RIP Bruce Sundlun
New Year’s Day 1991 dawned cold and sunny at the Rhode Island State House. The snow was littered with empty champagne bottles and confetti, the entrails of the previous evening’s revelry.
It was Bruce Sundlun’s Inauguration Day. A festive, pomp-filled celebration was planned for a man who won the Rhode Island governorship on his third try in November, 1990.
But inside McKim, Mead and White’s marble capitol, storm clouds circled. Before Sundlun could be sworn in, he made an unprecedented decision: to close every credit union and financial institution- 45 in all- where the deposits were insured by the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation, which became notoriously known by its acronym, RISDIC.
Once RISDIC failed there was no insurance for more than $1 billion in deposits. Sundlun took a page from the book of one of his political heroes, Franklin Roosevelt, and essentially declared a state `bank holiday’ to prevent a run on the Rhode Island state-chartered financial institutions.
Some argue to this day whether Sundlun did the right thing. But with Sundlun, one always knew where he stood. He was a man who never needed a poll to tell him what to think. He was an impatient, gruff person, proud that he was a man of action and not reflection.
Rhode Islanders would later learn that a group of crooked bankers and their friends in the General Assembly and in the administration of former Gov. Edward D. DiPrete combined to keep these banks under state regulation, rather than force them to comply with stricter federal rules that would have averted the crash.
Until the day he died at age 91, Sundlun would blame DiPrete, calling him that “f—kin DiPrete.’’
Sundlun was not a natural pol; he was never a master of the hihowareya, the outstretched hand and the campaign circuit small talk that has so often been a path to victory in Rhode Island’s retail political culture. After two failed campaigns, in 1986 and 1988, against DiPrete, many in the Democratic Party considered him unelectable.
What Sundlun had, however, was persistence, a strong ego and a huge bankroll from his years as CEO of the Outlet Company, a legendary Providence retail store that he turned into a media company that owned television stations, including Providence’s WJAR, Channel 10.
In 1990, state Democrats endorsed then-Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., for governor, but Sundlun wasn’t going away without a fight. He dumped his own money into a three-way primary and rode an outsider message to victory over Paolino and Frank Flaherty, the onetime Warwick mayor who is currently a RI Supreme Court justice.
Sundlun easily defeated Republican DiPrete in the general election. Many political observers thought he should have defeated DiPrete in 1988, when DiPrete was weakened by the first of series of ethical scandals that would eventually earn him a year sentence at the Adult Correctional Institutions. But Sundlun made some tactical campaign errors and was stung by DiPrete’s relentlessly negative campaign that focused on Sundlun’s wealth and multiple marriages. A memorable DiPrete campaign television ad blasted Sundlun for having a “swinging lifestyle.’’
Sundlun took over a recession-racked state that the banking crisis pushed to a psychic nadir. Rhode Island was portrayed in the national media as New England’s Third World backwater, a place run by sleazy pols and mobbed-up bankers.
Sundlun may have been a bull who carried his own china shop around. He often made incautious and impolitic comments, but in the end most of his decisions were pragmatic. He was arguably the last of a generation of Rhode Island pols who grew up in the Depression and were steeled by service in World War II. A Jew who was raised in Providence by a loving mother and a distant, lawyer father with whom he often clashed, Sundlun was part of the generation of immigrant stock that went on to success in a state whose business culture, especially, was controlled by a trust-fund Yankee Protestant elite.
He was a classic New Deal Democrat who was part of the generation that believed anything was possible in America. Among his boyhood acquaintances was John H. Chafee, another war hero who would rise to high political office as Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator. Sundlun was also close to the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell.
It was a generation that grew up fast. Sundlun was barely out of his teens when he was a bomber pilot in World War II. Shot down behind enemy lines, he parachuted to safety and escaped with the help of the Resistance in France.
A track and field star, Sundlun attended Williams College and later graduated from Harvard Law School. He worked as a Justice Department lawyer and was active in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Sundlun’s skill as a pilot made him useful in flying Kennedy campaign aides, such as Kenneth O’Donnell and Ted Sorensen, to early primary states. Sundlun was rewarded with a position as co-chairman of JFK’s inaugural committee and a spot on the COMSAT satellite board.
After a stint as a Washington lawyer, Sundlun returned to Providence to run the Outlet Company, a department store company headquartered in a postwar, seen-better-days Providence downtown. He morphed the company into a media powerhouse and made his fortune.
One of his few close friends and co-workers was the late David Henderson, an Outlet executive. “Bruce makes a very good friend and a very bad enemy,’’ Henderson would say. Sundlun later said he agreed with that description of himself.
Sundlun had a messy personal life. He was married five times and had numerous other dalliances with women. One those resulted in an out-of-wedlock daughter with whom he bonded when she was in college. He was surely the only Rhode Island governor to convene a news conference to introduce the woman who was referred to as his “love child’’ to the state.
His administration was a mix of policy wonks and pols. He was a mentor to Sheldon Whitehouse, currently a U.S. Senator, and hired many aides who have gone on to success in politics and other fields, including Nick Retsinas who became U.S. Housing Commissioner and Barbara Cottam, a top public relations executive at Citizens Bank and Judith Colenback Savage, a state judge. Other Sundlun aides, such as David Preston, Joseph Shekarchi and Frank McMahon, have gone to on to careers as lobbyists, lawyers and public relations executives. Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts worked for Sundlun as a health policy aide.
Despite an administration that was suffused by the banking crisis, Sundlun had other successes. He started the children’s health care initiative that later was expanded into RiteCare under Gov. Lincoln Almond. And he was able, with the help of Whitehouse and the AFL_CIO’s George Nee and Frank Montanaro, to fashion legislation that solved a huge problem in the state’s Workers Compensation system.
Sundlun was the first governor to endorse Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, although Paul Tsongas won the 1992 RI Democratic presidential primary.
Sundlun had a crusty exterior (one of his press aides, the late Mike Cabral, used to refer to Sundlun as “Captain Grumpy’’) that masked a generous side. His Williams roommate, a man named Samuel Chipman Smart, fell on hard times and battled an alcohol habit later in life. Sundlun helped him get back on his feet, found him a job at the Outlet and stuck with him thorough substance abuse relapses. The two attended their 50th Williams reunion shortly before Smart died.
Sundlun was the major force behind the expansion of Green State Airport and helped the 1990s rebirth of Providence. He was fond of aphorisms. He didn’t want to hear why something couldn’t be done. When confronted with a balky bureaucrat, he would bark, the “Israelis won a war in 6 days,’’ a reference to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
“The first third of life is for learning, the second third for earning and the last third for serving,’’ was another frequent Sundlun nostrum.
Never an accomplished politician, Sundlun was defeated in a 1994 run for reelection. In retirement he taught political science for many years at the University of Rhode Island.