CAMPAIGN AS PERFORMANCE ART? Gemma meets the press.
About halfway through Democrat Anthony Gemma's ridiculous Congressional campaign, I began to wonder if it was all an elaborate piece of performance art.
This is a man, after all, who teased the official announcement of his candidacy with the promise of a declaration "positively impact[ing] the political, economic, and cultural fates of Rhode Island and, by extension, the United States of America for the foreseeable future."
By Election Day, though, it was clear that Gemma was just the most absurd manifestation of what may be the biggest problem in Rhode Island public life circa 2012: amateurism.
Hardened observers will tell you this is not a new problem. They'll tell you Ocean State politics has never been the preserve of the best and the brightest. And they would be right. But the past year seems like an apotheosis.
From the epic collapse of the taxpayer-supported 38 Studios video game company, to the Rhode Island Republican Party's spectacular failure at the polls, to Lincoln Chafee's ill-fated appearance on The O'Reilly Factor to defend his "holiday tree," this was the year that Ocean State politics announced itself as terminally Bush League.
Well, maybe not terminally. There is, in fact, some hope for a more professional political-policymaking apparatus. And I'll get to that. But first, a look at the folly of 2012.
The genesis of the 38 Studios deal is, by now, a familiar story.
Former Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri, at the tail end of a largely ineffectual second term, was attending a fundraiser at retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's suburban Boston mansion when he suggested the hurler move his start-up company to Rhode Island.
It wasn't long before the General Assembly's leadership was tacking an additional $75 million onto a $50 million loan guarantee bill meant to create jobs in the state. And not long after that, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC) approved a $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studios.
The sins, here, are legion. Start with insider dealing. But for a state whose economic troubles are paramount, it is the amateurism — no coherent vision for economic development, just a swing-for-the-fences bet on a single, unproven company in a high-risk sector — that is most troubling.
Then-gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee had the good sense to oppose the deal, of course. And perhaps the now-governor's slow-and-steady approach to economic development — improve education and infrastructure — will pay dividends in the long run; that is, if he can actually improve education and infrastructure.
But for now, many in the business community are mystified by Chafee's apparent resistance to significant reform at EDC and by his staid choice to head the agency, long-time staffer William J. Parsons.
The Chamber of Commerce crowd, of course, was already wary of the governor after his failed bid at a sales tax expansion last year. And Chafee angered labor when he signed landmark pension reform legislation. Now and again, he's found ways to tick off the average voter, too.
Witness his stubborn insistence on calling the State House spruce a "holiday tree" rather than a Christmas tree, a stance he underlined — just in case you missed it — with an unfortunate appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show.