We live in a moment of deep distrust of government, and of many important civic institutions (such as the press). In part this is the result of healthy skepticism of concentrated power, and of the ability of those with a lot of money to dictate policy at all levels of our democracy. It is also the result of decades of anti-government language by conservatives, resulting in policies that have not only weakened our collective ability to provide for our common needs -- they've weakened the belief of many Americans that we have that ability at all. Corruption and the appearance of impropriety among elected officials has been a constant problem in Rhode Island in general, and in Providence especially. The recent indicment of Luis Aponte, and the indictment and recall of Kevin Jackson, must not lead us to cynicism about all government, I believe.
Government, even metaphorically, is not the enemy. It is, after all, ‘our’ government -- Congress and the White House, but Providence City Hall too. Political language that dissolves the personal connection between citizen and government in favor of an adversarial one (or a cynical one) threatens to undermine our capacity for discussing and meeting common needs. Like an auto-immune disease, an unreflective hostility to or cynicism about government threatens to turn the protective forces of the body politic against the body itself. Persistent dishonesty and plunder by our elected officials -- especially at the local level -- has the same corrosive impact.
As a candidate for Providence City Council, I of course pledge to obey all campaign finance and ethics requirements -- but that's an awfully low hurdle to jump. I will do my best to explain my views and my votes quickly and clearly to all of my constituents. And I will publish each of my campaign finance reports on my website.
That's the easy stuff. The harder question is, how do we begin to change the culture of Providence politics, so that our elected officials avoid not just the violation of the law, but even the appearance of impropriety? How do we make sure that ordinary voters have the power, and not those who can bring wealth or inside influence to bear on the political process?
As a City Council member, I pledge to do the following:
- Propose the public financing of City Council elections in Providence. Many cities around the country have moved in this direction. It is time we consider it here. The "Democracy Voucher" program in Seattle could be a model, especially if we combine it with other measures (like reducing the maximum contribution cap from $1000 to $400).
- Move to pass the rules proposed by the Providence Ethics Commission, to strengthen its authority and give it teeth.
- Propose an ordinance prohibiting any member of the Council with outstanding campaign finance fines or late reports from holding a Council leadership position.
- Seriously consider any measure that will expand access to the ballot, and limit the power of organized money in City Council elections and policymaking.
- Support efforts at the state level to expand access to the ballot, and enforce campaign finance laws.
As I've noted elsewhere on this site, I am deeply skeptical of policies that use tax breaks, subsidies and abatements to try and foster a healthy economy for Providence citizens. There is limited evidence that they work, they weaken our ability to pay for our common needs (like safe and healthy school buildings), and they invite secret deal-making and ethics abuse. To me, part of being an ethical public servant is bringing a skeptical eye to such approaches, making sure all the details see the light of day before deals are struck, and ensuring that clawback provisions are enacted that require concrete and measurable returns for the working people of Providence.