The attorney general's office is a graveyard for political ambitions. Will
Sheldon Whitehouse emerge unscathed?
by Ian Donnis
In 1998, Sheldon Whitehouse scoffed at the notion that he was running for
attorney general to use the post as a stepping stone to become governor.
Displaying a keen awareness of how being AG is synonymous in Rhode Island with
dead-end political prospects, Whitehouse said he was motivated by a sense of
civic mission. He likened his decision to seek the AG's job -- and take a major
pay cut from his post as US attorney -- to a "fireman going to a building with
smoke pouring out of it."
It was a not-so-subtle reference to the administration of Jeff Pine, whose
prosecutors almost botched the corruption case against former governor Edward
DiPrete, and whose narcotics strike force was disbanded in 1996 amid
accusations of wrongful arrest and civil rights violations. Of course, Pine had
also campaigned as a reformer after his predecessor, James O'Neil, was seen as
being too passive during the period leading to the state's credit union
But even with Whitehouse's recognition of how the AG's job is freighted with
political peril, it's ironic that his tenure has coincided with a rapid series
of seismic events -- the fatal shooting of Cornel Young Jr. by two fellow
Providence cops; the assassination of 15-year-old murder witness Jennifer
Rivera; and the carjacking slayings of Jason Burgeson and Amy Shute -- that are
unparalleled in recent memory.
The breakneck sequence over the last six months has some staffers in the AG's
South Main Street office shaking their heads. And the events, which crystallize
some of the biggest and most difficult issues of the day, from the unfinished
business of race and police-community relations, to the death penalty and
predatory violence, show why, for a half-century, the attorney general's office
has been a graveyard for political ambitions in Rhode Island.
Whitehouse, the well-heeled son of a globe-trotting diplomat, remains highly
regarded by some observers, who describe him as the real thing -- a sincere
public official with a strong commitment to helping others. But he's also
disappointed progressives by tilting conservative on some issues, and the
experienced prosecutor sounded feeble in blaming Rivera's death on the state's
lack of a more effective witness protection program. The latter, combined with
Whitehouse's refusal to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate
Young's death, sparked protest and, for some, alienation and the sense that
he's indifferent to
those who are less fortunate.
With his experience, name recognition and personal wealth, Whitehouse could
still be a leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2002. In fact, after
working for more than 15 years in state government, it would be a surprise if
he doesn't seek the top job. But although characteristically self-assured,
Whitehouse remains coy about his political aspirations. "The first element will
be when it's time to decide and now's not the time to decide," he says.
Instead, the 44-year-old prosecutor prefers to tout internal reforms in the
AG's office and inchoate efforts to foster a prevention-based approach to
fighting crime in the capital city.
But the public image of Whitehouse doesn't come from such incremental steps,
regardless of their value. And the AG, who has been a ubiquitous presence in
local headlines while suing the lead paint industry, expressing support for
disgruntled nurses at Rhode Island Hospital and discussing a possible federal
prosecution in the carjacking case, obviously isn't about to fade from view.
The AG's job has a particularly broad mandate in Rhode Island, and as the
official responsible for regulating hospital takeovers, for example, Whitehouse
will weigh in on the proposed merger of Lifespan and Care New England, a major
decision that will have an impact for years to come.
"That office has a lot of high-profile cases, and the public evaluation of
that particular office-holder goes up and down with how the big cases get
handled," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University.
"The problem in that office is that you really don't control your own fate."
Reminded of the analogy used by Whitehouse in explaining his desire to be AG,
West adds, "I think the building is still on fire."
To hear Whitehouse tell it, Safe Streets Providence is his kind of initiative.
The concept of imposing intense monitoring on youthful high-risk offenders has
obvious merit -- although many released convicts go on to commit new crimes,
probation officers are hard-pressed to monitor them because of staggering
caseloads. Safe Streets Providence, unveiled by Governor Lincoln Almond during
a June 30 news conference at the State House, has particular resonance after
the carjack killings in June of Burgeson and Shute, since four of the five
suspects in the case were on probation at the time of their arrests. But for
seemingly the first time in six months, Whitehouse cut a low media profile. The
Providence Journal even waits three days before running a story on the
In a similar way, on January 27, after months of meetings with police
(including Maj. Cornel Young Sr.) and community leaders, Whitehouse released a
plan for improving police-community relations. Among other things, it called
for setting clear goals for the recruitment and promotion of minorities and
women within police departments, and the identification and punishment of
improper forms of discrimination. As critics noted, the recommendations lacked
teeth, but the effort was certainly a step in the right direction.
Whitehouse cites this kind of effort, along with his support for reducing
truancy, reforming probation, creating an adult drug court, more severely
punishing criminals who use guns, and assigning a community prosecutor to a
high-crime section of Mount Hope, in calling himself a champion for the
minority and low-income residents of the state who are most adversely affected
"I have critics? I wouldn't quarrel that I can look aloof and my manner is
what my manner is," Whitehouse says, throwing his arms in the air during a
recent interview. "But I think if you look at the areas in which I've focused
my work," it reveals an active effort to help people of modest means and
enhance the effectiveness of the AG's office. "If there's any question of what
I'm trying to do, it may sound boring, but I'm a huge believer in getting the
plumbing right, getting the procedures to work right."
But while some of these prevention-based approaches may prove effective, they
remain at an early or conceptual stage. And as 2000 began, there was little
sign that Whitehouse, or Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci for that
matter, was causing the Providence Police Department's old-school leadership to
face long-standing complaints about harassment of minority youths and a shallow
commitment to community policing.
Then, in the early morning hours of January 28, Whitehouse's police-community
relations plan was suddenly overshadowed when 29-year-old Cornel Young Jr. was
shot and killed by two fellow Providence police officers. While the truth
remains unclear, some suspect the white officers were quicker to shoot Young,
who was off-duty and holding a gun while interceding in a fight at the Fidas
diner, because he was black. Young's death brought to the surface a welter of
suppressed grievances about racism and police misconduct and unleashed a surge
of related grassroots activism.
Instead of a would-be partner, Whitehouse quickly became seen by some as a foe
because of his refusal to yield oversight of the investigation into Young's
death. The prosecutor staunchly resisted such calls, saying he was duty-bound
to oversee the grand jury process (which, as many anticipated, did not result
in charges against officers Carlos Saraiva and Michael Solitro III). Whitehouse
invoked the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the internment of
Japanese-Americans during World War II, in noting that prosecutions driven by
public passion have historically been at odds with justice. Although it was
without political risk to do so, Whitehouse did promote the development of a
commission to examine systemic concerns related to Young's death, and it was
this concept that became a bona fide and significant state commission on race
and police-community relations.
Reflecting a larger division in opinions about Whitehouse, the AG's use of
Robert V. Ward Jr., the African-American dean of the Southern New England
School of Law in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, as a confidential consultant during
the grand jury process is seen either as evidence of tokenism or sensitivity to
the minority community. Whitehouse was tone-deaf in believing that the number
of minority officers on an investigative panel would assuage concerns about a
lack of law enforcement impartiality. At the same time, although Rhode Island
history offers ample reason to fear insider deals, it was unfair for Whitehouse
to face collective blame for a backlog of accumulated slights.
And it's a measure of Whitehouse's integrity that even the activist ministers
who were most vocal in calling for an independent probe of Young's death don't
question his intentions. "Sheldon is a good man and I know that," says the Rev.
Marlowe Washington, pastor of Allen A.M.E. Church in Providence's West End. "I
see him as a person who is trying his hardest and means well."
But while Whitehouse's opposition to an independent prosecutor can be seen as
a principled stand, the lack of protection afforded to Jennifer Rivera was more
troubling. Although officials and Rivera's mother dispute whether authorities
offered protection, the 15-year-old girl was left to fend for herself on the
eve of testifying in the murder trial of Charles Pona. Whitehouse's chief of
staff, Bill Fischer, says only 17 states have real witness protection programs,
and Whitehouse himself places the blame on the lack of a state procedure for
evaluating threats on a case-by-case basis. Coming from an experienced
prosecutor who as US attorney used the RICO organized crime statute to
prosecute the Latin Kings, this seems pretty anemic.
Some community leaders, like Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence
chapter of the NAACP, remain supportive of Whitehouse and see him largely as a
victim of circumstances. "I think he's been a good attorney general," says
Montiero, who served on Whitehouse's panel on police-community relations. "I
think, unfortunately, he's been hit by more crises than anyone could have
imagined. I think the next two years are going to be critical in terms of the
development of him as a human being, and the development of him as a
In the aftermath of Jennifer's death, however, some other observers are still
disturbed by the failure of adults to protect a teenager who was trying to do
the right thing. "If we fail to set the right example, the young people can
only emulate what they see," says Dennis Langley, executive director of the
Urban League of Rhode Island, who is disappointed by Whitehouse's performance
as AG. "Let's own up when we mess up, bottom line."
Although Whitehouse says he places a premium on working with others and
building coalitions, some of his stances have surprised those who expected him
to be a more progressive attorney general. Other observers, though, give him
high marks for a willingness to go against the grain of the local political
Amid the stormy aftermath of Young's death, Whitehouse dropped his opposition
to a modest racial profiling bill that would require police to gather related
data over a two-year period, but Langley and Steve Brown, executive director of
the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, fault him for
being MIA when it came to supporting the legislation.
Whitehouse also initially opposed legislation that would require judges to
inform foreign-born defendants of possible deportation consequences if they
plead guilty to a felony. Fischer, the AG's chief of staff, says such
defendants will be given the information as part of a temporary compromise. The
AG's opposition to the bill, he says, stemmed from not wanting to create
another variable where a case can be thrown out of court.
To his credit, Whitehouse -- although he supports a federal capital punishment
prosecution against the alleged shooter in the carjacking case -- refused to
use the chilling crime to demagogue on the death penalty (unlike Massachusetts
Governor Paul Cellucci, who used the gruesome sex-crime slaying of a Cambridge
boy a few years ago to pander to death penalty supporters).
But some critics, like former state representative Ray Rickman, bitterly cite
a lack of diversity on the AG's staff, particularly compared to that of the US
Justice Department, and note that this invariably influences how state
prosecutors go about their business. Other minority leaders, such as Victor
Capellan, the former executive director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and
Advocacy, however, credit Whitehouse with making a good-faith effort in a state
with relatively few minority lawyers. For his part, Whitehouse claims credit
for doubling, from two to four, the number of minorities among the 90 lawyers
in the AG's office, and he says aggressive outreach efforts are ongoing.
The volunteer watchdog government group Operation Clean Government pans
Whitehouse for failing to investigate the state Traffic Court scandal, and for
suing whistle-blowers at the state Department of Environmental Management. But
Common Cause of Rhode Island presented Whitehouse with a public service
achievement award in February 1999, and H. Philip West, executive director of
the good government group, praises him for "an ability to make tough decisions
and stick with them in the face of sometimes fierce opposition. He certainly
has a brilliant legal mind and, I think, a very lofty sense of public
In particular, West cites Whitehouse for his early maverick stance on
separation of powers -- the ability of state legislators to appoint legislative
colleagues to run executive boards and commissions that have been created by
the General Assembly.
"You know once you raise that issue you are going to make more enemies than
you can imagine in the Rhode Island political culture, precisely because those
appointments become a primary vehicle for patronage," West says. "Sheldon first
raised the issue with me in '91, when he was executive counsel to Bruce
Sundlun. I remember him saying to me at that time that the ethics and campaign
finance issues we were working on were important, but we couldn't really get to
the root of corruption in Rhode Island until we addressed the separation of
In May, Whitehouse scored a big legislative coup with the passage of
legislation that will add additional penalties -- 10 years for an initial
offense, 20 years for a second, and life in prison for a third -- for felons
who use a gun during a crime. The bill originally carried mandatory sentences,
which have filled the nation's prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, but was
changed to include judicial discretion. Critics contend existing laws are
adequate for punishing criminals, but Whitehouse says his experience as US
attorney showed that heightened sanctions can change violent behavior.
Certainly, this kind of legislation helps Whitehouse's standing with one of
his key constituencies -- law enforcement -- and East Providence Police Chief
Gary Dias, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, praises
Whitehouse for a heightened level of involvement with the group. Dias also
praises the AG for fostering a prevention-based approach and working with
police to develop a protocol on providing access to public records.
Whitehouse's family traces its wealth to an ancestor who was involved in the
establishment of the Central Pacific railroad in the 19th-century. As a child
of privilege, he benefited politically from his long-time acquaintance with
such movers-and-shakers as former governor Bruce Sundlun, who tabbed him as his
legal counsel and policy director, and former US senator Claiborne Pell, who
nominated him to be US attorney.
Growing up as the son of a diplomat, Whitehouse led an itinerant life while
spending time in South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam, Washington and elsewhere.
Seeing turmoil overseas, he says, instilled him with a strong sense of the good
that government can do. Although he can't identify a specific cause, he says he
grew up with a particular sensitivity to unfairness. And while the Cold War now
seems far away, Whitehouse says of the American involvement in Vietnam, it was
"important for us to defend and try to defend democracy whenever we could, and
I think that was a noble purpose."
While his wealthy background has led critics to rap Whitehouse as an
out-of-touch blueblood, others observers call him down to earth and unaffected.
Whitehouse and several other statewide candidates were on the stump, for
example, during the opening of the Mount Hope Learning Center in Providence in
July 1998. "Everyone was glad-handing, posturing. He was really the only one
who went, `You want that box moved here?' " recalls Lenny Long, president of
the center's board. "He got in there and really helped in a real way. He
remembers who we are. If I ever see him, he would say, `Hi, Lenny, how are
you?' It was like a real connection."
Exhibiting this kind of appeal in first bid for elective office, Whitehouse
vaulted to the front of the Democratic field for AG after the Republican Pine
announced he wouldn't seek reelection. But it was still something of a surprise
when Whitehouse, who poured more than $200,000 of his own money into his
campaign, clobbered treasurer Nancy Mayer with 66 percent of the vote in the
general election. The lopsided victory represented a vote of confidence for a
man, who by his experience and progressive impulse, was well-suited to be the
state's top law enforcement official.
After graduating from Yale and the University of Virginia Law School,
Whitehouse joined state government as a special assistant attorney general in
1985. In the early '90s, he attracted praise for coordinating the state's
response to the credit union mess, and in 1992 was an architect of a workers'
compensation reform plan that pledged to deliver $160 million in annual savings
for employers. Whitehouse then served as director of the state Department of
Business Regulation before becoming US attorney.
It remains to be seen where Whitehouse, who describes government work as a
calling, goes from here. One thing's for sure: if he could win the governor's
office, becoming the first attorney general in the state to do so in more than
50 years, it would validate and cast behind the fractious elements of his
tenure as AG. And by 2002, Whitehouse will have two more years to develop his
record and, if he's lucky, enjoy some smoother sailing.
The gubernatorial field will come into sharper focus after the November
election. If they fail to win their respective races for Senate and Congress,
US Representative Robert Weygand and Secretary of State James Langevin might
vie for governor, perhaps with Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty and maybe
even Myrth York. On the Republican side, Pine and Mayer are mentioned as
As Darrell West notes, Rhode Island's next governor will face some serious
challenges. After a period of exceptional prosperity, the phase-out of the auto
excise tax will take a huge toll on budget arithmetic in coming years, possibly
requiring significant cuts in education and health-care. But compared to the
hot seat of the attorney general's office, being governor might be a cakewalk
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.