When I was in 7th grade, I was convinced that my social studies teacher hated me.
We had an argument in class one day – I can’t remember the reason, but I’m confident that I was right – and he stuck my desk in a corner, facing a wall. It felt like I was being forced to wear a dunce cap.
Being an irrational pre-teen, I didn’t use my punishment to self-reflect. I spent the entire class obnoxiously raising my hand to answer every question, and the teacher ignored me. When he tried to force me to sit in the corner again during our next class, I refused to move, essentially staging a sit-in.
My classmates thought my antics were hilarious, and soon I was middle school-famous for standing up to a teacher that I considered a bully. But things went sideways quickly. Before long, I noticed that only the bad kids at school – by bad, I mean the ones who occasionally smuggled in cigarettes stolen from their parents and swore regularly – cared about my strategy for disrupting class.
The attention was addicting, but it wasn’t productive. I didn’t have an end game. I was petrified of being suspended from school, and I was losing my base of students who were legitimately on my side. I had gone from principled to petulant in a hurry.
Sound familiar, Peter Neronha?
Rhode Island’s attorney general has been posting and posting from his personal account on the platform formerly known as Twitter for the past seven months, transitioning from a media-friendly former US attorney who was quietly doing an excellent job as the state’s top lawyer to one of our most notable trolls.
Now he’s openly flirting with running for governor in a Democratic primary that is still almost three years away, which will inevitably lead to more meaningless saber-rattling to feed that addiction to attention. It may feel good to score a few more likes and retweets, but his seeming obsession with social media threatens to overshadow his legacy.
Not that is he isn’t right some of the time.
Neronha had a legitimate gripe with Governor Dan McKee about funding he wanted to hire more attorneys in his office, and he played a brilliant inside-out game to secure the money. He met privately with House and Senate leadership to make his case, started tweeting about his frustration with McKee, and then sat for public interviews with anyone who asked to bolster his argument.
I was one of the journalists who wrote favorably about Neronha at the time, even calling his Twitter feed the most interesting account in Rhode Island.
Now I find myself rolling my eyes at the attorney general more often than ever before.
Like when he felt the need recently to clap back against a Republican college student organizer who told Neronha to shut up. Never mind that the kid has fewer than 600 Twitter followers. Neronha turned on the snark: “How’s that field organizing going? Might want to try something new.”
Neronha regularly spars with thoroughly unimportant figures who generally identify with the Republican Party in our state. He garners positive feedback from Democrats, but it’s beneath the office he holds. It’s playground behavior that he seems to rationalize because they’re often the ones who started it.
As you might expect, Neronha sees this one differently. What I consider a waste of brain space, he considers engagement in its purest form.
In a brief phone conversation Monday afternoon, he said he thinks that he should be able to respond when someone “takes a shot at me.” He rattled off the names of four different people who have publicly criticized him in recent weeks, and defended his decision tap reply.
“I don’t think I’ve said anything to a member of the public that is at all rude or obnoxious or something I wouldn’t say to them in person,” Neronha said. “In fact, I like to think I’m approachable and polite.”
He takes a more passive-aggressive approach when’s he upset with serious people, like his post last week when he sounded off about the ability for criminal defendants to request a trial by judge instead of a jury.
“Random thought before 8 am bell rings: in federal system, the prosecution must agree to a jury waived trial in addition to the defendant. In state system, only the defendant must agree,” Neronha wrote. “That’s a real weakness for our state system- & should be changed. Victims deserve justice too.”
Neronha appeared to be referring to the case of Dr. Richard Gordon, a Barrington oral surgeon who appealed his conviction on charges of assaulting his Iranian-American neighbor in one of Rhode Island’s first hate crime cases in more than five years.
He then appeared to take a shot at the judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini: “When some judges never oversee a jury trial it’s not a coincidence.”
Procaccini dismissed the charges on Friday, and then ordered Neronha to appear before him on Dec. 5 because of his tweets.
There’s a bit of history between Procaccini and Neronha. In an unrelated case in 2020, Procaccini dismissed a money laundering charge that Neronha brought against political operative Jeff Britt during a jury trial. Both Britt and Gordon were defended by Robert Corrente, another former US attorney. It’s worth noting that Neronha and Corrente aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists.
It’s not that Neronha should be reprimanded by Procaccini. There is no question that he can post just about whatever he wants on social media. But I still question whether it’s a productive use of Neronha’s time.
“There’s nothing I’m doing on Twitter that lessens my ability to deliver for Rhode Islanders,” Neronha said.
Maybe so. But right now, he’s getting more attention for his petty spats than for what should have been a banner moment last week.
He raised legitimate questions about the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to cut carbon emissions and continued to be the watchdog the state needs when it comes to the Prospect Medical Holdings’ shameful management of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence and Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence.
I told him that the closer he gets to running for governor, the more he runs the risk of having his critiques being written off as purely political.
“I can separate them,” he assured me, referring to his policy-based arguments and his social media wrestling matches with nobodies.
In another post last week, Neronha suggested that people mute him on Twitter if they don’t like what he has to say.
“Twitter friends and followers: when I’m exercising my First Amendment right and you don’t like my observations - there’s always that mute button,” he write. “I find it useful from time to time.”
My advice: A little self-discipline would go a long way. Stop telling people to just mute you. Instead, why don’t you log off and focus on work.