Scott MacKay Commentary: Gov. Raimondo Needs To Heed Her Own Advice

Apr 1, 2016

Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks with reporters last Friday about the state's marketing campaign.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

  Controversy over the new tourism slogan "cooler and warmer" put Rhode Island in the national spotlight last week. On Friday, Gov. Gina Raimondo responded by dropping the slogan and backing away from an earlier comment that Rhode Islanders should stop being so negative.

RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says that was good advice.

As last week’s new tourism promotion disaster brought Rhode Island more bad national press, Raimondo lamented the attitudes of too many Ocean Staters.

"We have to get past this persistent negativity," the governor said. "The negativity has held Rhode Island back for a long time."

Then she urged us to be "positive and optimistic."

Ok, so we’re New Englanders and we’re direct. Few in Providence and nobody in Boston cares whether you’re having a nice day. We are a parochial and provincial speck of a state. Outsiders say the only thing colder than winter in New England is the people.

But the job of a governor is to lead, and on many issues Raimondo has been a needed breath of fresh air. On the tourism mishap,  not so much.

Growing the tourist economy has laudably been a Raimondo priority since her 2014 election campaign. So where have she and her commerce secretary, Stefan Pryor, been on the roll out of this expensive mess?

Last September, Wade Gibson, Pryor’s chief of staff, was warned in a letter by a prominent Rhode Islander from the Warwick Providence Convention and Visitors Bureau advisory board. This person spoke to RIPR via email on the condition of anonymity.  The point: lacking resources over the years, the state’s tourism database had become woefully out of date, a fact that was certain to be revealed with the rollout of the new tourism campaign.

Well, that’s precisely what happened to the web site that was riddled with misinformation and inaccuracies.

The criticism hasn’t only come from Rhode Islanders or the local media. The Boston Globe, the region’s most influential media outlet, called the tourism rollout a "public debacle." That’s not the kind of publicity a state that wants to attract visitors needs.

Raimondo is busy and can’t pay attention to every detail of state government. But one would think she would have been excited enough about the new tourism campaign to personally take a look at the web site. Among her political confidantes are stellar public relations experts, such as Jon Duffy, president of the Duffy & Shanley p.r and advertising firm, and Barbara Cottam of Citizens Bank, who the governor tapped to chair the state education board.

The companies that put this campaign together are all from outside the state. Why wasn’t a local firm hired to oversee the web piece? There is no shortage of competent advertising or graphic arts folks in the Ocean State.

Raimondo also has no dearth of fine  local people in her administration. If the outsiders she hired to head commerce or as her chief of marketing  aren’t familiar with Rhode Island yet, why not run the project by a seasoned state official such as Administration Director Mike DiBiase?

Some of the media criticism has been silly. As usual, talk radio leads the pack. Who cares whether the marketing czar, Betsy Wall, knows about the Gaspee Parade. That’s more a local pride celebration than tourist destination. It isn’t filling downtown hotels.

Rather than hanging Wall out to dry, the governor and Pryor should have issued a heartfelt apology to the taxpayers and promised to fix this mess. This entire project needs a serious reassessment. There is scant promotion of some of the state’s greatest assets, especially our colleges and theaters. The last time I was at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket I sat next to a couple from Boston. Trinity Rep and PPAC also draw from outside our state's borders.

Then there is the more existential part of political leadership. I’ll never forget an interview with former Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond shortly after he took office. He was asked if he was going to continue his campaign theme of criticizing inefficiencies among state employees.

Almond’s retort – There’s a time to campaign and a time to govern. ``Now, I’m the CEO of 15,000 state employees and I’ve got to work with them.’’

If Raimondo wonders where the negativity in Rhode Island starts, maybe it’s  time she looked in the  mirror. Since taking office, Raimondo has criticized the General Assembly for putting  budgets  together in the dark. She has also hammered away at our broken schools, our poorly trained workforce and depicted our transportation infrastructure as the nation’s worst. Are we really much different from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or other states with bad infrastructure?

This 'everything-that-happened-before-I-got-here-was awful attitude' is not worthy of such a smart and talented politician as Raimondo. 

Perhaps she could dial down the hubris and stop pointing fingers. Instead, start taking responsibility and lighten up a bit. Don one of those "Rhode Iceland" T-Shirts that are making the rounds. Or have the tourism folks offer a paid vacation in Rhode Island to an Icelandic skateboarder who wins a contest.

Providence is definitely warmer than Reykjavik in winter. And we’re cool too.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow Scott’s political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org