Small Mistake, Big Fuss

By now you’ve no doubt heard about the East Side dustup between Councilman Sam Zurier and residents/constituents Dee Dee and Dr. Gary Witman. (Full disclosure: Zurier is a former education …

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By now you’ve no doubt heard about the East Side dustup between Councilman Sam Zurier and residents/constituents Dee Dee and Dr. Gary Witman. (Full disclosure: Zurier is a former education columnist for us.) In case you’ve missed it, a quick review of the facts: Dee Dee sought out the assistance of her councilman, freshman Democrat Sam Zurier, to get the sidewalk in front of her home repaired. Her husband Gary, a prominent physician, was rendered quadriplegic in a freak swimming accident and is wheelchair bound, making the damaged sidewalk an impassable obstacle for him. Zurier rallied to have the repairs done, with the expectation that the Witmans would oblige with a campaign contribution. When that contribution never materialized, Zurier sent the couple a letter expressing his disappointment. Later, the whole affair winds up splashed on the front page of the Sunday Projo and a mini-controversy ensues, with Witman eventually going on Buddy Cianci’s radio show to call for the councilman’s resignation. (A bit of a disingenuous move, since, as Rhode Island Public Radio’s Scott MacKay points out in an excellent editorial, Witman herself is no stranger to the quid pro quo world of Rhode Island political fundraising.)

In short, a rookie councilman made a rookie mistake. In the process, a city service was rendered to a resident who really needed it and no palms wound up being greased to get it. The real shame here isn’t Zurier’s admittedly boneheaded letter, but that this story has managed to find such legs. The time and energy invested in sustaining this tempest in a teacup seems like a waste, particularly when considering the people involved. Zurier is one of the smartest and most thoughtful members of City Council, a Yale grad and a Rhodes Scholar in a political body that has more often been populated with wardheeling hucksters. Witman is a reliable and active supporter of the Democratic Party. The Projo reporters who broke the story, Mike Stanton and Katherine Gregg, are two of the paper’s finest. At a time when so many troubles loom over our city, does Providence really benefit from having people of this caliber bogged down in a minor dispute over ward politics?

Rhode Island faces big problems right now and we can’t afford to be distracted “sexy” controversies – the type that are easy to form an opinion on, make for great sound bites, and carry the faint whiff of corruption, thus lending themselves easily to “gotcha!” journalism – that keep the news cycle churning but are essentially insignificant. In recent months, three news stories from Rhode Island have gotten the most national attention. One is the ongoing struggle of Central Falls – a bleak story indeed, but one that is at least substantive, historic and full of lessons to be learned. The other two: the great “holiday tree” debate and the controversy over Cranston West’s prayer banner. What ramifications do these events have for public policy, or even just the average citizen’s life? What lessons are to be learned from them? Most importantly, how much time, energy and media attention has been poured into them that could have been better invested elsewhere? The Zurier-Witman tiff is no different. The best thing anyone involved can do for the city is to simply move on and focus attention on something that really matters.