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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) 'Policy agenda' smells a lot like campaigning

April 2, 2012

Those of you who don’t get around much in the world of cyberpolitics might be surprised to learn that Gov. Lincoln Chafee has his very own channel on YouTube.
You can click on to YouTube and then search for either “Rhodeislandgovernor” or “Governor Lincoln Chafee” and you can get a list of a whole bunch of videos that either the governor’s office made, or that show some of his TV appearances or speeches at various public events.
Another of the ones made by his office came out last week — it’s about his legislative package to assist cities and towns with their pension problems and other financial pressures — and, like several of the others, it raises a question about where the line is between creative use of the media to promote the governor’s policy and legislative agenda and use of public funds by the governor’s office to make what look, sound and smell like campaign advertisements to promote the governor’s political aspirations.
Christine Hunsinger, Chafee’s press secretary, told me it is definitely the former. She says “the media is changing with Twitter and Facebook and YouTube” one of the folks in the press office is adept at putting these things together. She insists that there is “definite legislative content” and that there is nothing in the two-minute spot that tells the viewer to take any sort of campaign-like activity such as saying “vote for…” or anything like that. It also refers viewers to the governor’s official website (where the video can also be found) to find out more about the specifics of the legislative package and it encourages them to “Call your legislator and urge support for Gov. Chafee’s entire municipal package.”
Yeah, but…
It still has a campaign ad feel to it.
Instead of the big, booming announcer voice that sounds like it comes from a disaster movie trailer, it opens with none other than the Democratic lieutenant governor, Elizabeth Roberts, telling us that “this governor has reached out across a lot of our traditional boundaries, across party lines, across branches of government, and also, from the Statehouse, reaching out to cities and towns.” There are TV news clips describing some of Chafee’s work with city and town mayors and clips from newspapers and blogs touting the governor’s initiatives.
The first one of these videos I recall was released a year ago, with the governor standing by himself in the echo-y third floor of the Statehouse talking about his budget, the one the General Assembly all but disregarded after they pulled out the lynchpin — his plan to expand and lower the state sales tax. In that video, by the way, Chafee mentioned all the spending he wanted to do — more aid to education, more for cities and towns, more money to transportation infrastructure, but he apparently ran out of time before he could explain how he wanted to pay for all that with new taxes on a lot more goods and services.
So if public money isn’t being used to make campaign commercials, it is at the very least being used to spread pro-Chafee propaganda.
These spots can’t be very expensive to produce and must cost almost nothing to distribute; you’d think such modest cost could be covered with campaign dollars. I’m sure that fight is going to be fought once the 2014 campaign begins in earnest.

Speaking of the 2014 campaign: You might have heard that the governor, a Republican turned Independent, officially endorsed Democratic Congressman David Cicilline in his re-election bid this November. (It’s kinda touching that the guy who got a 22 percent approval rating in February’s Brown University poll is lending a helping hand to the guy who got an approval of just under 15 percent.)
You may also recall that, when Vice President Joseph Biden was in Rhode Island in February for a fundraiser for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Chafee was there and he gave his endorsement to the Democratic senator.
Remember that obnoxious song, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm”?
Hmmm, could our Independent governor be sniffing around to run as a Democrat next time around?
Say Treasurer Gina Raimondo runs for governor like the whole world expects her to and former State Auditor Ernest Almonte tosses his green eyeshade into the ring as well (although Almonte says he doesn’t know whether he would run as a Republican, Democrat or Independent). They could split the moderate-to-conservative Democratic vote (a less kind commentator might call it the DINO — Democrat in Name Only — vote) and liberal Democrats might have nowhere to turn but Chafee.
Then again, if a moderate or conservative Democrat like Raimondo or Almonte were to win the party nomination, like Frank Caprio did in 2010, that would give Chafee a second opportunity to run to the left as an Independent and squeak out another 36 percent victory.
But let’s let this November’s election happen before we start worrying about that.

When I was younger and spent money on something foolish, my mother would shake her head and say, “you always have money for what you want to have money for.”
I thought of that once again when I heard that the taxpayers are going to pony up $300,000 toward the salary of the new URI men’s basketball coach, Dan Hurley. He’s going to get paid more than that, of course, but the $300K is what is coming from the university’s till, which is filled with tax dollars and student tuitions, among other things.
The university is strained to the limit, we are told, when student tuitions just have to be raised. There is no other choice.
We are constantly told the state has no money — cities and towns are going bankrupt, you can’t drive trucks on Route 95 through Pawtucket, on many of our streets there is more pothole than there is roadway, programs for people with developmental disabilities are cut to the bone — but we’ve got us a multi-million-dollar basketball coach.
You always have money for what you want to have money for.
What would be better for the state, a $300,000-a year star to take care of children and adults with developmental disabilities, or one to coach the basketball team.
Would it be better to have a $300,000 a year pro as commissioner of elementary and secondary education, mapping out strategies for our schools and teachers to turn out better educated students, or one to draw Xs and Os on a blackboard to get URI into the A-10 tourney? Really, which do you consider more important?
To how many other good uses could $4 million over six years be put? How many scholarships could be given to deserving but needy students, even the ones who can’t dribble or sink treys?
You always have money for what you want to have money for.
I know, I know, this isn’t unique to URI and tons of schools overpay their basketball coaches, and don’t even get me started on football. But if all those schools jumped off a bridge, should URI do the same?
Not only that, but URI canned their previous coach in the middle of his contract and are paying him $1.5 million to go away, although they say none of that money is coming from taxpayer funds. I remember decrying the former coach’s salary as well, although I secretly wished that once — just once — our paychecks would get switched in the mail. (By the way, if URI wants me to go away, I can be contacted through this newspaper. Call me.)

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