The Rhode Island governors’ race is getting underway. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the campaign’s negative start doesn’t bode well for voters seeking a serious discussion of state issues.
It’s a Rhode Island axiom that alls fair in love, war and politics. With ten months to go before voters choose a governor, the silly season of negative campaigning has started even before major league pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
If the early rhetoric is a prelude, voters are going to get fed up before the Bristol July 4th parade steps off. Take Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is seeking the Republican nomination for a rematch of his 2014 election loss to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Fung’s first verbal salvo was a web video ad blaming Raimondo for a spate of shootings in Providence. The mayor invoked his Providence childhood, claiming the city was safer when he as a kid. He says Raimondo has a “terrible” track record on crime.
Fung said he is “shocked at how dangerous our state has become under our current governor.” His evidence? Nothing, except quotes from two Providence Journal editorials that criticized the state Department of Business Regulation for overturning Providence Board of Licenses orders closing down rowdy city nightclubs.
Crime, like death and taxes, will forever infect society. As is the case across the nation, local television news too often hypes violent crime to churn ratings and make the news appear to be a Law and Order segment.
But when it comes to Providence, one has to wonder just what Fung is talking about. FBI statistics show violent crime in the capital city dropped 50 percent between its peak in 1991 and 2016, the most recent data year. There are gang-related shootings in struggling neighborhoods and random acts of violence, yet overall Providence is a much safer city than others of its size in the northeast.
Even if there was an increase in violent crime, wouldn’t that be the responsibility of city Mayor Jorge Elorza and his police department?
Raimondo’s team responded to Fung with a campaign thrust, saying the mayor’s move “was straight out of Trump’s playbook.” The governor didn’t take the high road and fight the accusation with facts.
While Fung was wrong, it’s difficult to put Raimondo on a pedestal on this issue. In 2014, when she faced off against then-Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Raimondo launched a nasty direct mail flyer blaming Taveras for shootings in the city.
Then there are the Republicans attacks on Raimondo’s relentless fund-raising and the millions she raked in from big donors outside Rhode Island. The governor is sitting on a campaign kitty of more than $3 million. Yes, gobs of this money is from rich folks who live north of Woonsocket and south of Westerly. If you think none of these donors want anything from state government, you believe in the Easter Bunny.
It would be nice to able to say that Fung takes the high road on this topic. He doesn’t. In 2014, Fung took more than $700,000 from the Republican Governors Association. That money didn’t come from people waiting for a table at Twin Oaks.
Worse was that the 2014 Fung campaign was bolstered by a Ohio-based nonprofit called the Mid America Fund, Inc., which poured more than $500,000 into attack ads against Raimondo. The donors backing Fung in that effort have never been identified. Democrats complained about the lack of disclosure, but state election officials never got to the bottom of the matter. RI Board of Elections campaign finance director Richard Thornton called the lack of a investigation an “oversight.”
The sad aspect of campaign finance is that in the Citizens United era, it has become nearly impossible to track down dark money. This isn’t your father’s Watergate campaign finance law. The scandal now is that what was once illegal is now legal.
Hopefully, the rhetoric improves. Rhode Island has serious issues – the economy, taxes, health care, education, infrastructure and poverty. Voters deserve a discussion of these topics, and others, such as whether a public subsidy for a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium is a worthy idea.
We deserve better than a pageant of acrimony.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:4 5 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