Picking a 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate isn’t simple.
Yes, it’s fairly easy to pass up endorsing Clay Pell, who has never held so much as a school committee seat here, and who, though technically a Rhode Island resident for many years, only seemed to show up last fall. Since then, he’s poured millions of dollars into his campaign from his own pocket, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if he didn’t make, “I will not accept contributions from PACs or state lobbyists,” a major talking point. Not only is this position infinitely easier with a family fortune like his to rely on, but when we asked him numerous times during his visit to Phoenix HQ to elaborate on this stance, Pell couldn’t give us a single specific example of how PACs and state lobbyists negatively affect Rhode Island. This grandson of legendary six-term Rhode Island US senator Claiborne Pell seems like a smart, earnest guy who has served our country in the Coast Guard and the Obama White House. But right now, we don’t advocate handing the keys of the state to him. (Speaking of keys, you can insert a joke about his infamously misplaced Prius here: _______.)
This leaves Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. And here’s where the decision gets tough, since both are intelligent, qualified, experienced candidates capable of grappling with the myriad challenges Rhode Island faces. You’ll have to go elsewhere for a slam-dunk endorsement.
The similarities between the two are remarkable. Both went to Harvard and top-tier law schools, after humble upbringings. (In fact, each has a parent who worked at RI’s bygone Bulova Watch factory.) Both were later elected to high-profile offices — Providence mayor, for him; general treasurer, for her — in 2010. And, now, four years later, each presents their time in office as a tale of grand-scale salvation.
Taveras inherited what he called a “category five fiscal hurricane,” and through a series of tough choices and negotiations – taking a personal pay cut, asking for increased contributions from the city’s universities and hospitals, reforming the city’s pension system – fought to steer the city toward calmer seas. Raimondo inherited her own crisis: a state pension system her office described as “provid[ing] neither retirement security nor financial sustainability and . . . in dire need of re-design,” in the May 2011 report, Truth In Numbers: The Security and Sustainability of Rhode Island’s Retirement System. This report planted the seeds for a landmark pension-reform law marshaled by Raimondo, The Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011. (For all the vitriol that law has unleashed, it’s helpful to remember it passed 57-15 out of the House and 35-2 out of the Senate, and a tentative February 2014 settlement agreement between RI and its public employees preserved 94 percent of the law’s belt-tightening. That agreement, alas, has since collapsed and the law remains in litigation.)
Even on the gubernatorial campaign trail, similarities between the mayor and treasurer persist. Both favor stricter gun-control laws, raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.10, and investing heavily in fixing the state’s deteriorating infrastructure. Both have ambitious, praiseworthy environmental plans, and both spout the silly, politically safe “not at this time” when asked about legalizing marijuana. Both advocate jumpstarting the state’s economy through increased tourism marketing, bolstering public education and manufacturing, and taking better advantage of the state’s universities and hospitals.
So, then, how do you choose? Given that the economy is the single most important issue in this election, Raimondo — a former venture capitalist who was once in the business of building economies — seems to have a job-creation edge. But that edge comes with the lingering whiff of foul Wall Street odors. Her spokespeople will tell you that the transfer of billions of dollars in state pension funds into high-fee, low-transparency hedge funds during her tenure as treasurer reduced exposure to risk. But was there really no other way to do that without the nasty side effects?
Angel Taveras, meanwhile, is no angel in the investment department. Providence’s pension system remains woefully underfunded even after its “reform” and, though the Taveras administration has dialed back hedge fund investments, Providence had a higher percentage of its pension funds invested in hedge funds than Raimondo’s state pension system as recently as May 2013. And anyway, what about the laundry list of problems he’s leaving behind in Providence (detailed in our mayoral endorsement, further down this page) after just one term — a term watered down by a major campaign for higher office?
Ultimately, we decided that since we were barely convincing ourselves of one candidate’s superiority in the final hours before our deadline, then doubling back to support the other, then still calling it a “coin toss,” as one Phoenix staffer described it, it was best to remain officially (and painfully) undecided. Our job is to be informed, honest, and straightforward with you, even if that means choosing not to choose.
Is it a cop-out? Perhaps. But it’s a cop-out built on hours of interviews, phone conversations, debate-watching, article reading, writing, editing, emailing, tweeting, and talking creepily to ourselves out loud.
Since Phoenix readers have voted Taveras “Best Politician” in the state in our last four successive “Best” issues, perhaps many of you already made your choice. Then again, some might favor Raimondo, the Smithfield-raised Rhodes Scholar who would be Rhode Island’s first female governor.
There are worse choices we could leave you with.