Sam Zurier learns Providence politics the hard way
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..