The timing was purely coincidental, but it's hard to imagine a sharper contrast in leadership styles than what Rhode Island saw this week from Governor Lincoln Chafee and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.
The ball got rolling when Chafee was asked during a taping of 10 News Conference about Ken Block's inquiry into waste and fraud in state government. The independent governor hedged on releasing the report even as he asserted good intentions and a desire to look out for taxpayers. The story quickly took on a life of its own, with Chafee's unwillingness to release the report as the focus.
To say this could have been handled better by the governor is an understatement. The Block report should have been a positive (trying to root out waste and fraud) for Chafee. There was a way to talk about it, and to finesse the issue of its full or partial release, without it becoming a flap. Instead, it became a self-inflicted wound and a contrast to the governor's stated belief in transparency.
That's why Chafee played catch-up by holding a press availability, releasing a copy of Block's report and related materials Wednesday afternoon (by which time much of heavily Catholic Rhode Island was focused on the selection of a new pope, as it happens).
For a contrast, consider the "Moving the Needle" legislative package released Tuesday by Senate President Paiva Weed and her leadership.
Sure, the General Assembly is late to the task of wrenching Rhode Island out of an economic downturn that began more than five years ago. Yes, it was semi-comical when Paiva Weed praised the lack of partisanship in the Senate, considering the paltry representation of Republicans. (And Chafee has been a stalwart cheerleader for same-sex marriage, in comparison with the deliberately oblique mode still in use by Paiva Weed). Yet it's still noteworthy that the Senate unveiled a broad policy initiative meant to add jobs and improve outside perceptions of the Ocean State's business climate.
Effective public leadership involves identifying goals and implementing the strategy to reach them; that's why Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras are the two best-liked pols in Rhode Island. And Paiva Weed set a new course by championing the "Move the Needle" report released in January and following up with the broad legislative package this week.
She didn't go fuzzy when asked what results should be expected by Rhode Islanders, pointing to lower unemployment and better standings in business rankings. Paiva Weed also took some ownership when asked the level of support for her legislative package from Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox:
“We are well aware that the end of this session what we will be judged upon is what steps we have taken to improve the economy, to improve our workforce and to move Rhode Island forward.”
(When asked by reporters after her presser about the Block report, Paiva Weed handled the queries with ease, framing waste and fraud in social programs as a problem that extends well beyond Rhode Island. With her neutral remarks, she avoided becoming part of the story.)
Chafee marches to the beat of his own drummer. If people are looking for an economic game-changer from the governor, they're bound to be disappointed. Like a mantra, Chafee repeats his view that investing in education, infrastructure, and workforce training, and stabilizing Rhode Island's cities and towns, will lead the state to better days. He sometimes gets a bit frustrated with reporters (or others) who don't appreciate the wisdom of this approach. History may show the value of his efforts, his integrity is unimpeachable, and yes, there are some glimmers of better days ahead in Rhode Island.
Yet public communication is a central part of public leadership. Unless Chafee takes that to heart, he may continue to bear the brunt of poor approval ratings.