Michael J. Gardiner
On Thursday night, Todd Giroux (D) Ken Block (R) Gina Raimondo (D), Allen Fung (R), Angel Tavares and Herbert “Clay”Pell took the stage at Brown University for a forum conducted by the Women’s fund, an organization dedicated to creating equal opportunity for women and prospering female candidates for office.
The natural favorite of the audience was Gina Raimondo who took the stage to just a little extra applause. Also evident was some support for Cranston Mayor Allen Fung who has recently acquired a little inside the party oomph from newly formed “Girls Just Wanna Have Fung.” Anyone who thinks the Republican Party isn’t a place where the power and influence of women is respected has got a lot to learn.
Gina Raimondo looked like a million bucks in some sort of fantastic powder blue tunic worthy of a Bourbon prince. Allan Fung looked like a Mayor and a man who could be governor in a suit that was crisp but did need a red tie or bolder tie. His campaigning has him looking very tanned but in a well-tailored brown suit with a sort of soft taupe yellow tie, he was a little too camouflaged in the available lighting
Ken Block connected with a cute family anecdote, but got a little stiff when challenged by the often loaded questions presented. That was understandable.
Men and women on the street
The questions presented were from individuals, “men and women on the street,” but were exclusively women’s issues. The questions were not designed to invite debate or create discussion of issues. They were designed to elicit pledges and the acceptance of certain positions. Surely in front of such an audience one feels a bit on the spot. But it’s not the time to offer consideration of the other point of view.
A question would be posed about unequal pay or the conduct of Colleges and Universities in regards to incidences and reporting of sexual assaults or contraception and reproductive rights and assistance to families, for instances. The candidates had to prove that they accepted the premise of the question, shared the questioners attitude and assumptions and then prove that they were willing to commit to government action to remedy it. This is not a “sweet spot” for Republicans because someone has to be on the side of restraint of government and it’s the Republicans. The discretionary part of the state budget is quite small and money is very tight.
Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell were eager to show that they would aggressively promote government action. Clay Pell continually stated “I think we need to go further.”. Raimondo sounded near equally emphatic, but also more pragmatic, advocating for instance, that the manner of delivery of services be better managed and directed to provide valuable results as opposed to promising “more” or bigger government.
Ken Block, a private employer used strong language to convey unequal pay was repugnant to him. He may even have gone too far in seeming to envision the heads of Universities and colleges answering to Governor Block. Pledging “bees” can get out of hand.
Proving a record of concern for the women’s issues was easier for Mayor Fung and Mayor Tavares because as Mayors on a day to day basis they are attuned to equal opportunity policy in the public and politically visible workplace of the city and they could both cite examples of encouragement of hiring of women. Tavares cited increased hiring of women in the police and fire departments. Fung cited three female directors in his administration
The uncomfortable thing for Republicans to deal with in such a forum is that they have to accept the loaded premise. For example, although intelligent arguments can be made that pay inequality is not caused by illegal discrimination and may reflect perfectly reasonable choices based on decisions that place paycheck behind other values and priorities like family and job conditions and safety, a Republican at such a forum is really not given enough time to provide any answer that does more than accept the assumptions within the question. To do so invites disaster. Only Allan Fung tried to give voice to a Republican argument on healthcare. It was the only awkward moment in an otherwise smooth performance.
Gina Raimondo of course, was very comfortable. She got good laughs pointing out in the midst of universal pledging to workplace flexibility that she was comfortable saying she was the only candidate who had ever actually been pregnant in the workplace.
Mayor Fung, was very comfortable too until after saying he was pro-choice, he sat on a spring, so to speak while qualifying that with a Republican position on health insurance that people should not be compelled to pay for insurance and programs they viewed as making them party to morally questionable acts. While wisely saying more or less, that he would not try to limit or impair women’s reproductive rights, Mayor Fung’s attempt to qualify that in any manner at all in such a forum was like spitting into the wind with a laundry clip on your tongue. The momentary awkwardness was painful. And it was unnecessary.
No fruitless heroics
Rhode Island Republicans should abandon any attempt to toe the lines of the national party platform where it conflicts with the law of the land. When it comes to insurance, our money gets pooled. We are not guilty of what every person in the pool does. At the pledging bee, unconditional affirmation or at least empathy with the assumptions and attitudes loaded into the question is rewarded and quibbling is punished. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated or destroyed. Frankly governing is that way too. Once the Supreme Court has created a right, and re-affirmed it, you may as well quit trying to govern otherwise. Fung and Block were both essentially saying they had no agenda to legislate against women‘s health or reproductive rights. They were going to live with settled law and live with the liberal view. That’s a good place to end it. Fung shouldn’t be expected to engage in fruitless heroics that have little to do with the RI governor’s race. He tried, but it weren’t purty.
Less debate, more Pledge Bee
My characterization of the forum as not so much a debate but a pledging bee is not to say that the Women’s Fund isn’t doing a heck of a job in getting candidates to become aware of and speak to women’s issues. They are. I am just pointing out that their questions were a little suggestive of the answer.
Gina Raimondo seemed to have the best understanding of the underlying issue that is really being raised and which I would phrase like this: “As governor, do you believe in doing anything at all to create progress or improve society or are you deaf to many concerns and just going to talk about cutting this, cutting that, as if lower taxes is the balm for every societal ill?”
Raimondo's position is she believes government can be part of making a better society, to see the need, and to do better.” Republican Mayor Fung manifests acceptance of the duties of governing beyond just cutting it. Mayors, Fung can says more or less“ I’m a mayor. We govern. We work with others. We improve things. We are sensitive and responsive to all community concerns.”
Ken Block, without being able to point to acts while in office, and needing to prove his authentic “ Republicaness” seems more on the horns of a dilemma. He wanted to share the concern and assured in strong language that he was sensitive to the concerns, but he really wanted talk about Rhode Island’s state of crisis and his idea to make TDI more cost effective and to lower and to make fairer the cost of unemployment insurance among various employers . Some of that came though. That’s when it’s nice to be able to talk about what you’ve done in office.
Forced to stay on topic
Frankly, all of the candidates were yoked and prevented from talking much outside the vantage point of women’s issues. That’s okay but I think women are as interested as men in approaching the broader issues without a totally gender based perspective. All of the candidates manifest a knowledge that under all, is the economy. Todd Giroux envisioned one heck of a big helicopter of federal money to allow RI to transform its government and economy. But President Obama and the clunkers, Solyndra, trickle through my friend’s stimulus perhaps wasted that opportunity. Giroux showed some good preparation at times and like a Democrat was pretty well prepared to speak to just the narrow focus of the particular forum. But, he too manifested a little discomfort with limited opportunity to talk about his campaign. He also was prone to some segues off topic. This too is a symptom of not being able to talk about accomplishments in office that relate to the forum.
In responding to the Women’s fund questions the Democrats overall each ran the risk of over-promising and under delivering. The Republicans were smart to acknowledge the concern embodied in the question but to avoid promising to do more than offer good government in accordance with well-established law and in Fung’s case, past and current practices. But the women’s fund in conducting the forum undoubtedly promoted the concerns of many women and illuminated the sorts of issues that officeholders and serious candidates and the general public need to beat least aware of. It was their forum, they put it on, and they accomplished their goal.
And the winner is...
So, who won? On the Republican side, neither Ken Block nor Fung lost to the other. Both are good candidates. It’s still going to be a get out the vote contest in the usually small but therefore unpredictable GOP primary. Will the RIGOP voter abandon the reliable up and coming kid, Fung, who has brought success to the farm team for a recent acquisition from a different league? Block can play so he is getting real consideration and, one has to wonder how many voters Block brings with him that will show up in the GOP primary. Whatever happens, the RIGOP will have a good candidate. And the real win for the GOP may be the legitimization and reinforcement of its centrist good government traditions and Republican willingness to utilize the tools and resources of government, albeit conservatively, to improve society. I suspect the women in attendance appreciated that the Republican focus on the overall economy, is warranted and reasonable. Even the Democrats spoke to it.
Ken Block showed that the gender issues yoke had chaffed a little but almost nailed it and when he said words to the effect that RI’s difficult budget situation is “gender indiscriminate.” I say almost nailed because what he really said is a broader point; “RI’s most gubernatorial problems, the ones the Governor must focus on are gender neutral.” That is the Republican point of view. It sort of like the line attributed to Congressman Stephens portrayed in the recent movie “Lincoln.” I do not hold with equality in ALL things but only with equality under the law.” It is the idea that we provide equal protection of law and trust that individuals will make themselves equal, and even elevate themselves by their wits and their efforts in such an environment. It is the idea that good government isn’t really about special policies and special concerns, its about policies that serve everyone. But, what Republicans don’t realize too often, is that when the government is serving everyone, it serves nobody in particular. The Democrats are always playing to the particular. In recent years , in Rhode Island’s damaged post Chafee v. Laffey GOP, government is not; supposed to do anything. As a result, RI republicans seldom if ever offer vision. They cringe from a truth. Leadership impetus from the Governor, from any office holder, can help to overcome cultural inertia and to catalyze change are in great danger of always qualifying every position with restraint and reluctance to lead.
Remember how the RIGOP courted gays support but only supported civil union s in 2010? It’s lukewarm. Remember how they opposed Obamacare but had no idea of an alternative because they weren’t sure there was a problem anyway and worry that government should only operate like it did when the Slater mill opened? How can you form a vision when you know you r party is held hostage to two or three hundred people who want to talk about pro Life, no matter what the law of the land is, Ayn Rand, even though everyone else is like “ Who?” “What?” and illegal immigration. For two election cycles at least now the RIGOP has been a vision free zone. Okay, Ken Block has a vision of lower cost TDI and unemployment insurance and Allan Fung of… Well look, if the whole state were Cranston that wouldn’t be that bad. One day a Republican will combine a voice, a vision, party support, name recognition foundation, the money ad organization that will inspire beyond partly lines. But it would be nice if happened over the summer. Republicans have to fall in love with the possibilities of leadership beyond the bean counting.
No matter what the topic, Clay Pell fairly bubbles over trying to promising we need to “do more,” even if his more degenerates into what everyone know we needs, economic recovery and future of growth. He is very intent on being seen as the bold visionary. If Pell had more than 6 months in that Education “language Czar” job he says proved his leadership abilities, his visions would be more compelling. Tavares wants offers “bold” vision too. Raise the minimum wage? Oh boom there you go. And while Tavares had to deal with the category 4 hurricane of Providence finances, he also closed the Davey Lopes pool. His vision is impaired.
Gina Raimondo actually does the best job of the three with vision, because you voter’s know she can be bold and she’ll actually do it. But She did push and get through the General Assembly a pension reform. She had a vision, and she made it happen and it wasn’t a warm fuzzy vision where you get to pose as Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful. It was adversarial. Glory was fleeting, resentment long lasting. And sure, there are questions about how she has managed the funds under her care as treasurer. Despite it all, Raimondo comes across as sharing a Democratic vision and yet balancing with more realistic pragmatism than Pell. And while she may have no clear advantage over Tavares, did I not point out that she wore a magnificent powder blue tunic fit for a Bourbon Prince, looked like a million bucks, mattered a little more to the women present, and got a laugh from the audience ? She also had the best line of the night in closing.
In her closing remarks, Treasurer Raimondo said words to the effect “policies that are good for women are good for everyone.” That is exactly what the Women’s’ fund wanted to hear, and while the Republican might smile and wonder just how far one should take that. A wise Republican should wish that he had said it. And Republican supporters should worry about it if they do. Women are half of the population but somehow they are more than half of our lives. Here’s to all the Mothers out there. I hope you had a wonderful mother’s day.
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