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Cleaning up cronyism takes upstream solutions



“The system wasn’t built for us and won’t protect us from the viral cronyism around us…”

It’s been a rough few weeks for democracy. If we’re being honest, it’s been a rough decade for faith in democracy. The hits keep coming, the public outrage isn’t sustainable. So what better time than during a CVOID-19 induced, social limiting phase  than to put some pen to paper?

We have a complicated outlook on politics and cronyism in lil Rhody. It was always confusing to me after I moved 10 years ago from Missouri, that nearly every Rhode Islander would expound on why they don’t engage in politics. Yet they universally had some underlying affinity for former Mayor Buddy Cianci. There is a love-hate relationship in Rhode Island for our current system and cast of political caricatures because our political notoriety is what makes us “special.” Some might even say that cracking jokes like “the only way the Speaker leaves his office is in handcuffs,” contributes to our state’s special brand.

There is no time like the present, as a pandemic flairs, for us to talk about “upstream solutions” toward building a healthy democracy. By looking at the body politic more wholly, we can see why our State House continues to infect our public discourse and public hallways like a gnarly virus. In Rhode Island our legislature is powerful in comparison to the Governor who has no line item veto and term limits. The state legislature sets the very rules that perpetuates viral cronyism.

My disinfectant  wish list is that the women’s caucus, the reform caucus and issue coalitions  who are intervening within our sickly democracy can repeat the following mantra – The rules were made to be broken. The system wasn’t built for us and won’t protect us from the viral cronyism around us. Women, Millennials and Zennials, people of color, busy working-class people – must demand new rules. Here are some starting points:

  1. Pay a living wage and healthcare to incentivize real people to run. We get what we pay for. This sounds counter intuitive if you believe the root failure of government is because the people elected don’t look like you or have to pay their  bills like you. Right now the only people who can afford the maddening schedule of a legislature are independently wealthy, employed by law firms or retired. This perpetuates public mistrust. Anyone could run if they were guaranteed a salary, healthcare and good parking. It’s a small price to pay in a $10 billion state budget and it’s at the root of our sickness.
  2. Shorten legislative session from 6 to 3 months. Nearly half of state legislatures contain their annual session to about three months. The stranglehold that lobbyists have over the RI legislature could be curtailed by creating legislative social distancing – much like a pandemic. Advocates, voters and legislators alike could better balance trips under the dome if we were all working under a shortened time frame and reducing the horse trade windows. In my experience, not much work happens in January – March anyway – except  for more time for the faint of heart to succumb to the Speaker. Meanwhile four states (Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas) have session every other year, that’s something worth exploring while we’re at it.
  3. Provide childcare at the State House. This applies to childcare for elected leaders  and taxpayers who want to make their voice heard. A State House daycare for session days, how novel. And while we’re at it private stations for breastfeeding. Women are woefully underrepresented in legislatures (hovering at 29%) across the country while most states don’t even allow use of campaign funds to offset childcare and family costs (Senator Gayle Goldin has a plan for that). 
  4. Allow telecommuting for public forums and committees. More advocates, everyday voters and elected leaders could engage in committee hearings if we simply adopted google hangouts and Zoom for government. There is absolutely no reason we can’t do that and I suspect we will see some crash courses in Facetime over the next month on Smith Hill. 

Paula Hodges lives in Elmhurst and facilitates the Women’s Policy Institute for the Women’s Fund of RI and is an Advisory Board Co-Chair for New Leaders Council RI. She is a nonprofit and political consultant who works to deepen and diversify state level structural democracy across the country.