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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Point taken, Bob

Backroom dealing at the General Assembly
Bob Craven undercuts Donna Walsh's symbolic win on ethics in judicial appointments
By Will Collette

For more than a decade, Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) has fought an uphill battle for a piece of common sense ethics legislation. Donna wants Rhode Island’s judge magistrates to be chosen based on merit, rather than as a political patronage reward. ProJo columnist Ed Fitzpatrick likened Donna’s long-haul struggle to the plight of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll down as it neared the top.

Her merit selection for magistrates bill usually dies in committee. This year, her efforts got a bit of a bump when Donna took a stand for principle in the House Judiciary Committee when the committee was asked to pass a bill creating a special license plate for one of those politically-selected magistrates who was retiring.

To the shock of the House leadership who assumed this bill would simply breeze through committee, the bill was defeated by a surprise vote of 6 to 5. This earned Donna a “hot” spot on GoLocalProv’s weekly, “Who’s hot and who’s not” column.

As Donna told the Providence Journal, “I couldn’t vote for this when we can’t even get the magistrate bill out of committee.”

One of her fellow committee members who voted NO with Donna was Rep. Bob Craven (D-No. Kingstown) who is also one of Charlestown’s town solicitors.

However, since Bob voted with the majority, parliamentary rules permitted him to make a “motion to reconsider,” which he later did…without a notice on the calendar and when several of the bill’s opponents were not present.

On its second try, the license plate bill passed.

Under the House’s leadership system, Craven earned himself lots of points with the leadership, especially since the bill came from House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello.

Explaining that I was writing a piece on the bill for Progressive Charlestown, I asked Bob for confirmation. In an e-mail, I wrote: “I’d like to confirm that you were the member who moved for reconsideration and that you did it at the behest of the House leadership. I’d also like your comments on why you supported passing this bill.”

His first answer was a bit confusing:

CRAVEN: “Yes, I was. My purpose My purpose was to make the point, not to fight over a license plate.”

Since I didn’t understand this reply, I asked him to explain what point he was making. He replied:

CRAVEN: “The point was that this particular Magistrate had a reputation of not being particularly judicial in his decisions and treatment of litigants.”

OK, I understand now that the reason why Bob voted NO on the first motion to deny the license plate –this judge magistrate wasn’t a very good magistrate, in Bob’s words, “not particularly judicial.”

But then why would Bob make the motion to reconsider giving a special license plate to a bad magistrate? 

Is this where Bob’s political instincts kicked in and he decided that, having made the point on the first vote, he didn’t want “to fight over a license plate?”

As I see it, if you want to make a point by voting “no” to doing a political favor for a bad judge, that’s fine. But if you then wait until later when no one is watching to reverse your decision, doesn’t that diminish your point?

In a third e-mail, I’ve asked Bob to clarify this point, but have not heard back from him. That was two weeks ago.

Law-making, like sausage-making, is a process most people don’t really want to see or know about in detail. 

In the real world of politics, wheeling and dealing is de rigueur. But this little episode shows the seamy underbelly of Rhode Island politics at its worst.