A prophet in our midst


H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island from 1988 to 2006, is a prophet in our midst.  Like such Biblical prophets as Amos or Isaiah or Jeremiah, West is not so much a “foreteller” as a “forthteller.” That is to say, he is a man who “tells it like it is,” a man who is not afraid to afflict the comfortable even as he comforts the afflicted.

An ordained Methodist minister, he has devoted the last several decades to speaking out against the social ills of contemporary American society – with special attention to our home state of Rhode Island – while warning all who are willing to listen of the consequences of our continuing tolerance of widespread political, social and economic injustice.

West’s encyclopedic volume, “Secrets & Scandals: Reforming Rhode Island, 1986-2006,” is a labor of passion and love.  Over the course of almost 700 pages (plus an additional 100 pages of meticulous notes), West details the efforts of Common Cause and other reform-minded groups to make Rhode Island’s government more responsive to the citizens it is supposed to serve.

The scope of West’s book is vast: pay-to-play corruption contaminating even the highest levels of political office, lobbying abuses, the quest for thoroughgoing ethics reform, campaign finance, fiscal oversight, endemic conflicts of interest, all this is just for starters! Although such topics could make for very heavy reading, West is a gifted writer and a master storyteller. Those of us who are relatively close followers of Rhode Island news know in advance how many of the stories West tells eventually turn out. Nevertheless, West offers a rich supply of behind-the-scenes particulars to which only a handful of individuals have been privy until now. 

With a novelist’s sensibilities, West sets up one “You Are There” scene after the other.  For example, “Snow blew from impenetrable clouds on December 17 (1991), one of the year’s shortest days, and night seemed to be falling at mid-afternoon.”  Or “(Nancy Hsu Fleming’s) contralto voice had the warm timbre of a bassoon.”  Or, with more than a touch of irony, “On June 18 (1992), in a red paisley tie and gray suit, DiPrete raised his hand and swore to tell the truth.” 

While Rhode Island’s secrets and scandals are seen primarily through West’s eyes in his role as the executive director of our state’s Common Cause, he is generous in giving credit where credit is due.  Thus, he highlights the many contributions of Alan Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO of Hasbro Toys, 1989-2008.  He lets his readers “hear” Hassenfeld’s inspiring words delivered at a fundraiser for the “good government” RIght Now! Coalition in October 1992: “Our goal from the beginning has been to make Rhode Island what it should be – a place of hope, a place of equality, a place of freedom – rather than what it had become – a place of despair, a place of inequality and special interests, a den of corruption, almost a prison.”

In addition to permitting many others to speak during the course of his narrative, West further humanizes himself by admitting his shortcomings.  Early on, he states: “Anger has always been a problem for me...”  We later learn that one of his supporters needs to remind him that he has “a chaotic managerial style” and seems incapable of “timely attention to administrative detail.”

Of all the many issues that West brings up in his magnum opus, the separation of powers gets the most attention. Sheldon Whitehouse, as Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s policy chief, instructed West back in April 1992, “...you’ll never cut the deep root of Rhode Island’s corruption until you get to separation of powers...”

“You can’t have American-style democracy without honest-to-God separation of powers.  But there is no such thing in Rhode Island...”

Continuing his lesson in civics, Whitehouse emphasized that “Our problem in Rhode Island is that the legislature exercises broad appointment power of a kind forbidden to Congress by the Supreme Court.  By naming people to boards that execute state laws, the speaker and the Senate majority leader control most of state government.”

Rhode Island’s uniquely powerful legislature and correspondingly weak executive go all the way back to the Royal Charter of 1663, which “established the General Assembly as Rhode Island’s government.”

On the very last page of “Secrets & Scandals,” West asks: “How can we protect and defend a government that empowers us to govern ourselves?  How can we make government good for all?”

Looking back at the two decades of attempts at reforming Rhode Island, so ably documented by West, readers might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and lament, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Just a few weeks ago, former speaker of the House, Gordon Fox – once viewed as a beacon of reform – confessed to the crimes of bribery, misappropriating campaign funds and falsifying tax returns.

On the other hand, Common Cause’s protracted struggle to bring separation of powers to Rhode Island did lead to our voters overwhelmingly supporting separation of power amendments to the state constitution (Question 1) in the November 2004 election.  However, this being Rhode Island, ever since that 2004 election reform groups have had to fight to convert the spirit of the law into the mechanics of political practice.  As Wendell Phillips warned us well over a hundred years ago, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

“Secrets & Scandals” should be on the bookshelf of every Rhode Islander who cares about good government; it is a book to be consulted over and over again as old issues continue to appear in new guises.  West certainly knows how to tell a good story.  Too bad for Rhode Island that every story he tells happens to be true.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.  Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.