Pension settlement and polls: The 2014 RI Governor's race

Feb 10, 2014

This week brings crucial developments in the 2014 Rhode Island governor’s race: tomorrow a WPRI-Providence Journal public opinion survey releases veteran pollster Joe Fleming’s numbers on the race. Then on Wednesday, the most important new twist comes when the legal settlement in the 2011 state public employee pension overhaul is made public.

Fleming’s poll will be the first to measure the impact of Clay Pell’s entrance into the Democratic primary. While he isn’t disclosing any results, obviously, until his media partners get a chance to digest it (after all they are paying for it) it is difficult to believe that Pell’s entrance hurts anyone but Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

Average voters aren’t paying much attention, but you can bet that Rhode Island’s gang of 500 will be busy parsing the Fleming data. At this point in the nascent campaign, you don’t have to be a political scientist to realize that all the media and the insiders (the Gang of 500) really have to go with are fund-raising totals, endorsements and polling data.

The pension overhaul lawsuit, in mediation for more than a year under state Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, will get even more scrutiny that the poll. That’s because it will become a defining issue in the campaign.

Nobody knows how this will play yet, because as the cliché goes, the devil is in the details. (Judge Taft-Carter enforced a gag order early on all the parties. In an unusual development, there haven’t been any serious leaks to the media). One of the reasons it has taken so long is that the issues are complicated and a lot of state money is at stake. The public employee union members and retirees who took the biggest hits in the pension overhaul are definitely not going to get back such goodies as their automatic cost-of-living allowances.

Yet the unions have to get something back or this would be a serious no-go. One can imagine a scenario where elements of the (solvent) Massachusetts system are copied and the first ,say, $12,000 or so of a pension will be eligible for a cost-living adjustment, but nothing more. Had R.I. adopted such a system years ago, there wouldn’t have been any need for a big pension change. Most of the money savings are in the COLAs, so they can’t be reinstated in full without killing the taxpayer. There are some other issues also could be addressed. For example, the teacher unions are known to be upset at the 62-year-old retirement age provision.

Politically, a settlement that could be spun by Democratic State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo as a reasonable deal for both taxpayers and public workers could be a boon to her candidacy in the primary. She was a chief architect of the 2011 pension deal and was viewed as a strong leader for her work and tireless advocacy.

Yet there is a fine line between being a strong leader and being polarizing. Voters want a strong governor but do not want a polarizer who is seen as a my-way-or-the-highway politician who cannot get anything done. Raimondo can say that she didn’t want to litigate the issue and risk the future of state finances on a court case and that a concrete settlement is best for everyone. This stance ought to help her in the Democratic primary, but may hurt her a bit with conservatives in the general election.

It will likely come down to whether a settlement is seen as a fair compromise or a sellout to organized labor. In some precincts, such as the talk radio yappers, the right-wing blogs, and conservative PACs, a few in the legacy media, and cranky, aging suburban voters, any give backs to workers is a bad deal for taxpayers. But these people are not a nearly a majority of the state and especially not much of a factor at all in a Democratic primary.

Of course, if the settlement is viewed as a giveaway that looks like Raimondo  put her political ambitions  above the interest of taxpayers, that could hurt her. Especially  in a general election where the GOP will hammer her on whatever settlement she supports. Yet, the Republican front-runner,  Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, has followed a similar course in avoiding a pension court battle with his city employees, notes R.I. State AFL-CIO president George Nee.

The best thing a settlement does for Raimondo is tamp down or even perhaps take the pension topic off the table for the primary. When that is added to her big fund-raising advantage over Taveras, it will be a help in the primary. In politics, it is always first things first; if she can’t win the primary there is no general election.

Raimondo has done much to reinvent her image from a Blue-Dog, corporate Democrat into a liberal progressive in the past two months. Getting the pension issue out of the way and the help she is likely to receive from Pell in poaching some Taveras’ support on the left  ought to give the general treasurer another boost.

Taveras will also be making news this week with his annual State of the City address at City Hall tomorrow.

As the Chinese fortune cookie says, the 2014 RI governor’s race appears to be one of those "may you live in interesting times" events.