REMEMBERING LINCOLN C. ALMOND One of R.I.'s great governors. And the kind of Republican We wish was still around
LINCOLN ALMOND was a methodical, earnest administrator, a terrible public speaker, a successful crime fighter in one of the country's most corrupt states and a principled, accomplished Rhode Island governor. He was also the kind of Republican that Democrats could - and did - vote for. Most liberals wish men and women like him were still around to keep the GOP honest and relevant. In 2002, I wrote a long piece about the under-appreciated politician, for the Providence Phoenix, an alternative weekly. After Almond died, Jan. 2 at age 86, a couple of people remembered that article, so I dug up a copy from from my files. I'm reprinting it here on my personal blog, which has been dedicated to criticism of Donald Trump for the past six years. It's unfair, in a way, to include Almond with the likes of Trump, but this blog is my only outlet. So, Linc, If you're reading this wherever you are, please don't take it personally. -- Brian Jones
THE PROVIDENCE PHOENIX May 31 - June 6, 2002
Linc: Better than you think Lincoln Almond has been a pretty effective governor, but his popularity pales in comparison to Buddy Cianci, since he's not entertaining and doesn't get the politics of symbolism
BY BRIAN C. JONES
THE LONG-AWAITED PLUNDER DOME TRIAL, another in the endless sagas of government corruption that have plagued Rhode Island throughout its history, is underway, and there's public fury with a politician. Headlines trumpet the officeholder's blunders: secret lists, hidden contracts, budget overruns. "I'm getting treated like I'm Richard Nixon," complains one of the politician's top aides. And a caller to the WHJJ-AM talk show hosted by John DePetro is on the horn, ranting about the politician's shameful ways. This guy, the caller scolds, had a chance to go Ground Zero after hijacked airliners demolished the World Trade Center in New York, and he didn't have the decency to represent Rhode Island at an American shrine. Who is this rascal? Certainly not Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who, with three Plunder Dome co-defendants, faces 29 counts of running City Hall in Rhode Island's capital as a criminal racket. Nope, Cianci's ratings never have been better. Several months ago, a Brown University poll showed that 63 percent of respondents believe he's doing a good or excellent job, and political scientist Darrell M. West, who oversaw the poll, believes these numbers remain accurate. No, the scoundrel of the moment is the governor of Rhode Island, the not-so-excellently-perceived Lincoln C. Almond. Almond's approval ratings are awful, half those of the indicted mayor. Only 34 percent give the governor high marks, while nearly one out of four Rhode Islanders surveyed in the poll say Almond's performance is "poor." Why? Almond has given voters much of what they've asked for, starting with seven years of scandal-free government, delivered by a man who puts on no airs as he works to adjust the mundane but vital nuts-and-bolts of public service -- such unexciting "asset protection" projects as road maintenance and college dormitory repairs. By contrast, Cianci spends his days in federal court, where witnesses spin tales of envelopes packed with bribe money, spiteful abuses of public power, and the sale of government jobs. After court, without missing a beat, Cianci crosses to the other end of Kennedy Plaza, where he interviews candidates vying to be the city's next chief of police. With little more than seven months left in Almond's tenure, a powerful case can be made that he'll be leaving office with a respectable record that contrasts with the widespread scorn he's receiving. Here's a partial list:
By one count, there are 41,000 more jobs in Rhode Island than when he took office in 1995. The unemployment rate, which was then more than seven percent, is now about four percent. Big-name companies like Fidelity Investments and Dow Chemical actually have squabbled with each other for the right to build new facilities and boost their workforces (Almond helped mediate their dispute).
There's a half-billion dollars worth of construction going on at the state's colleges, reversing decades of decay.
The state is recognized nationally for having one of highest levels of health insurance, thanks to a state program that Almond brought into its own.
Rhode Island's much-scarred and scorned highways and bridges are under repair and getting smoother and sounder every year.
The state bond ratings are improved, so less taxpayer money is squandered on interest.
Taxes are down. Really. The state income tax rate has been lowered nearly 10 percent, just as Almond vowed it would be when he took office. And some other "anti-business" taxes are being phased out, too.
And most of all, as the squalid details of Plunder Dome are recounted daily in US District Court, the Almond administration's corruption record is as spotless as the gleaming marble of the State House.
"Almond never has been indicted for anything, and is probably the most honest politician the state has ever had," says West, the Brown professor. "In a lot of respects, he's been a remarkable governor." In fact, the hurricane of corruption that devastated Rhode Island in the past few decades brought in an era of reform and clean government at the state level, led first by former governor Bruce Sundlun, then by Almond. "Keep in mind how he was elected in 1994," West says. "After a major recession and the banking crisis, voters wanted a non-politician, and that's what they got." In largely incorruptible states such as Vermont or Maine, eight years without scandal might be taken for granted. But in Rhode Island, it's worth remarking on, and even Almond's critics praise him on this point. It was only a few years ago that former governor Edward D. DiPrete completed 11 months in the ACI after pleading guilty to charges of bribery and extortion. Two of the last four state Supreme Court chief justices resigned rather than risk impeachment. Brian Sarault, the ex-mayor of Pawtucket, took to selling cars after completing his prison term for corruption. And a good part of the state's citizens have vivid memories of their life savings being locked away for years after the corruption-caused crisis that forced closing of 45 credit unions on New Year's Day in 1991. But Lincoln Almond's status as the un-politician of Rhode Island politics certainly hasn't helped his public standing. Although intelligent and genial in one-on-one conversation, the 65-year-old governor is one of the worst orators in Rhode Island history, speaking in a molasses-like monotone that has his listeners glued to their watches. Almond moves his 6-foot-6-inch frame in such a shuffling way that just his exit from the State House in time for supper stokes rumors that the governor is not only dull, but lazy. The governor often seems to have a tin ear when it comes to the symbols, and sometimes the substance, of politics - as evidenced by his unstinting and unpopular support for a container port at Quonset Point. When things aren't moving fast enough for his critics, the charge is that Almond is off at his weekend second home, an offense made all the worse because the house is in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, instead of Bonnet Shores. For his part, Almond expresses satisfaction that he's been able to maintain his private life. To not do so, he says, "becomes very dangerous. I think we do have some politicians who, because of circumstances, and unfortunately, that's the way they are, they have no life other than politics, and Buddy Cianci is one of them. I mean, Buddy can go out every night because, you know, that's where he is. I just do not want to be a full-time politician. I'm not cut out for it. And I'm not saying I'm not a politician, because all governors are politicians. I'm a politician. I'm not backing away from that. But I don't want to be a full-time politician."
THE UN-POLITICIAN hasn't strayed from his modest beginnings. After he was elected, he still was mowing his own grass at his house in Lincoln, just over the border from where he grew up in impoverished Central Falls. His idea of a night out remains dinner with his wife, Marilyn, at Chelo's. He traded in the state's gubernatorial limousine for an SUV (albeit an enormous Lincoln Navigator) because it was more practical in winter and, he says, better suited to getting work done and accommodating his large frame. And Almond always makes the neighborly gesture. During a huge April Fools Day snowstorm in 1997, Almond took to the highways to spot check snow plowing, and when he came upon car mired in a drift, got out and started pushing it himself. Thus, in an era of public distrust of politicians, Almond seemed the perfect cure: homegrown and honest, a graduate of Central Falls High School and the University of Rhode Island, and for more than 20 years, US Attorney for Rhode Island, hounding drug dealers, gangsters, and corrupt public officials. In federal investigations of Cianci's first administration, Almond racked up 30 indictments, 22 convictions, and 16 prison sentences. Almond was the first governor to be elected for a four-year term, one of several structural reforms of state government meant to give the chief executive a better shot at deliberative, long-range decision-making, and supporters say he took full advantage of the changes. He began with two key interests, which he saw as parts of the same goal: improving education, and spurring the state's economy. Get a good education, Almond believed, and you could get a good job. He went to public high school, then to public college. And anyone else could do that if they had the same opportunity. "Education was a huge part of his life," says a source close to the Almond administration. "For John Chafee, it was Yale and the Marines. For Lincoln Almond, it's URI. It really, really is an enormous part of his life." So immediately, Almond began pouring money into the state's colleges, and in the past seven years, higher education spending has increased nearly 50 percent, and elementary and secondary education, more than 60 percent. One of Almond's first acts was to convert the state agency in charge of business expansion into a more business-like Economic Development Corporation (although the EDC was hardly free of questionable practices under former director John Swen, who resigned after Almond criticized the agency's misuse of credit cards), and he started the Economy Policy Council, to brainstorm the state's business needs and economic future. Almond also dusted off a scheme to invent new Rhode Island-based businesses that was originally proposed in the administration of governor J. Joseph Garrahy: a series of business "greenhouses" that would turn local university research into new industries. The Samuel Slater Technology Fund, with only $15 million in state money, has created 55 "seedling" companies. In biotechnology alone, five of 23 biotechnology startup firms have raised $60 million in venture capital. The governor, who had opposed the proposed Providence Place Mall as a candidate, was pragmatic enough to realize the economic and psychological potential of bringing retail business back to Providence. He eventually worked out what he termed a less risky venture for the state to help support the mall, which got built for an overall private and public investment of more than $400 million, with more than 150 stores opening. Almond worked on very mundane, but critical elements of state government. One, according to his former budget director, Stephen P. McAllister, is "asset protection," fixing up state buildings, ranging from the State House to worn-out college dormitories and laboratories, but using current funds, rather than borrowing. This, along with early repayment of banking crisis bonds, has helped decrease overall borrowing, and resulted in improved ratings from two of three national bond-rating agencies. This means that the state, when it does borrow, pays lower interest rates. Similarly, Almond steered the state's gasoline taxes into transportation, bolstering both highway projects and the state's mass transit bus system. He launched a "fix-it-first" approach to highway work, repairing roads rather than building new ones, meaning a quicker, less-costly upgrade of the state's low-rated highways. At the same time, George H. Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO , argues that Almond has taken a progressive approach to controversial social issues, not acting, as Nee puts it, "like a Republican." Nee credits the governor for funneling millions of dollars into inner-city schools, much to the chagrin of schools in the suburbs, which are perceived to be Almond's home turf (since he's a former Lincoln town administrator). Another un-Republican development during Almond's administration, Nee says, has been the growth of the RIte Care program, a plan to use federal and state Medicaid dollars to improve the health of pregnant women and children. Under Almond's former welfare director (and now congressional candidate) Christine C. Ferguson, RIte Care has grown to cover 116,000 low-income adults and children -- more than one out of every 10 Rhode Islanders. It's one reason why more people here are covered by health insurance than in most other states. Ferguson, who herself was being pushed by welfare advocates and liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, persuaded Almond to back what is regarded as a kinder and more effective version of welfare reform, in which Rhode Island gives mothers more time, education and resources, such as childcare, to help them leave welfare than other states. Almond also gets high marks for his judicial and cabinet appointments. Some department heads were held over from Sundlun, and some were brought in from the outside, such William D. Ankner, who heads the Department of Transportation.
IT'S HARD TO FAULT ALMOND for his motives in one of his major controversies -- and failures -- a botched attempt to convert the huge former Navy facilities at Quonset Point in North Kingstown into a container port. His goal was to increase jobs. In the four decades since the Navy abandoned the 3000-acre plot, the state has labored to turn it into a giant industrial base, and, in fact, more than 136 business, employing 6400 workers, operate out of there. But what generated rebellion not only within North Kingstown, but throughout the state, was the industrial-strength scope of the project: the fact that it called for filling in up to 204 acres of Narragansett Bay. Almond maintains he never supported the bay-filling idea. But he's clung to the idea of some sort of container port. The issue is so polarizing that none of the current candidates for governor back the port, and most won't even support his plea for an environmental study. Almond's steadfastness -- call it stubbornness -- on issues like the port helps stoke his critics' anger. Leonard Lardaro, a URI professor who gives Almond generally decent marks on improving education and fighting a costly repeal of auto taxes, faults the governor for pushing the container port so relentlessly. Lardaro says Almond has generated such opposition that it will be hard for others to quickly develop Quonset Point to its full potential. Similarly, Almond's persistent opposition to gambling has created many enemies, from supporters of increased slot machines at facilities in Lincoln and Newport, as well as backers of the Narragansett Indian tribe, which wants to build the state's first full-scale casino, as tribes have done so successfully in Connecticut. Criticism from supporters of an Indian-backed casino has been so personal that one of the state's black leaders, Keith W. Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, says he has had to defend Almond against charges of "racism." "To use that term is disingenuous" in regard to Almond, says Stokes, who Almond appointed to the Economic Development Corporation. The EDC itself is headed by Tom Schumpert, an African-American who rose to prominence because of his adept handling of the collapse of the Harvard Pilgrim HMO in Rhode Island when he was Almond's director of the Department of Business Regulation.
ALMOND'S CENTRAL WEAK POINT is the same attribute that made him so appealing to voters eight years ago: his political clumsiness. Often, the un-politician simply seems clueless when it comes to the sensual, symbolic side of politics. "He doesn't really do a lot of things that a good governor needs to do in terms of the symbolic dimension of his office," says Brown's West. Thus, Almond missed the real point of the Quonset Point debate - that filling in even a tiny portion of Narragansett Bay would upset Rhode Islanders from Woonsocket to Westerly. The Bay is untouchable territory in Rhode Island. When Almond late last year faced big budget shortfalls because of the recession, he proposed slicing off $5 million the General Assembly had allocated to create affordable housing. Again, he missed the point: that housing advocates had worked for a decade to get the state to allocate a token amount of money for housing. It took weeks of demonstrations -- including the spectacle of police hauling four ministers from the State House -- for Almond to get the message and propose a compromise that eventually doubled the money for housing. Even on petty symbols, Almond blunders. When there were recent questions about spending for a National Governor's Convention, Almond withheld the names of people who had stayed at a hotel at state expense, forgetting that ever since Watergate even the suggestion of a "cover-up" touches a nerve. And certainly Almond has trouble missing big symbols. When the airliners struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, Almond failed to understand the importance of symbolic gestures in responding to terrorism. After President Bush proposed increased National Guard patrols at airports, Almond passed on the idea, saying he was satisfied with security at T.F. Green State Airport. He was right, but missed the point that jittery travelers felt better seeing soldiers at the terminal. (Almond did relent, but Guardsmen still showed up without M-16 rifles.) A month after the attacks, Almond had a chance to join 10 other governors in touring Ground Zero. Almond, who had been at education "summit" in New Jersey, said he thought it was more important for him to get back to Rhode Island, as the state continued to struggle with the crisis. Mayor Cianci, of course, did not make that kind of mistake. In a separate trip, Cianci directed a caravan of police cruisers and trucks to Ground Zero, and with his personal photographer in tow, the mayor shook hands with rescue workers and oversaw delivery of supplies to Ground Zero. It's Cianci, ironically, who may be most responsible for Almond's bad image. The mayor is an entertaining, imaginative speaker. A radio talk show host when he was forced from office in 1984 after admitting he had assaulted his wife's lover, Cianci is the self-appointed spokesman for Providence's -- and Rhode Island's -- renewal in the past decade. Almond, engaging in private, is inarticulate in public. "You won't find him on Imus In the Morning," says Kenneth M. Bianchi, one of Almond's closest allies, currently director of the state authority that oversees the Newport and Mount Hope Bridges. Cianci, of course, can be found on Don Imus's enormously popular radio and many other places. The ubiquitous mayor can better than hold his own with the show's acerbic host, as was the case when Imus recently brought his program to Cianci's adopted home at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence. He devoted virtually the entire program to the Plunder Dome trial, with a series of parody songs, and an appearance by the mayor, who is under a judge's gag order not to talk about trial. Imus decreed that a happy ending to the Plunder Dome affair would be an innocent finding for Cianci. All of which must infuriate ex-prosecutor Almond, who, after Cianci was indicted, demanded that the mayor step down. Not that the mayor was inclined to follow any advice from Almond. Cianci once described Almond on an earlier Imus program as "a tall guy [with] big, big shoes . . . you could put outboard motors on the back of those shoes and head up the river." Even with his legal troubles, the mayor rarely misses the chance to enthrall out-of-town reporters and expound on the "Renaissance" of Providence. (Asked about the mayor, Almond says, "If you've got a record like that, you better be out every night, and you better be out Saturdays, and you better be out Sundays, and you better be telling jokes, because you have to deflect as much as you can from the substance of what occurs in your own community. Now, could he ever survive as governor, with that kind of record? No. Of course, he couldn't. He's been able to survive in Providence because of the old model of patronage and political machine and controlling both parties, and you are able to do that. But he was never successful running for statewide office.") The level of fascination placed in Cianci distresses and mystifies good government types like H. Philip West Jr., director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, whose reform drive helped create the four-year terms for governor and other general offices. "I think it's a sign of danger in politics that the enchanting mayor comes out with higher ratings," West says. West, who blames Almond for a change of membership on the state Ethics Commission that he believes has undermined that panel, nonetheless thinks Almond has done a good job, including standing up to the General Assembly over the so-called separation-of-powers issue, in which some people claim that the Rhode Island legislature has too much power compared to the executive branch. "What Almond has done that no governor has done before is that he has dared to take on the General Assembly on separation-of-powers," West says. But other observers assert that Almond's lack of political instinct is, in fact, a fatal weak point in the art of running government. Bill Lynch, state Democratic Party chairman, praises the Republican Almond for being honest, and says that he does not want to be hard on him, since the governor is in his final months of office. But Lynch says Almond has done little more than put the state on "automatic pilot," and squandered the opportunities of a mostly boom economy to make permanent improvements. Quonset Point, the port debate aside, should be much farther along as an economic resource, Lynch says. "He became a lame duck much earlier than other governors, and I'm not sure that's a good thing for the state," Lynch says. John DePetro, the hyperactive host of the radio talk show where Almond received such a pasting from a listener about his Ground Zero absence, believes part of Almond's problem is his failure to master the demands of modern news media. Not that the media itself is blameless, DePetro says. The media and its audience look to politicians to keep them amused, he says, which is why DePetro thinks Cianci gets so much attention, and Almond so little. "Cianci remains far and away the beloved one," DePetro says. "I've heard very little anger about him. If anything there is disappointment that the party may be coming to an end." On the other hand, DePetro says that his show's listeners never call to praise or even defend Almond. "He's broken the cardinal rule," DePetro says. "He's not entertaining."
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.