These are not great times for State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the tiny state’s official name). The birthplace of the industrial revolution has the highest unemployment in the country; it is among the least business friendly states in the country; and its legendary corruption is in full bloom this year as Gordon Fox, the Speaker of the House, resigned after the FBI raided his home and a Buddy Cianci, a twice-convicted felon is seeking to regain his old job as Mayor of Providence.
No wonder a recent survey found that only 18 percent of Rhode Islanders thought it to be the best or one of the best places to live – the lowest of any state. Not a good sign for a state whose motto is “Hope”.
In 1982, my last summer in Rhode Island I met Ira Magaziner while doing opposition research for a Democratic Senate challenger to John Chafee. Magaziner, a Brown University student activist turned industrial strategist, said I might be interested in his next project, The Greenhouse Compact, an innovative attempt at industrial policy which would be endorsed by then-Governor Garrahy to create high-wage jobs through business incentives and state funded business incubators (the “greenhouses”). Instead I returned to Washington to finish school, while the Greenhouse Compact was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters in 1984 once the state’s corrupt political establishment appointed itself to be caretakers of the plan.
Thirty-years later, there may yet be cause for Hope in what is proving to be a very competitive Governor’s race with three candidates each capable of challenging the entrenched establishment to lead a Rhode Island renaissance.
State Treasurer Gina Raimondo is seeking to become the state’s first woman governor. This would be one of a long line of firsts for the Harvard and Yale-trained Rhodes scholar which includes being the first woman valedictorian at La Salle Academy (my alma mater), the state’s top Catholic high school, and launching the state’s first venture fund Point Judith Capital which was involved in dozens of successful start-up companies, including Providence-based NABsys, a health science research company, and the revival of Narragansett Beer. As Treasurer she has received high-marks for taking on the difficult issue of pension reform.
Raimondo is seeking to revive aspects of the Greenhouse compact with what she calls the Rhode Island Innovation Institute.
Raimondo is running neck and neck with Providence Mayor Angel Taveres. Like myself, Taveres grew up on the tough side of Providence and went on to get a law degree from Georgetown. Before law school, the Harvard-trained Taveres was a fellow at my neighborhood’s community center where he launched after school programs and a summer camp.
The Dominican Taveras is Providence’s first Hispanic mayor and is seeking to become the nation’s first Hispanic governor of a state not previously part of Spain or Mexico with a proposal to create jobs by investing in the state’s aging infrastructure. As Mayor he has helped Providence back from the brink of bankruptcy and has received high marks for his educational initiatives. He has the support of my friend former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and much of organized labor.
Finally, the dark horse candidate is Clay Pell, the grandson of one of the state’s most beloved politicians (and my mentor) the late-Senator Claiborne Pell. Pell is a Coast Guard officer and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, which when combined with being the grandson of the creator of Pell Grants, has earned him the National Education Association endorsement. He also is offering an economic plan to revitalize the state’s economy.
Pell is newcomer to Rhode Island politics and is running as an outsider just as his grandfather did over 50 years ago when he stunned the sitting Governor in winning the Democratic primary for Senate in 1960. Pell, however, has one asset his grandfather didn’t have – his campaign is assisted by his wife, world champion skater Michelle Kwan.
The spirit of the Greenhouse Compact is still alive in Rhode Island. Each of these candidates has the potential to bring new leadership and vision to Rhode Island that may help the state move forward and break from the corruption of the past. The winner of the September 9th primary is likely to win in November. Should they fail to revitalize the state, they may face a challenge from another familiar name making his political debut in the race for State Treasurer who also has launched an economic blueprint for the state that would make his father proud – Seth Magaziner.