The politics of tragedy

By IAN DONNIS  |  October 4, 2006

TWIN DYNAMIC: Lynch (right) presumably wants to move on from the controversy, while Harsch (left) needs it as a focal point for his outsider challenge to the incumbent.
Tale of two candidates
For cynics, the plea bargain reinforced their exaggerated sense that Rhode Island is utterly corrupt. And though Lynch has his share of supporters, the AG — part of a prominent political family from Pawtucket (his brother, Bill, is the longtime chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party) — seems to inspire a Kennedy-like loathing among his detractors.

Governor Donald L. Carcieri and his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, issued statements after the plea bargain, criticizing it as too lenient. ProJo columnist Mark Patinkin called it a raw deal.

Still, four days after the Derderians’ plea in the Station case — an event that brought a media horde to Rhode Island — public attention was drifting toward other stories, including the possible buyout of Harrah’s Entertainment and what it would mean for the ongoing casino debate.

Harsch, a past director of the state Department of Public Utilities, of the state Department of Environmental Management, and of a regional energy commission, labels Lynch’s tenure as AG a failure, and he points to his own background in contending that he can do a better job. Among other things, the challenger calls the AG’s office a political stepping-stone for Lynch, and he faults him for having accepted campaign donations from a lawyer and a lobbyist for DuPont Company while negotiating a $12 million settlement with the company over the state’s lead paint lawsuit.

The settlement itself, in part because of how most of the money is being channeled through a Washington, DC, nonprofit created with help from DuPont, has come in for criticism from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and Providence Journal editorial columnist Edward Achorn. Another $2.5 million chunk, bound for the asbestos-related cancer program at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was criticized by the Wall Street Journal since, “Mr. Lynch agreed to allow money from DuPont that would otherwise to go lead-paint cleanup in Rhode Island to be used instead by a private law firm to fulfill its pledge to an out-of-state institution.”

Harsch also accuses Lynch of failing to address utility rate increases over the last three-and-1/2 years, suggesting that this might be because of the political power of the utilities. He calls utility rates in Rhode Island “substantially above what they should be.”

Still, while his opponent has handed him some potential issues, it remains to be seen whether the Republican challenger — who expresses confidence that his $200,000 war chest will be sufficient to get his message out — will be able to make much of it.

Lynch seems to regard Harsch, who lacks prosecutorial experience, as more of a nuisance than anything else.

The AG defends the lead paint settlement, hailing it as a way of bringing justice for the harm caused by the substance over many years. He touts his record in office, including efforts — like those against expanding an LNG facility in Providence and in support of burying power lines along India Point — that bring the benefit of an appreciative constituency. Although Lynch sounds less convincing in trying to dismiss Harsch’s criticism over his acceptance of campaign donations from figures in the lead paint case, the Station conflagration is certainly a more tangible issue for most people.

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Related: Justice is blind, Blue (-Eyed) Devils?, Truth, Justice — or the Boston Way, More more >
  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Lincoln Chafee,  More more >
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