There’s a “What can you do for me?” mentality about politics that I doubt anyone in Rhode Island will dispute.
People say over and over again, “The legislature stinks, but my guy is ok.” And then they vote for the incumbent.
Sitting legislators have the power of the budget to fund and disburse. Line items in the budget are a great way to fund important projects in local neighborhoods, but they’re also a great source of pork, influence and publicity.
When a politician builds a playground, what is she really doing but returning your tax money to your block? She might have shown up on groundbreaking day to hoist a shovel. And she’ll show up again for the ribbon cutting.
One voter recently told me that my opponent had regularly donated $2,000 to an organization she cared about. I asked if it came from him or from his campaign committee*, and she didn’t know. I said, no. I can’t do that, and I can’t even promise that I’ll have enough power to swing a line item. If you want business as usual, I told her, then you can vote for my opponent.
What is shocking is how inexpensively Rhode Islander’s sell their votes. A playground here, lifting a parking ban there, getting a sidewalk fixed here.
Even the pernicious practice of getting rides to the polls implies that a voter doesn’t care enough to walk or drive or arrange a ride to cast a ballot. Remember those pictures of women in Iraq with the purple fingers? They made it hundreds of miles and waited days to cast their ballots.
No politician is going to promise to raise taxes in an election cycle. And no politician is going to say, “We’re going to cut your funding.” (Well, the Democrats are saying the first about the rich, and the Republicans are saying that to the poor, but let’s set aside those quarreling minorities ;-)
So, in a time of shrinking tax bases and increasing costs, how can we solve our problems? Can a politician help?
Not long ago, I met a woman who was taking care of her two grandchildren, ages 6 and 2. She’d had a good job, but had been laid off. When she did, she lost her child care, and now she couldn’t get a job because she couldn’t find someone to take care of the kids while she looked for a job. Catch 22.
I told her that I had no idea if I, as a possible State Rep could do anything to help her, but I’d see.
Half a block up the street, I met another voter who told me that Casey Family Services had a grandparents group.
The next day, I called them and learned a bit about The Rhode Island Partnership for Family Connections.
Here was a group of grandparents helping other grandparents. I emailed the grandmother the information, and hope that she follows through.
A few days after that, I met with Ray Watson at the Mt. Hope Community Center. He said that his organization couldn’t host something like a baby-sitting group, because of insurance liability concerns. He also said that he would be happy to help or connect people any way he could.
“We try to make this organization part of the community,” he said. “We’re open most of the time. People can just stop by.”
We also brainstormed that a local FaceBook group to connect people with similar issues might be another low-cost solution. Another email went out to the Grandmother. I haven’t heard anything back yet.
Connecting the Threads
A few days later, I was at one of those unique Rhode Island meetings where twenty people spend an hour discussing the placement and economics of four or five crosswalks.
Held at the Rochambeau Community Library after hours (the next time someone asks why we have libraries, aside from the wealth of knowledge, they serve as one of our key non-religious meeting points), the purpose of the meeting was to explain the future traffic calming measures near the Hope Street “business district.”
The short version was this: because the Narragansett Bay Commission was going to repave the streets, the Hope Street Merchant’s association hired a firm to design a traffic calming plan. The NBC offered to pick up the tab for the new raised sidewalks (think Kennedy Plaza not Smith Hill) and pedestrian bumpouts. The only problem was that the NBC’s mandiate stopped at the Cumberland Farms, just north of Rochambeau Avenue. In other words, the one place in the neighborhood where children cross the street most frequently—the library—was on the outside of the domain.
Fortunately, most of the players were in the room, so I asked a few questions:
- Was the NBC hiring a contractor to do this work?
- Since the contractor would have workers, machinery and supplies on-hand wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to build six crosswalks instead of five?
- Why maybe?
Building any raised crosswalk creates drainage problems. Since the NBC was redoing the sewers and rebuilding the streets, they could pre-grade the streets to handle the runoff from the five they were agreeing to do.
- But it’s possible to build the crosswalk, right?
Yes. Provided someone does the study and it doesn’t cost too much to fix the drainage problem.
- Does the City of Providence have money for this?
Probably. There are some federal funds and some neighborhood funds that might be available.
- Would the city look into this?
- What’s the deadline?
Before Christmas. If the City conducts the study and finds the funds and informs the Narragansett Bay Commission, they can write it into the contract with their construction firm and make it happen.
On the way out of the meeting, I explained this to Councilman Jackson. The architect joked that this was the first meeting he’d ever been to where people actually wanted more construction.
There oughtn’t to be a law…
In both of these stories, both the problem and solution were in the same geography. One woman’s answer was a block away or a FaceBook group away. One sidewalk’s answer was in the same room, just missing someone to rethink the problem.
Did the “politician” solve either problem? No. Someone else will have to follow-up and make sure that the solution is implemented.
What I did was create opportunities for these problems to be solved without raising taxes, levying fines or writing legislation. No closed door meetings or back room deals either.
Not a bad few days.
*Campaign bank accounts can be used to make donations to non-profits, something I’ve already promised to do with the whatever small funds are left in my account after the election.