September 9, 2012

Rep Dickinson’s “Report” From Smith Hill – Part 1 of 3: “the [Speaker’s] chief of staff was a political operative who considered everything of value to be under his control”

Monique Chartier

Representative Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown) faces a Democrat challenger in this Tuesday’s primary. In the last few days, he mailed out a five page letter to some, or possibly all, of his constituents, making the case for voters to choose him over his challenger, Councilwoman Kathy Fogarty, at the polls on Tuesday. (Full letter as a PDF.)

While I don’t agree with much of Rep Dickinson’s political philosophy or voting record and Anchor Rising does not customarily offer an extended writing by a Rhode Island Democrat, Rep Dickinson’s letter is quite valuable inside District 35, around the state and beyond partisanship because it offers an eye-opening, first hand report by a Democrat into the workings of the Democrat controlled General Assembly. It confirms the iron political fist that close observers have strongly suspected that the Speaker of the House wields on legislation and provides a fascinating and disturbing behind-the-scenes look at exactly how and why one particularly important legislative matter – redistricting – played out.

For those reasons, I am posting Rep Dickinson’s letter, broken into three parts of unequal length and with added titles for easier reading. The second and third parts will go up an hour and two hours from now respectively. Without further ado …

Dear Neighbor,

Two years ago I asked you to send me to Providence to deal constructively with some issues we all knew were troubling the state.

Now, as I ask for your vote again, I have to report that what l found was very discouraging. The culture of the state house and the problems I encountered were far worse than I thought. What follows is a long letter. To those who read it, I hope it will be of value.

You will learn my story, and you will read things that you don’t see in the newspaper. I will lay the cards on the table, and I will tell you the truth. Not a pretty picture. If, when you’re done, you think there's something that I have missed, or if there is something else you would like to know, then call me. We will talk, and I will answer your questions.

Shortly after I was elected, I was put under intense pressure to support Gordon Fox for re-election as speaker of the house. I had expected some solicitation, but I was surprised by the desperate intensity I was hearing. Having served with four speakers in an earlier career, I thought I knew how the speaker’s office worked. I was surprised to learn that some things are very different now.

I knew that Brendan Fogarty worked for the Speaker. What I did not know, and what Brendan did not tell me, was that he could do nothing on his own, even in district politics, without approval of the speaker’s chief of staff, and that everything had a political price. When I asked Brendan for the favor of stepping aside and allowing me to appoint my own district nominating committee, I viewed him in his capacity as South Kingstown [Democrat] party chair. I did not know that the chief of staff was a political operative who considered everything of value to be under his control.

In my previous time in the legislature, there was never any suggestion that an elected representative would take orders from or negotiate politically with a paid staff member. l was surprised when the chief of staff told me, with Brendan listening, that there was no need for me to talk to Brendan, because Brendan took his orders from him. I was honestly a little embarrassed for Brendan when I heard this. l had thought the question of the district committee could be resolved between the two of us.

By that time, I had already agreed to support Gordon Fox for speaker. I had done this on the advice of friends, and had asked for nothing in return.

I was soon surprised to learn that this was not enough. Much more was going to be expected. I had been operating under the belief that I was working for 14,000 constituents. My compensation was to be $14,000 a year and the satisfaction of knowing I might have accomplished something. Nothing else. No title, no special office space, no job for a relative, no legal fees or contracts thrown my way.

I was prepared to work on issues, build trusting relationships, and find consensus in solving problems. What I was not prepared to do was take orders from an unelected staff member, or anyone else for that matter. I soon saw that I had to make that clear, and I did. Though I did not know it at the time, I think my future relationship with the leadership was defined at that moment.

Some of you may or may not agree with my votes, but I can tell you that with regard to the important ones, they are well-informed and thoughtfully considered. In the case of the pension reform bill, I attended every briefing, every conference, every hearing available. I met with the treasurer’s staff, and with the treasurer herself. On my own initiative, I developed an amendment which was my perception of what a middle ground compromise would look like.

In my first year, 2011, I supported the overwhelming majority of the bills presented to us. There were two or three notable exceptions. These exceptions were not well-received. Even worse, as l was told later, was my willingness to propose workable alternatives or to stand up and advocate for them. The speaker is accustomed to getting what he wants and does not comfortably tolerate dissent.