Scott MacKay Commentary: Of Raimondo, Immigrants And Road Signs

Sep 22, 2017

Political scientists recall a time when elected officials campaigned for office, then laid off the political pitches while they governed. RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay says those days are long gone.  

The next gubernatorial election is more than a year away, but Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is already kicking off what looks like a campaign. According to an internal email the governor is set to celebrate her 1,000th day in office on Oct 2. She’s planning a campaign-style blitz.

The memo, obtained by the Providence Journal, says the governor plans to travel from Westerly to Woonsocket and wants every cabinet member to plan at least one event to highlight her administration’s accomplishments. The list includes a lower unemployment rate and pet programs such as fixing roads and bridges and giving more students access to computer science.

Then there are those big blue “RhodeWorks” signs that hype the progress of highway projects across the state.  They feature the governor’s name emblazoned across the bottom. This was too much even for the Federal Highway Administration, which pays the bills for most of the state’s surface transportation. It turns out that federal regulations bar such promotion of public officials at taxpayer expense.

Welcome to the permanent campaign. There was a time when there was a clear boundary between campaigns for office and governing. When the campaign was over, public officials settled into their jobs and didn’t actively begin campaigning until say, six months or so before an election. Incumbents often held off making formal reelection announcements so they could maintain they were focused on their jobs and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get involved in the boastful thrust-and-parry of electioneering unless it was close to an election. Besides, it gave incumbents an excuse from answering partisan rhetoric from opponents. They just said I’m too busy serving the people to waste time on political posturing.

Nowadays, that border is like a line in the sand – drawn at low tide. Everything is parsed every minute by a 24/7 news cycle sired by the Internet and cable news outlets. On cable news, its often hard to tell who is more partisan, the news honchos or the pols. Wendy Schiller, Brown University political science professor, traces the permanent campaign style to the 1990s, when Republicans in the U.S. House, led by Newt Gingrich, used every opportunity, even during congressional sessions, to get on cable television and launch partisan salvos.

Raimondo says she’s only trying to combat what she sees as the “negativity” that suffuses Rhode Islanders. You can decide whether that’s disingenuous. Republicans have, of course, blasted Democrat Raimondo for use of state officials to tout her accomplishments.

Perhaps the only mistake she made was tactical. You can argue that her communications director, Mike Raia, broke the old Boston political adage, often attributed to a long forgotten ward-heeler named Martin Lomansey. It goes like this: If you can wink without saying it, wink. If you can say it without writing it down, say it. Raia put it in an email, that got leaked to the media. Lomansey, of course,  died long before digital communication.

Raimondo has recently taken a stand on a tough issue - immigration. She and number of non-profit groups have raised about $170,000 to cover the renewal fees for Ocean State residents who are eligible to renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. There are 1,200 of them in Rhode Island.

These are children who were brought to the United States unlawfully by their parents, often as toddlers.  They are now threatened  with deportation by President Donald Trump.

Raimondo has also allowed these folks to get free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island. She has called Trump’s threat to deport them “cruel and unusual.”

Allan Fung, Cranston’s Republican mayor, lost to Raimondo in 2014 and is planning to run again for governor. Fung, too, supports DACA, says his spokesman. The mayor is asking the city council to approve a resolution backing up his stance.

Sometimes, good policy translates to good politics. Let’s hope the next gubernatorial election hinges on substantive issues such as this rather than road signs.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our ~On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org