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Man in the middle
As a Carcieri pal with an array of civic credentials, retired PR exec David A. Duffy bridges the public and private sectors like few others in Rhode Island
BY IAN DONNIS

DURING AN INTERVIEW two months ago, David A. Duffy’s keys had been misplaced by a valet at the Westin Providence, the 65-year-old was about to become "a ward of the state" — a reference to the impending arrival of his first Social Security check — and he repeatedly questioned his being newsworthy enough to merit a profile. It was hardly the spitting image of the savvy public relations expert who has advised a string of prominent politicians — from John H. Chafee through Donald L. Carcieri — and whose affiliations and contacts extend through Rhode Island’s private and public sectors.

By early January, however, Duffy’s place at the center of the action became clear when the sale of the state-owned Westin exploded into the headlines, largely because of revelations that the $95.5 million top bidder for the property, the Procaccianti Group of Cranston, has outstanding debts dating to the state banking crisis in the early ’90s. Duffy, in his role as the unpaid chairman of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority, was thrust into the news and legislative hearings at the State House. The Westin’s sale has been put on hold as efforts continue to resolve the matter, the latest in a string of mini-dramas involving the high-stakes struggle over who will expand the number of hotel rooms in downtown Providence.

Although Duffy remained largely behind the scenes in the time before the Westin controversy — "a full Rhode Island," as Providence Journal sports columnist Bill Reynolds aptly tabbed it — the college basketball enthusiast and Providence College booster enthusiastically supports the related push for a state bailout of the outdated, deteriorating, and money-losing Dunkin’ Donuts Center. In November 2004, Carcieri and Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline renewed the concept of merging the city-owned Dunk with the state-owned Convention Center Authority, although the General Assembly has yet to take up the idea.

Duffy is something of a go-to guy, previously leading, for example, fundraising efforts for the stalled Heritage Harbor Museum, and then-governor Lincoln Almond tabbed him to be vice chair of his Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations after Cornel Young Jr., a black Providence police officer, was shot and killed when two white colleagues mistook him for an armed criminal in 2000. Duffy has also contributed to a veritable who’s who of Rhode Island politicians over the years, ranging from former governors Edward DiPrete, Bruce Sundlun, and Almond, to senators Claiborne Pell and John H. Chafee, Jack Reed, and Patrick J. Kennedy.

After retiring five years ago as chairman of Duffy & Shanley, the Providence-based advertising, marketing, and public relations firm that he launched in 1973, Duffy is also an ally and sounding board for Carcieri, a longtime friend, who counts the North Kingstown resident among his closest advisers. (The governor appointed Duffy to the Convention Center Authority in July 2003, and Duffy later won the chairmanship; the moves overlapped with the departure as chairman of Dominic L. Ragosta, who, unlike Almond and Carcieri, supported unsuccessful efforts to help former legislator Vincent J. Mesolella build a hotel with public financing.) "He’s one of five or six I talk to — it’s periodically," Carcieri tells the Phoenix. "It’s not like there’s anything official . . . He’s got good tentacles, a good sense of what’s on the public mind, and also a good sense of PR."

The governor’s casual use of the octopus metaphor will do little to change the views of those who question whether Duffy’s former firm — which has long done work for the State of Rhode Island, and where Duffy maintains an office and a telephone — benefits from his ongoing connections. For his part, Duffy concedes it’s hard for people to separate him from the firm that bears his name (and where his two sons work), although he notes that Duffy & Shanley stopped representing the Convention Center when he took his post, and that it is doing less work than in the past for the state Economic Development Corporation.

He attributes the many intersections between himself, his former firm and its representation of clients past (including the Providence Journal) and present (including UnitedHealthcare, whose winning bid for a three-year health-care contract for state employees was found by a Superior Court judge to be so flawed that she blocked its implementation) to his long roots in the state and how Rhode Island is such a small place. "For example, let’s say when [Hasbro chairman] Alan Hassenfeld formed the RIght Now! [good government] coalition," Duffy recalls. "I know Alan very well. He called me and asked me if I would be part of it, so let’s get the [state] Council of Churches in and all that. We’re so small that you lean on each other. I know a lot of the labor leaders. I know the captains of industry . . . The board work has been phenomenal for me" in networking and building community. "Is it anything sinister? No, it’s just me."

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Issue Date: February 4 - 10, 2005
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