Rhode Island in ’06: same as it ever was

Democrats on top, a casino quest, and a dose of corruption
By IAN DONNIS  |  December 20, 2006

Sheldon Whitehouse
Imagine a year when the Narragansett Indians were energetically pitching a casino, cynical Rhode Islanders had plenty of reason to reinforce their jaundiced views, and state house Democrats maintained the upper hand over hapless Republican opponents without even breaking a sweat.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Yes, many times, in fact. And while 2006 offered a few deviations from form, the receding 365 days of this year, like a steady cycle of televised reruns, marked a repetition of the overriding themes to which Rhode Islanders have steadily become accustomed.

It was there in the economic-development rug being yanked out from under the long-suffering Narragansetts, who saw their best casino shot in years come up empty. There were plenty of reasons to question the deal, and it’s heartening that Rhode Islanders saw past the mind-boggling $18 million spent in support of it by Harrah’s Entertainment (more than four times as much as by casino opponents). Still, on some essential level, this was a triumph of Rhode Island provincialism.

And even when a first-time candidate named Donald L. Carcieri took the state by storm in 2002, Smith Hill Democrats probably knew, deep in their institutional bones, that time was on their side. For all of the nimble Republican governor’s talk about challenging the system, his effort to foster a genuine two-party system in Rhode Island skidded off the rails during the recent election season — when Carcieri himself barely survived. Sure, the governor and his supporters can tout his win as no small achievement in a big Democratic year, but the (predictable) departure of outgoing state GOP party chair Patricia Morgan still underscores the feeble state of the Rhode Island Republican Party.

The Democrats’ hand will be considerably strengthened during the coming legislative session, since wayward lawmakers have returned to Speaker William J. Murphy’s fold, and because the dissident Democrats, with whom Carcieri made common cause in recent years, have run out of gas.

Yet whether the Dems’ politically advantageous position enables the state to deal any more effectively with its most serious problems, including a deficit pegged at more than $100 million, not to mention a long-term structural deficit and the perpetual to need to create more good jobs, remains to be seen.

School for scandal

Donald L. Carcieri
It wouldn’t be a Rhode Island year without some scandal, of course. Things got off to an early start in January, when Robert Urciuoli, the CEO of Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, was indicted on federal corruption charges related to the hiring of former state Senator John Celona of North Providence. (Urciuoli was convicted in October of conspiracy and multiple counts of mail fraud, and Celona, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in 2005, is due to be sentenced in February.)

Not surprisingly, the miasma of misery caused by the February 2003 Station nightclub disaster remained close at hand. Many of those touched by the fire were outraged by the plea bargain resolution of the criminal charges against Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, in which one of the owners of the West Warwick nightclub received prison time. And while Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s office began, after the November election, to release records related to the conflagration, some of the details — such as West Warwick fire inspector Denis Larocque’s statement that he didn’t notice highly flammable foam at the nightclub, because of his focus on an exit door that swung the wrong way — did nothing to stem consternation about the case. The fallout can be expected to continue with the progress of countless civil cases.

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