OP-ED

Hypocrisy or tempest in a tea cup?

Posted 7/2/21

Does the flap about U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Bailey's Beach Club tell us more about Whitehouse, partisan politics, "the media," or something else? Politicians and partisans love castigating their rivals for perceived hypocrisy, so the right-wing

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OP-ED

Hypocrisy or tempest in a tea cup?

Posted

Does the flap about U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Bailey’s Beach Club tell us more about Whitehouse, partisan politics, “the media,” or something else?

Politicians and partisans love castigating their rivals for perceived hypocrisy, so the right-wing media apparatus had a field day with Kate Nagle’s report about Whitehouse. Via Fox News: “Rep. Donalds: Teach critical race theory at ‘Sheldon Whitehouse’s beach club,’ not schools.”

Whitehouse contends the basis for Nagle’s report is misguided because, he said in a statement, Bailey’s has non-white members and he made a mistake by initially accepting Nagle’s premise that it doesn’t.

To pull back a bit, the revelation that Whitehouse is a blue blood is not exactly news. His father roomed at Yale with John Chafee, a fact that underscored the familial similarities between Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee even as the former ousted the latter from the Senate in 2006.

“[F]or Newport residents, his membership to Bailey's is old news,” reported the Newport Daily News, adding that some residents were more concerned about difficult access to Sachuest beach via public transit.

To Whitehouse’s supporters, his actions on an array of policy issues are more important than his family’s affiliation with a largely white beach club.

Whitehouse made a mea culpa with his statement a few days after the initial story, saying that while he is not a member of Bailey’s, he belongs to a sailing club that “does lack diversity. Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry. I commit to working with the club and the community to build a more inclusive membership and to better connect with the local community.”

In fact, issues of privilege and exclusion are not a new part of Whitehouse’s lengthy run in public life. In 1993, while head of the state Department of Business Regulation, Whitehouse resigned from the Hope Club before he was nominated for U.S. attorney. That move paved the way for the club to admit women that same year. Whitehouse said his resignation was related, the ProJo reported at the time, to the club’s practice of not admitting women, which could have clashed with a U.S. Senate policy on federal appointees.

 Concerns on ballooning spending

Joe Shekarchi’s tenure as Rhode Island House speaker has been marked by a new era of good feeling. That continued last week as the House passed a $13.1 billion budget in less than six hours – a brisk pace by any standard. Most of the GOP-led debates were about tax policy and the overall mood seemed markedly lighter than during the latter part of Nicholas Mattiello’s time as speaker.

Still, critics point to how state spending continues to swell, thanks in part to past rounds of federal stimulus. Shekarchi downplayed that concern. He said other states will use the federal money if Rhode Island doesn’t, and he said the largesse has prepaid some programs for two or three years.

House GOP Leader Blake Filippi remains concerned about the growth of government. “I’m worried about being able to shrink it once the federal money runs out,” Filippi told me. “And if we’re not able to shrink it, the tax burden’s gonna fall on everyday Rhode Islanders.”

Got budget transparency?

A proposal from Rep. David Place (R-Burrillville) during the House debate for zero-based budgeting renewed GOP gripes that Rhode Island’s budget process is too opaque.

Leader Filippi said ZBB would offer “a high level of detail and make government explain why it’s spending this much of the taxpayers’ money.” Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) said too many spending programs continue without scrutiny of their merit. There were references to former House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison, who pilfered a taxpayer-funded nonprofit program, and the $1 million destined for a questionable alternative therapy practiced by Dr. Victor Pedro, the Cranston chiropractor, until it became a controversy in 2019.

As John Marion of the good government group Common Cause of RI told me at the time, Rhode Island’s budgeting approach makes it hard to know if other boondoggles are hidden in the budget. But House Democrats showed no interest in zero-based budgeting. It’s too complicated, they said, and not suited to addressing a state with recurring expenses.

All the world’s a stage

A one-time $10 million boost to the $20 million annual Rhode Island film/TV tax credit made for animated conversation among reps during last week’s budget debate.

Critics point to a 2018 state Revenue Department report, which found that the credit doesn’t pay for itself. Supporters said the same report suggested modifying, rather than scrapping, the credit. They also pointed to the many that states have a similar incentive and say that unilaterally disarming would put Rhode Island at a disadvantage.

Boosters argue, too, that entertainment productions – like a Kyra Sedgwick movie shooting in South County – offer other economic benefits.

Perhaps the best part of the debate were revelations about how many reps had bit parts in “Brotherhood,” the bygone Showtime political-crime drama that captured some Rhode Island grit but lasted for just three seasons. (Of course, Quahog.org has an impressive backgrounder on “The World of Brotherhood.”)

A change in the marriage process

Almost 1,400 solemnization of marriage bills have been passed by the General Assembly since 2007. Now, though, the legislature has approved legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) and House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence), authorizing the governor to permit any adult to perform a marriage.

“This bill will modernize the process by placing it online and ensuring that it’s available to all Rhode Islanders year round,” Kazarian said in a statement. “Some time ago, I was contacted by a constituent in July about their nuptials scheduled for September. Unfortunately, the General Assembly had already concluded its session for the year and there was no other alternative possible. It broke my heart when I had to tell my constituent there was nothing more that I could offer to ensure their perfect wedding with the officiant of their choice and this is why passing this legislation will modernize our system and make the process more accessible and customer-friendly for all Rhode Islanders.”

RI poli-media people in the news

Samantha Weiser, a product designer at Hasbro, has won election as the new chairwoman of the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus … Congrats to Brooke Taylor of ABC6 on her move to ABC13 in Houston … Matt Fecteau, who once ran against U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, shares word of his Army promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel; he works as an information operations officer supporting counter-terrorism efforts in Africa … The RI Democratic Party continues to staff up ahead of the 2022 campaign season. Victoria Gu, a South Kingstown native and Harvard grad who worked on Connie Chan’s District 1 supervisor campaign in California, is the party’s new communications coordinator. And Jacob Jackson has signed on as data director for RI Dems.

Cerveza? Si!

While Dominicans have been most prominent among Rhode Island Latinos in recent years, Puerto Rican natives are having their moment, what with Nellie Gorbea’s run for governor and Alex Cora’s inspired stewardship of the Red Sox. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but Medalla Light, a favorite beer in Puerto Rico, is now available in Rhode Island, along with a marketing campaign based on “The Sound of Home.”

Nice twist

“Rich folks live on Power Street. But most of us live off Hope.” So goes the classic “Providence Poster” by The Mad Peck. To bring things up to the present, a new mural – coordinated by The Avenue Concept – on the side of Not Just Snacks winks at the Peck’s famous lingo, helping not just to beautify the Capital City, but to reinforce subtle knowledge of our shared underground roots.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis

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