More than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Cranston City Council Leadership Dispute (But Also How It Might Tie Into the Big Picture of RI Education Reform)

I sat down last night to write a brief post explaining how the politics of the Cranston City Council is tied to the politics of education reform in RI, discovering in the process that it could not be done briefly.
Here’s what should be (and will be) the last paragraph, explaining why readers beyond Cranston may have a stake in this subject…

Expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?
If you have further interest in the subject (for instance, on who Anthony Lupino is) read on…
Background of the leadership dispute mentioned in the title: The current Cranston City Council President, Councilman John Lanni, could not seek reelection this year because of term limits, meaning the Council must choose a new President for its term beginning in 2011. Initial reports that came from the post-election Democratic caucus indicated that Democratic Councilors were going to unite behind Ward 2 Democratic Councilman and current Finance Committee Chairman Emilio Navarro. However, it was reported a week ago that city-wide Democratic Councilman Anthony Lupino had actively obtained the votes to become the new Council President, supported by a combination of Democrats and the three new Republicans elected to the City Council this past November (James Donahue and Leslie Ann Luciano, elected city-wide, and Michael Favicchio elected from Ward 6).
To understand the implications of this unexpected leadership kerfuffle, it helps to know a few details about recent Council history…
  1. After Republican Allan Fung was elected Mayor of Cranston in 2008, Councilman Navarro spearheaded an effort to replicate the RI Statehouse governance model in the Cranston City Council chambers, i.e. the City Council Democratic leadership, backed by the numbers needed to pass or kill any measure on a straight party vote, would be the ones who “really” ran the city. The immediate test was a police union contract negotiated by Mayor Fung. Navarro led opposition to the contract, demanding that the Mayor get additional concessions from the police that would provide better “structural reform” for the city’s finances — despite the Council having approved previous contracts without anything resembling “structural” changes under the administration of the previous Democratic Mayor.
  2. The initial police contract was rejected by the council 6-3, with Councilman Lupino voting in the majority against the contract along with Councilman Navarro. One of the 3 votes in favor of the contract was Ward 4 Councilman Robert Pelletier — who, according to MSM reports, is the key Democratic Councilman now supporting Councilman Lupino’s leadership bid. (Eventually, a revised version of the police contract was passed 9-0, the political side of the equation being the City Council coming to realize they were going to get the lion’s share of the blame for the consequences of not passing one.)
  3. Over the course of 2009-2010, the City Council considered two resolutions that put members on record on important statewide issues. In 2009, Mayor Fung sponsored a resolution opposing state-mandated binding arbitration for resolving teacher contract negotiations. The City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the resolution, with Councilmen Navarro and Lupino as the only two votes against. In 2010, the Council voted on another resolution, also supported by the Mayor, asking the RI legislature to repeal the “Caruolo Act”, the section of Rhode Island law that allows RI school committees to sue their municipalities for more money in the courts. This resolution failed by a vote of 5-4. Once again, Councilmen Navarro and Lupino were united on the same side, voting against asking the legislature to repeal Caruolo, while Councilman Pelletier voted in favor.
  4. Combining the results of the 3 votes above (police contract take-1, Caruolo and binding arbitration) shows Councilmen Navarro and Lupino voting together on three issues of significance and Councilman Pelletier voting in opposition to them in each case.
  5. The odd-couple leadership alliance between Councilmen Lupino and Pelletier seems to be related to the rift in the Cranston Democratic Party involving State Representative and Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, City Chairman Michael Sepe and State Representative Charlene Lima. This is the rift that made the news several weeks ago, when it reportedly led to a House leadership decision, where Mattiello presumably had some say, to fire Chairman Sepe’s son and Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria from full-time legislative staff positions. In accounts of Cranston politics, Councilman Pelletier is mentioned as an ally of Rep. Mattiello; for example, the story linked to earlier in this paragraph says that Rep. Mattiello was unhappy with Chairman Sepe for not supporting Councilman Pelletier for Council President.
  6. Stepping away from the backroom politics and towards the stuff that happens in public view, Rep. Mattiello has been a part of House Speaker Gordon Fox’s group of Democrats that have advanced a set of meaningful education reform measures in recent legislative sessions, including the lifting of the charter school cap and establishing Mayoral Academies.
  7. And Mayor Fung is part of a group of RI education reformers who would like to bring a Mayoral Academy to the West Bay.
So let’s assume for a moment that Councilman Lupino becomes Council President with Councilman Pelletier’s support, that on big issues Mayor Fung starts 2011 with 3 Republicans as his base of support, and that Councilman Pelletier continues his reasonably sane voting pattern that sometimes puts him in opposition to the City Council Democratic majority (and is also politically compatible with Ward 4, the section of Cranston by Route 295 and beyond, which isn’t exactly master-lever Democratic territory).
Who then becomes the potential fifth vote on the Cranston City Council for innovative education reform measures, like creating a West Bay Mayoral Academy?
  • The fifth vote for ed reform is not going to come from citywide Councilman Anthony Lupino. Whoever his other political allies are, Councilman Lupino isn’t going to vote for anything that teachers’ unions oppose — Lupino, for example, was the only vote against a resolution asking the Cranston School Committee to negotiate a freeze in step increases in their next contract — and in Rhode Island, things that teachers’ unions oppose usually include any changes to geographic-monopoly district management of public education.
  • I will believe that Ward 2 Councilman Emilio Navarro’s decision-making involves some consideration beyond take-down-the-Republican-Mayor, when some evidence of a different motivation shows itself in the public record, e.g. voting for “structural reforms” like repeal of the Caruolo Act or opposing binding arbitration even when Mayor Fung supports these positions too.
  • How about Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria? He made the party-discipline “it’s Dem-Councilors, and not the Mayor, who run this city” vote against the initial police contract, but also voted against binding arbitration and in favor of repealing Caruolo — but that was when he was connected more tightly than he is now to the statehouse leadership. How he votes now that the party has changed its position on him is a bit of a question mark.
  • Newly-elected Ward 1 Councilman Steven Stycos earned a reputation for giving the issues serious study and a fair hearing while serving as the School Committeeman from Ward 1, but he has already expressed skepticism about supporting a Mayoral Academy, suggesting that, at least initially, he is being guided by the “progressive” policy biases which tend to marginalize any structure for public education other than direct operation of schools by traditional district-level bureaucracies.
  • Finally, there is Ward 3 Councilman Paul Archetto. He voted yes on the police contract, yes on opposing binding arbitration, but no on repealing Caruolo. He certainly doesn’t seem to be playing the same political game that the other Democrats are playing (for instance, he has proposed himself as a leadership alternative to either Navarro or Lupino), and could be convinced to support ed reform policies on their merits.
The point of all of this is that expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?
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Don Botts
Don Botts
10 years ago

Andrew, great post. Maybe I’m being overly simplistic, but I think it boils down to the fact that, regardless of Lupino’s loyalty towards the CTA, Mayor Fung did not want Councilman Navarro as Council President, period.
I’m not a Lupino fan by any stretch, but, shouldn’t a council person that runs citywide and gets the most votes be the logical candidate to serve as council president anyway?

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

Yeah, between the city-wide vs. ward issue and the fact that the main job of the Council President is to schedule and run the meetings (it really is a first-among-equals job without a lot of extra power), I was surprised when Councilman Navarro emerged as the initial leading candidate.

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