Revenge In East Providence

It’s been more than two weeks since the election and I am still trying to figure out what happened in local elections in East Providence. In case you didn’t follow the upheaval in EP, the mayor, the city council and virtually the entire school committee were dismissed by the voters, egged on by a targeted union effort against them. Score it: Teachers union 1, East Providence 0. What’s especially puzzling about the whole affair is how Townie taxpayers may have willingly voted to cut their own throats.

There’s a contentious history behind this development, not surprisingly, one in which the school committee, with city council and mayoral support, stepped over the teacher union contract last year and unilaterally cut teacher salaries and benefits in a bold move, the first of its kind in the state. They did this, they asserted, because the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and action had to be taken to rein in costs, especially teacher pay and benefits costs. The council took action under a lapsed contract that was still up for negotiation. The teachers union sued in turn, arguing that the school committee had gone beyond its authority and that the former contract remained in force. The teachers union lost the first legal round in Superior Court, however, when a judge affirmed that a municipality facing insolvency had the right to abrogate a union contract. The case is still alive, in fact, and will eventually be argued before the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Somehow, over the past year, the public’s perception of the case changed and sentiment turned against the incumbent officeholders. It didn’t help them, of course, that this election featured an angry anti-incumbent sentiment on the part of the public. Then insert a bounty of campaign dollars flooding East Providence in the form of attack mailers and ads paid for by the Working Families Coalition, the political action arm of WorkingRI, the union advocacy group.

One such ad, “Who has the Right Answer for East Providence? You Be the Judge,” presents the argument that the teachers made concessions to assist the city during difficult times but the school committee wouldn’t accept a neutral arbitrator’s ruling, unilaterally cut teachers wages and benefits, and used $200 an hour lawyers to defend themselves. The ad lists the targets for voter revenge: the full five-member school committee and five-member city council, including Mayor Joseph Larisa, Jr. In the end, nine incumbents were booted out of office, leaving one surviving at-large school committee member. It was a wholesale rout.

Mayor Larisa has vented loudly over the union tactics used against the incumbents, arguing that deliberate distortions confused town voters, and arguing that the incumbents were “taxpayer heroes” for the tough actions they took. He said the election results meant the end to “Taxpayer protection.”

The heavy involvement of WorkingRI in this election, made possible by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of corporations and other organizations, like unions, to participate directly in backing candidates and positions, made this the most expensive mid-term election in U.S. history – to date. Not only did WorkingRI’s political arm intervene successfully in East Providence, the organization’s spending efforts defeated several state legislators in the primary – Democrats no less, who went against union wishes in backing pension reform efforts in the General Assembly.

The takeaway here is that the unions are fighting back stronger than ever. They backed Lincoln Chafee and carried him to victory as well. Many people are now wondering just how far in labor’s pocket Linc may turn out to be. After all, he supports binding arbitration for teachers, doesn’t want to advance charter schools, is unsure about Deborah Gist, and thinks that a refinancing of the pension debt may be the best solution to the pension problem. Sounds like a pro-union agenda to me.

What will happen in East Providence in the next two years? It was the taxpayers who rejected the actions of the former school committee and city council in attempting to rein in runaway personnel costs. So the question is: Will the new officeholders put back the lost wages and benefits of the teachers, at taxpayers’ expense? If so, how will the city survive financially?

Stay tuned.