Pedestal Politics: Sainthood in store for Ocean State Episcopalian?

By Brian Bishop
November 18, 1999

There appears to be virtually no one in the ocean state who isn't lining up behind the canonization of Senator John Chafee. His beatification must have been scripted well before his passing last week, to judge from the pages of gushing prose which landed on doorsteps within hours of the news that the Senator's eligibility for sainthood could now be considered in earnest.

Perhaps this is a fitting symbol of the recent efforts at reconciliation between the Protestant and Catholic churches, that a high profile Yankee Episcopalian is suddenly a favorite to make the Vatican's short list. There is little else that can explain the lopsided examination of Chafee's legacy that has filled newspapers and talk radio airwaves.

It is true that custom commands we say nothing but good of the dead; however, few were willing to offer anything but adulation for the Senator during the last decade of his life, never mind the weeks following his interment. The proverbial pedestal was in place long before chipping away at it would be considered in bad taste.

You can find the occasional snide remark about the senior Chafee from the junior Kennedy; you can even cite a few commercials run by some of Chafee's green allies alleging a change of heart when he would move ever so slightly from the extreme left of environmental politics. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Senator's polite brushing off of such criticism only heightened his premature elevation, a reverence thus based more on manners than on accomplishments.

Indeed, south of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi, Chafee is most noted for putting rural resource workers out of a job. Whether Farmers, Miners, Loggers or Ranchers, their communities were turned into economic refugee camps by Chafee's stubborn insistence that environmental laws should put animals and plants before people.

The national forests have been converted from productive lands to wildlife refuges, and private farms and timber have been expropriated for virtual public parks while Chafee, as chairman of the key Senate committee, blocked reform of the Endangered Species Act. Farmers have been jailed and bankrupted while Chafee refused to acknowledge that Congress never meant to regulate their fields as "navigable waters" under the Clean Water Act. While Chafee held the legislative reins of the nation's environmental laws, hospital constructions has been halted for a fly, school construction for an owl that was never even seen, reservoirs stopped for skunk cabbage, civilization as we know it has been gridlocked.

All of this pleased a narrow environmental constituency at home, but did nothing for the state itself -- in fact we suffered like other states from a federal environmental policy completely uninformed by the least bit of common sense. This is the irony of the unshakable adulation of Rhode Islanders for Chafee's gentlemanly tenure. The state's citizens obtained little real benefit from his long service.

The Senator did bring home $2 in federal highway taxes for every dollar RI sent to Washington, but this only fed a transportation department which spent $3 for every $1 spent by other states to keep our roads subpar. He took credit for insuring that federal money flowed for a share of the third rail track project, only to provide virtually no support for the port project at the terminus of the track (ditto for Chafee the younger, apparently).

While the third track project was sold as an infrastructure investment complimentary to but independent from the Quonset container port (there are existing shoreside companies and industrial sites which will utilize the third track, with or without a container port), that assumption was made when the price tag was $75 million. Actual construction costs have since ballooned to over $200 million which begs the question of whether the state and federal taxpayers should be left holding the bag or whether the overruns can, indeed should, be paid for by track fees derived from full utilization by container traffic.

Considering that a majority of the project's cost is the creation of "double-stack" container height clearance, the lion's share of the investment could be a bridge to nowhere without significant port development. At least Senator Reed, who is the true congressional champion of the third rail, has not been bashful about this point.

And of Chafee's vaunted environmental legacy, the flip side of that coin is nothing short of the proverbial Gordian knot. Rhode Island has some of the cleanest urban air in the country and has been in compliance with federal smog standards for a number of years. But the state remains hopelessly mired in John Chafee's 1991 Clean Air Act Amendments, which continue to penalize the state's economy and inconvenience its citizens even though they meet the standard.

Indeed, the state is poised to institute California style car tests, the burden of which will, as usual, fall squarely on the middle class. When the average guy is waiting nervously to get the bill for getting his 1989 Dodge Caravan to pass the dynamometer emissions test, he may well be more inclined to take Saint Chafee's name in vain, if he ever figures out that his unnecessary dilemma was what Chafee actually bequeathed to the working stiff.

The effect of Chafee's environmental agenda on Rhode Island is so double-edged that analysis of it seems to completely confound even professional analysts. The Providence Journal's [anti?]Business Editor, Peter Phipps, apparently not wanting to be outdone by the paper's liberal political columnists, fell all over himself celebrating Chafee's record (see "Clean living not an easy job", Providence Journal, Business Section, Nov. 7). Irony doesn't reach much higher heights than to have a business journalist tout how lousy Rhode Island's economy is by way of praising Chafee's four decades of public service to the state. Phipps supposes that the upside to having an economy which consistently lags the region and the nation is that we don't have any "factory" hog farms. If this sounds like hogwash, you would just be beginning to unravel his illogical premise.

Phipps evoked a comparison between Rhode Island and North Carolina, implying that Chafee's gubernatorial and senatorial tenure differentiated the current state of these states. North Carolina has far outstripped Rhode Island in attracting good jobs and growing its economy. While North Carolina has done this across the spectrum of its economy, attracting high tech and manufacturing as well as agribusiness, Phipps dwells on manure lagoons which were overrun by floods in the recent spate of hurricanes that made land in the Carolinas. His premise is that this flood somehow shows why Rhode Island is better off to have remained an economic backwater. Invoking "factory farming" and images of attendant manure disposal is certainly visceral, but the intellectual thread of his argument vanishes in the flood of imagery.>>>

Handling manure in lagoons is little different than human sewage treatment. Spreading the resultant slurry over the land is arguably soil friendly, and, indeed, is the central tenet of sustainable agriculture which encourages less reliance on manufactured fertilizers. The fact that some of these systems were overwhelmed by a 500-year flood should not lead us to conclude that we should return to life as hunter-gatherers. If a flood overwhelmed the Fields Point treatment plant, it too would discharge untreated waste which could contaminate water bodies and ground water (in fact the sewer system feeding the treatment plant has such problems regularly, not simply once upon a hurricane).

In most places, we would call this life and pitch in to pick up the pieces. In Rhode Island we have allowed patricians of the Chafee ilk to convince us that virtually any development is a bad idea, because no human endeavor is ever fully safe from any and every natural catastrophe. Under the guise of saving the environment for everyone, Chafee has really locked it up for those who have already managed to get their share. In the game of environmental musical chairs dictated by the federal laws and policies in which Chafee was a central player, those who have developed environmentally sensitive property in the past, e.g. Chafee's manse on the Hunt River and summer villa on Charleston's barrier beach are grandfathered. But the music has stopped for any of the plebs who are caught without a chair by the shore, so to speak. In the Chafee view, they simply may not aspire to the lifestyle enjoyed by Rhode Island's rich and famous.

In the end, North Carolina has a vibrant economy and some problems; Rhode Island has a relatively subdued economy and some problems. If the states' senior U.S. Senator is presented as a metaphor for that difference, this would suggest to most objective observers that Jesse Helms got it done and John Chafee did not. For those in the northeast who have been preconditioned to think of Chafee as a saint and Helms as a reactionary isolationist, it should be sobering to understand that Carolinians tend to regard Helms as a hero and northerners of Chafee's ilk as ivory tower elitists who are out of touch with the life of the average folks.

For Rhode Island's future, shaking the Chafee past is as important as shaking the legacy of the state's former industrialists from whom he descends. Instead, we remain simultaneously shackled by reactionary pro-labor policies which view modern day labor disputes through the glasses of century(ies) old exploitation and an incongruous political love affair with the patrician nobility which bred this boss class vs. worker strife in the first place. Chafee, in particular, leaves us with an identically reactionary environmental policy inspired by the unregulated exploitation of industrialists a century ago, the current effect of which is to deny employment, housing, and recreational opportunities to Rhode Islanders on the basis that living or working near the bay or rural open spaces should be a forbidden passion -- now that the middle class can afford it.

Brian Bishop is director of Rhode Island Wiseuse. In this volunteer position he advocates for environmental policy which recognizes the needs of human communities as well as those of other animals and plants. This piece was written for and is to be published on the webpage editted by Morabito and Associates.

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