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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Now may be the time for Cicilline to panic

February 26, 2012

Like the guy in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” Congressman David Cicilline seems to be keeping his head while all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him.
Cicilline told me over the weekend: “I am going to do the only thing I know how to do and that is work hard every single day to represent the constituents in my district and do things that I think will improve the lives of the people that I serve.”
Kipling’s enduring wisdom aside, sometimes panic is not just an appropriate response, it is THE appropriate response, and if a politician has a 14.8 percent approval rating — a total of the people who think he is doing an “excellent” job (a paltry 1.8 percent that must include immediate family members) and those who say he is doing a “good” job (13 percent), as does Cicilline, this is one of those times.
Cicilline’s answer to me was straight out of the filing cabinet of reflexive spin responses and it just ain’t gonna cut it for a number of reasons. One is that “working hard every single day, etc., etc.” might be good enough if your approval rating was down in the range of 35 or 30 percent — are you reading this, Senator Whitehouse at 29.6 percent? Or Governor Chafee, an even more borderline 22.1 percent? — but at below 15 percent, that won’t get it done. That’s just going to make people groan and say, “Is he kidding me?” Cicilline is almost at the point in the movie “Animal House” where Otter stands up and says, “this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part!”
Secondly, the 14.8 percent number is NOT the approval rating for the job Cicilline is doing in Congress. That has virtually nothing to do with it. Those bad poll numbers are entirely the result of the financial condition Cicilline left Providence in when he departed the mayor’s office to go to Washington.
During our interview, Cicilline insisted he is prepared to answer, in the congressional race, for every decision he made as mayor of Providence. But he implies that all the decisions he made as mayor were good and virtuous ones — not raising property taxes; not raising the car tax, and using the rainy day fund instead to patch the budget holes. All of the problems, he further suggests, are other people’s fault: former Gov. Donald Carcieri for cutting state aid to the city by 75 percent, President Obama for the loss of $19 million in federal school aid and, well, the rest of the country for the prolonged recession.
True as all of that might be, no prospective voter is going to sit still long enough to listen to it. His administration may very well have paid into the pension fund at 94 percent of the annual required contribution over his eight years as mayor. But voters aren’t going to hear any of that over the noise of their own booing.
And people aren’t just booing. At this point, it’s way past booing. If he is at 14 percent approval, people are throwing rotten food and hanging effigies. Voters don’t want to hear what they will call excuses and Cicilline calls reasons. They want sackcloth and ashes. They want self-flagellation.
They want Cicilline to buy television time and say, “My administration left Providence an unholy mess. It was my fault and I’m sorry.” Nothing short of that will do. Even that might not do, but Cicilline isn’t going to budge those poll numbers a percentage point if he doesn’t do something like that. Even if he believes in his heart that it isn’t true, he has to say it if he wants to have a prayer of re-election. Absolutely nothing he does as a congressman, no five things he does, especially as a freshman Democrat in a Republican House, will make up for the ill feelings he left behind in Providence and Rhode Island,
Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, from whom never is heard a discouraging word about his predecessor, implicitly admits that the city’s true financial crisis was hidden from him when he says he was expecting a Category 2 or 3 hurricane but got hit with a Category 5.
Yes, all those bad things — 75 percent cut in state aid, federal cuts in school aid, the recession — did happen during his terms, but as mayor it was his job to deal with them. That’s why he was elected, not to keep his finger in the dam until the moment he could pull it out and fly to Washington.
Cicilline must step up and accept at least part of the blame for what has happened in Providence. If he does that he will look forthright, he will look remorseful and he will, finally, look ready to move on. “And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”

The General Assembly returns tomorrow from a well-deserved vacation after several arduous, backbreaking weeks of approving solemnization of marriage bills and vacating the forfeiture or revocation of various business charters.
It’s going to be a long six or seven weeks before they get another week off. This being an election year, lawmakers are going to be scrambling to pass a budget early and get out of Dodge so they can go home and campaign in their newly gerrymandered, oops, I meant newly reapportioned, districts.
We are now paying rank-and-file legislators more than $13,000 a year (the House Speaker and Senate President get twice that), an amount very close to what a Rhode Islander with a full-time, minimum-wage job would earn (working much harder than General Assembly members do). Is it rude to ask why they continue to stick to a schedule that was in place back when they made $300 a year?
I understand it is a part-time legislature and we expect members to have day jobs as well. That’s why they work three days a week and don’t start sessions until 4 p.m. I have no beef with that
The one-week vacations in February and April were handy breaks in the schedule when legislators were expected to work 60 days only (and didn’t get paid for time they put in after that; they got paid $5 a day for 60 days for a total of $300 and they earned every penny of it) and had to approve a budget by the conclusion of the fiscal year at the end of June.
Why do we still have to endure those end-of-session rushes where lawmakers are expected to act on 200-300 bills a day in the last day or two, whether they have read them or not? No time for amendments, even if they would be helpful, or as sometimes happens, absolutely necessary. No time to re-think decisions based on new information; just take up those bills that are shoveled out to you and vote green (yes) on them.
How many times have we been told that the General Assembly would have really liked to address some important issue with responsive legislation, “but we just ran out of time”? Bullfeathers! They didn’t run out of time; they ran out the clock.
Why not hold committee meetings and vote on non-controversial items between now and April, spend April, May and most of June concentrating on the budget and then take another week off, hey, take a month or two off and come back in September to concentrate on important, complex bills that require time and attention. Adjourn once the work is finished, rather than the other way around.
That would not only provide time to really refine legislation so that it actually merits becoming a law we all have to live by, but it would also give the rank and file (the people you elected) more sway in the process, rather than having to do what the leadership says, or else.
We voted to pay legislators the equivalent of a year-around part-time job, with free health insurance for individuals or families, which most people who DO work part time year-round don’t get. Why are we letting them get away with this “Oh, it’s June, time to go home” nonsense?

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