A self-styled outsider gets cold shoulder at the Statehouse

West Warwick, R.I. – Michael Pinga grew up working in the family business, Westcott Baking Company, in West Warwick. So he's very familiar with the details of commercial bread baking.

"We refrigerate some of the dough, the product, at night, and then we bake it off this afternoon," Pinga says. "That's Italian bread, French bread, all different kinds of rolls, and this is our big walk-in freezer. We keep some product on hand in case customers forget to order."

The vast majority of state legislators are lawyers, teachers, and union employees - so as a professional baker, Pinga is something of an anomaly on Smith Hill.

His days begin shortly after 3 am in the bakery - but that doesn't stop him from getting to late afternoon Senate sessions.

"Fortunately for me, I'm able to take a one- or two-hour nap every day, so that refreshes me," Pinga says, laughing, "so when I go up there I'm pretty fresh."

Two years ago, Pinga launched his successful upstart campaign for the state Senate. He says the General Assembly needed more "working people" like him - and that he was fed up.

"I thought back then we needed some change," Pinga says. "We needed some good people in there, not looking to promote themselves or special interests or self-interest."

So Pinga, a Republican-turned-Democrat, challenged eight-term Senator Stephen Alves, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Alves was under investigation by the FBI in a corruption probe, and Pinga pounced on him as a back-room dirty-dealing pol. In a three-way race, the West Warwick baker won by a mere 17 votes. He says voters did the right thing.

"Seventeen good people," Pinga says. "No, I think people were just tired. They wanted a change. You know, there was a lot of controversy with the other person, with the other senator, and they just figured it was time for a change."

"The other person," Stephen Alves - who was never charged with a crime - declined WRNI's request for an interview for this story.

Pinga ran a campaign that challenged what he called the culture of self-enriching insider deals, both in West Warwick and at the State House. And he promised to fight for fiscal responsibility. But two years later, he's frustrated that he's been unable to change things.
"There's not much that I can do - one person - so I vote no,' Pinga says. "I had put in bills last year and again this year for some kind of fiscal responsibility, that each department would be accountable for not overspending their own budgets. Last year, it didn't get a hearing, and as of this year it didn't get a hearing."

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, says Pinga's outspokenness is at odds with the norms of the state Senate - which explains at least in part why he's been frustrated.

"The Senate is more about comity and cooperation and that sort of thing, and he seems to not embrace that," Marion says. "So in a way I think it's great, because we need those sorts of voices, but it also makes it difficult to advance your individual things when you perform that way."

State Senator Josh Miller of Cranston says lingering affection among lawmakers for Stephen Alves is another reason why Pinga is a bit of an isolated figure in the Capitol.

"There's a lot of people who had close relationships with Senator Alves," Miller says, "so it's difficult for a lot of them to have a relationship with him."

But Pinga remains resolute in his convictions. He says a go-along-to-get-along mentality that prevails during legislative votes is responsible for Rhode Island's budget woes.
"I just see a lot of senators -- the green button is the yes' button. They just push the green button because, that's what everyone does," Pinga says. " You push the green button.' I think there are some senators up there, they need to push the red button."

Not surprisingly, statements like that don't ingratiate him with the Senate leadership. Asked about Pinga's performance in the chamber, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed offered this tepid assessment: "As a freshman senator, he has, you know, good attendance and been as many freshmen are, I believe, on that side of the learning curve."

Talk about damning with faint praise. And it's not the first time Pinga has been stung by the personal politics of the State House. Earlier this year, Paiva Weed cosponsored a Senate resolution to pay tribute to Stephen Avles, the man Pinga beat. Pinga was so upset he left the chamber in protest.

Going forward, Pinga could face a challenge from West Warwick Town Councilor Peter Calci, who's considering a Senate run. But Pinga says he's not concerned, even though he expects the Democratic establishment to try to take him out. He says this might be the year when outsiders like him can finally storm the General Assembly.

"I'm looking forward to it. There is going to be more support," Pinga says, "because the economy is so bad and people are just fed up."

Maybe so. But so far there's little indication of a groundswell of Rhode Island voters embracing a "throw-the-bums-out" message. That means politicians like Michael Pinga of West Warwick could continue to find themselves on the fringes of State House power - on the outside looking in -- no matter how fed up they are, or how good their bread is.