Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Politics in the '80s: great drama, high hopes, dashed expectations

The decade of the 1980s began with a Massachusetts son, Ted Kennedy, running for president and closes with Massachusetts native George Bush in the White House.
In Rhode Island, it began with Claudine Schneider running for House and closes with her poised to run for Senate.
It began with a Providence mayor, Republican Buddy Cianci, challenging Democratic Governor Joe Garrahy and closes with Democratic Mayor Joe Paolino about to challenge GOP Governor Ed DiPrete.
Politics may look symmetrical and tidy, but there's a lot of raggedness and untidiness, too.
Kennedy's 1980 campaign for the Democratic presidential nod actually began in 1979. Polls had him swamping Jimmy Carter. A glittering Kennedy restoration seemed entirely likely. On the other hand, Kennedy couldn't answer a simple question from Roger Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
Speaking of polls - remember when still another Massachusetts son, Mike Dukakis, led Bush by 17 points in the summer of 1988?
And Barney Frank? In the early '80s, he was a congressman from up north. But as the 1980s close, he's a household name - not only in the Fall River-Attleboro area, whose redrawn seat he won in a celebrated 1982 race with Margaret Heckler, but also around the country, because of his involvement with a male prostitute.
In Rhode Island, there was the long-playing tragedy of the 1986 impeachment inquiry into the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Joe Bevilacqua; he finally resigned.
There was the long-playing comedy of state Senate redistricting. As in impeachment, lawyers were the big winners. This was an expensive production in which Democratic bosses so botched the 1982 redrawing of district lines that the courts postponed Senate elections to 1983.
The career of Senate Majority Leader Rocco Quattrocchi was shattered. That of Senate maverick Richard Licht, who was to have been a victim of the bosses, was launched; he later became lieutenant governor.
And there was the long-playing mystery: RIHMFC. This was the housing scandal that unfolded in 1985 and yielded a flurry of indictments but, in the end, few successful prosecutions.
Some of the biggest stories are best remembered in tiny snapshots.
It was May 15, 1986, the House impeachment inquiry into Bevilacqua's ties with criminals:
Richard "Moon" DiOrio, a former Rhode Island mobster now living in parts unknown, enters the State House hearing room wearing a black mask and a Miami Dolphins hat, shedding the disguise only when safely ensconced in front of a six-foot-high shield that prevents the audience from seeing him.
DiOrio says he heard Bevilacqua promise Mafia lieutenant Nicky Bianco he'd keep up contacts once he became chief justice.
Now, in cross-examination, Bevilacqua's lawyer tries to get DiOrio to concede Bevilacqua is a wonderul man. "I wouldn't say a 'wonderful' man," DiOrio declares, adding, "If he wants to smell like a skunk, that's his business."
While the inquiry was on, Nicky Bianco was still married to his wife, Francesca. Both made cameo appearances before the investigators. He said he hadn't had any contact with Bevilacqua since the judge went on the bench.
By October 1988, the Biancos were divorced, and the now-Francesca Coats burst into the news by landing a job with the Governor's Justice Commission. Her patron: Ron DiOrio, who was a DiPrete aide and brother of Moon. Hiring of a mobster's ex-wife to a justice panel job was a sensation at the height of a gubernatorial campaign filled with charges and counter-charges about ethics and favoritism. When the news broke, DiPrete made sure Coats was fired; DiOrio quit; DiPrete squeaked by.
DiPrete's opponent was Bruce Sundlun, the same guy Democratic leaders recruited in 1986. The wealthy Sundlun made an unusual splash that first time: He disclosed he'd run, then was immediately seen being interviewed - on Channel 10 - at his farm in Virginia hunt country.
The fact that Democrats had to beg for a candidate in 1986 and 1988 was a tribute to DiPrete and testimony to the erosion of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.
In the 1970s, Democrats were so dominant that Republicans could win only three of 39 elections for U.S. Senate, House or state general office. But in the '80s, the Republicans took 14 of 38.
The bottom really fell out for the Democrats in 1984, when the party self-destructed in a bloody primary for governor between Anthony Solomon and Joe Walsh.
In a bruising campaign, Solomon, aligned with Garrahy, beat Walsh, aligned with a bevy of legislative leaders and mayors. But in November, DiPrete led a GOP resurgence, including Arlene Violet's victory as attorney general.
Violet's rise and fall
Claudine Schneider, the first woman elected to major office in Rhode Island, may be the '80s' enduring story, but Violet's is more spectacular: No pol's star shone so bright or fell so quickly.
Hers was an arresting tale, the tough nun eager to tackle crime. The Church tried to discourage her from running in 1982 - she went ahead and lost narrowly - and in 1984 she left the Sisters of Mercy to make a repeat run.
"I hunger and thirst for justice," she told 1,000 backers who cheered, hollered and waved signs at the 1025 Club announcement.
She skewered incumbent Denny Roberts as a poor manager. I told her, in a post-election chat, that she wouldn't be allowed any mistakes; she had raised public expectations so high that perfection would be demanded of her.
And then she or her office made plenty of mistakes - including prosecutorial misconduct, furnishing of incomplete transcripts, withholding of information from the defense - and in 1986 she was booted out.
So much of politics is tawdry - tales of Peter Gilbert, for example.
So much of it is glamorous - a wealthy patrician like John Chafee or Claiborne Pell seems to glide from one election to another.
So much of it is sour - a Fred St Germain serves in Congress for 28 years, loses in 1988 and still refuses to be interviewed about it.
It's hard to remember sometimes that these people are human. But yes, that was Eddie Beard, breaking down at Green Airport after Schneider beat him in 1980. Yes, that was John Holmes fighting back tears at the 1988 GOP state convention, admitting his dream of unseating St Germain had evaporated when he failed to file his candidacy papers on time; now, in a class act, he urged delegates to work for Ron Machtley, who would go on to oust the incumbent.
One retains a sad picture even of Cianci. Some think of him as he left City Hall after resigning in disgrace in 1984. But my mind has a different snapshot, from the 1980 campaign for governor. That drive began amid promise; there were triumphant appearances at the Bristol parade and the GOP National Convention. But the Cianci campaign quickly disintegrated as the truth about Providence's fiscal chaos began to emerge.
By early October, the race was over. I recall being in Woonsocket for a fete and watching Cianci walk down the street to his helicopter. He was alone in his thoughts, in what he had to know was a hopeless effort, and I wondered what kept him going.
Yet, victory is so sweet - both for the candidate and the electorate. Rarely are politicians so popular as when they win and are sworn in. They've yet to offend anyone. Everyone wishes them well.
DiPrete, who campaigned as The Change We Need, was inaugurated on Jan. 1, 1985, the decade's midpoint.
There was Pat DiPrete, the governor's wife, in her white fur hat; there was daughter Tricia holding the hand of her 91-year-old great-aunt, Mollie Buchan.
Governor DiPrete declared:
Today we open a new chapter in Rhode Island's history. We begin with no ties to the past and nothing to hold us back except the boundaries of our dreams for ourselves and for our state.
Our success will be measured by how well we meet the needs of our least fortunate citizens and how adept we are at providing opportunity to all people.
It sounded magnificent.
But in reality, of course, politicians' deeds fall short of their rhetoric; performance seldom matches expectations.

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