3/19/08

Rhode Island turn-around group gains

Arlene Violet was there, working the crowd in a pair of black pajamas decorated with a golden dragon and Chinese lettering, a souvenir of a recent trip to Singapore. “Hey! How are you!” the former talk-show host and Rhode Island attorney general said as she shook a hand in the back of the hall.

Harriet Allen, the Charlestown town councilwoman who once sang during a council meeting to get her point across, was there, too. So was Chris Prata, the North Kingstown gadfly whose stingingly satirical Web site, www.nkspending.org, has drawn the wrath of the North Kingstown School Committee’s chairman. And Terry Gorman of Lincoln, founder of the group Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, one of whose members made news last week when he challenged the citizenship of two Spanish-speaking customers in his Providence heating-supply store.

They were among some 200 people who came to The Towers on Saturday for the annual winter meeting of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, whose anti-tax, anti-casino, anti-union agenda has drawn increasing attention around the state.

So was Lisa Nelson, a 45-year-old Westerly woman who until a few days earlier had been director of product management for the cardiovascular section of Heartlab. Then she lost her job as Heartlab, a division of the Belgium-based company Agfa, laid off 29 workers in Westerly as part of a company-wide “savings plan.”

“So I’m particularly concerned with how we attract better jobs,” Nelson said.

NELSON, LOOKING businesslike but far from stuffy in rimless glasses and a pink sweater over a white blouse, was taking part in her first meeting of the coalition. In a room filled with men in jackets and ties and women in dresses and suits, she appeared to be one of the younger attendees, often by a matter of several decades.

“It’s an important time for people of all ages to get involved,” she said.

She was there with her father, A. Barclay Robertson, 83. Robertson, also of Westerly, has been a coalition member for about 2½ years and has gotten to know the organization’s chairman, Harry L. Staley. He’s liked what he’s seen.

“They are an organization whose only real purpose is to make Rhode Island a better state,” said Robertson, dapper in a brown herringbone sport coat over a tan sweater and beige shirt. “More business-friendly. And educationally a better state.”

Nelson, too, was interested in making Rhode Island a place that could attract good-paying jobs, like the ones just lost at Heartlab. With the level of engineering talent already on hand, and modern technology, she said, the state could be a leader in health care and other industries.

“There’s nothing preventing even a little state like Rhode Island from doing big things,” she said. “We can serve the globe from Rhode Island. And we do better customer service than some parts of the globe.”

Nelson said she was taking the opportunity of her layoff to work with the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce on a jobs program and to get an online degree from Northwestern University in medical informatics, which is healthcare-industry information technology. It would go with her MBA and her computer-science undergrad degree.

And she was checking out the coalition.

“There are a lot of reasons that I want to get involved at the state level,” she said. “Heartlab was taking up 80 hours a week of my time, so I didn’t have any energy to share with the state. But now I do.”

WE’D BEEN CHATTING while the attendees breakfasted on muffins and cubed melon, coffee and coffeecake. Staley greeted the crowd with the note that “RISC is no longer just a shoreline coalition; it is a statewide coalition.” The group founded in 2003 in Westerly and Charlestown as the Rhode Island Shoreline Coalition; it changed its name last year to reflect its growing reach and membership.

Now, he said, its 4,000 members come from 26 of the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Nelson took notes diligently on scraps of paper.

James T. Beale Jr., the coalition’s president, took the lectern and talked about the state’s business and tax climate and its “serious” budget deficit. He noted Journal stories on the salaries of Rhode Island’s 75,000 state and municipal employees, more than 1,600 of whom made over $100,000 in 2006. The crowd chuckled when he asked, “By the way, does that combined total of 75,000 government employees strike any of you as much too much for such a small state?”

“Wow,” Nelson said under her breath.

Thomas C. Wigand, a member of the board of the coalition, spoke of the need to improve Rhode Island’s schools. He said that ordinary people must push for school vouchers, taking a cue from teachers’ unions that “demand what they want and they’re relentless until they get it.” That’s how the public can get what it wants, he said: “We start demanding it and we’re relentless and then the change will come.”

And Harriet S. Lloyd, vice president of the coalition, talked of the social costs of gambling, of the group’s opposition to the Narragansett Indians’ attempts to build a casino and of efforts to make gambling seem more palatable by calling it “gaming.”

“Gaming or gambling, whatever the name, wherever the casino,” Lloyd said. “Only one outcome is certain: They win, we lose.”

Thunderous applause.

“She’s right!” Robertson told Nelson. Nelson nodded at her father.

ALL THIS WAS just a warm-up, speeches that set the table, mostly in low-key tones, for the morning’s big-name speakers. Now came the red meat, starting with Arlene Violet.

“This sort of sounds like Rhode Island blues,” said Violet, who also is a member of the coalition’s board. “Rhode Island has been sick for so long that many of us have become inoculated to its sickness.”

State and local employees, their family members and “pals,” she said, form “an incredibly large voting bloc” in Rhode Island. And to such people, the answer to every problem is “to raise taxes. … Instead of stopping the gravy train, we’re adding more cabooses to the train!”

Nonprofit agencies that do a good job in one area, she said, move into fields like housing “to extend their fiefdoms.” And the government’s response? “It’s not just a chicken in every pot. We’re giving you the kitchen, the kitchen sink and the whole house!”

Not for the first time, she paused for applause. And then Violet, who quit as a nun so she could run for attorney general in the 1980s, urged her audience to “do your penance” by running for office.

“I wish I could promise you you’d get into heaven,” she added to laughter, “but I don’t know where I stand.”

Now she turned serious again.

“I’m begging you to be part of the new two-year revolution,” she said. “They used to say, ‘Uncle Sam wants you.’ Well, I guess this is, ‘Aunt Arlene needs you!’ ”

Nelson joined in the standing ovation that followed.

NOW IT WAS the turn of the event’s main speaker, Governor Carcieri.

“Tough act to follow,” he said.

The governor had arrived with his wife, Sue. They had attended a wedding the night before, he said, and would be at another that afternoon. But the coalition’s work was important, he said.

“As a state, we’ve created an environment over decades that we’re driving the money away,” he said. Now, he said, he was trying to fight the unions and a Democrat-dominated legislature to turn things around at the State House.

“You’ve got to get involved,” he told the crowd. “You need more people up there, whether they’re independent or Republican,” who would work with him.

Other speakers had offered the idea that Democrats might also be “enlightened” — indeed, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse sat in on part of the session, and North Kingstown Sen. James Sheehan and Bristol Rep. Douglas Gablinske attended, all three of them Democrats.

But Carcieri said the State House’s political culture made such a thing impossible.

“They may be enlightened when they get there,” he said to chuckles, “but the second day, the lights go off.”

Carcieri, too, received a standing ovation as he finished.

STALEY TOOK THE lectern again to close things out. And now he, too, seemed energized as he pleaded for his listeners to seek public office, so there would be no repeat of 2006, when almost half of the General Assembly’s seats went uncontested in the general election.

“It is no longer acceptable for me to say it’s your job, or for you to say it’s my job,” he said. “It’s our job…

“You are the right people to do this in your community. And if you’re not the right people, you know who they are.”

One more standing ovation followed.

As we got up to leave, I asked Nelson what she thought.

“I think he’s talking to me,” she said. “I think he’s talking to all of us.

“More people need to stand up and get involved. And I think that’s what’s inspiring me.”

Had she decided to run for office? Sounding like a politician already, she replied, “There’s nothing I can announce today.”

But if I were a gambling man — or is that a gaming man? — I’d say that on Saturday, Harry Staley found himself at least one of the candidates he’s looking for.

(projo.com)

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