March 1, 2006

Suspicions of an Ex Post Facto Gotcha

Justin Katz

Fred's sarcasm in the comments to Andrew's foregoing post regarding my previous complaints that Mayor Laffey hadn't tied his arrest of Maria Hernandez to the issue of school choice doesn't really work based on Laffey's ex post facto announcement. Will's comments fair a little better, since his previous assertion was of an unseen plan on Laffey's part. But for all we know, it was discussion on this very blog that prompted Cranston's newly minted school choice policy. Probably not, but the timeline hardly invalidates my argument that Laffey had said absolutely nothing about the topic previously.

If this matter is unfolding according to some master plan, however, I have to say that I find the strategy to be unnecessarily manipulative. Pushing a family into the state spotlight with an arrest and promises of prosecution in order to embarrass foes and tentative allies alike with a gotcha probably isn't the most politic means of advancing conversation.

Of course, if there were a plan in operation, I'd have expected materials to have been prepared (e.g., on the Web site) for simultaneous release. I also wouldn't have expected this to be the case:

Laffey said he has not contacted Providence to brief them on his plan, or to work on the problems together.
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You may not like the man or his methods, but the fact remains that Rhode Island is FINALLY having a serious debate about school choice. You have to admire Laffey's political acumen in creating a significant movement for change.

Imagine what this guy could get done in the US Senate!!

Posted by: Leon Berg at March 1, 2006 8:49 AM

Enough of this peripheral sandbox stuff already. In the immortal words of Ted R., let's get back to Laffey and his plan!!

Posted by: bountyhunter at March 1, 2006 8:53 AM

I always thought school choice was about allowing students to attend private schools with public funds when the public schools in their community were bad as opposed to just shifting taxpayers $$ around.

I applaud Laffey for trying to protect Cranston's taxpayers, but I have serious doubts as to whether this effort is going to lead to education reform (or is really about it) or a dialogue about school choice despite how the arguments are framed.

Posted by: TCC3 at March 1, 2006 9:52 AM

I echo the comments of TCC3. Also, Mr. Berg, has this really become a "significant movement for change?"

Posted by: Grady Shipley at March 1, 2006 1:26 PM


Massachusetts uses choice within the public system and has had success with it. Follow the link in this post...

The idea is that parents dissatisfied with the quality of education in their city/town can have a voice in their child's education that goes beyond their vote for the school committee (and Providence residents can't even vote on school committee members).

Posted by: Andrew at March 1, 2006 2:03 PM

Guessing is for weathermen. Speculation is for bookies. Planning and executing a strategic methodology is what smart people do in business and in government.

Spinning this series of events this way and that as based upon political affiliations is a huge waste of time.

Focus on the problem. >> Providence parents commit fraud to get their kids into Cranston schools. >> Cranston sends kids back to Providence. >> Parents keep breaking the law and send kids back to Cranston. >> Cranston gets tired of the time, expense, and Providence’s inaction. >> Arrest parent. >> Major problem now needs a major solution. >> Finally we have a critical mass. >> Critical mass is the tipping point. >> Fixing the problem can now begin.

Everything else is political posturing, finger pointing, speculation and guessing. And while all the crybabies whine and complain Laffey leads the charge again.

I love this guy.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at March 1, 2006 2:24 PM


I agree that arresting Maria Hernandez was probably an unnecessary detour if the school choice plan was the ultimate goal all along.

But I disagree that Mayor Laffey should have gone to the government of Providence before going public with all of the details of his plan. Providence knows its schools are in bad shape, but, as the statistics that the Mayor presented show, doesn't seem to be in any rush to fix them. Had the mayor tipped his hand, it is reasonable to assume the officials in Providence happy with the current funding structure would have leaked the proposal in the most unfavorable light possible and tried to turn public opinion against it right away.

And for reasons that I don't fully fathom, they would have found a sympathetic media. Look at the headline and the subhead of the Projo story you linked to; Providence harming Cranston, a chance to avoid prosecution, criticism of Providence. Where's the mention of the potentially biggest part of this program -- Cranston willing to take Providence students (answer: paragraph 5, right before the article start talking about the Mayor's supposed "vitriol", which apparently consists of pointing out the problems in Providence that everyone is aware of). Another example: one of the media members at the press conference asked the Mayor in very disgruntled tones why he was opening this "can of worms" by discussing school choice.

Presenting the plan in one shot as a complete package to the government and the citizens at the same time was the only way Mayor Laffey had any shot of getting public attention on the entirety of his program.

Posted by: Andrew at March 1, 2006 2:44 PM

That's all well and good, Andrew, but flaws remain with the ostensible master plan beyond the "unnecessary detour." It is worth considering, for one, whether kicking off the debate (according to the master plan theory) with the arrest helped to frame the discussion in terms of Laffey's "vitriol."

For another, even granting a fear of preemptive strike by the Providence school system, it surely harmed the cause for the folks in Providence to hear of the plan via reporters looking for a response (as appears to have been the case). As with the lacking simultaneous Web/PR package, Cranston could have contacted Providence in a more deliberate way, opening the door for actual discussion.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 1, 2006 7:55 PM

It is all well and good Andrew that Laffey captured FRONT PAGE headlines and TV coverage, which is now leading to this debate about school choice.

Yes, these problems of illegal students have been going on for years and yes, no major RI elected official has ever talked about school choice as a solution or gotten so many people talking about it. But the unnecessary detour in the MASTER PLAN has caused certain opinion makers to frown upon Laffey.

Instead Laffey could have posted on this blog about school choice, have a press conference with a story showing up on page 3 of the West Bay edition of the ProJo, then he could have meet quietly with the teachers union which defacto runs the Providence school system. They would have told him that this needs more study, and anyway the real solution is more money for failing schools in Providence. Who cares if a minority Democrat State Rep. from Prov. showed up to his press conference in support of school choice, maybe he would have shown up after reading this website.

Hey, what do I know, I am just a junk man with the English vocabulary of someone who graduated from a failing urban public school.

Posted by: Fred Sanford at March 1, 2006 9:17 PM

Oh come off it, Fred. When you've got a real name on display, there'll be some legitimacy to your personal attacks and allusions to (or delusions of) my pretentions. Until then, your absence of accountability will limit your credibility.

Of course, you could gain some of the latter were you to address the discussions that are actually on the table, instead of attempting to belittle the person who is making them:

1) I challenge the notion that putting school choice on the "FRONT PAGE" was Laffey's purpose from the beginning (and suspect that the "Laffey captured" phrase has been the operative one). If you're able to offer any, I'd be interested in hearing arguments or seeing evidence that meets my challenge — other than the Kool Aid stain on your upper lip.

2) I assert that Laffey's "master plan," if it was such, was far from optimal to effect its ostensible end of advancing a school choice discussion. Note that it has had the effect of pushing away people — myself for one, Dan Yorke for another — whom the cause would otherwise draw in.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 1, 2006 10:24 PM


Dan Yorke? There was a time when Yorke spoke clearly and passionately about the issues. But lately, and most recently (the past few days to be exact) his credibility and caliber as a talk show host has dropped off the charts. He may even be history.

His entire demeanor has been taken over by a personal vendetta. He is seriously off balance when it comes to Steve Laffey. You can hear it in his voice. For Yorke its not about “the poor lady who was arrested”, or the “felony charge for stealing an education”, its about his laser beam focus on discrediting and hurting Laffey at all cost.

It is obvious that Yorke isn’t a journalist, a commentator, or a legitimate critic. He is in fact a cheap huckster who has truly lost his way. Once again he finds himself on the wrong side of this debate. Why? His ego can’t get over the fact that he is merely the vehicle and not the message.

I would think very carefully about aligning yourself with such a man.


Posted by: Sol Venturi at March 1, 2006 11:38 PM

Uhm, Justin, I have no credibility in your eyes because you would just consider me a junkman with a sense of humor.

By the way, I never mentioned your name or the word "pretensions" in my last comment. You took it that way. But, you have made personal character attacks on Laffey in the past, remember pixelation (not that anyone cares about that).

As for Yorke, he has been against Laffey for quite some time before this episode (read some of the comments on your website), and I wouldn't want to lump myself with a guy who screams for hours every day at the top of his lungs.

As for your skepticism about the MASTER PLAN theory of Laffey politics, you are entitled to it. I have no document showing that Laffey had a secret plan on February 12, 2006 to raise the issue of school choice. Although fighting the unions, the Providence administartion does seem like a common approach for him. One day when the Laffey library opens you and I can do some research, and hold an academic symposium entitled "Laffey: Opportunist or Master Planner".

Now Mr. Katz, please don't go James on me, you need to lighten up. If you want to dish it, you got to take it. Have some fun.

Posted by: Fred Sanford at March 2, 2006 12:06 AM


With all due respect, Dan Yorke went off the reservation quite some time ago. He has a very personal vendetta against the mayor, based on what most would chalk up to a misunderstanding. That Laffey literally grew up with Yorke's former radio nemisis didn't exactly endear Laffey to him. Any objectivity that he may have had went out the window a long time ago, so don't hold him up as some authoritative source on all things Laffey.

I do not know with metaphysical certitude that there was some "grand plan" in place early on having to do with using this particular event to promote a discussion of school choice. However, I do think that Laffey would have brought up school choice at some point during his campaign, as it fits with his philosophical leanings. This episode simply provided a specific opportunity to do so. I'm quite certain that having the parent arrested wasn't the end all. It was a means to say to all other parents in the system with kids illegally there, "look, this is what could happen to you." And you know what? It's working big-time. There's been a spike in the number of people coming forward to say they don't belong there. That saves Cranston taxpayers a lot of money.

I do tend to think that Laffey later determined that prosecuting that parent on felony charges would probably end up costing a lot more money and divert unnecessary attention and effort, than it would really be worth on the particular individual case. The message sent was simple, come to school here illegally, and there will be a consequence. It doesn't matter what the consequence were to be (public humiliation, fines, or prison), but rather that there was a consequence at all.

It's been a known fact that Providence students infiltrate other school systems regularly, mainly in Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, and North Providence. They are usually just sent back in the quiet of the night and you never really hear anything about it. The only difference here was that someone (Laffey) finally did something to bring a lot of attention to the white elephant in the room: Providence's schools fail their students miserably; we all spend too much more than we should on them; and we get far less in return for the investment in them.

I give credit for Mayor Laffey turning this whole situation, whether it was originally intended or not, into a substantive debate on the merits of school choice in RI.

Posted by: Will at March 2, 2006 1:04 AM

To the Katz/Yorke axis--

It is interesting, Justin Katz, that you placed yourself in bed with Yorke, as I was going to make this connection at some point anyway. I'm glad you did it, though, because the following points are stronger that way.

It is clear that the Katz/Yorke axis is absolutely pre-occupied (bordering on obsession) with Steve Laffey personally, thereby whitewashing sober-minded judgment on his policy prescriptions and accomplishments. You pick-and-pick at his alleged motives and his innovative methods rather than looking at the results.

I can understand guys like Bobby O. and Jesse from Cranston (see the other blog)regularly going after Laffey because, after all, they are liberal democrats. Yet you and Yorke are clearly not liberal and are certainly not democrats. So what accounts for your behavior?? What do you hope to accomplish by it?? As is oftentimes the case in human relations, the answer probably lies in the blows to human pride that come from feeling slighted by someone you admire. Pride is listed as the first deadly sin for a reason, you know.

You were piqued by an earlier reference I made to "sandbox stuff". That is telling, because people tend to react most strongly to what their inner selves know to be the truth.

Posted by: bountyhunter at March 2, 2006 7:31 AM

Yorke is a dope.
Yorke was a keen eyed commentator.
Today yorke is just a dope.
He used to be focused on truth.
Today he is focused on himself and his petty vendetta (a now popular descriptor on most blogs).
He used to be a contender.
Today he is a has been.
It can happen to anyone.
It happened to Yorke.

Justin, you may be next.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Gotta go. RI Future just posted that Yorke just choked on a hot weiner across the street from a Credit Union of Central Falls branch.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at March 2, 2006 5:16 PM

Joe, I can't be afraid of being a "has been" because, well, I haven't been.

As for bountyhunter's comment-box psychoanalysis (a very cheap form of vanity, that), I suppose it would do no good either to argue the point or merely to insist that it isn't true, both strategies being likely to be taken as evidence that the analysis was correct. I will say that I believe it to be total bunkum that "people tend to react most strongly to what their inner selves know to be the truth." (Of course, for the psychoanalyzer, that mushy "inner self" concept gives plenty of room for slippery toldja-sos.)

As it happens, I've been intending to write something explaining my far-from-obsessive reaction to Laffey (leaving aside, however, the strong negative reaction that his votaries on this site have managed to impart from the beginning). I've been holding off on doing so because I thought I'd have an opportunity to ask some clarifying questions of the man himself. That doesn't look likely to be the case, so I'll write the thing as soon as time allows.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 2, 2006 8:58 PM

Have to give Justin credit for accuracy: "Joe, I can't be afraid of being a "has been" because, well, I haven't been."

Justin, being a non-native Rhode Islander, tends to view things through a different prism, than some of us who are all too familiar with how politics tends to work here. Rhode Island has a history of strong mayors. Some have certainly had questionable accomplishments and have used less than ethical means to retain their office seemingly forever. Mayor Laffey has bucked both trends, first by having a considerable list of real accomplishments in only about 3 1/2 yrs in office. Secondly, by saying right up fron that he would only stay there as long as necessary to clean up Cranston's mess. Thirdly, by presiding over a city administration free from scandal. Promises made; promises kept.

I might only make one personal observation. While you've (Justin) certainly cannot be accused of having some Pavlovian dog-like positive reaction to anything said or done by Mayor Laffey, one might make the case, that the opposite could be true. At least, it tends to come off to readers that way. I'm not saying that's how it is, but that it is a valid perception. Just as Dan Yorke, who used to sing Laffey's praises, has let his emotions so cloud his own judgment, that he won't even allow Laffey or his staff on his radio show anymore, don't fall into the trap of assuming that there must be a sinister or solely political motive to everything that Mayor Laffey does. I understand the temptation to be contrary for its own sake (as I've occassionally given into it). Try to avoid it.

Posted by: Will at March 3, 2006 1:05 AM

Will: if anything, I have a negative Pavlovian response to Laffey's supporters.

I thank you for caring to offer advice, but I hope you understand how condescending it sounds. I'm not sure that it would be possible for me not "to come off to readers" the way you describe — at least this set of readers, among whom every step and misstep of the mayor's is assumed to be part of some brilliant plan and every criticism is assumed as deriving either from an undisclosed affiliation with the Chafee campaign or from deep-seated psychological or personal issues.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 3, 2006 5:58 AM

Why is agreeing with something, even passionately, "dog like"? What a weird view of politics and life.

All issues of loyalty aside. Laffey makes promises, states his plans plainly, works his butt off to execute said plans, and gets the job done. That's it.

(Rhetorical question) Why would anyone have a problem with that?

People have a problem with it because it either exposes their lame, do nothing agenda or it exposes their corruption and/or bleeding the governmental system for personal gain. Both of which put them at odds with the Laffey agenda. The ad hominem attacks by C and Y only serve to prove my point. Face it boys your audience loves Laffey. Not because of blind loyalty but because he is getting the job done.

There are two choices here: Get on the Love Train, or keep looking angry and mean-spirited.

Again, most of the people who have a problem with Steve Laffey are those who created the problems in the first place, or have inflated egos that just can’t handle reality.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at March 3, 2006 10:10 AM

Of course, it's not meant to be condescending, though you'd hardly be the first to accuse me of that. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to avoid it, that's just the way it comes out.

My point was that sometimes your posts (point in case, about Laffey vis-a-vis a few of his supporters) tend to make certain, generally negative assumptions regarding their basic motivation for supporting Laffey, that may not necessarily be objectively based. I realize that much in politics tends towards the subjective, and that at some point you may have found a personality flaw, whether real or perceived, of the mayor's that you tend to focus on -- or that you infer the personality issues of his supporters, to be present in him, too. People with stronger personalities, also tend to have more perceptible personality flaws.

Do I like Mayor Laffey? Yes. Do I always agree with him? No. Will I vote for him? You bet. If Laffey said, "I'm starting a new cult -- would you like some kool-aid?," would I drink it? No. My support for Laffey comes with both of my eyes wide open.

Laffey has a strong personality. He's a fighter. That means, someone is usually going to be on the receiving end, if he perceives them to be a part of the problem, and not part of the solution. He's motivated by a deep sense of right and wrong. He sometimes ruffles feathers in the process. That being said, he usually does plan most things well in advance; though not all of the plans are always executed "brilliantly." One cannot always control every variable. However, most of the time, what you see reach the public, usually has had a lot of thinking put into it by someone in his camp, if not Laffey himself.

PS Just so no one thinks that I'm only ragging on Justin over here, I also want to caution some of the more die-hard Laffey supporters posting here, not to shoot themselves in the foot, by making overly broad accusations regarding Justin's own motivations.

Posted by: Will at March 3, 2006 6:14 PM