It’s that time of the year: election season, marking the return of the 2012 Partisan Political Games to Rhode Island.
As the Sept. 11 primary edges closer, party chairmen scramble to market platforms and advertise candidates –and in some cases, themselves.
In reality, Rhode Island can’t afford any games. In 2012, the state faced a fiscal year budget shortfall of about $300 million. And now it’s out more than $100 million in the botched 38 Studios loan guarantee, a deal managed by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. All the while, the unemployment rate hovers close to 11 percent, almost three points above the national average.
In one-on-one interviews, the chairmen from the Rhode Island Democratic, Republican and Moderate parties were asked what they saw as the major issues of this election cycle and what candidates should do for Rhode Island.
What’s the most important issue this election season?
BLOCK: “The most important thing in my opinion, and the one issue that everyone seems to say is a priority, is the economy. Jobs go hand in hand, but ironically it is the one aspect in our legislature that is almost never a priority. We’re not going to add jobs until we address the economic issues.”
ZACCARIA: “The biggest issue that voters have to resolve in this election is the financial condition of the state as an economic entity. Pledges and plans to resolve the deficit spending; the state should be foremost in the decision-making that voters undertake before going out to vote on November 6.”
PACHECO: “Economy and jobs!”
R.I. Economic Development Corporation and 38 Studios:
BLOCK: The EDC’s attempt to provide a huge loan to Curt Schilling’s fledgling video game design firm is what Block calls, “desperate economic development,” adding, “Rhode Island wagered $75 million on a single, unproven company in a brutal economic sector and we got our clock cleaned.”
What procedure should have been employed? Block advocates smarter lending, and bundling deals to land off I-195.
“$75 million could have helped finance 75 startup businesses, which would have significantly diversified the risk. Or, we should have tried to attract several divisions from a national class company like Oracle or Google by bundling the loan guarantees with the 195 land,” said Block.
ZACCARIA: The R.I. GOP chairman acknowledges the 38 Studios loan scheme as one made with little consideration of a long-term plan, saying, “The problem with the 38 Studio[s] debacle was that they went into a battle under-gunned … ‘World of Warcraft’ is the segment leader because it spends some $500 million per year in advertising alone; the $75 million used to back [38 Studios] was a pittance. Anyone who had any marketing experience and who reviewed the Rhode Island House proposal would have shrieked.” It was a venture that the state had no business in, Zaccaria said, adding, “It should be little wonder that we got ‘pantsed’ almost as immediately as we entered the game.”
PACHECO: Pacheco sees the failure of the EDC as a question of reform, and their inability to lend effectively as a lapse in judgment made by former governor Don Carcieri.
“I think that … the EDC needs to be reorganized and reformed. The governor [Carcieri] was the chair of the board and was responsible for that agency. A loan was put forward for a company that had no plan. I would want a paper on my desk that gives me a level of assuredness that they [38 Studios] are going to be successful,” said Pacheco.
Economy, Jobs and Taxes:
BLOCK: To address the unemployment slump, Block believes in bolstering job creation and business growth, and aims to push the state’s rate down or below the national average, which was 8.2 percent in May. He also wishes to make the state more business friendly, on which it is currently ranked a failing grade in one 2012 study done by the non-profit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
“We need to be a reliable business partner, because we’re not,” Block said, pointing to fiscal reform as key to attracting businesses. “The income tax reform is a big part of it. We went down to 5.99 percent and almost half the legislature signed on to raise those rates. It’s not a stable business partnership and we pay the price for it,” he said, summarizing, “It tells the world, stay the hell away from Rhode Island.”
ZACCARIA: The R.I. GOP aligns with policies forwarded by the national Republican Party – fiscal conservatism with a focus on cutting wasteful programs while creating a business-friendly environment. “We will be looking to reduce marginal tax rates and to reduce unnecessary regulation and bureaucratic delay in business matters as the first step towards unburdening our local economy. Concurrently, we will be looking to take rational, long-term steps to reduce overall state expenditures, for example by rationalizing R.I. entitlement levels with those of our neighboring states,” said Zaccaria.
Swollen entitlements, both for current state employees and retired ones, are heavily linked to unsustainable public budgets.
The R.I. Public Expenditure Council reported this year that, “The majority of the increase in personnel expenditures [in 2012] – over 40 percent – were related to growth in benefit costs.”
PACHECO: Pacheco offered a party-wide procedural statement on the economy, jobs and taxes, rather than a theoretical resolution, saying, “The Rhode Island Democratic Party looks at things from a practical standpoint. Every decision is made in a compassionate way … we recognize that there are people behind those numbers. No one wants to be in a position where we have to make changes to retirement, but we had to look at the future of the state, and at the future workers. Their pensions may be nonexistent in the future,” said Pacheco, speaking on the underfunded pensions as an economic issue, while standing by social assistance programs. “We need to have welfare programs to help people get back on their feet,” he said, calling the Democrats the party of “I am my neighbor’s keeper.”
Interest Groups and Local Politics:
BLOCK: “In 20 years, neither [the Democratic or Republican] party has made it their primary concern to deal with these issues [the economy and education]. Part of it is lack of focus, and unwillingness to clash with special interests,” said Block.
Teachers’ contracts that once aimed to improve education for the students are now doing just the opposite, said Block.
“Even writing letters of recommendation are not mandated when there’s a labor dispute, and we have a senior in high school who can’t get a letter because it’s off the table,” he said.
ZACCARIA: The biggest problem hindering the state, Zaccaria says, is one he’s talked about time and time again – a story damning the collusion between the party in power and the public service unions, which has expanded payouts to unsustainable levels. “Today, the leadership of public sector unions owns and operates the majority party in the General Assembly [Democrats] by virtue of guaranteeing most of them either victory or defeat … So [we’re] in an environment where the politicians have avoided making public funds available in advance to cover the otherwise unkeepable promises of decades of ever-better contracts.”
PACHECO: Interest groups that cooperate in donating resources and volunteers to the Rhode Island Democratic Party are developed into caucuses, which work in conjunction with the party to forward their common interests.
“A caucus gives [an interest group] a stage to vocalize their opinions to the community, to the Democrats in general. Those groups come together to fight on the behalf of our candidates, and as chair, I vocalize the concerns of those groups. It’s giving them representation, because this party wouldn’t exist without them … it’s because of their strength, commitment and willingness to fight on the behalf of the party, is why this organization is successful,” said Pacheco.
The party relies on financial support from these groups, as well as with some supportive labor unions putting volunteers on the ground during Democratic campaign events. “A part of our success is, in part, with the labor union,” he said.
BLOCK: Block links the problem of powerful teacher unions to the current failings of the public education system, claiming that the secondary schools in the state aren’t preparing students academically or socially to enter the professional world.
“We can’t put out another generation of kids that are under-prepared. More than 60 percent of graduates that go to the Community College of Rhode Island need remediation the day they walk into that building. Every year we wait [to change this], we are under-educating our kids,” said Block, adding,
“If you ask most realtors what [the] best school district within [a] 20-mile radius of Providence is, they’ll tell you Sharon, Massachusetts.”
ZACCARIA: To improve Rhode Island’s public school system, Zaccaria proposes a shorthand remedy. “Public education needs a dose of competition to make it student-centered again. Can you say vouchers?” he said.
The school voucher system gives parents the choice of sending their child to a public or private school, as opposed to one public designation. By doing so, improved education may result.
In a study done by the Manhattan Institute at Florida public and private schools in 2003, results demonstrated that schools competing in a voucher system were more likely to make significant improvements than non-competing ones.
PACHECO: When asked if there were any immediate problems that need addressing in the public education sector, the chairman left it up to his delegation in the General Assembly and electorate to decide, without specifically acknowledging any issues. “I believe the solution to bettering education lies with the policymakers, educators, parents and students; a community effort. From my standpoint, the most successful track would be to work with the current system and make it better,” said Pacheco, concluding, “The party fundamentally sees the solution as being built upon a unified vision between educators and policymakers to ensure our students succeed.” The issue of teacher unions and the quality of education, when pressed, did not come with specific comment.
On the 2012 Rhode Island Ballot
In the Rhode Island presidential primary, Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama will have no challenger. He will face Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein in the General Election.
In the Rhode Island Senate race, Democratic incumbent Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will face Republican Barry Hinckley, independents Todd Giroux, Dany Laporte, Christopher Reynolds and David Slavin and vigilant Fox candidate Gregory Raposa in the General Election.
In the 1st Congressional District primary, Democratic incumbent Rep. David Cicilline will face Ann Marie Delany, Anthony Gemma and Christopher Young. In the Republican primary, Brendan Doherty and Michael Donahue face off in the Republican primary. The winners of those primaries will face independents Michael Blake and David S. Vogel and unaffiliated candidate Kenneth Capalbo in the General Election.
There are seven candidates for the Second Congressional District. Incumbent James Langevin faces John O. Matson in a primary. Facing off in the Republican primary are Michael J. Gardiner, Michael G. Riley, Donald F. Robbio and Kara D. Russo. The winners of those primaries will face independent Abel G. Collins in the General Election.
There are no general state offices on the ballot this year.
Party Performance Rundown
MODERATES: 2012 Moderate candidates for the General Assembly include: Nick Gelfuso, Senate District 16, Pawtucket/Central Falls; Joseph Botelho, House District 65, East Providence. Moderates currently control no Senate or House seats. There are 749 active registered Moderates in the state.
REPUBLICANS: The R.I. Republican Party is endorsing 60 candidates statewide for seats in the General Assembly in 2012.
Republicans currently control 8 out of 38 Senate seats and 9 out of 75 House seats. A total of 68,716 voters are active registered Republicans.
DEMOCRATS: The R.I. Democratic Party is fielding candidates in all 38 Senate and 74 of the 75 House races in the 2012 General Assembly race. Republican Rep. Joseph Trillo of Warwick is uncontested in his bid for re-election. Democrats currently control 65 out of 75 House seats, and 29 out of 38 Senate seats. The state has 256,908 active registered Democrats>
The Democratic Primary Election, to be held on Tuesday, Sept. 11, is open only to registered Democrats and Independents.
The General Election, which will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 6, is open to all registered voters.
The application deadline for voter registration for the Primary is Aug. 12, and Oct. 7 for the General Election. Refer to the R.I. Board of Elections for more information at www.elections.state.ri.us/elections.