Warwick, RI — Consider this scenario: What if a candidate for office told you that your city was $1 billion in debt, raised taxes every year for 14 years, and used surpluses several times to balance the budget?
Most likely — and especially because of that big, scary number — you’d think the city was on the brink of failure.
That was the core of Stacia Petri’s message as she ran in the Republican primary for mayor against Scott Avedisian — and she gathered 35% of the vote based on it.
Problem is, Warwick is not in the same straits as other communities like Woonsocket and Central Falls — it’s actually considered among the best-managed cities in the state.
Unfortunately, Petri decided to play out the string with that scary message provided to her by former Democrat Bob Cushman, who combined all debt attributed to every city function, including the water and sewer authorities, plus the city’s unfunded pension liability, to reach the $1 billion number.
Avedisian, on the other hand, pegged the city’s debt at $46 million — leading to the obvious question of how there could be such a wide disparity in each side’s accounting.
The answer is, very simply, that Petri and her supporters wanted to have strong-sounding talking points to use in a possible future campaign and establish Petri’s tea party credentials, as opposed to giving ground on what turned out to be a losing campaign strategy.
[Even Rhode Island Public Radio’s Scott McKay picked up on Petri’s tea party stance in his evaluation of the 2014 primary.]
As much as Cushman and campaign manager Roy Dempsey insisted that Petri’s campaign was about raising awareness of the city’s fiscal state, an overall look at her run indicates otherwise.
Exhibit A: The talking points
First, there’s Petri’s central message, courtesy of Cushman: That 14 years of tax increases in Warwick “result[ed] in $1 billion in debt.”
Basically, Cushman combined all debt attributed to every city function, including the water and sewer authorities, plus the city’s unfunded pension liability.
By adding up all of that debt — most of it due in the future and not necessarily posing the kind of immediate threat that she and her team claimed — Petri engaged in the kind of doom-and-gloom tactic that’s popular among tea party types.
On top of that, when it came to explaining how she’d deal with all of that debt, if she’d been elected, Petri didn’t really offer too many solutions beyond “opening the city’s books” and cutting taxes.
The way city budgets really work, though, is that the community pays a certain amount every year toward its debts, aiming to maintain a fairly consistent level of funding as the debts are paid off.
By that standard, Warwick is in better financial shape than nearly every other Rhode Island community — and certainly every other one of its size — in terms of handling its debt load, whether or not the number is $1 billion.
Unfortunately for Petri, that undercuts her prime talking point.
Petri and her backers could also have conceded that the water and sewer systems are what’s known as “enterprise funds,” meaning they operate independently of city government and raise their own funds through user fees — NOT property taxes.
Again, though, that seemed too complex an idea to use in the campaign this year — especially since it would have reduced that big, scary $1 billion number.
Now, in the interest of fairness, the city is under obligation to pay back its debts — and, as Cushman explained in an interview after the primary vote, Warwick’s debt payments do leave less for infrastructure, like roads and schools.
But, by burying those more sensible-sounding critiques of Avedisian’s management under that big, scary number, Petri risked turning voters off with the gloomy rhetoric.
It’s pretty clear now that being able to say that she “ran against a mayor responsible for 14 straight years of higher taxes resulting in a $1 billion in debt” was the point — not necessarily acknowledging information that would have disproved her message.
This was particularly apparent in her interview with the Post just prior to the vote, when Rob Borkowski asked her why she wouldn’t acknowledge the more recent Standard and Poor’s audit report, instead continuing to bring up the 2013 Moody’s report that cast the city in a poorer light.
Her reply was: “The Mayor will continue to bring up anything that makes [the city’s fiscal picture] look good.”
So, instead of giving any ground on the topic, Petri instead turned the city’s financial standing into a game of dueling audits.
As part of the tea party-inspired tactics, Petri also regularly repeated another talking point about unfunded pension liabilities, going along with the sleight-of-hand typical of anti-government types who falsely conflate the numbers for future pension obligations as a way to — again — use big scary numbers, this time to make a barely-concealed slam against unions.
In reality, communities [including Warwick] pay their pension liabilities year to year, based on how many retirees there actually are, and increase or decrease those payments as that number of retirees changes.
The “unfunded” part of the pension liability comes in where actuaries figure out how much the city would — emphasis on would — pay, based on the estimated life expectancy of each retiree.
Without getting too far into the minutiae, there’s a number applied to each retiree based on a set of fairly arbitrary standards — police officers typically live to 75, for instance — and the total cost of that retiree’s pension is tied to those standards.
So, if you have 20 retirees collecting an average of $100,000 a year for 40 years, that’s an $80 million liability. And unless the city commits to paying $2 million a year for 40 years, that leaves part of that liability unfunded. [Of course, if the retirees die before their expected expiration dates, it eliminates part of that liability.]
What has happened, as a result, is cities and towns in Rhode Island set up long-term payment plans that are intended to lower the unfunded liability as much as possible — because, in reality, there’s no way to reduce it to zero.
In Warwick’s case, as both of those dueling audit reports noted, the city has one of four pension funds that is set up for a 40-year repayment schedule — one that gets a knock from the auditing firms solely because it’s not on a 30-year plan like the other three.
Those other three, in fact, are held up as exemplars for the rest of the state, which further erodes the scare tactic about unfunded liabilities.
Ironically, Petri’s stated plan to come into office and try to cut taxes would only make the pension situation worse by starving the pension plans of revenue, further harming the city’s bond rating and opening Warwick to corrosive lawsuits and other expensive problems.
Exhibit B: The media and publicity strategy
The Petri campaign’s plan for media coverage consisted of almost exclusively going on Dan Yorke’s right-wing friendly programs beyond the few articles run by the Providence Journal and Warwick Beacon about her local appearances and the debate against Avedisian.
[Prior to primary night, Petri only spoke to the Post once.]
Here’s the problem with that idea, if she really intended to win locally: She’s running in Warwick, not statewide. At least two-thirds of the people listening to Yorke or reading the Journal can’t vote for her.
It’s not that difficult to see the Petri team’s real motives — building right-wing support for a future run, possibly outside the city — all over this plan. Why else would Petri spend all that time talking to Yorke, a favorite of the aging and primarily Republican talk radio crowd?
She probably did herself no favors by suggesting on Yorke’s program that people who didn’t support her deserve the city’s problems — essentially trying to shame people into voting for her.
One truism of campaigning is: You can anger people into voting, you can inspire people into voting — but you can never shame people into voting. Once that element of shame enters the conversation, you’ve lost the voters.
Looking back, it was also notable that Avedisian agreed to debate Petri on NBC10, which gave her a platform that could have turned into positive momentum for her campaign.
That didn’t happen, though they certainly tried — mostly by trying to re-argue the debate after the fact, another losing tactic.
Exhibit C: The robo-calls
Along with dodging the local media, Petri also paid an out-of-state firm to conduct robo-calling — yet another favored campaign method of tea partiers.
It’s the kind of plan hatched among a small group of people who have convinced themselves that less direct exposure for the candidate is a good thing — when, in fact, it’s actually a bad thing when voters get sick of hearing political messages on their phones.
The function of robo-calls, after all, is not to say something positive about a candidate — it’s to say negative things about the opponent.
In Petri’s case, it’s also a way for her to build her tea party cred by claiming she “speaks directly to voters without the media distorting her message.”
The fact that her message was already a distortion is supposed to be ignored, apparently.
Exhibit D: The finances
On its face, it looks as though the Petri campaign committed the ultimate sin in campaigning: Having no money.
According to publicly filed finance reports, Petri loaned her campaign most of the money listed in her accounts, with the campaign showing $2,600 in the red [based on its debts to Petri] with seven days to go before the primary.
Most of the few outside contributions came from a handful of local Republicans who apparently united for no other reason than they don’t like Avedisian, and were trying to make some kind of name for themselves by backing Petri.
On the payables side, Petri’s money funded those robo-calls by Gravis Marketing of Winter Springs, FL, weekly tabs from local eateries [mainly Dunkin’ Donuts at $100 a pop] to host “meet and greets,” a few print jobs, and payments for her campaign’s Facebook page.
In promoting herself as a “fiscal conservative,” which is supposed to mean she knows how to handle money better than the current guy, Petri again stumbled — you can’t manage what you don’t have.
While it may seem obvious that such a poor financial showing might work against Petri in future campaigns, now she can go to the state Republicans [or those outside Rhode Island] saying she “risked her own money to bring her message to voters” and presumably get the larger party to actually raise funds.
Apparently, no one has told her that the state Republican Party is essentially penniless, with both candidates in this year’s gubernatorial primary ponying up huge amounts to fund their respective campaigns.
[Ken Block, Petri’s stated favorite, forced a Republican primary and threw more than $750,000 away in his failed run against Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.]
Exhibit E: The tea party connection
Most of the ideas behind Petri’s campaign can be traced right back to Cushman, who was once closely tied to former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, himself a tea party-style politician who ran as a “financial expert” while proposing four straight tax increases in Cranston and “winning” a fight against bus monitors that wound up costing that city more than if he’d just left them alone.
Laffey also arguably cost Gov. Linc Chafee his former U.S. Senate seat in the 2006 election by forcing a Republican primary, which may also explain Cushman’s opposition to Avedisian, a known Chafee ally.
So when Petri campaigned on being a “fiscal conservative” who was standing up to “runaway spending” and criticizing Avedisian for “tap[ping] the city’s rainy-day fund,” there’s a very direct line from Laffey’s/Cushman’s mind to Petri’s mouth.
What Laffey showed in Rhode Island in the early- to mid-Aughts is that a candidate could run a well-heeled branding campaign [which included out-of-state funding by the notoriously anti-tax and tea party prototype Club for Growth] and succeed in winning a mayor’s office — but that such tactics don’t work for bigger offices like U.S. Senate.
It’s an open question whether Cushman has explained that cautionary aspect of the tea party’s record in Rhode Island to Petri — but she would do well to at least consider it.
Conclusion: Expect to see Petri again
In considering Petri’s campaign, it’s nothing short of a miracle that she was taken as seriously as she was — especially given her late entry into the race, her lack of an endorsement by the local GOP, and her poor showing in raising campaign cash.
That said, she made what appears to be a good impression on Yorke, she stayed relentlessly on-message, and she secured 1 of every 3 votes in a poorly-attended primary.
Also, she got Avedisian to agree to a debate — which probably had more to do with Bill Rappleye from NBC10 moderating it than who his opponent was — and even heading into the final week of the campaign, John Howell at the Beacon was basically conceding that Petri had a chance if she could turn enough of the city’s huge number of unaffiliated voters to her side.
[Apologies to Mr. Howell, but there was also a Democratic primary for governor, which statistically brings in far more unaffiliated voters than the GOP runoff. And, as it turned out, more than 10,000 Democratic votes were cast in Warwick in the gubernatorial primary, while Republicans only cast about 4,600.]
Now that the dust has settled, it’s not too far-out to suggest that Petri’s run — and the work of those behind it — was not solely about running for the mayor’s office this year, but potentially getting her on the ballot again under the tea party banner.
The genius of this plan — if it can be called such — is that there was no margin big enough for Avedisian to secure that would prevent Petri and friends from claiming it as a win, once the message is run through the tea party filter.
In fact, in an interview with the Post after the primary tallies were in, Petri did declare her run a victory.
About the only thing left to learn about Petri is whether she retains some kind of taste for politics and actually turns that into a run for another office that can get closer to succeeding.
To do that, she’ll need more than big, scary numbers and a money-hemorrhaging campaign.
She’ll also have to do everything that she didn’t do this time around, like filing for candidacy earlier, raising money, paying for a campaign office, meeting more voters face-to-face, building a political coalition, and having a message that passes the barest of scrutiny.
If Petri should actually show the guts that such a move would take, the message won’t be about a failed one-time candidate who couldn’t get within 20 percent of the incumbent — it’ll be about the brave political upstart who took on the entrenched interests, and tried to reach voters directly in order to save homeowners from crushing debt and her city from bankruptcy.
As Petri and her crew showed this time around, in the truest tea party tradition, whether that message is actually true doesn’t really matter.
Petri and her allies may be in for another rude awakening, though, if they think they can use their 2014 playbook — including those big, scary numbers — again.
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