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Gary Sasse: Rudderless in the Ocean State

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


A governor’s primary power is not the administration of government or the ability to veto legislation. It is the effective use of what President Theodore Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit”. A bully pulpit can bring issues to the fore due to the stature of the office and the publicity it generates. When a governor speaks the entire state listens. When governors do not address real issues they lose relevance, influence and credibility.

Gov. Chafee's Tough Road

Over the past few years Rhode Island’s Governor has faced a rocky road. Not all the criticism aimed at Governor Chafee has always been fair. The Governor inherited a state economy mired in a great recession, the 38 Studios fiasco, and a miserable fiscal situation. His job was also made more difficult by communication failures and a General Assembly that was sometimes indifferent to his leadership.

Regardless of the causes, a recent public opinion poll prepared by Fleming and Associates found that 57% of Rhode Islanders believe that the State is headed in the wrong direction. Also only 30% think that Governor Chafee is doing an excellent or good job. As President Lyndon Johnson so aptly stated, “Every President has to develop a moral underpinning to his power, or he soon discovers that he has no power at all.” This observation pretty much describes the condition of leadership in the Ocean State.

The Bully Pulpit

2014 promises to be a crossroads election in Rhode Island. To right the ship of state gubernatorial candidates must turn their campaigns into bully pulpits.

Rhode Island’s next Governor must connect the dots and tell voters where we are, where we need to be and how we are going to achieve transformational change. Effectively using a bully pulpit should help candidates mold public support for two or three doable game changing initiatives. Voters should be skeptical about any candidates who set forth ten or twenty point programs that are either characterized by generalizations that pander to special interests or respond to themes identified by polling.

The successful use of a bully pulpit in a political contest is critical in building a governing mandate. Too often people are elected who do not have a clear mandate to lead. This is a situation that Rhode Islanders should not accept. The Ocean State has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. Also a recent report from 24/7 Wall Street ranked Rhode Island as the fourth worst run state.

A March 2012 WPRI.com posting entitled "Analysis: Chafee, the bully pulpit and the limits of leadership” cited a New Yorker magazine article which suggested using a bully pulpit may not always be the most effective way for a chief executive to influence public policy. Others, however, disagree and believe that a leader can use the bully pulpit to shape an agenda and rally their supporters. Mother Jones quoted Democratic political operative Paul Begala as asking what is the alternative to the bully pulpit. “If you don’t try it at all, it guarantees you won’t persuade anybody.”

The salient point here is that there are effective ways to use a bully pulpit.

A successful bully pulpit starts with an agenda that is meticulously researched and factually accurate. It must get high marks on the “truth meter”.

In utilizing a bully pulpit a candidate must also establish a sense of urgency and seize and hold the initiative. A bully pulpit can be a powerful tool if the candidate is committed to playing offense. According to one of his close associates,” (Theodore) Roosevelt’s motto was action, action and still more action.”

A vital element of a winning persuasion campaign is for a candidate to continually communicate his or her program to the voters and the media. Effective use of a bully pulpit is not a one –time event. As a new President in 1901, Roosevelt presented his vision for the government he would lead in a detailed message which would come to be known as the” Square Deal”. This set the precedent for Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, John Kennedy’s “New Frontier”, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and Richard Nixon’s “New Federalism”. How will Rhode Island’s next leaders describe their direction and action items for the Ocean State over the next four years?

Guidelines for Effective Leadership

If a bully pulpit is to be more than a press release the candidates must articulate a clear vision of public leadership and how it will operate. Six guidelines for effective leadership include the following:

1) Gathering together disparate interests to resolve pressing issues by facilitating principled compromises,

2) Focusing on results by emphasizing program performance standards , accountability and outcomes over process and one- size –fits- all government,

3) Delineating responsibilities that will lead to the better utilization of resources and improved public services,

4) Thinking and acting as a system by understanding the interrelationship of issues,

5) Anticipating rather than reacting to problems by identifying preventative rather than more expensive remedial strategies, and

6) Adhering to uncompromising high ethical standards.

In the words of President Harry Truman, “In a period where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilled leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

Which gubernatorial candidate will grab the rudder and steer Rhode Island into a better future?


Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.

Related Slideshow:
10 Questions Taveras Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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#10 Fundraising

Can Taveras Keep Up with the Big Boys and Girls in Fundraising?

In America today, one issue that is a factor in nearly every election is fundraising. To date, Taveras has yet to demonstrate any consistent ability to keep up with the leading fundraisers in RI.

Taveras will have to compete with General Treasuer Gina Raimondo, who has $2 plus million on hand and a likely run from Clay Pell (grandson of US Senator Claiborne Pell and whose wife is Olympic skater Michelle Kwan).

Raimondo is on pace to raise $5m and Taveras presently has just $692,000 on hand and would be on pace to raise less than $2 mliion. 

Pell's family has access to nearly limitless dollars - back in the 1990's Pell's grandfather was ranked as one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

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#9 Curse

Can Taveras Break the Providence Mayor's Curse?

For more than 60 years, no Providence Mayor has been successful running for Governor of Rhode Island. You have to go back to the 1950 election when Dennis Roberts was elected Governor.

Since Roberts, a number of Providence Mayors have taken their shot at running for Governor and each has failed mightily.

Most notably, Buddy Cianci's run against J. Joseph Garrahy - Cianci got less than 30% of the statewide vote.

Joe Paolino was expected to win the Democratic primary in 1990, but was beaten badly by Bruce Sundlun and then Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty.

Sundlun went on to win the general election and Flaherty was later named to the state Supreme Court.

Taveras will have to break a very long curse.

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#8 Hire or Fire

Can Teachers Trust Taveras - and Will Voters Trust His Relationship with the Teachers Unions?

In the midst of the city's political meltdown, Taveras just into his first few months in office fired all the teachers in Providence.

Taveras received strong public support, but within months he capitulated to pressure from the teachers' unions.

Three years later, he is emerging as the candidate of the teachers' union leadership. Will teachers trust him in a statewide race and will voters trust him if he is perceived as too close to union bosses?

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#7 Hispanics

Will Hispanics Vote as a Block in the Primary for Taveras? Are They Influential Enough in the General?

Conventional wisdom is that Angel Taveras will get a big boost from the Hispanic voting block in the primary, but more recently Council members Luis Aponte, Danian Sanchez and Sabina Matos have all openly battled with the mayor on his tax increases and efforts to close pools in low income wards around the city.

While Taveras can rebound and the impact may be large in the primary, the percentage of voters who are Hispanic in the general election is just 7% according to Pew Research:

  • Rhode Island’s population is 12% Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic population share nationally.
  • There are 54,000 Hispanic eligible voters in Rhode Island—which ranks 35th in Hispanic eligible voter population nationally. California ranks first with 5.9 million.
  • Some 7% of Rhode Island eligible voters are Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic eligible voter population share nationally. New Mexico ranks first with 39%.
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#6 Temperament

Can Taveras Handle the Campaign Pressure and the Office Pressure of Governor?

Taveras had no experience as a chief executive in business or government before taking office in 2011 in Providence. He has increasingly gotten into some very non-productive scrapes.

In 2012, his law office delivered a document to GoLocalProv as part of a FOIA request and those documents included the social security number of every retiree of the City. Instead of taking responsibility he sent his lawyers to court to try to block GoLocal from writing about the mishandling of social security numbers. The judge ruled against Taveras.

In 2013, Taveras has tried to demolish a commuity swimming pool in South Providence because, according to Councilman Danian Sanchez, Sanchez would not vote for Taveras' tax increase.

Will Taveras be able to prove to voters he has the right stuff?

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#5 Base outside Prov

Can Angel Taveras Build a Political Base Outside of Providence?

While Taveras has a strong political base in Providence, it is unclear if he can build a strong political network in critical Democratic strongholds like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence.

It is well known that both Democratic Mayors in North Providence and Johnston have had a strained relationship with Taveras.

This strain has played out over critical matters like mutual emergency aid and in 2012, North Providence, Johnston and East Providence all cancelled emergency aid compacts with Providence.

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#4 Women Voters

Can Taveras Compete for Women Voters?

When Taveras ran for Mayor he won the critical block of East Side Democratic women. Part of his success with this critical block of voters was the support he enjoyed from Democratic power Myrth York. 

The two-time Democratic nominee for Governor went all in for Taveras in 2010, but she no longer is active in the inner circle and reportedly would have supported Governor Lincoln Chafee in the primary.

Taveras will need to compete with Raimondo who has already signed former EMILY's list bigwig Kate Coyne-McCoy.

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#3 Star Power

Can Taveras Keep Up with Clay Pell's Star Power?

In 2010, Taveras ran under the motto of "from Head Start to Harvard."  His claim on the American dream proved a successful juxtaposition to two Democrats who had the same political base - Federal Hill (Steven Costantino and John Lombardi).

Now, Taveras may face the fresh-faced Clay Pell. His bio exceeds Taveras as he can claim the legacy of his grandfather's work and hit the circuit with his superstar wife, Olympian Michelle Kwan.

Prev Next

#2 Issues and Vision

Can Angel Taveras Articulate a Vision for Rhode Island?

Taveras earned good scores for managing the City of Providence's financial crises, but never seemed to develop major policies for economic development, schools, parking, crime, reducing the cost of government or improving the efficiency.
The Superman building's closure happened on his watch, technology company Dassault Systèmes is moving out of Providence, and no major employers were recruited into the city other than the scrap yard on Allens Avenue.
Taveras will need to define a forward looking vision for Rhode Island.
Prev Next

#1 Crime and Education

Can Taveras Explain His Record on Crime and Education?

The biggest problem for Taveras is his record in Providence.
Most people care about the basics - their jobs, education for their children, how safe their neighborhood is.  These vary questions could be Taveras' Achilles' heel.
According to GoLocal's study of the FBI crime data, Providence is ranked #2 for violent crime per capita in Rhode Island.
The condition of Providence's schools may be worse. Of the 24 schools ranked as poor (de facto failing) in Rhode Island by the Department of Education, 6 of them were Providence Schools and in the rankings of the best high schools in the state, most of Providence's schools consistently litter the bottom of the rankings.
Taveras lead the city to win the $5 million Bloomberg award. But in a Governor's race one of Taveras' opponents is sure to ask, "Mr. Mayor, are you going to bring the same policies you used on crime and education in Providence to the rest of the state?"

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Gary Arnold

Sasse has it right, his list of ethics for being proactive with preparation and plans is exactly what RI does not have with the Governor and the General Assembly. Leadership is just that and in RI we have Unionized Democrats that only know how to play the system for their self gains.
Question to GoLocal, why do you have a 10 slide deck on Tavers attached to this article? Is it to show he does not have any of the core abilities that Sasse just outlined for a successful Governor, if so, Travers doesn't cut it. How about the other candidates?

Johnny cakes

First thing anyone has to do is tell people truthfully how we got to where we are. It didn't just happen that we are fighting for #1 in the nation for unemployment. These were policy decisions and you and others refuse to acknowledge what they were. Because you and those you pimp for want them to continue. Nothing is going to change and on some level everyone knows it.

bill bentley

Mr. Sasse: I do not believe that "Gathering together disparate interests ," can be achieved in this present political atmoposhere of extreme partisanship.

bill bentley

atmosphere, sorry.

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