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Sam Zurier learns Providence politics the hard way

February 13, 2012

Shortly after his election, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras held a news conference where he praised City Council President Michael Solomon and said he was proud to live in the Mount Pleasant-Elmhurst neighborhood and have council president Solomon as his councilman.

Minutes later, Jeff Padwa, the new city solicitor, who lives on the East Side, joked that his councilman Sam Zurier, was the smartest member of the city council, a political body that has never been confused with a Mensa meeting.

Zurier is a Yale grad and Rhodes scholar. But after reading Sunday’s ProJo story about his joust with two of his constituents, it is clear that Zurier is not a Rhode Island scholar.

The ProJo article, written by two of the newspaper’s top reporters, Mike Stanton and Kathy Gregg, paints a tough portrait of Zurier, a rookie council member and former Providence School Board member.

The gist of the piece is that Zurier expected a $100 campaign contribution from two constituents who he helped get a sidewalk in front of their home in the city’s most affluent neighborhood repaired. And when he didn’t get it, he went into a snit.

The constituents happen to be Dee Dee and Dr. Gary Whitman. Gary Whitman is a physician who is a quadriplegic due to a 2010 swimming accident. He is confined to a wheelchair. The couple wanted the cracked sidewalk fixed so he could maneuver his motorized wheelchair.

Nothing looks worse than a politician shaking down a constituent who is confined to a wheelchair. Yet one can have the deepest sympathy with Dr. Whitman’s plight and still understand that this case is not as simple as it seems.

It strains credulity to believe that Zurier can be bought for $100. And while Dr. Whitman is not known for involvement in politics, his wife Dee Dee is very familiar with the underside of Rhode Island political fund-raising. For many years she has been involved with master Democratic money man Mark Weiner, who has harvested campaign cash for a slew of Democratic Party candidates, both locally and nationally.

Weiner is a master of the “I do this for you and you do this for  me’’ school of fund-raising. Known as the trinket king of the Democratic Party, Weiner raises piles of money for candidates and his firm gets the trinket business. Few Rhode Islanders attend Democratic National Conventions, but those who have have seen Weiner’s company souvenirs  sold at kiosks all around the convention halls. For his years of squeezing out political cash for the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, Weiner got the convention business and the presidential inauguration concession. When Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008, Weiner, who did a healthy business for the Clinton campaign, went through then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy (An Obama backer) to make sure he got his share of the trinkets and campaign signs.

Weiner and Dee Dee Witman don’t even talk to someone for less than a $1,000 contribution, let alone worry about $100. And if you aren’t maxing out, don’t line up for the personal photo with the candidate. It is tough for those of us who have been around Rhody politics for more than a few years to imagine Dee Dee Whitman as a victim of  hardball political fund-raising. ( In defense of Weiner, he has been a staunch supporter of  Rhode Island charitable institutions for many years).

This looks more like an East Side spitting match between the Whitmans and Zurier than corruption. One could even say these people deserve each other. That said, Zurier is lucky this happened on the East Side, where no one believes  you can buy a councilman for less than a nice dinner for two at Chez Pascal. Just think what would happen if Councilman Wilbur `Billy’ Jennings, who represents a South Side  neighborhood did something like this?

Zurier is a wonk, a thinker who has been deeply involved in school issues. And he has done fine work reforming the homestead exemption loophole that for too many years allowed East Siders to get the exemption to lower their real estate taxes while at the same time registering their fancy cars in other communities – and even states- to beat the capital city’s onerous car taxes.

Zurier is also a new council member  who has made a rookie mistake. He is learning the hard way some of the lessons much less serious pols in our state know. If you can say it without writing it down, say it. Better yet, if you can wink without saying it, wink. (Former House Speaker John Harwood of Pawtucket was a master of this one).

And Zurier will also learn that even on the East Side, the grubby details of constituent service – taking care of the mewling cat in the tree, fixing the pothole or sidewalk – is the coin of the Rhode Island political realm for local pols. Zurier didn’t get into Providence politics to be the DPW councilman. But to stay there he will have to learn to pay attention to these demands while being smarter about fund-raising..

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kiersten Marek permalink
    February 13, 2012 11:26 pm

    Reblogged this on Kmareka.com and commented:
    For those who care to know, there is a little more to the story of Sam Zurier and the Whitmans than the Providence Journal is telling you.

  2. dee dee witman permalink
    February 14, 2012 5:30 pm

    Scott;

    Shame on you. First, you must not know who I am professionally or personally. Anything I do, I do with pride, respect and honesty no matter what the task. You reference my relationship with Mark Weiner in your piece. My friendship with Mark has nothing to do with anything. He is a dear and old friend whom I have known since he was ten years old when he was my nephew’s best friend. Since the death of my nephew in a plane crash and because of Mark’s illness we have become only closer and Mark is again a dear family friend. However, why would you even begin to think that Mark has anything to do with a letter from Councilman Zurier. You are certainly muddying the waters of the original issue.

    Now let’s look at the issue;
    I never committed to Sam’s campaign.

    Even if I had and he’s writing such a letter equating his public service of the sidewalk to honoring the commitment, that’s definitely quid pro quo. I’m curious why you think it’s okay to for you to rail against corrupt politics on your podcasts but defend Sam on this incident and implicate my integrity with guilt by association. Yes, I was a fundraiser; but I would never corner someone for a contribution. The last campaign I worked on was years ago and I am proud of my record whether it’s a twenty dollar ask or a thousand dollar ask. Shame on you for trying to be cute, sharp and witty at my expense. Indeed, if policy comes easily to Sam he needs to learn how to implement that idea. He’s in a paid position where his job is to work on issues for both the constituent and the City. At times it’s a difficult task but he chose to run for office. You missed the point and feel compelled to stand by Sam saying this is a rookie mistake. Not so; his lack of judgement was in play. His so called apology to me was a message left on my voicemail saying “He’s sorry I’m upset about the letter.” Talk about adding insult to injury. He was wrong to write the letter, he was wrong to leave a half baked apology and frankly you are equally as wrong in your observation.

    Sincerely,
    Dee Dee Witman

  3. Thomas A. Schmeling permalink
    February 19, 2012 3:37 am

    Scott,

    You’re written an insightful piece. I agree that it does not make sense to view Sam’s letter as a pay-for-play situation for the reasons you mention. To add to those points, I have submitted the letter below to the ProJo editors. It may or may not run, but I wish to make it public:

    To The Editor:

    I have been astounded and discouraged by the unjustified accusations leveled against Councilman Sam Zurier this past week.

    I worked closely with Sam for more than three years in the effort to keep Nathan Bishop Middle School open. During that time, Sam worked many hundreds of hours, without any compensation, to improve public education. I know few people willing to give so much of themselves for the public good.

    In those three years, and since, I never once saw Sam Zurier perform, suggest, or condone a single unethical act. Based on my experience, accusations of “pay for play” that have been tossed around simply do not ring true.

    Nor do those accusations fit the facts as presented in this newspaper. Sam used his position to repair the sidewalk in front of the home of a severely handicapped constituent. No one suggests that was improper. Nor has anyone disputed that the work was completed without Sam receiving or asking for any form of remuneration. That, by itself, is sufficient to refute any claims of quid pro quo delivery of government services.

    Those of us who already know and trust Sam will not change our high opinion of him because of the accusations being made in various media outlets and public forums. My larger concern is that others like Sam- people of integrity and good will- will be discouraged from running for public office by such displays.

    Sincerely,
    Thomas A. Schmeling

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