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Dueling ambitions
Despite some real similarities, Ed Inman is the establishment favorite and Matt Brown remains the outsider in the Democratic primary for secretary of state
BY IAN DONNIS

Ed Inman

US representative James Langevin, who's widely credited with having brought fresh relevance to the secretary of state's office by advocating for open government, offers an instructive example of how upwardly mobile politicians can use the job as a stepping stone. But although Edward S. Inman III and Matt Brown both cast themselves as Langevin's philosophical heir, neither is willing to say whether they harbor similar ambitions of one day moving up -- and not just because such blunt talk would be unseemly and impolitic.

The reticence also stems from the high personal stakes and wide open nature of the Democratic primary fight between Inman, 41, a longtime former state representative from Coventry who was selected as Langevin's successor by the General Assembly in January 2001, and Brown, 32, a civic organizer who's looking to jumpstart his political career by storming the State House.

A former executive director in Providence of the community service group City Year, Brown was already a highly credible challenger when he unveiled his insurgent campaign in February. Before graduating last year from Yale Law School, he was the driving force in establishing the Democracy Compact (now known as Vote For America), a grassroots effort credited with raising by 55,000 the number of Rhode Islanders who voted in the 2000 election.

Brown's prospects certainly weren't hurt when Inman's office was buffeted by an embarrassing series of controversies in March. Inman initially defended his $84,000 chief of staff, Joseph DeLorenzo, a former General Assembly colleague from Cranston, and then fired him after revelations that DeLorenzo had put together two casino-related meetings between Harrah's Entertainment and the Narragansett Indians. Former Boston Bruin Chris Nilan then quit his part-time job as DeLorenzo's assistant after questions were raised about his credentials and work appearances. The Providence Journal also revealed than DeLorenzo had arranged two agreements, including one in which a former Cranston town official was supposed to receive 20 percent of the money he raised, to gather funds for the recent meeting in Providence of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

It's no wonder that Inman, who touts his regular Joe credentials as a former middle school teacher with a wife, two young daughters, and a mortgage, downplays the past difficulties and wants voters to look at "my record as a reformer and the good things I've done as secretary of state." Among his accomplishments, he cites the saving of $300,000 in his office's operating budget over the last 18 months, an innovation that makes it possible to track state laws and regulations online, and legislation that could yield $5.7 million in federal money to improve Rhode Island's election system.

Matt Brown (Photos by Richard McCaffrey)

Seizing on his opponent's largely self-inflicted difficulties, Brown is wrapping himself in the populist mantle of the outsider, railing against control of the state by "a handful of political insiders," and accusing Inman of mismanaging the secretary of state's office. Neither side has yet to go on the air, but Brown has a significant edge in campaign fundraising and he can be expected to launch a fusillade of potentially damaging broadcast advertising, perhaps reminding voters of Inman's past problems, in the less than six weeks to go before the September 10 primary.

The Democratic victor, who will face Republican Chris Stanley, a history teacher and town councilman from Warren, in November, looks like a favorite to win the general election. And the primary race between Brown and Inman remains wide open, as evidenced by a poll conducted in June by Brown University political scientist Darrell West. The survey found that 23 percent of respondents favored Brown, 26 supported Inman, and the overwhelming majority -- 51 percent -- was undecided.

Inman, a former member of House Speaker John B. Harwood's leadership team, is running a modified Rose Garden strategy for the time being, outwardly ignoring his opponent, trumpeting his initiatives, and banking on the advantages of incumbency and the solid backing of the state's Democratic establishment. As far as the embarrassments that bedeviled him a few months ago -- prior to more favorable publicity from various efforts and the recent National Association of Secretaries of State gathering -- they can't be forgotten soon enough.

The secretary of state's critics tend to caricature him as a "poster boy for everything that's wrong with Rhode Island politics," and a close Harwood ally, as WHJJ-AM talk show host John DePetro, a Brown supporter, put it during a recent broadcast. (Asked about this, Inman retorts, "John DePetro is not the Independent Man. He's the partisan man.")

Inman's handling of the DeLorenzo situation was hardly a model of political management, and there are fair questions about the wisdom of hiring DeLorenzo in the first place. "It may be that he was saddled with someone, as Harwood is wont to do," says H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. Inman, though, says he didn't discuss hiring DeLorenzo with Harwood or other legislative leaders. "I had worked with him before in the General Assembly and he had demonstrated good leadership qualities there," Inman says.

At any rate, the incumbent has kept an active pace during his short tenure as secretary of state, partially, no doubt, out of a desire to maintain the 58-person office, but also, it seems, because he shares a similar kind of democratic idealism as his rival. In fact, despite some real contrasts in their upbringing, education, and campaigns, Brown and Inman share much in common, but more about this later.

Still, there's little doubt that Inman, who served 14 years as a representative before becoming the secretary of state, is -- or at least, was -- a creature of the General Assembly, and that Brown, despite his East Side upbringing and Ivy League education, is an outsider less encumbered by longstanding political relationships. This explains why Inman, who received the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and scads of Democratic city and town committees, and whose campaign announcement was attended by Langevin, can expect to get much of his support from Democratic loyalists, while Brown is busily assembling a coalition of would-be reformers, critics of the status quo, younger people, and independent-minded voters.

Despite the intensifying amount of competition among three Democratic and two Republican gubernatorial candidates, the Democratic primary for secretary of is the only race this election season in which a general office holder in Rhode Island is being challenged by someone from within his own party. If nothing else, it's appropriate that the two hopefuls for secretary of state -- whose office is responsible for maintaining pubic records and helping to conduct elections -- are maintaining a glimmer of choice in our desiccated political culture.

As Phil West notes, "It's really a good thing they're having a fiercely competitive race for this office. We believe that this is the best thing for democracy, to have strong, visible contrasts between candidates for office."

BOTH CANDIDATES were reared on civic involvement, Inman in Coventry, and Brown in an affluent part of Providence's East Side, not far from the current Elmgrove Avenue home of mayoral candidate David Cicilline. Both believe in doing well by doing good, sometimes using government or nonprofit service in ways that jibe with their personal ambitions. Both say they support efforts to bring separation of powers to Rhode Island.

Both are also enthusiastic Democrats who are capable of swooning over liberal party icons. (Inman once told ProJo columnist M. Charles Bakst about his excitement at shaking hands as a 12-year-old with 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. Brown reveres US Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights struggle of the '60s, and after hitting it off with him during a Washington, DC, meeting, had the opportunity to tour his congressional office and soak up some of his stories.)

Despite the differences in bearing (Brown is slender, while Inman is more burly), and education (Inman says he worked his way through two bachelor's degrees from Rhode Island College, while Brown graduated from Columbia and Yale Law), both are good talkers, very comfortable in their own skin, and hardly shy when it comes to self-promotion (Inman's campaign sent out a spiral-bound collection of his press clippings, while Brown got a nice glow from his efforts with the Democracy Compact).

Judging by the barebones elements of some parts of Inman's campaign -- no apparent Web site, a one-person staff in the form of campaign manager Andy Galli, a seemingly little used office on Weybosset Street in downtown Providence -- he's relying on party regulars, endorsements, and retail politics at feasts, festivals, and coffee hours, to carry the vote on primary day. In an interesting twist, Inman, who presumably has the ability to raise big bucks as an incumbent, is complying with the state's voluntary spending limits. This means he'll be able to raise $148,000 for the primary and will receive a three-to-one match from taxpayers for donations under $500.

Not surprisingly, Brown, who had built a $300,000 war chest as of July 24, says he plans to use the money to level the disadvantages of running against an incumbent. His campaign, based in a second-floor office in downtown Pawtucket, includes four paid staffers, two interns who receive stipends, and is being managed by Al Dahlberg, a Moses Brown classmate and lawyer who previously worked on acid rain issues for the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington.

THE EAR-BLASTING FIREWORKS that flared near the State House on the evening of Saturday, July 27, part of a special WaterFire to mark the gathering in Providence of the National Association of Secretaries of State, indicate Inman's ability to use the advantages of incumbency to positive effect in his campaign. Despite the earlier questions about fundraising, the conference was carried off without cost to taxpayers, he says, and based on a formula devised by the state Economic Development Corporation, it delivered a $1.3 million economic windfall for the city.

Although Langevin set the gathering in motion during his tenure as secretary of state, the ripple effect for Inman is just one example of an incumbent's ability to use his office as a platform for favorable publicity. Many of the secretary of state's initiatives have their own intrinsic merit, such as efforts to increase voting by young people, erect a statue of women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Buffum Chace at the State House, and provide Rhode Island's 33 Civil War-era communities with a record of their own soldiers. But the related appearances and publicity don't diminish Inman's name recognition, either.

When it comes to their stated goals for the office, there's a fair bit of overlap between Brown and Inman: wanting to boosting small business, civic education, and literacy, among other things.

Still, the fireworks in coming weeks seem likely to come from Brown's criticism of Inman's tenure, particularly the controversies involving Joe DeLorenzo, Chris Nilan, and Stephen Cuomo, the former Cranston town official. During a recent interview at his campaign office, Brown says his first priority, if elected, would be "to clean up the office" of secretary of state. As a political outsider, Brown says, he would better able to make decisions based on the best interests of taxpayers, rather than those of political insiders.

Brown raps Inman for firing DeLorenzo only after a wave of public pressure. Referring to a statement from Inman's office that touted savings within the secretary of state's office -- in part by leaving DeLorenzo's former position vacant -- Brown says, "If their idea of fiscal prudence is hiring people who are so unethical that half-way through the year they have to fire them and then claim a savings for the remainder of their salary, we've got a real problem in the secretary of state's office." And if it's not necessary to have a chief of staff, he adds, why was the $84,000 job filled in the first place?

Inman is terse in discussing his troubles of last spring. "It took me four days to fire someone [DeLorenzo] I've known for 18 years and I don't think that's unreasonable," he says. "And I fired him." Asked why he didn't initially fire DeLorenzo if, as the secretary subsequently said, it was wrong for DeLorenzo to arrange even a single meeting between the casino interests and the Narragansetts, Inman would say only, "I found out about a second meeting, and I fired him. I fired him when I found out about the second meeting. It broke the trust."

Brown questions whether Nilan had a no-show job, but Inman cites information from DeLorenzo and signed timesheets in expressing satisfaction that Nilan worked the required time. About the fundraising arrangement involving Cuomo, Inman says, "I knew very little."

Claiming cost savings from not filling the vacancy for the fired chief of staff, Inman says, "is not disingenuous. It's a cost-savings. A cost savings is a cost savings." Citing his office as a model of fiscal efficiency, Inman says the state wouldn't be facing its current budget problems if other branches of state government were similarly effective.

AS SECRETARY of state, Jim Langevin put the legislative process on the Internet, published a Rhode Island Government Owner's Manual, a handy reference guide, and issued reports documenting the General Assembly's degree of compliance with the Open Meetings Law. Considering Langevin's effectiveness in promoting the cause of open government, it's no surprise that Inman and Brown each describe themselves as his fitting heir in the 2002 election.

Inman has made a free CD version of the owner's manual available to Rhode Island residents, and voters, by entering their address on the Web site of his office, www.state.ri.us/, can gain information about elected representatives, including their e-mail address and phone number. Brown, meanwhile, pledges to be a more aggressive watchdog of the General Assembly than Inman, and he accuses Inman of dropping the ball in updating Langevin's reports on the Open Meeting compliance of the General Assembly. Although Inman says the reports have been done and are available online, I, as a fairly experienced searcher, was unable to find them during 15 minutes of scouring on his office's Web site.

In distancing himself from Harwood, Inman notes that his selection as secretary of state by the Grand Committee -- a joint meeting of the House and the Senate -- was backed by 141 of 150 legislators, including liberals like Cicilline and Rhoda Perry and Republicans like Robert Watson and Dennis Algiere. "These are people not easily swayed," he says. "They voted for me based on my merit and I've worked hard to live up to the expectations of the public." (Common Cause filed an ethics complaint against Inman for what it perceived as a violation of the state's revolving door prohibition, but a Superior Court judge upheld the legality of Inman's move from the House to secretary of state.)

Still, the greatest difference between Brown and Inman can be seen in how they view the legislative process.

Brown cites the passage of some 300 bills in the last 48 hours of the 2000-2001 legislative season as an example of what he'd like to tackle at the State House. This kind of frenzy presents an invitation for trouble, he says, and with adequate public awareness, "There would have been an uproar and the public would have gone up there and said, `slow down.' "

Inman cites the ability to track legislation and offer input through the state Web site as an adequate form of oversight for citizens. "The access is there," he says. "If they can't do it there, they can do it at my office. We offer the only room where the public can meet," describing a recent gathering of advocates working against domestic violence.

Phil West says Common Cause has been trying for years to reduce the number of bills passed during the waning days of the legislative session. The volume of such bills is dwarfed only in those states, like California, New York, and Massachusetts, which have full-time legislatures. The current practice, says West, amounts to hostage taking and is hardly in the best interest of citizens.

"Until now, no secretary of state has joined in the effort to affect House and Senate rule-making in this area," he says. "If a secretary of state were to put the power and prestige of his office behind the request for rules change . . . the secretary of state might be able to have an impact on that."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: August 2 - 8, 2002