Providence Journal-Bulletin

On The Trail: Courting Coia, Puzzling Poll, A Muffed Chance


Sept. 27, 1998

From a Newport hotel, to Brown University, to a South Providence forum come today's gubernatorial campaign news and views.

Here's what Arthur A. Coia, embattled general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, says about Linc Almond, the former U.S. attorney who is Coia's choice for reelection as governor:

"I consider the governor Mr. Squeaky Clean and I consider myself Mr. Squeaky Clean also."

I went to see Coia in Newport. I knew Almond would be seeing him there and I wanted to catch up with the 55-year-old Barrington resident who operates out of Washington and makes headlines but isn't always an easy interview to land.

With Coia's support, look to the Rhode Island Laborers in coming days to endorse Republican Almond over Democrat Myrth York, as they did in 1994.

Through a 1995 pact between the Laborers and the Justice Department, Coia presides over an in-house cleanup of the Mafia-tainted union. But the internal anti-corruption unit he set up to stave off a federal takeover of the union has charged him with permitting mob influence in the union and taking kickbacks from a union vendor.

Last we heard in April, Coia had begun his defense in a secret, quasi-judicial union proceeding, with a former U.S. prosecutor as judge.

Seeking to nail down the Laborers endorsement, Almond on Tuesday conferred in Newport's Doubletree Islander Hotel with Coia and Armand Sabitoni, Laborers' vice president and New England regional manager, a good guy to know in Rhode Island labor circles. The international union's executive board was in town for meetings.

The three men huddled in the hotel's Astor Room, which is near the Vanderbilt Room. (Hey, it's Newport.) Afterwards, Coia couldn't say enough about the gov:

"He's got a lot of good programs . . . We have worked closely with his administration in bringing new jobs to Rhode Island."

Coia was talking construction jobs, highway jobs and other things. You may think of the Laborers as building trades, but the union's 10,000 Rhode Island members also include everything from nurses to grave diggers.

Coia loves the Providence Place mall project Almond has pushed. "It's very vital to everybody in Rhode Island," Coia said. A mall, a convention center, new hotels -- "These are things that make cities go and make the state go."

I asked Coia about his status with the union -- those charges that he let the Mafia hold sway.

He said, "The matter has been before our independent hearing officer and all the evidence has been put forth and we're waiting for a decision."

He declared, "The truth will come forward, the process is in place and no one in the union is above the process, and I feel that when the decision is rendered I will be vindicated."

He anticipates a decision around the end of the year.

I said some folks would blanch at the idea of Almond, Mr. Squeaky Clean, hanging around with him. That's when Coia said he also considers himself Mr. Squeaky Clean. "Charges or allegations are just what they are," he said. "Evidence and facts speak for themselves."

I never see Coia around Barrington. I think of him as being a Washingtonian. But he said he regularly talks by phone with Sabitoni, as he speaks regularly with Laborer vice presidents around North America. "I am a Rhode Islander," Coia said. "I pay taxes in Rhode Island. I vote in Rhode Island. My heart's in Rhode Island, although I'm not very much here."

He looked vigorous -- he had prostate cancer surgery in January -- and he said, "I feel good, I feel strong, I work every day."

Though he sometimes aligns himself with Republicans, Coia's a Democrat. He's been a big Democratic fundraiser and became a pal of Bill Clinton, who now has his own problems.

Coia told me he hasn't spoken with the president in a year or so. And he hasn't heard lately from Hillary either.

Coia didn't always live in Barrington. Indeed, Doubletree staffer Joyce Notte Motte, whose late father was governor, went to North Providence High School with Coia, and yes, she ran into him at the hotel and they reminisced. "You couldn't ask for a nicer person," she said.

Later, I asked Almond about the news stories on charges that Coia allowed organized-crime figures to influence Laborers affairs.

"When you seek the endorsement of a union, you talk to the leadership of the union," Almond said matter-of-factly. "I don't know what's happening in a secret hearing . . . I'm not his lawyer . . . That topic did not come up."

York, too, seeks the Laborers' backing. "I want everybody's endorsement," she told me.

Almond said he knew Coia from the days when both were lawyers handling workers' compensation cases.

Former Senator York said she's met Coia a few times over the years. "I think he's smart, I think he cares about Rhode Island," she said.

As for the news stories: "Whenever there are allegations of misconduct, I guess I would say I'm concerned about them, but there's a process that's ongoing."


Both the Almond and York campaigns talk about it -- Almond insists it's a plus for him, York insists it's a minus for him -- but I'm waiting to see whether the candidates put their money where their mouths are and bring up the subject in a TV commercial.

Both opposed the mall in 1994, with Almond the more outspoken and pledging to quash it if he was elected. Later he said he meant simply that he would quash the financing arrangements, and he renegotiated the deal so that state subsidies would kick in only when the place was up and running.

Last week, when York campaign manager Rob Horowitz and Almond campaign manager Ed Morabito spoke at Darrell West's Brown University political science class, Horowitz took issue with Morabito's frequent refrain that Almond doesn't run more strongly because he is so self-effacing. Horowitz said, "Voters are smarter than that . . . It starts with the first thing they saw him do is flip flop on the mall . . . That changed people's view of him from this reformer that they saw in the election to a business-as-usual politician."

Morabito said later that the gov's course on the mall showed "leadership," that he avoided taxpayer risk and brought home more than $400 million in private investment.

If I don't see a commercial from either camp on this matter, I'll have to assume the issue cuts both ways and is too risky to push before a statewide audience, as opposed to certain constituent groups.

Meanwhile, when Professor West last week issued a poll showing Almond leading York, 41 percent to 35, with 9 percent for Cool Mooser Bob Healey, 2 percent for Reform Party cxandidate John Devine and 13 percent undecided, I had two immediate thoughts:

Why can't Almond, with such favorable indicators as 72 percent thinking Rhode Island is on the right track and with his enjoying a 58 percent job approval rating, do better? In these circumstances, he should be trouncing her.

Given Almond's inability thus far to capitalize on those conditions and given the fact that York is well known and experienced, why can't she catapult over him?

West said Almond's problem is he lacks Mayor Buddy Cianci's flair for self-promotion. But with the good economy and voter confidence, West said, "All the pieces are in place for him to have a good election."

And York's problem? "She has not yet solidified her Democratic base." Among Democratic respondents in the poll, she outpaced Almond only 53 percent to 33.

It may be, West said, that some working-class Democrats just don't identify with the wealthy East Sider and that Almond seems more the average Joe. Of course, York, tagged by Almond in '94 as too liberal, is pitching her drive to working-class Rhode Islanders, so maybe her message will sink in.

I enjoy bantering with York and Almond. For example, as I drove to Newport, I noticed on repaved Route 4 a DOT your-dollars-at-work sign, with the notation: Lincoln Almond, Governor. When I met up with the gov, I twitted him.

After all, when he took office, he refreshingly broke with custom and kept his name off the welcoming signs at the state borders. Almond says he had nothing to do with the Route 4 sign but, hey, it's "nice" and he won't alter it.

DOT director Bill Ankner confirmed later that he was the one who decided to put Almond's name on the sign. Actually, Ankner said, there are four such signs, on Route 4 and a repaved Route 6 in Johnston. He said including the governor's name was customary in other states in which he worked.

BUT MUCH THAT happens in a campaign is beyond bantering. It is very serious stuff, and people take it seriously -- or should.

On Wednesday night, Almond, York and Healey appeared before a Rhode Island Civil Rights Roundtable forum on minority issues at the CCRI campus in South Providence. One question sought their views on legalizing same-sex marriage.

Healey said it was fine by him, but Almond and York muffed this chance to stand for human dignity.

York said, "That issue is used by the right wing in this country to really create hate and ill feeling and all of that. I think we need, before we even get to that question, to really enforce the human rights laws, the civil rights for all people, and make sure that we have the equality of treatment in education, in jobs, in housing . . ."

Almond noted that he signed the gay-rights law banning discrimination in employment, credit, housing and accommodations. But he said, "I just don't think the Rhode Island public or the American public is ready for same-sex marriages."

Two key audience members, Rep. Mike Pisaturo, D-Cranston, and Kate Monteiro, president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, said later that the York and Almond responses fell short.

Pisaturo, a York supporter, is gay and is the sponsor of a same-sex marriage bill. He told me, "The governor has a long way to go on the issue. I'm not counting him out yet . . . He needs to be educated." Pisaturo was "disappointed" in York. He said she could take a "leadership" position on this issue and not be hurt politically. In fact, "When voters perceive you've taken a courageous stand, I think they appreciate that." But he said, "She's hiding from an answer."

Monteiro, a political independent who is undecided in the race, told me, "I was very disappointed in the answer from Lincoln Almond and I was slightly disappointed in the answer from Myrth York."

Monteiro said York was correct in saying arch-conservatives try to exploit the issue and Almond had a small point, too, but these are only beginnings: "She got the answer 10 percent right and he got the answer 1 percent right. Maybe right now, without much discussion, Rhode Island isn't as ready as it ought to be. But one would expect that candidates who are running for the highest office in the State of Rhode Island would have the strength and the fortitude to take a strong stance, a leadership stance, on a very fundamental basic issue . . . That goes for both of them." I wouldn't necessarily expect the candidates to have such guts, but I'd sure welcome it.

M. Charles Bakst is The Journal's political columnist.

Copyright © 1998 The Providence Journal Company

Return to

(c) All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved..