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The year the crap hit the fan

RI political mediocrity couldn't compare with the excesses of the fiscal meltdown
By IAN DONNIS  |  December 24, 2008


For a good metaphor of the year experienced by Rhode Island in 2008, consider the economic-development summit called by Governor Carcieri in November.

On the surface, the notion of seeking fresh thinking about the Ocean State's deteriorating economy was eminently reasonable. Then again, the governor's critics wished he would have pursued this avenue a year (or more) earlier, rather than centering much of his second-term bully pulpit on the hot button of illegal immigration.

This emphasis gained the governor national face time on The O'Reilly Factor and further endeared him to his conservative base. Yet at the end of the day, his approval rating remained diminished — a seeming reflection of the lack of overall progress toward fulfilling the cheery vision that Carcieri winningly outlined as a first-time candidate in 2002.

Proponents of a pox on both houses can point to the General Assembly, barely few of whose members deigned to attend the governor's economic-development summit, indicating to some an utter lack of engagement with the state's most pressing issues.

Then again, politics can be a very personal business. So considering how Carcieri routinely turned to talk-radio to fire rhetorical fusillades against the Democratic-dominated legislature (and how this might have played some small role in the defeat of Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano, by a governor-supported independent), the General Assembly rank-and-file wasn't about to rush to play ball with the Republican.

To sum it all up: even though Rhode Island's need for greater economic development couldn't be more obvious — as demonstrated by how the state eclipsed Michigan late in the year as the nation's unemployment rate leader — other things once again got in the way. Welcome to the More it Changes, the More it Stays the Same state.

The arrival of this dark time, complete with gallons of red ink for continued state budget deficits, was easily to forecast (see "The year of impending doom, December 21, 2007). Yet few could have anticipated how standard Ocean State political mediocrity would pale in comparison to the $50 billion fraud of Bernard Madoff, government bailouts for Wall Street giants, and other wildly excessive totems of the Year When the Crap Hit the Fan, locally and internationally.

The good news was Rhode Island's budget woes, which once seemed more unique, were increasingly common among other states amid the national fiscal meltdown that exploded into public consciousness in September.

That we aren't alone, though, doesn't mean that digging out (or moving forward) will be any easier. Instead, somber warnings are sounded about another painful year of budget cuts, and the depressed economy looms as something to be endured, like a punishment. The multi-decade quest for the more exalted Rhode Island of the future — propelled by a strong foundation in such assets as natural beauty, institutions of higher learning, vibrant arts and culture, great restaurants, and an abundance of character — will have to wait for plusher days.

A citizenry gets the political representation it deserves, or so the saying goes, so it was unsurprisingly in this milieu that legislative Democrats generally remained typical of an insular, clubby institution with an appetite for short-term fixes and little long-term thinking.

And even though it seemed a perfect year in which to challenge single-party control of Smith Hill, the feckless RI GOP remained the political equivalent of a wet kitten, actually suffering setbacks in its already sparse number of legislators. The party's inability to get out of its own way was epitomized by how one GOP state senator launched a challenge to Dennis Algiere, the chamber's longstanding minority leader — with each man claiming two supporters.

This kind of stasis summed up 2008 in the Ocean State, joined with the usual laments about how we're early to reach economic setbacks, and late to the recovery.

Rhode Islanders were even behind the times in offering a decisive victory in our March presidential primary election to Hillary Clinton, an event resembling one in a series of last gasp for her once sure-bet campaign.

That said, a number of local denizens lent their enthusiastic support, later if not sooner, to Barack Obama, whose historic presidential campaign helped reinforce the lurking possibility of our state motto — Hope — even when there was every reason to think otherwise.


The national sense of dissipation in the newspaper industry was brought home when the Providence Journal implemented in October what were believed to be the first newsroom layoffs in the paper's storied history. By year's end, even the daily's fortress-like Fountain Street home base was for sale, raising the question of how continued cuts will diminish the ProJo's historic (and much-needed) watchdog function.

In related news, Operation Dollar Bill, the federal probe of legislative influence-peddling, appeared to be running out of gas, in part due to the anticipated replacement, with a Democratic president, of US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente. While the prosecutor harvested the pelts of two corrupt legislators (John Celona and Gerard Martineau), some felt the investigation failed to live up to its hype.

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  Topics: News Features , Providence , Rhode Island politics , economy ,  More more >
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