Little Rhody's Big Image Problem

Aug 5, 2013

Once again, Rhode Island has embarked on an advertising campaign to raise our state’s flagging self-esteem. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time for us to stop running down our tiny corner of New England.

Back in 1996, when Jack Reed was running his first U.S. Senate campaign, Texas Gov. Ann Richards came to Newport to speak at a Reed fund-raiser. The tart-tongued Texan introduced the vertically-challenged Rhode Island Democrat by saying to prolonged laughter that Reed is proof ``that size doesn’t matter.’’

What's right about Rhode Island, asks Scott MacKay, what about the great restaurants, fresh lobster and miles of beautiful coastline.
Credit file / RIPR

Ok, so we’re the smallest state. And yes, Providence lives in the long shadow of Boston, a world-class city on the cutting edge of a 21-century economy that values education and innovation.  A stubborn recession has left the Ocean State with an unemployment rate kissing 9 percent, one of the nation’s highest.

And we know that the Rhode Island inferiority complex holds way too much sway over our culture and politics, as if our politicians invented bribery and chicanery and our business community is too weak to create jobs.

Now comes the Rhode Island Foundation with an advertising campaign to highlight the good things about the Ocean State. The punch line is ``It’s all in our backyard.’’ That’s a less than subtle twist on the old Rhode Island sport of saying `Not in my backyard’ to anything that might upset the status quo in a state that grasps onto nothing so tightly as doing things the way we always have.

It’s summer, the season when Rhode Island wears its Sunday vestments; a time when the sun is high, the sky alive with whipped cream clouds, the ocean a cobalt blue. As you lay on one of our spectacular beaches, resting to the crash and wheeze of the surf, it might be time to stop taking for granted Rhode Island’s assets.

When you tire of  the dire talk radio and op-ed page warnings of how bad we are, take a look at Bryant University’s latest `What’s Right about RI’ report.

If unemployment is at 8.9 percent, that means 91 percent of us are working. Our state has some of America’s top business brands. Even though we aren’t big enough to be a county anywhere west of New Haven, Rhode Island is home to Textron, CVS, Hasbro, Taco, GTECH, Citizens Financial Group, Electric Boat, the Quonset Port, Washington Trust and Alex and Ani.

Nothing lights up the local TV news and splashes headlines like violent crime. Yet facts are stubborn things:  what they show is that our state is one of the nation’s safest. Rhode Island is 2nd lowest in the nation for gun deaths and has the 10th lowest crime rate.

In this season of fresh corn and steaming lobsters, it will come as no surprise that our state has the largest percentage of farms selling directly to the public. It is just a short ride in a car or on a bike to a Saturday morning farmers’ market.

Everybody complains about our schools, but did you know that Barrington’s public schools were rated 4th in the United States in a Forbes Magazine survey of `Best Schools for Your Real Estate Buck.’

As far as higher education goes, where in America is there a place with a similar population to Rhode Island that has a constellation of such fine colleges as Brown, Bryant, URI, PC, RISD, RIC, Johnson & Wales, the US Naval War College and Salve Regina?

It is true that too many Rhode Islanders take our state’s attractions for granted. Outsiders don’t. It would be nice if there were as many people from Cranston signing the book at the John Brown House as there are from Canada. Where else in the country can you walk streets and view houses that were around in colonial times?

What other place has a state holiday in August celebrating Victory Day, a perfect time to go for a boat ride, put a striper on the grill or slather on the screen and head for Fred Benson Beach.

And what other place has the puckish humor to make a blue bug a state highway icon? Or argue over whether Calamari or stuffed Quahogs ought to be the official appetizer? Or is the home to Family Guy?

As the Providence Foundation rolls out this ``It’s all in our backyard’’ campaign, we’re sure the local satirists will be working overtime. Remember the ``Biggest Little State in the Union’’ ads that sprouted in the early 1980s when Joe Garrahy was governor?

The ink was barely dry on the print ads when bumpers around the state sported ``Biggest Little state of Confusion’’ stickers.