Lessons To Be Learned From Patriots Debacle
by Ralph Nader
Gov. John G. Rowland’s press performance following his Patriots’ scheme pratfall was remarkable for its utter lack of contrition and the absence of any lessons learned from this debacle.
Not that he is alone in such a posture. Other politicians — Republicans and Democrats — who joined him in their impulsive bowing, kneeling and then kowtowing to the demands of Patriots owner Robert Kraft for a half-billion-dollar corporate welfare deal, fraught with annual deficits, state liabilities and a mockery of permanent job production, also have lessons to learn.
Rowland’s mistakes were many but not atypical of his tenure. He negotiated the deal as an amateur with a professional corporate wheeler-dealer in complete secrecy and denied himself the benefit of wise and experienced counsel. He then pursued an autocratic policy, with the two Democratic dictatees in the legislature, of turning the secret deal into law.
History teaches us that secrecy and autocracy are poor information systems. Rowland may be tough on $300-a-month welfare mothers, but was taken to the cleaners by a welfare-demanding mega-millionaire, under a contract that had no mutuality of obligations. Kraft had more exits than a stadium.
Lesson to be learned: As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said long ago, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Open government, openly arrived at, subjects proposals to intense examinations that avoid serious fumbles, as with the deeply contaminated site for the proposed stadium.
Rowland then handed the deal to his Democratic co-optees, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Sullivan and House Speaker Moira Lyons, who promptly turned the legislature into a dictators’ parliament. Remember the December public hearing, with the afternoon reserved for the boosters — Rowland, Kraft et al — and the early evenings for more boosters replacing paid stand-ins, and finally followed by critics, who were each restricted to each speaking three minutes.
Cooling his heals at the rear of the hearing room was sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. Personally invited to testify by Lyons and then impersonally ignored, he took his expertise and enlightenment about the many defects of the deal back to Northampton.
Sullivan called to apologize, perhaps presaging a regret voiced last week when he said: “Had somebody said to CTG, ‘Look, just to check, you’re going to give us the land, right?’ I have a feeling that no one asked the right questions at the start.”
Better late than never, Mr. Sullivan, but your colleague Sen. Edith Prague was asking the pertinent questions from the beginning. She also kept insisting on the democratic process that, as she said, “was put there for a reason.” For her political courage Sen. Prague was ridiculed, condemned and ostracized by the legislative boosters.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal can learn some lessons. From November onward, the state’s chief legal advisor and watchdog over state assets neither advised nor watchdogged. He only bestirred himself to assail a citizen lawsuit filed in state court last month against the Patriots’ scheme.
The business community of large corporations can learn to practice what it preaches — free enterprise. Stop piling corporate welfare on the state’s taxpayers and start investing in Hartford. Too many profitable insurance companies and banks have ignored Hartford as they have milked it for privileges.
In his active Monday morning quarterbacking, Sullivan plaintively declared “We do need to see earnest investment from the business community. As a legislator and a taxpayer, I’m willing to invest,” he said, reassuringly, “but there has to be private investment as well.” No kidding.
Apart from a few luminous exceptions, the news media would do well to introspect. When the Rowland-Kraft parade was announced in November, the main television stations and many newspapers behaved as if they were saying, “Lookee here, a parade, a great parade, we’re going to join the parade.”
The news media have a public trust. People rely on them to search out the facts, examine the politicians and report, and evaluate the process and the substance of such schemes. In the early months, they, by and large, did neither. But they did report the public opinion polls showing a 3-to-1 margin in favor of the Patriots deal.
How interesting that after a few weeks of official source journalism, reporters were given more leeway in getting to the many unstable assumptions of the deal. With an informed public, the latest Quinnipiac College opinion poll showed a dramatic turnaround, with 58 percent surveyed on the opposition side and 38 percent in favor.
Those in the television and newspaper media who fell down on the job may humbly wonder why they left it up to talk radio in the state to air diverse views, criticisms and questions in the immediate hoopla period late last year.
Then there are the lessons citizens in general need to heed. The people of Connecticut should not have allowed their politicians and business leaders to presume that citizens are apathetic and powerless. This attitude by the oligarchs, who rule the state, makes them think they can get away with anything, including a huge allocation of tax dollars for a boondoggle sports entertainment complex that no independent economists would support as an economically prudent public investment.
Fortunately, a number of civic groups, including the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut PIRG, three little political parties (Green, Reform and Libertarian), a broad-based citizen action coalition — Stop the Stadium, led by Tom Sevigny — and stalwart citizens led by Lou Goldberg and Charlene LaVoie, showed the Big Boys how democracy can work to illuminate the many hurdles built into the deal that made it unworkable and unwise.
Corporate welfare politicians who get caught passing out taxpayer dollars like to ward off accountability by saying, “Let’s not finger point” or “Let’s not play the blame game.” If the public does not insist on holding these elected officials responsible, they will just do it again and again, making the same mistakes garnished with the same secrecy, autocracy and arrogance.
Hartford does not need these attitudes anymore. What this long-tormented central city requires is honest local leadership, more community credit facilities for small business and other neighborhood economic development, an end to bank and insurance redlining, community policing for safe streets, a public works program to repair crumbling schools and other decaying structures and property tax reform for small property owners.
All those efforts, some successfully tried in other New England states, have good economic and civic multiplier effects. They are not as glamorous as Roman Circus projects for the well-to-do within gated architecture. But they flow into the communities and are much better crafted as if people mattered.
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