Time to try something new on Smith Hill?

Mar 28, 2014

The stench of corruption has once again encircled the Rhode Island State House. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it may be time to try something different on Smith Hill.

Unless you have been living in one of those 1950s-era nuclear bomb shelters, or the old East Side tunnel, you’ve probably heard of the latest Statehouse scandal. The state police and federal IRS and FBI agents raided the offices of House Speaker Gordon Fox 10 days ago. The next day he abruptly resigned.

Fox’s resignation triggered a furious – and fast campaign for the most powerful job in state government. Within two days, House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat , sealed  the votes he needed to become the new speaker.

The feds aren’t talking about what Fox did, but it must be serious or he wouldn’t have surrendered so quickly. Rhode Islanders have watched this movie too many times over the years to be surprised at political corruption. Yet once again, the Fox fiasco has given our economically struggling state a big black eye.

It is never good for a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates to attract national media attention for a law-enforcement bust of the House Speaker’s office. What business wants to move to such a place?

Rhode Island has been in the throes of corruption and shady dealings since it was an English colony. The first fortunes were made from smuggling, the African slave trade and a textile manufacturing industry that thrived on the exploitation of immigrant and child labor and polluting rivers and Narragansett Bay.

Ocean State politicians have usually thumbed their noses at what outsiders think of us. ``Corruption in Rhode Island was bad, acknowledged 19th century Republican political fixer Charles Brayton, whose nickname was `Boss.’ ``But not a bit worse than in many other states. Rhode Island is small so you can see things better, that’s what makes the difference.’’

The other imperishable saying attributed to Brayton is that an ``honest voter is one who stays bought.’’

This anything goes attitude may have not hurt the state’s economy and psyche in an era when Rhode Island was a manufacturing and innovation powerhouse. But that’s no longer the case. We live in a global media village where news travels with the speed of light. There is no glossing over a police action at the State House.

Brayton was correct in one realm: other states have their share of political chichanery. The last three Massachusetts House speakers, for example, have all been convicted of felonies. But as a Boston Globe columnist recently opined, Massachusetts has flourishing economy in the Boston area and strong medical, educational and financial sectors. In Rhode Island, the public sector is the ``biggest show in town’’ and ``when scandals befall this political monoculture they make the entire state look rotten to the core.’’

It may not be fair, but it is foolish to argue that Rhode Island is no more crooked than other states. What has clearly happened to our state is that perception has trumped reality. That’s important because political cultures are viewed on a combination of fact, legend and the narratives they create. Rhode Island politics is seen as a venue in which the ``you gotta know a guy syndrome’’ is the only way to get things done. A place where transactional politics rule: ``You do this for me and I’ll do this for you.’’

Thus we are seen as New England’s parochial Third World country, a place wary of anything that smacks of a new idea or a new way of doing things. We all wish Speaker Mattiello luck; in the short-term, at least, his fate is ours.

But it probably isn’t realistic to think that much progress can be made in an atmosphere where the governor is a lame duck and the House and Senate bump heads in a state where politics has long been a contact sport.

Maybe it’s time to have a conversation about establishing term limits for lawmakers, or even shifting to a full-time General Assembly. After all, we have term limits for governors and the mayor of Providence, our largest city.

Too often legislative service becomes self-service. If we really want to have a citizen legislature, what’s wrong with having them serve for four or five terms and return to being citizens? Everyone who follows the comings and goings on Smith Hill knows of lawmakers who hang on too long and become little more than walking cauldrons of revenge, reward and payback.

Overt the years there have been various efforts at reform, from campaign finance overhaul to the Separation of Powers Constitutional Amendment. In the 1990s, voters put in a strong Ethics Commission and legislative pensions were done away with. None of that has stanched Smith Hill corruption.

We could also use a thriving two-party system, but waiting for that is like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa. A Republican Party that has been captured at the national level by the Tea Party and the Red State social issue views of the Deep South is going to have a very hard time attracting young people in New England.

We also have to look in the mirror. Apathy and a lack of interest in politics is an epidemic in our nation and state. A citizenry hooked on the electronic valium of televised spectacle and marinated in cynicism will never change anything.

There is nothing like aroused voters to usher in change. The real question is whether 21st Century Rhode Islanders care enough to get involved in their government and political system. If we don’t, then what happened in Fox’s office is sure to be repeated.