November 22, 2014
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Lineup of gubernatorial candidates a reason for Rhode Island pride
John Hazen-White Jr.

You have to wonder why anyone would want to be the governor of Rhode Island. After all, as governorships go it’s not a very powerful position. The governor’s proposed budget is routinely sliced and diced by the legislative leadership and sometimes pretty much dead on arrival. The governor does not possess a line item veto power when it comes to the eleventh hour budget presented by the legislature. There’s no governor’s mansion or plane. And being the chief executive of the smallest state in the union with one of the most stubbornly anemic economies certainly doesn’t provide much in the way of bragging rights.

But that hardly stops a new field of candidates every four years from springing forward in pursuit of the top elected office. One thing the state’s governorship does have going for it, however, is the fact that Rhode Island voters see the position as something of an antidote to the critical mass of Democrats owning just about every other elected position.

By way of illustration, when was the last time Rhode Islanders elected a Democrat governor? Still thinking? It was in 1992 and the winning Democrat candidate was an incumbent named Bruce Sundlun. Our present governor, Lincoln Chafee, won the governorship as an independent and will leave office in January 2015 as a Democrat, possibly on his way to Washington with a job lined up in the Obama Administration’s final two years.

Democrats really would like to field a winning candidate for the job and they have two excellent candidates to consider for next year’s election: Angel Taveras, the Mayor of Providence, and Gina Raimondo, the General Treasurer. Angel Taveras is in a strong position: recognized for his executive leadership in straightening out the capital city’s financial woes (a work in progress he will leave to his successor) and a deft politician who has demonstrated he can work successfully with powerful city unions. His announced policy initiative on strengthening early education is a sound stratagem. He’s also Latino in a state with a growing Latino population.

Gina Raimondo will also make a strong candidate, and if she prevails in the primary against Mayor Taveras she will be tough to beat come November. She could be the next Ella Grasso or Jane Swift as the Ocean State’s first female governor, something that a lot of folks would like to see happen.

But she does have the pension overhaul and the ongoing court ordered remediation to deal with first. So tied as she is to this divisive issue, voters either love her or would like to see her political career terminated at the first opportunity. Actually, polling has shown that union voters hold a more nuanced stand when it comes to Gina (men like her, as do Republicans). Despite the focus on the state’s economy in the upcoming election season, Raimondo will remain defined as a candidate by the pension reform law, for good or bad. But forceful comments made recently by both House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed leave little doubt that the pension overhaul is not going to be a legislative priority next year, so they and the General Treasurer remain on the same page that the law should stand as passed. And it may be hard for her opponents, starting with Mayor Taveras, to attack her on the pension issue, as it is saving significant taxpayer dollars at both the state and municipal levels.

On the Republican side, favored by voters in the last five elections, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Moderate-turned-Republican Ken Block will also face off in a tough primary battle. Fung has done a good job running Cranston and he has also had success working with his unions. Republican Cranston mayors can win state elections: look at Ed DiPrete back in the 1980s.

Ken Block may actually have more statewide name recognition than Allan Fung because of his knack for getting attention, and if there’s one thing that Ken Block will offer up in spades during a primary contest will be specific policy ideas about improving Rhode Island state government, which will force Mayor Fung to get specific about just how he will create 20,000 new jobs as he claims (reminiscent of Don Carcieri) he will do.

Note: For the record, let me insert here that I do not publicly endorse candidates despite what some see as my backing of Mayor Fung because I hosted his announcement event at my company, Taco, Inc. Allan has been a good friend to Taco and understands our importance to the city’s economy and so hosting his announcement was simply a way of being gracious to Cranston’s top official for his important occasion. Also, my public policy concerns far outweigh individual political personalities who come and go.

Leaving the novice Clay Pell on the sideline for now, the gubernatorial candidates list for next November is pretty impressive. The primaries will of course be expensive and probably nasty, reducing everyone in the process, but that’s politics. Rhode Islanders should look upon these ambitious candidates with a measure of pride. After all, each of them has an impressive resume, complete with executive experience. Among the four we have two ethnic, second generation candidates, a software engineer, and a Rhodes Scholar woman.

Despite what I said about the limits on the executive powers of the governor, being the chief executive of Rhode Island is an important and influential position nonetheless, especially in the hands of an activist governor, and it’s a position that could be strengthened through changes advanced in a constitutional convention should voters decide to authorize one in the November election.

It’s going to be an interesting race for governor. And then there’s the potential return of Buddy Cianci as Providence mayor. Stay tuned.


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