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,"
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
"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 email@example.com.
Issue Date: August 2 - 8, 2002