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In case you missed it: City problems bite pols with bigger ambitions

January 15, 2014

Editor's note: This "Politics as Usual" column was published in the Jan. 13, 2014 edition of The Times.

Anyone who thinks handicapping political races is easy should check last week’s newspapers.
Two Republicans with aspirations for higher office — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has his eye on becoming president of the United States, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, running to become governor of the Biggest Little State in the Union – are getting jammed up by their day jobs in their quest to climb the greasy pole of political ambition.
Noting the national scene first, let’s first consider Christie. Before last week’s news, Christie was at the top of just about every political tout’s list of 2016 GOP candidates for president. He was, to many, the Republicans’ best answer to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s universally expected bid for the Oval Office.
Now the Garden State governor, taunted by a Time magazine cover, as much because of his size as his political prominence and his party, as “the Elephant in the Room,” faces an existential threat to a candidacy that has not yet even been born because of a traffic jam.
If you have been paying any attention at all, you have heard about the ruckus that happened when two of the three lanes that allow traffic from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge leading into New York City were blocked off last September. The resulting traffic gridlock paralyzed little Fort Lee, bringing traffic to a virtual halt for four days.
No plausible explanation for this has been offered, except that the governor’s office was trying to exact political retribution from the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who, unlike several other state Democratic officeholders, did not endorse Christie when he ran for re-election last year and won, carrying more than 60 percent of the vote.
Subpoenaed e-mails point to a plot between a top Christie aide and a Christie appointee to the Port Authority that runs the bridge to create traffic havoc in the borough of Fort Lee. Lest anyone think this is funny, an elderly heart attack victim whose ambulance was caught in the jam died, although no one has conclusively linked the death to the bridge shenanigans.
The only reason any of us outside of the New York metropolitan area has even heard of this is because Christie is considered a presidential front-runner. Otherwise, it would have just been one more big traffic jam in New York.
In a nearly two-hour, tour de force press conference – this guy is a talented pol – Christie supplied just the right measured amounts of accepting accountability (while deflecting blame from himself) for the incident, sympathy for those entangled in it, contriteness on behalf of his administration, righteous indignation, and anger at the trusted staffers he says engineered this and then lied to him about it.
The one question he didn’t seem to answer satisfactorily is why practical-politician-guy-who-gets-things-done didn’t get to the bottom of this in September and why he was still making light of it in December when reporters persisted in asking him about it.
If no “smoking gun” e-mail emerges tying Christie to the bridge fiasco as it was happening, he will still be able to mount a presidential campaign, but there will be a blot on his escutcheon, a chink in his armor, a flaw for his opponents to exploit in a primary or general election campaign.
It is possible that Christie didn’t know about this stunt before it was executed — top-level staffers would make sure the governor had plausible deniability of the situation — but he can be rightly criticized for not being more on top of it.
Fung’s situation is a bit more prosaic. When two city councilmen in Cranston voted against a police union contract, cops blanketed cars in their districts with tickets for illegal parking.
Yes, the cars were parked illegally, but this was also pretty clearly an abuse of police power in response to a political beef.
First, Fung called for an internal police department investigation, then he called in an investigative consultant (coincidentally, from New Jersey) to oversee the internal investigation. One day after he gets the preliminary results of the internal investigation, he calls the State Police in (which he initially resisted doing) to take a look, and one day after that he sidelines the police chief on administrative leave and says he will refund the tickets and apologize to those receiving them.
Fung the gubernatorial candidate didn’t need the mess that Fung the mayor has found himself in.
That is why mayors often have a hard time getting elected to higher office. Whatever their strengths and abilities might be, they inevitably get bogged down by problems like snow plowing, garbage collection and parking tickets.
Unencumbered by such problems, Fung’s opponent for the Republican nomination, businessman Ken Block, was out fighting the good fight against the Chafee administration on open government grounds, claiming the State Properties Commission, currently engaged in a kerfuffle of its own, hasn’t filed reports of its decisions and votes for months on end.
Block is also ready to re-ignite his populist, fight-the-power campaign against the so-called master lever that allows people to cast votes for all candidates from a single party with one swipe of the pen.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, also a candidate for governor on the Democratic side, got a taste of this phenomenon a few weeks ago when he got embroiled in a battle over closing an inner-city swimming pool.
So beware of the know-it-alls who try to tell you months in advance who is likely to win any election months, weeks or even days in advance. Campaigns are tricky things; they can blow at any seam, and one day’s dead lock of a winner can be the next day’s spectacular flameout, even over the simplest and most trivial of things.

•••

I count myself among the roughly one-quarter of Rhode Islanders who, according to pollsters, think Gov. Lincoln Chafee is doing a pretty good job.
That’s why it came as such a disappointment last week when Chafee, uncharacteristically, didn’t stick to his guns on an issue and meekly bowed to outside pressure.
You may remember from reading this space last week that there was a plan to move a state probation and parole office from South Providence to downtown. This seemed to make sense, since the office would be conveniently located in the center city, close to the place where RIPTA buses converge from all around the state.
Well, when one business owner started bellowing about having to share the city streets with people trying to get their lives together after getting out of prison, Chafee and his top aides promptly soiled themselves and moved to immediately reverse the decision. They are now seeking new proposals to put the probation and parole offices somewhere – anywhere! – else.
Where are those people and magazines that constantly rank Rhode Island as 50th, or close to it, in various forms of “business friendliness”? How can they miss the spectacle of our elected officials constantly bending over backwards to kiss the backsides of business leaders?

Jim Baron is a political reporter and columnist for The Times. His column is featured in The Times and The Call on Mondays.

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