Massachusetts, which is owned by “Timothy H. Ehrlich,” matching the article.  The article also calls Ehrlich a “lawyer,” and the campaign finance reports list the donor as employed by Boston law firm Gunderson Dettmer, where partner Timothy H. Ehrlich “focuses on the representation of start-up, emerging growth and public companies in the information technology, biotech and medical device industries.”

Democratic Elections Without Roots

Campaign finance filings may provide a clue showing that different candidates (often from different parties) operate in ways that might reflect where they’ve been and what they’ll do.

Matt Fecteau: 1st Congressional District Should Consider Republican for Term Limits

Congressman David Cicilline’s primary challenger asks voters to consider Republican Cormick Lynch in the general election as a step toward term limits.

Beware the Simple Controversy

Folks who pay a whole lot of attention to politics and policy (myself included) can be astonished at things that don’t take off as controversies.  Manipulated studies about casino gambling.  Pension reforms that give the legislature’s authority away to a union-heavy board.  Development of plans that seek to undermine property rights and individual liberty (while using supposed outreach meetings to find local activists).  An unnecessary government start-up healthcare broker intended as a gateway to increasing the people addicted to government programs.

None of that registers, mostly because it’s complex, and there’s too much space between the walls for politicians and insiders to fill with smoke.

Tom Ward highlights the dynamic on a smaller scale, in Woonsocket, with a view from the perspective of a controversy that actually did catch on — Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s political jobs program:

Why was this clumsy move such a bombshell? Because it’s so easy to understand, that’s why. While it may be difficult to decipher funding kindergarten and water treatment plants, everyone understands that their own kids got the short end of the stick. In fact, there are unemployed adults who would have been grateful for the work! They know where they stand with her now, and it’s on the outside, looking in.

What is even more striking is the mayor’s ethical blind spot and lack of any contrition.

Too often, we wait until hubris brings on the obvious corruption.  One can’t help but wonder what it looks like from the politicians’ perspective.  Hey, they got away with all of these huge power grabs and political maneuvers.  A few thousand bucks of straight-up corruption shouldn’t matter if all that didn’t.

10 News Conference Wingmen, Episode 44 (Lieutenant Governor Race & Constitutional Convention)

Justin and Bob Plain discuss the campaign for lieutenant governor and the possibility of a constitutional convention, and (in text) Justin corrects an assertion of Bob’s.

The Code of Ethics Applies to Woonsocket

Following up on Jim Hummel’s discovery of Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s friends-and-family jobs program, the mayor’s actions look like they violate at least three provisions of the state Code of Ethics.  The first is directly in the relevant statute of the Rhode Island General Laws, specifically section 36-14-5(d):

No person subject to this Code of Ethics shall use in any way his or her public office or confidential information received through his or her holding any public office to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for him or herself or any person within his or her family, any business associate, or any business by which the person is employed or which the person represents.

Broadly, the argument can be made that the mayor revived a jobs program to benefit her son.  The argument can also be made that the existence of the program was essentially privileged information that the mayor shared only with her son’s baseball team.

Section (h) of the same statute drives the point home, but would specifically be a violation by the mayor’s son:

No person subject to this Code of Ethics and or any person within his or her family or business associate of the person or any business entity in which the person or any person within his or her family or business associate of the person has a ten percent (10%) or greater equity interest or five thousand dollars ($5,000) or greater cash value interest, shall enter into any contract with any state or municipal agency unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process, including prior public notice and subsequent public disclosure of all proposals considered and contracts awarded; provided, however, that contracts for professional services which have been customarily awarded without competitive bidding shall not be subject to competitive bidding if awarded through a process of public notice and disclosure of financial details.

That isn’t to say that the Lisa Baldelli-Hunt can get away with hiring her son.  Under the regulatory provisions of the code, regulation 36-14-5004(b)(2)(A) addresses this circumstance directly:

No person subject to the Code of Ethics shall participate in the supervision, evaluation, appointment, classification, promotion, transfer or discipline of any person within his or her family or a household member, in the state or municipal agency in which the official or employee is serving or over which he or she exercises fiscal or jurisdictional control, except in accordance with particular instructions and advice received from the Ethics Commission in a written advisory opinion.