The State of Rhode Island is a viper’s den of graft and glut, a place so politically perfidious Boss Tweed would puke. For decades, the state’s Democratic Party has maintained a stranglehold with a majority that is much closer to a bizarre family reunion of Irish, Italian, and Portuguese inbreds. And because the majority of the state is Roman Catholic, it is known for bucking trends that are considered basic planks of the national Party platform, including a not-insignificant group of anti-choice legislators and a formidable opposition to marriage equality that was just barely defeated in 2013. To top it off is the blatant criminality, with a long line of politicians who have gone to prison for malfeasances of the most ridiculous sorts, most recently including Gordon Fox, the first African American and LGBTQQI Speaker of the House, who plead guilty to wire fraud, bribery and filing a false tax return, and Providence Mayor Vincent ‘Buddy’ Cianci, who was forced to resign from his first decade in office for kidnapping and beating his wife’s paramour with a fireplace log, only to get re-elected for a term that lasted another decade before he was felled for a federal racketeering conviction. On the legal but still-slimy side of the docket, the first woman elected Governor, Gina Raimondo, was exposed several years ago by Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone for a ‘pension reform’ scheme she began as Treasurer that was more of a bail-out for Wall Street.
So when the new owners of the much-beloved Pawtucket Red Sox, a AAA Minor League team for Boston, announced their hopes in January to relocate the team to Providence and build a stadium on a parcel of land previously designated by the federal government for a future public park with tax-payer aid, something almost unheard of in Rhode Island happened. Progressives, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Greens, and just about anyone with common sense flew into a rage and mounted a concerted counter-insurgency. Recent statistics taken from the offices of major officials show that 98% of the responses have been a resounding negative. The owners, first led by the late James Skeffington and now by Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, have protested vigorously, claiming this monstrosity will be a glory for mankind and generations will thank the tax payers for their wisdom.
Some would beg to differ. First, in terms of attendance, the PawSox, as they are lovingly called, have seen a discernible drop in attendance over the past ten years. Second, research by economists such as Holy Cross Profs. Robert Baade and Victor Matheson shows that these sorts of expenditures never result in long-term benefits for the public. Third, of course, is the long and painful history Rhode Island has with financing get-rich quick schemes that leave the tax payer holding the bag. Before this, there was the lunatic idea of 38 Studios, a video game production unit founded by Red Sox pitcher and Tea Party darling Curt Schilling that went belly-up. There was the renovation of the Port of Providence, which tried to create a boardwalk in the remains of an industrial wasteland that is most renowned for various erotic dancing clubs. Or the fact that Buddy Cianci was so shameless he once approached a potential business interest and said “just donate money to the city or my campaign and I’ll go away”, illustrating once and for all that nothing happens in the Ocean State unless a few palms get greased.
The primary issue at hand is the financing. Lucchino has insisted that this must be a ‘public-private’ funding endeavor, something local businessman and sometimes GOP candidate Michael G. Riley has called “gobbledygook”. Before his death in May, co-owner James Skeffington was known as the attorney that underwrote many a shady deal. For example, he was sure to include a clause in the contracts that the tax payer would subsidize the Rhode Island Convention Center until it got out of the red, something it has yet to do since opening in 1994. As it stands now, the politicians are lining up like lemmings and seem intent to deliver the goods, led by the odious Speaker Nicholas Matiello, a man who never saw an abortion protestor he did not love. Surprisingly, it has been the Republicans in the House and Senate who have come out most vocally in opposition under the rotunda.
However, there are some good old-fashioned small-d democratic movements gaining speed. Sam Bell, head of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America, has taken advantage of a little-known proviso in Providence Home Rule Charter, Section 209, to put an initiative before the City Council, which has been much less optimistic about this and whose members have sworn they are ready to play hardball. This effort, called PROVIDENCE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE STADIUM DEAL, aims to “forbid the stadium from being built on the part of the I-195 land designated a public park, and it forbid Providence from providing any special financial treatment for the stadium, including tax breaks”, to paraphrase the FaceBook page.
But the remaining question is why? On June 3rd, Pat O’Conner, President and CEO of Minor League Baseball, visited Providence and said “The economic impact is going to be really significant. This is an opportunity to elevate the state of Rhode Island. The opportunity you have before you is extremely rare.” This is striking and notable. Why would the biggest official in the entire league come to a state smaller than Israel to plead such a case? Perhaps the aforementioned attendance issue is an indicator. Baseball in general never recovered from the lock-out in the 1990s and scandals like the one involving steroids did little to help the case. Baseball card sales are at a fraction of their heyday. The officials in the International Olympics Committee refused to allow the Boys of Summer to compete for the gold because the game is essentially as real as Vince McMahon’s professional wrestling, resulting in the creation of a World Baseball Classic whose champions, oddly enough, also happen to be from the nations that have regular business with our Major Leagues. It does not take John Maynard Keynes to see the economic forecast: baseball is on its last leg. Kids play Little League still, but in terms of the ever-vital television ratings, they would prefer something a tad more realistic, like a video game where they defeat space invaders.
This scheme, pleading for an upgrade to facilities at the tax payer’s expense, is being tried out now on Rhode Island, but do not be surprised if you see this rolled out in your home town next. Be wary of these schemes, the benefits are negligible and the downsides are drastic. When Rhode Island subsidized Mr. Schilling’s computer-generated fantasies, we took a major hit, but it was relatively easy to re-purpose the office building and sell the old computers at auction. It is a little harder to do that with a baseball field.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and independent journalist who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.