John Perilli: How Can We Restore Confidence in the RI Government?
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
This fact comes from a 2012 WPRI poll, which indicated that 44 percent of likely voters wanted to oust every legislator in the state. That same year, polling data pegged the approval rating of Representative Gordon Fox, the now-former Speaker of the House, at 19 percent. If a poll were taken today, that number would likely be much lower.
These are the disheartening numbers Rhode Island’s newest Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) faces. Lack of confidence in state government. Mistrust of our legislative leadership. Cynicism. Anger. Disillusionment. You might mark all this down as trivial, but consumer confidence is a big economic deal. The more diffident we are about the economy and its future, the worse we know our economy is doing.
However, the attitudes of pessimism and frustration we have towards our economy and our politicians are closely linked. This means that repairing the image of our government could help encourage an economic recovery. Obviously, it isn’t a panacea––in a plight as deep as ours, there is no one solution––but it is an important step nonetheless. So how can Rhode Island’s new legislative leadership reconstruct its public face, and restore Rhode Islanders’ confidence in government?
An Open Bargaining Process
One of the unfortunate truths of legislative politics is that it involves a significant degree of push and pull. Bargains, vote-bartering and the like. Our General Assembly is no exception. 75 Representatives and 38 Senators aren’t always going to agree on everything, and with eight and a half billion dollars to spend come budget time, compromises have to be made.
The problem is that most of these deals are cut outside of the public eye. The feedback process between voters and lawmakers breaks down, and things like the $125 million EDC loan guarantee that spawned the 38 Studios disaster happen. How can this be fixed?
Contrary to some suggestions, the solution is not to get rid of the legislative bargaining process entirely. If our lawmakers can’t negotiate, our lawmakers can’t govern. Have a look at our inflexible, anodyne Congress in D.C. to see how a lack of bargaining works out. The solution is to bring the bargaining into the open.
What a new Speaker could do, then, is to set a precedent by negotiating in public. If something in the budget is changed, let it be known. If a bill isn’t going to get a vote, tell the public why not. Yes, this is an optimistic proposal. It may be foolish to hope that everything the General Assembly does is publicized. But if our new Speaker comes in and sets a norm by conducting transparent, brutally honest business, that could go a long way towards changing how we look at the State House.
Rebranding the Rostrum
Say what you want about Rep. Gordon Fox’s policies, but it often seemed as if everything he did as Speaker was finely calculated to give off the impression of standoffishness and insidership. From posting hearing notices only hours in advance to pulling last-minute baits and switches with the budget, Fox never appeared to stake much on transparency.
From a trust and popularity standpoint, this is bad for the Speaker’s office. According to political science studies, gaffes actually don’t hurt lawmakers and candidates that badly––unless, that is, the gaffe fits into a preconceived idea of that person. The elitist. The back-slapper. Et cetera. The Speaker, as the consummate political insider, is thus doubly stung whenever he does something that makes him seem like even more of an insider.
What the new leadership team must do, then, is cut against the grain. Start doing things that shed the insider image, like posting committee calendars further in advance or setting an earlier curfew for budget debates. These are two relatively easy solutions. Others, such as extending the state revolving-door laws keeping legislators from becoming lobbyists too soon, are much harder sells. Some of these ideas might be painful for the Speaker in the short term, but in the long-run the state of Rhode Island will be better for them. When Rhode Island prospers, so too do its leaders.
But prosperity isn’t achieved in one marathon budget session. It is the result of years of work and patience.
Playing the Long Game
As we saw this past week, leadership at the State House can change at a moment’s notice. If the Speaker loses the support of the House, he or she is be rendered completely ineffective, and then faces pressure to resign. Thus, it is to the Speaker’s individual advantage to play small ball––after all, if he or she loses the office, there’s no long term to think about. Unfortunately, though, many of Rhode Island’s problems such as chronic unemployment and brain drain can’t be solved in an instant.
The new Speaker must be able to take short-term hits in order to achieve long-run gains. This could mean revising the House rules to keep the Speaker’s position safer, or simply, as Representative and candidate for Speaker Michael Marcello put it, letting House leadership “lose a vote every now and then.” However it is done, the House should become a driver of long-term solutions, not a self-interested repair shop where every issue is simply patched up and punted out the door. Pecking away at the margins of a problem has its uses, but with systemic issues like Rhode Island faces, it simply isn’t enough.
Speaker Mattiello and his new leadership team have a great opportunity to help Rhode Island, but they also bear a great burden. If the Speaker’s office, so vested with power and influence as it is, cannot even command the trust of the people it serves, then where does the Speaker’s mandate to govern come from? Surely we can do better than this. While our focus has rightly been on fixing the economy, we also must fix our government––the solutions are more related than we think.
Related Slideshow: The History of Gordon Fox: From Camp St. to Speaker to…
In 1992, Gordon Fox ran for (then) House District 5 seat replacing Dr. Nick Tsiongas.
Fox, an ally of then-Councilman Josh Fenton and former College Hill State Representative Ray Rickman, won the seat easily.
Gordon Fox (D) 2,253
Michael Mitchell (R) 525
Jay Enderle (I) 407
Murphy - Fox Team 2002
Fox and GTech and the Ethics Commission 2003
Speaker of the House
2007 - 2010
Fox and 38 Studios
Fox and Gay Marriage
Providence Economic Development Partnership
Raid and Resignation
On Friday, the State House office of Gordon Fox was raided by RI State Police in conjuction with FBI and IRS agents. This was the first time a State House office was ever raided by law enforcement officials.
By end of day Saturday, Fox had resigned, here is his statement:
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