Innovation Ecosystem

Did you boil your tap water to celebrate Labor Day?

Why reporters never seem to ask – and the candidates never have to answer – the questions that matter the most to voters?

Photo by Molly Heins

The sunflower seems to epitomize the need for sunlight and transparency in our political conversations

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/3/18
If they can keep you asking the wrong questions, as Thomas Pynchon once wrote, they don’t have to worry about the answers. What is most frustrating to many voters is the lack of questions and answers that have to do with the things that matter most in our day- to-day lives. This story begins the conversation about what questions need to be asked.
Would Dan Yorke or Tara Granahan at WPRO be willing to have ConvergenceRI on as an expert guest to talk about health care policy? Would RICARES or the Anchor Recovery Community Center be willing to host a candidates’ forum on substance use? Will the state be willing to suspend its use of Roundup on all state properties following the verdict holding Monsanto liable for causing cancer by a worker who applied Roundup as part of his job?
There are political lessons to be learned from gardening. First, it is about building up the nutrients in the soil. Second, it is about learning the timing around planting seeds. Third, a garden requires constant maintenance and care and watering. Fourth, it is about protecting the pollinators that have a symbiotic relationship with the garden. Fifth, there will always be predators and pests; often the best way to deal with them is to provide what is known as a trap crop to satisfy them. Sixth, when you harvest your crops, always make sure that you share the bounty with your neighbors.

PROVIDENCE – Narragansett Bay and its tributaries are under siege, not just from bacteria and nitrogen but also from plastics and industrial toxins and the impacts of climate change.

However, the need to better protect the body of water that defines the quality of life in Rhode Island has been largely absent from the political conversations leading up to the 2018 election. Seven out of 11 of the candidates running for Governor in 2018 refused to answer a questionnaire from ecoRI News about their environmental policies. Why has that become such a big river of denial to cross? Good question.

The watchword of our current 2018 election season in Rhode Island seems to be a proverb once offered by novelist Thomas Pynchon: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they do not have to worry about the answers.

The “they” referred to by Pynchon appears to apply not just to many of the candidates themselves but also to many of political reporters and pundits covering the 2018 races.

It is more than just the “unwillingness” by perceived front-runners to participate in debates in advance of the primary on Sept. 12.

What frustrates and angers voters the most are the lack of cogent questions and answers about the things that matter most to them in their day-to-day lives:

The staggering costs of health care, surprise medical bills, worries about whether health insurers will once again be able to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions for things such pregnancy, the high cost of drugs such as insulin, and how long it takes to make an appointment to see a doctor.

The escalating costs of rents, stagnant wages, the strain from student debt, the lack of mobility in the job market, having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and the all-consuming expenses of day care and/or elder care.

The virulent explosion of hate crimes, sexual violence, misogyny and racism in our day-to-day interactions. The latest example: a Republican official from Beaver County, Penn., who called NFL players who protested during the National Anthem “baboons” and “ignorant blacks” on Facebook.

Mercy, mercy me, the ecology
In Sarasota, Fla., lifeguards at the beach are now forced to wear masks because the stench of the red tide is overwhelming.

In Detroit, Mich., the public schools had to close down its water supplies because of high levels of toxic metal contamination, including lead.

In Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and surrounding communities, a public health survey conducted by students at Bennington College uncovered far more cases of six diseases linked to PFOA contamination of drinking water than a survey conducted by state health authorities in New York.

Problematic algae blooms have been discovered in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes in North America, raising worries about climate change and tourism.

In Puerto Rico, after a year of denial, the government finally accepted numbers that the death toll from Hurricane Maria was nearly 3,000, making it the largest toll from a natural disaster in decades – the same number of people killed as a result of the Sept. 11 attack.

On Aug. 30, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban a widely used pesticide, chlorphyrifos, which has been linked to brain damage and learning disabilities in children.

The court decision followed the refusal by former EPA director Scott Pruitt to take the pesticide off the market, despite scientific studies that showed the children exposed to organophosphate pesticides such as chlorphyrifos have an increased risk of abnormal neurodevelopment, including persistent loss of intelligence and behavior problems. Erik Olson, the senior director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the ruling a “victory for parents everywhere.”

Closer to home, on Aquidneck Island, as Frank Carini reported in ecoRI News on Aug. 24, “The ponds, rivers, brooks and streams that supply the Newport Water Division and its nearly 15,000 service connections with drinking water are relentlessly stressed by contaminated stormwater runoff. The problem is not going away.”

Further, as ecoRI News tweeted about the story: “Discharge of raw sewage into Narragansett Bay during CSO [combined sewage overflow] events and polluted stormwater runoff adversely impact some of Aquidneck Island’s most important economic features: its beaches.”

It is not just public drinking water sources on Aquidneck Island that are under siege. Late Friday afternoon, Aug. 31, as the three-day Labor Day weekend began, the R.I. Department of Health issued a boil water advisory to residents of Narragansett and South Kingstown because five public water systems has been contaminated by E.coli bacteria.

In addition, the agency recommended the closing of Oakland Beach in Warwick because of high bacteria counts. Conimicut Point beach remained closed for swimming due to high bacteria counts, and advisories were continued at Georgiaville Pond in Smithfield and Slack’s Reservoir in Greenville and Johnston due to toxic algae blooms.

Yet when ecoRI sent a questionnaire out to the 11 candidates running for governor in 2018, including three Democrats, three Republicans, three Independents, one Moderate party and one Compassion party candidate, only four responded – two Democrats, no Republicans, one independent and the Compassion party candidate.

Not a single political reporter has posed the question to R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello or his opponent, Steven Frias, why a House study commission on lead in drinking water in Rhode Island, approved in 2016 and 2017, expired without ever having met once.

Last week, a new long-term study, published by JAMA Pediatrics, found that fixing peeling paint and removing other household sources of lead during the mother’s pregnancy can reduce levels of dust lead in homes to levels significantly lower than previously deemed achievable.

“There is no safe level of lead,” said Joseph Braun, associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “We were able to achieve dust lead levels considerably lower than the current EPA standards for lead remediation and at levels where far fewer children are at risk of being lead-poisoned in their homes,” according a news report by Brown University.

In addition to the excellent questions posed by ecoRI News, here are some questions to ask the candidates running for Governor and Lt. Governor:

What do you think should be done to better protect Narragansett Bay, even if it costs more money?

What can Rhode Island do as a state to protect its citizens from exposure to toxins in the air we breathe and the water we drink?

Are you willing to endorse a statewide commission to study lead contamination in drinking water?

All health care – and politics – is personal
If the candidates are willing to listen to what the voters are most concerned about, it is worries about health care. Yet the polling by media outlets in Rhode Island has not contained any questions about health care in their surveys of likely voters. Why is that?

Questions to ask the candidates running for Governor and Lt. Governor:

Do you believe that the large number of Rhode Island residents who are members of Medicaid is a sign of economic strength or weakness? Explain your answer.

Can you define what a health equity zone is and name the nine communities where they are currently in operation in Rhode Island?

Can you describe the concept behind the first urban Neighborhood Health Station in the nation, which will open in October in Central Falls?

How many people received primary care through the network of community health centers in Rhode Island in 2017?

What do you pay a month for your health insurance coverage? What is your share of the cost? What are you annual co-pays?

What is an accountable entity?

Have you ever attended a meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention? If not, why not?

Do you believe that Rhode Island has too many hospital beds?

Do you believe marijuana should be legalized in Rhode Island?

Have you ever participated in a yoga class?

The innovation ecosystem
Strategies to grow the economy and what kinds of tax incentives should be given to entice companies to relocate Rhode Island certainly part of “he says this, she says that” nature of the current political discourse.

What doesn’t get talked about much are the kinds of community-based and place-based initiatives focused strengthening existing neighborhoods within a collaborative framework.

Questions to ask the candidates running for Governor and Lt. Governor:

What is the Sankofa Initiative and have you ever visited its West End of Providence location?

Have you ever visited the new corporate headquarters of EpiVax in Olneyville?

Do you plan to attend the Health Equity Summit on Sept. 20? If not, why not?

What kinds of financial support do you think is needed to build more affordable housing in Rhode Island?

Do you believe Rhode Island should create an annual index measuring the Innovation Economy in Rhode Island?

What is the total amount of research funding invested by the federal government and by corporations in Rhode Island in 2017?

Toward convergence and conversation
The reality is that the only way to change the political discourse and hold candidates accountable is to be willing to take responsibility to try and change the conversation: talk with your neighbors, listen to what they have to say, find convergence, and who knows?

The questions articulated here is one way to start the conversation: What questions would you like to see asked of the candidates?

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