Scott Avedisian is leaving after nearly two decades as Warwick’s mayor. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay caught up with Avedisian last week on his final day in office.
In Rhode Island political circles, Scott Avedisian was known as “mayor for life.” The longest-serving mayor in his city’s history, he is leaving to become executive director of the state’s public transit agency, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
He first won in 2000, after then-Mayor Lincoln Chafee was appointed a U.S. Senator , after his father, Senator John Chafee, died.
Avedisian had served nine years on the city council when he was elected mayor. Since that victory, he has never had a close election. A Republican Protestant in a city of Democratic Roman Catholics, he has been successful despite never having a city council controlled by a majority of his party.
As he leaves office, he has gained kudos from some unusual sources. Democratic State Chairman Joseph McNamara, usually a sharp-elbowed partisan, called Avedisian “a great guy and dedicated public servant who leaves Warwick in a strong position for the future.” Democratic House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi of Warwick praised him for running the city in a bipartisan manner.
Bipartisanship, once a hallmark of pragmatic politics, has become a dirty word in today’s divisive and fractious politics. About the only thing worse than being termed bipartisian nowadays is to be labeled a compromiser.
Avedisian came of age in a different era, in a Republican Party where moderation was seen as more virtue than vice. At age 14, he became a Senate page in Washington, where he learned from Sen. John Chafee, the quintessential New England moderate.
After returning to Warwick, he came under the influence of Lila Sapinsley of Providence, another Republican who was state Senate minority leader. What he learned from them and other moderate Republican mentors, including Gov. Lincoln Almond, was simple.
“When you’re in the minority, you’ve got a choice,” says Avedisian. “You can object to everything and be partisan and get nothing accomplished. Or you can work across the aisle and get something done.”
Avedisian also laments the lack of collegiality in today’s attack-dog political culture. He recalls a time when U.S. senators didn’t spend every weekend raising money or pumping hands at manufactured events in their home states. They stayed in Washington, socializing and getting to know families of colleagues from the other party.
He noticed that John Chafee was friendly with Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat. What he learned from watching moderate Republicans working collegially became an axiom: “it’s hard to hate someone you know,” Avedisian says.
As mayor, he followed those early lessons and grafted pragmatism onto his bipartisan philosophy . He recalled when negotiations with the airport corporation and Warwick city officials became heated. “When things got tough, I just said let’s take a break and go get dinner.”
Avesidian is most proud of saving the former site of the Rocky Point Amusement Park from condos and preserving it as a public park on Warwick Neck overlooking Narragansett Bay.
He disdains the Rhode Island political shuffle, in which pols avoid raising property taxes in election years. Warwick increased taxes a little every year. He made pension contributions on time. He believes that taxpayers appreciate fiscal prudence.
His biggest disappointment is that he couldn’t get the city council to agree to establishing a plan to ensure that retiree health care insurance would be covered years into the future.
While some Republicans often encouraged him to run for state or federal office, he never did. He liked being mayor because you can view tangible results. Looking out his office window, he can see the new traffic pattern and historic preservation initiatives that have revived the historic Apponaug village.
As his party veered right, he worried that he would lose a primary in a Trumpian, Tea Party era. “I’m not sure John Chafee could win a primary nowadays,” said Avedisian of a senator who proposed banning the sale and manufacture of cheap handguns.
Avedisian is 53, the prime of many a political career. Yet, he’s become a dinosaur in today's Republican Party.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can follow his commentary and political analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org