A political columnist finds a new life


Democratic candidate Gina Raimondo with M. Charles Bakst (and reusable Gina for governor shopping bag) at the farmers market at Hope Artiste Village, Pawtucket, on Nov. 1. Three days later, Raimondo won her race. /COURTESY | M. CHARLES BAKST

An interesting thing has happened to me in retirement. I have converted – from political journalist to political activist.

You know, the kind of person who does what he can to help folks like Gina Raimondo get elected governor and Jorge Elorza mayor.

That’s a huge leap into a world I could only glimpse from my previous perch as a nonpartisan Providence Journal reporter, editor and columnist. As a columnist, at least, I could air opinions, but I was not free to labor on behalf of candidates or even endorse them. Donate money? Unthinkable. Indeed, almost until the end, I did not feel at liberty to vote in primaries.

In those days, especially when I was out speaking to a group, frustrated folks often would ask how they could bring change to Rhode Island. One solution I offered was to become active in politics: running, or recruiting candidates, or working for them.

Post-Journal, I dabbled some in the 2010 and 2012 races, but during the 2014 election cycle, I immersed myself big time. I was surprised by the amount of hours this took up, and by the occasional frustrations, but, overall, it was a liberating, exhilarating experience.

Virtually all “my” candidates won. I do not claim credit for that. But I was doing something important to me.

I loved my work at the Journal – but it was work. This was more like a hobby. A big difference. As a partisan activist, I didn’t have to interview anyone, or chase after people who didn’t want to talk to me, or worry that my tape recorder wasn’t working, or hang onto the words of boring speakers, or rush back to the office.

No one paid me. I wasn’t on anyone’s clock or, indeed, under anyone’s control. When Democrat Raimondo was under attack from the Catholic Church, I went on line striking back in her defense. She herself was keeping a low profile, clearly trying not to inflame the situation. It’s possible she and her campaign welcomed my initiative. Or maybe not.

I knew that I had moved far beyond the discipline of journalism when, one night, I went to a fundraiser for my choice for lieutenant governor, Republican Catherine Taylor. The podium party included Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the GOP nominee for governor. Everyone was pleased to see Fung, of course, and during the speaking program his presence was noted. I thought Avedisian might call on Fung to speak and that Fung would then introduce Taylor. But Avedisian introduced Taylor, who gave a rousing speech. Surely, I thought, she would then ask Fung to speak, and, when she didn’t, I guessed that, in a burst of enthusiasm, Fung would take the initiative, grab the microphone, and say how proud he was of Taylor. But he didn’t, and the program ended.

Momentarily, I thought like a reporter. What was this all about? Was this the plan? A mix-up? Was there a rift between Taylor and Fung? And then I said to myself, “I don’t care.’’ And I went home.

There wasn’t a lot that was particularly Jewish about my political involvement, except I repeatedly employed the word shande in conversations about Buddy Cianci’s mayoral candidacy. I deliberately used the term at a meeting of the Elorza Finance Committee, with a roster that included several Jews. I knew they’d appreciate it, and I wanted to be sure the candidate was familiar with it. Of course, even without the term, the concept of a scandal – of an embarrassment for everyone to see – informed whatever I wrote about the disgraced former mayor, online or in fundraising letters.

My 2014 involvement actually began in 2013. Early on, I gravitated to Seth Magaziner’s campaign for treasurer and Nellie Gorbea’s bid for secretary of state. I have known Seth from the time he was born; his parents, Ira and Suzanne, are longtime friends of mine and my wife Elizabeth. I knew Nellie from her days helping to mold Latinos into a Rhode Island political force.

We contributed a little money to these two candidates, and I offered some tips on speeches and sound bites, something that would continue episodically through the Democratic primary and beyond.

One day our East Side neighbors, Andy and Tina Miller, inquired about joining them in hosting a meet-and-greet for a mayoral aspirant who been had recommended to them: Brett Smiley. I knew him from when he managed Charlie Fogarty’s campaign for governor in 2006. But I had no feel for him as a candidate himself, so he came to the Millers’ apartment and, so to speak, auditioned for us, spending an hour discussing issues and the political landscape. We all were impressed and did indeed host a meet-and-greet.

In 2014, I continued to help Smiley here and there, such as arranging an introduction, or appearing with him at a senior assisted living facility; old people are avid newspaper readers.

During the summer, Elizabeth and I attended a Smiley fundraiser, where one of the dignitaries was state Rep. Ray Hull, whom I knew from his days as a Police Department driver for Mayor Cianci.

Not, long after, in a key move in the mayoral primary, Smiley withdrew and joined forces with Elorza, so I jumped too. Hull publicly fumed that Smiley had left him out of the loop. I called Hull and listened to him vent at length; he was in no mood to sign on with Elorza, but he did allow that if Elorza reached out, he’d be willing to talk with him. I sent a detailed account of our conversation to Smiley (and, by extension, Elorza). I thought: This is real nitty-gritty, inside stuff, interesting, but also wearing and eating up time. It was one of many insights I’d have that made me appreciate what candidates and aides go through. (Hull wound up backing Cianci’s independent run.)

In October, when the general election was in full swing, the Millers and Baksts hosted a meet-and-greet for Elorza. His skill in telling his life story, outlining his proposals and fielding questions was extraordinary, and I think by then voters around the city increasingly were seeing him as an inspiring figure, not simply as a name on the ballot.

If anything I did all year had a positive impact, it likely was my urging Elorza and his people to organize a news conference with several former U.S. attorneys to slam Cianci’s criminal background. I was asked to enlist former Gov. Lincoln Almond to join Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Robert Corrente in the exercise. Almond was pleased to agree. The news conference attracted a decent amount of immediate publicity and, I think, more usefully, continued to be mentioned in stories long afterward.

Over the election cycle, I became addicted to using Facebook and Twitter, linking news articles or editorials or relentlessly posting photos and mini-commentaries to promote candidates or take on their opponents.

A TV ad Mayor Angel Taveras launched in the Democratic gubernatorial primary declaring that Treasurer Raimondo “works for Wall Street’’ sent me over the top. I posted a long, angry rebuttal online. Her campaign then suggested I turn it into an op-ed essay. So I massaged it and sent it to several local newspapers. “This is an inflammatory iteration of a constant Taveras whine,” I wrote of the claim that Raimondo works for Wall Street.  “Myself, I thought Raimondo was working for the taxpayers of Rhode Island when she had the smarts, skills and courage to orchestrate and put through the Democratic General Assembly an overhaul of the pension system in order to stabilize state finances, preserve social services, and afford long-term assurance that employees will actually have pensions.’’

And on and on it went.

The Valley Breeze published it as a letter to the editor. The Warwick Beacon did too, though in shorter form. The campaign then reproduced the Beacon version and – this was Raimondo’s idea – inserted copies of it in blue “Gina for governor” reusable shopping bags her campaign distributed at senior-citizen stops.

On the Saturday before the November election, I was heading out to shop at the farmers market at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. I happened upon the Gina bag I had in my closet and took it with me.

And whom should I encounter shaking hands in the market? Yes, my only-in-Rhode-Island friends, the candidate herself. We posed for an iPhone photo – Raimondo, Bakst and the bag – and it made for a wonderful entry on Facebook and Twitter.

On Nov. 4, I retweeted it, with this message:

“With your help, one of us will be elected governor today!’’

And indeed, one of us was.

M. Charles Bakst, a Providence resident, is a member of Temple Habonim in Barrington, where he formerly lived.