By David Preston
The following opinion piece was published in the Providence Journal in January 2009
Long after Harry Truman left office, the legendary CBS newsman Eric Severeid observed: “Remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like…He stands like a rock in memory now.”
Viewed through the lens of history and our current troubles, so, too, do Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s four years as Governor of Rhode Island during the early-1990s stand apart now.
You will not find Sundlun on the list of ‘Most Cuddly’ governors. But you will find him high on lists labeled Effective; Straightforward; or Plain, old-fashioned leadership. There were distractions and stumbles, but Sundlun was a governor who knew what he wanted and how to get it done. He did not shrink from controversy, and he did not let conventional obstacles – like the financial meltdown that greeted him on his first day in office – deter him. In answering the question “When?” the governor was always consistent: “Right now.”
The highlights of Sundlun’s two terms are Rhode Island legend. On his Inauguration Day, the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC) – an orgy of insider dealing and lax regulation disguised as a deposit insurer for the life savings of 300,000 hard-working Rhode Islanders – collapsed. Three hours after taking office Sundlun closed the 48 banks and credit unions affected. He then set about quickly to clean up the mess and protect the depositors. Eighteen months later, those depositors were reunited with their money – more quickly than any other state faced with a similar challenge.
Sundlun tamed a massive budget deficit by bringing to bear principles that made him a success in business. “We don’t have a revenue problem,” he said. “We have a spending problem.” For the first time in memory, he reduced state spending from one year to the next, and significant reductions in the size of the state workforce were made.
Twenty years ago, the passenger terminal at T.F. Green Airport was a dilapidated embarrassment. In 1988, voters approved a $28 million bond to patch it up. Seeing a small opening, Sundlun drove a truck through it – proposing instead his vision of a $200-million project to build a brand new terminal, universally acclaimed today as a success. At the time, however, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the venture. Sundlun, cutting through the noise, created the Airport Corporation, appointed all the members, gave them the authority to finance – and build – a new terminal and never, ever wavered in giving them the political backing they needed. Today’s airport is Rhode Island’s gateway to the global economy.
Building airports, reuniting depositors with their money in record time and calming the deficit storm make for a remarkable record. But there were also “lesser” feats; achievements that on their own would be the makings of a proud legacy.
Sundlun was a New Deal Democrat, an FDR disciple who believed in putting people to work building things – big things, and not just airports. When Sundlun took office, he made the Combined Sewer Overflow project conceived by Gov. Garrahy several years earlier a priority, pressing the bureaucracy to get construction underway. Late last year the CSO began doing its job, keeping millions of gallons of raw sewage from flowing into Narragansett Bay.
Not enough hotel rooms to support the new Convention Center? “This is an easy one,” he said in the office one day. “We’ll build a hotel.” It became the Westin. Four years ago, the state pocketed $95 million when it was purchased by a local owner and operator.
Sundlun also laid the groundwork for the Providence Place Mall, which breathed new life into his beloved downtown Providence.
While the physical legacy of Sundlun’s governorship is all around us, his unrelenting determination to make government work better for Rhode Islanders endures as well.
In 1991 the workers’ compensation system was a disaster. Costs spiraled out of control for businesses while workers faced court delays that could last more than a year. With a nose for talent and unparalleled skills as a delegator, Sundlun directed his legal counsel, now U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, to work with business, labor, and the General Assembly to craft a solution. The result – a new, functional workers comp system that has changed very little in the last 16 years.
Same for campaign finance reform. Sundlun referred to Rhode Island’s system as a “sewer.” In 1988, businesses controlled by a single wealthy developer contributed over $60,000 to Sundlun’s opponent. Shady characters dropped off bags of cash – unrecorded and unaccounted for. The reforms championed by Sundlun effectively eliminated cash contributions, banned corporate contributions and capped personal contributions. The law he insisted be passed in time for the 1992 election remains almost unchanged today.
Sundlun’s finest hour as a reformer, however, may have been his hard-fought battle to stop insider special pension abuses. It’s hard to remember and even harder to believe now, but in those days an insider not yet 50 years old – to cite just one example – could actually have not one, but three taxpayer-funded pensions, with a combined total of over 100 years of credits, including credit for time in a lifeguard job as a teenager. There were hundreds of special insider deals such as these.
All these deals were sealed at the state Pension Board and deemed “private” personnel matters. People knew the system was being abused but had no idea how badly until Sundlun went all the way to the state Supreme Court to expose the records to sunlight. There has not been a political special pension awarded since.
Sundlun also did the political heavy lifting it took to create a groundbreaking health insurance program for working families that he called RIte Care. He also championed the first-ever national accreditation for the R.I. State Police.
Prison riots, a hurricane, blizzards – Sundlun met the more common challenges faced by governors with a flourish; taking command, delegating, coaxing and pressing, demanding results, but always trusting the team he had selected, and almost never second-guessing.
Nine days after taking office, with the state in crisis and the nation a week from war, Sundlun used his State of the State address to propose his solution to the budget crisis, and urge the General Assembly to swiftly adopt his rescue plan for credit union depositors.
“History has a way of rewarding” courageous political deeds and actions, Sundlun noted that night, “long after the author has departed public life.”
He was right. Again.
David Preston is the owner of New Harbor Group, a Providence communications firm. He served in the Sundlun Administration as the governor’s communications director and was campaign manager for Sundlun’s successful re-election in 1992.