Scott MacKay Commentary: We're Trying To Keep Politics Focused On Issues. Will You Help?

Jul 2, 2014

You may be fed up with Rhode Island politics. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says now is no time for Rhode Islanders to retreat into a cocoon of apathy.

Rhode Island Statehouse

It’s the high season of summer in our corner of southeastern New England. A time of blue skies, fluffy whipped cream clouds and sun-washed surf. It’s what many of us consider our best season. Proust had his madeleines. Rhode Island natives have our childhood memories stirred by plates stacked high with steamers, saugys and clambakes on the beach.

Yet this summer is no time to take a vacation from Rhode Island politics. You may feel, justifiably, chagrined, even disgusted with some recent events in our state’s civic culture. There is nothing like federal agents raiding the house speaker’s Statehouse office to turn Rhode Islanders off to our state’s politics. Love him or loath him, there are plenty of us who think they are living in a twisted rerun of the cinematic Groundhog Day when Buddy Cianci is once again a candidate for Providence mayor. In a city of 180,000 people do we have to go back to a politician twice forced from office by felonies?

In this summer of discontent, it’s time to engage our democracy. The voting booth is the only place in our society where each one of us, wealthy or struggling, Mayflower scion or newly sworn immigrant citizen, is absolutely equal. Even if you don’t have the means to write a campaign check, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved for a cause or candidate you care about. Campaigns are always in need of people power to turn out votes and turn in mailings.

The 2014 elections are crucial because there are choices to be made at virtually every level, from United States senator to school committee. All of the state’s 113 General Assembly seats are at stake, even if about half of them are running unopposed. There will be important referenda on ballot too, from building a new engineering school at the University of Rhode Island to deciding whether Newport will have a full-fledged casino.

All of the statewide offices are up for grabs this year, beginning with the governorship, where there are spirited campaigns on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots on September 9. The Democratic ballot features three major candidates who are relative newcomers to Rhode Island politics, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and former White House aide Clay Pell. On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Barrington businessman Ken Block face off in the primary.

Over the years, representatives of Rhode Island’s business community and a bevy of unelected elites, including good government groups, led by Common Cause of Rhode Island, have tried to usher change to our state from the top down. Through Statehouse lobbying and voter referendum, they have successfully pushed into law and the state Constitution a number of well-intentioned changes.

These include cutting the General Assembly from 150 to 113 members; cutting legislative prerogatives by instituting a Separation of Powers constitutional amendment; increasing terms for governor and other statewide elected offices from two to four years; eliminating legislative pensions; and establishing a state Ethics Commission.

The Internet revolution has also introduced more transparency to the Assembly, a traditionally opaque branch of government too often run by the mores of the 19th Century. It is far easier to keep track of lobbying and campaign finance in the Internet era.

These are fine moves. But none of them has led to overarching change in the way our government does business. For good reason; change imposed from the top down is never as permanent as initiatives developed from the bottom up.

What Rhode Island’s recent history and occasional bursts of corruption prove is that there is no substitute for an aroused electorate. Voters who care put fear into the hearts of politicians, many of whom don’t like to deal with large turnouts of the unfamiliar.

Here at Rhode Island Public Radio, we are trying to do out small part. Tomorrow night,  (July 8) from 7 to 8 o’clock, we will be broadcasting live a special political roundtable with the Democratic candidates for governor. Next week, the Republican gubernatorial candidates will get the same opportunity.

One way you can get engaged in the discussion in this crucial campaign season in Rhode Island is to send us questions that you would like us to ask the candidates. Just send them to and we’ll consider using them on the programs.

We’ll try to do our best to inform voters about the issues. Won’t you try to help us?