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Politics as Usual: It's a new ballgame in the General Assembly

July 12, 2011

At various times in this space, I have compared the General Assembly leadership to the leaders of the old Soviet Union, imperiously working their own will and impervious to public opinion.
Not so this year.
This year people power won at least two major political and policy victories.
The first was killing Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s sales tax proposals. That brought a whole shipload of businesspeople to the Statehouse to oppose the idea at the House Finance Committee.
Now, business interests trying to influence the legislature, often successfully, is not uncommon, but that is usually done quietly, behind the scenes, with lobbyists up on the third floor of the Statehouse where the leadership offices are, or at pricey fundraisers at some of the finer dining establishments across the state.
This time was different. It wasn’t the big boys, the Fidelitys or the G-TECHs. It was the small businesses – the shopkeepers, computer software engineers, farmers, newspapermen, optometrists and don’t forget the highly organized, super-motivated, extra-disciplined and unusually effective hair dressers and barbers – who came out in force, showed their faces and made their opinions known. It was those grass-roots, rank-and-file small businesspeople, the ones the politicians have been paying lip service to all these years, showing up angry and motivated that changed the game.
By the time those folks had gotten back to the parking lot and started their cars after the hearing, House Speaker Gordon Fox had already issued a statement saying the Chafee sales tax was dead.
That was a clear and convincing victory for the little guys.
The second populist win was the defeat of binding arbitration.
That victory belonged to the Rhode Island Stateline Coalition and the Rhode Island Tea Party. The mayors and school officials may have earned a minor assist, but RISC and the Tea Party won the day.
They were a game-changer not just in the result, but with the fundamentals of how the game was played.
There was a day when the General Assembly leaders could pull binding arbitration out of their back pockets on the next-to-last day, pass it in the middle of the night, and nobody would have even realized what had happened for another week or two, when it would be way too late.
That day is gone.
Too many people are watching now. Too many people are paying attention. Too many of them are communicating and organizing; they are making noise and they are making a stink. And they are making a difference. It is a wonderful thing to behold.
The Tea Party folks bird dogged a variety of issues throughout the session, but RISC was on binding arbitration like ugly on an ape. They kept their focus on that issue even when it had been completely off the radar for months and everyone was paying attention to other things.
When it suddenly rematerialized out of nowhere amid a confusing flurry of dozens of other Big Bills like the budget and civil unions, RISC was there like the cat that had been patiently stalking the mouse, just waiting for the opportunity to pounce. It briefly escaped past them into the more friendly sanctuary of the Senate, but when it had to come back to the House, they had it cornered.
At one point, there was not one, not two but three (3) vocal demonstrations in one day under the Rotunda with people screaming about binding arbitration.
After the supper break on the final night of the session, when normally a bill like binding arbitration would be whisked through committee and whooshed out on the floor for a vote before the representatives even had time to wonder what was going on, Fox raised the white flag and said it wasn’t going to happen.
That was historic. In the words of our Vice President, Joe Biden, that was a big bleeping deal.
If you didn’t feel the earth shifting under your seat, rest assured that legislative leaders did.
It will be interesting to watch how the General Assembly adapts to this new ballgame.

n Governor Chafee has been taking a lot of unfair flak over the whole Jason Pleau thing, but what exactly is wrong about a politician demonstrating the courage of his (and he makes a strong case that they are also our) convictions?
In case you lost track during what has been an absolutely crazy news month, Chafee said no when U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha asked him to turn over alleged murderer Pleau for federal prosecution. Pleau is accused of shooting and killing David Main last September as the gas station manager and family man was making a deposit at a Woonsocket bank.
Chafee refused to turn Pleau over to the feds because he could potentially face the death penalty in federal court. Rhode Island has abolished the death penalty and hasn’t executed anyone since the mid-1800 when we hanged a possibly innocent man named John Gordon who, just to show you Fate has a sense of humor, Chafee pardoned last week pursuant to resolutions passed by the House and Senate.
The politically popular thing to do would be to kick Pleau in the backside, turn him over to the feds and tell them: “Do your worst.”
But Chafee didn’t do that. Noting Rhode Island’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty, and heeding his own conscience, Chafee stood his ground and said “No,” even though he made it clear that he realized he would probably be rolled over by the federal courts eventually, so he was fighting for principle on what he knew would a lost cause. Still, he stood up for what he believed was capital-R Right. Good for him!
The governor also made it clear from the start that he would gladly turn Pleau over if the U.S. Attorney would agree to forego the death penalty.
It’s easy to have convictions when you are defending America and apple pie. It becomes tougher when you have to stand up to defend the life of a miserable excuse for a human being like Pleau.
Chafee did the hard thing and, as he sort of predicted, he was in the end defeated by a federal writ.
But that is the kind of moral courage our Founding Fathers hoped and expected America’s political leader to have.
It makes for a pretty good Fourth of July story.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

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