For jaded Rhode Islanders, House Speaker Gordon Fox’s abrupt resignation after a government raid on his State House office called to mind any of a zillion other political scandals in the nation’s smallest state — and furthered its reputation as an endless well of undifferentiated corruption. As one resident told a Globe reporter, “This General Assembly of ours needs a good enema. But the reality of this situation is, it’s not going to happen.” Taking a fatalistic, to-hell-with-them-all attitude toward the state’s political class might be an understandable reaction to the news about Fox. But it’s also worth noting some underlying dynamics that may make highly damaging scandals more likely in the Ocean State.
In Fox’s case, it’s not entirely clear what state and federal investigators are looking for; there’s been some speculation around private work he did, while serving as House majority leader, for a Providence economic-development agency. In any case, a tiny state like Rhode Island can’t easily prohibit its legislators from doing outside work, and when everyone knows everyone the possibility of dubious entanglements multiplies exponentially. Meanwhile, the concentration of power in a few top posts makes it easier for their occupants to wink-wink-nudge-nudge their way into ethical red zones — or, cynics might say, to march gleefully into them.
This dynamic, of course, isn’t unique to Rhode Island; the previous three speakers of the Massachusetts House were convicted of felonies. Yet the drawn-out troubles of Rhode Island’s economy make political scandals there feel more damaging. (I think I can say this; I’m from there.) In Massachusetts, an activist state government makes its presence known, but huge medical and higher-ed sectors, long-established financial and insurance companies, thriving development interests, an emerging tech sector, and a vast array of nonprofits all provide competing sources of power — and alternative arenas where ambitious people can prove themselves. In Rhode Island, which never fully recovered from deindustrialization, the public sector is the biggest show in town. It makes wilder bets. (See: Schilling, Curt.) And when scandals befall this political monoculture, they make the entire state look rotten to the core.
The sad part is that Fox’s tenure as speaker showed some promise in the other direction; he helped push through, for instance, a landmark pension reform law that would relieve some of the intense fiscal pressure on troubled cities and towns. It’s a shame: In an alternative universe, Rhode Island’s small size and intimate culture would be a political and economic advantage — not a recipe for trouble.