Arriving in 1988 as the corrupt misdeeds of then-Governor Edward DiPrete were bursting into public view, H. Philip West Jr. picked an opportune time to take the helm of Common Cause of Rhode Island.
TENACIOUS: West invokes Churchill in saying, “This is absolutely the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
DiPrete’s wrongdoing offered vivid on-the-job training for West, an ordained Methodist minister who had spent an earlier part of his career working in poor New York City neighborhoods, not to mention a stark reminder of the staying power of Rhode Island’s distinctive brand of government corruption.
Over time, West emerged as an astute observer of the body politic and as a force for positive change, as evidenced by a detailed list of reforms distributed during his well-attended November 13 farewell gala at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Change doesn’t come easily, and West, 65, has faced very aggressive hostility in the General Assembly at times. Yet he remains cautiously optimistic about the implementation of separation of powers — something that seemed very unlikely to occur even five years ago — and hopeful about the outlook under his successor, Christine Lopes, for the campaign finance reform known as Clean Elections.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation, which took place last week at West’s home on Providence’s South Side.
Who are the worst and best public officials you’ve encountered in your time in Rhode Island?
I would have to say Mike Lenihan, the senator from East Greenwich, has been just outstanding in his consistent willingness to do courageous things in the public interest.
Right back from when he first started in the General Assembly, he was always willing to take on the tough issues, and I remember when I asked him, in 2000, to do fair redistricting stuff — which is probably the hardest one of all, because the public doesn’t understand it, but the legislators all do — he took it on. But he also took on separation of powers, which, when he first introduced legislation, cost him. You pay a price with Senate leaders, because they can keep important issues from getting introduced or keep them from being considered in committee.
Worst? I would say probably [former representative] Vinny Mesollela, because, while he was seen by many in the House as a [powerful figure], and he did a lot of things for a lot of people, but it was in a traditionally machine politics kind of way. He would do something for you, but he would expect something in return. He was the head not only of the Narragansett Bay Commission, but of the Underground Storage Tank Board. We looked in the early-mid 1990s at his campaign contributions, and found out that about five percent were coming from his constituents in North Providence, and about 95 were coming from vendors who wanted business in the Narragansett Bay Commission, and that’s kind of the way he operated.
Mesolella later tried to force the state to buy that lake that he owned [Echo Lake] and drained the lake to force it, and that’s the kind of bullying thing that he did. The last example would be his effort to try to get this hotel in 2004 in downtown Providence, where he had a budget article that would have produced a tax credit.