"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Sideshow Of Local Politics And The Hilarity Of Popular Rule

The Barnum & Bailey Circus came to New Brighton once in a blue moon, but when it did, everyone enjoyed the show.   Steam fitters, doctors, priests, and the unemployed filled the big top, gawked at the dwarves, two-headed babies, and bearded ladies in the side shows, bought popcorn and caramel candy, and had a great time.  

The roar of the lions could be heard from one end of town to the other; the lion tamers were deft and fearless; the clowns hilarious, and the ringmaster in top hat and tails a sight to behold. Children gathered around to watch the tent go up, the caravans emptied of gypsies, wild animals, and magicians, and the carny barkers practicing their spiels.  They gathered again as the big top came down and the freaks, touts, and bears returned to their cages.  It was a happy day when the circus came to town, and a very sad one indeed when it left.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus | History & Closing | Britannica

The Mayor of New Brighton, Big Al Alden Lovett, loved the circus, acted as an extra in one of the vaudeville shows, and loved dressing up as a floozy for a beloved sketch.  Like the memorable mayor of neighboring Providence, Buddy Cianci, Alden Lovett was as beloved and as corrupt.  Both mayors did wonders for their cities.  Providence’s River Walk, a popular destination for families and lovers was an instant hit, and the fireworks over the water was the must-see event of the year. Not to be outdone, Lovett entreated the city council to allocate funds for his new downtown complete with a public square, Italianate fountain, a rose garden, and curvaceous walkways.

Of course both mayors and their supporters got rich from these improvement schemes.  Both projects were heavy on infrastructure, so kickbacks could be easily concealed in cost overruns, necessary additions and modifications to original designs, add-ons, and last-minute frills.  Pipes had to be laid for the fountains and water works.  Roads had to be widened, landscaping done by heirs to Olmsted’s genius, and retail space for upscale coffee shops and clothing boutiques ‘negotiated’.

No one paid attention to this diversion of funds, for residents routinely paid their taxes which went into the municipal treasury without earmark; so when the new Public Square Development project was completed, the fountains turned on, and the flowers were in bloom, everyone cheered Mayor Lovett.

Everything in New Brighton had a price in those days.  No-show jobs were at a premium but so were all jobs in City Hall and its Departments of Engineering and Public Works, Education, Finance, and Education.  Occasionally there were taxpayer revolts engineered by malcontents and self-described social reformers who demanded Mayor Lovett’s ouster and a clean sweep of the council; but the Mayor was quick to pay off the most susceptible to financial influence and ‘warn’  those who stood their ground.  The electorate, like every electorate everywhere, was easily led by Big Al into the complacency of a generous government.

Despite the Ten Commandments, the code of Hammurabi, and Koranic law, corruption has persisted and thrived since the first human settlement. No country, empire, regime, government, or private sector has ever been exempt.  Whether the Seven Dwarves of the American tobacco industry who deliberately withheld damaging information about the dangers of nicotine and actively sought to boost its addictive properties; Enron who set up shell companies and impossibly complex derivatives to bilk the public and enrich their executives; or Bernie Madoff who lied to his Jewish friends and supporters and ruined them while his own financial holdings increased, corruption is universal. 

When the layers of fraud and deception are peeled away, familiar, predictable, and seemingly unavoidable patterns of violent self-interest, territorialism, acquisitiveness, and self-protection – the essential expressions of human nature – are revealed.

Moses ten commandments hi-res stock photography and images - Alamy

It is no surprise, ,then, that Mayor Lovett of New Brighton made hay while the sun shone favorably upon him.  He knew that his good fortune would not last forever, and his future would be one of eventual demise; so as long as his popularity remained solid, his bank accounts grew. However so did municipal debt.  Citizens could be taxed for only so long before the strains on the civic purse would show.  

Contrary to the national government which prints money when things get tight, municipalities have no such machinery. So Lovett floated bond issues left and right, and investors, impressed by the gaslights, fountains, and greenery of the new public square and the fancy industrial park showcased by a national tire company scrambled to be part of the city’s prosperity.  Paying them back was another thing altogether but Lovett was no dope and renegotiated loan after loan until the well was dry.

He absconded one night without so much as a fare-thee-well, was caught by the FBI, served his time in prison, and returned to civic life renewed, repentant, and eager for more.  Like Buddy Cianci, he was warmly received by the citizens of New Brighton who remembered only the parks, fountains, and endless City Hall jobs offered by the generous mayor.  Besides, he had served his time and paid his debt to society, so why not restore him to the office for which he was so obviously suited?

FCI Danbury

Lovett was handily reelected, and on the balcony of the historic seat of municipal authority – the old City Hall constructed in 1875  amidst the enthusiasm of the Northern victory and flush with monies generated from arms sales to the Union Army – he gave a memorable oration filled with civic pride, patriotism, and down home homilies.  “How was prison?”, someone shouted from the crowd.  Lovett smiled, waved, and said, “The sex was great”.  The crowd whooped and hollered.  “That’s our Big Al”, they said and threw confetti and streamers in the air.

His second term was much like the first two, all optimism and spending like a drunken sailor.  For the grand opening of the Red Sox AA stadium where the New Brighton Bees played, he imported line dancers and runway tarts from Las Vegas for prelims and as a nod to growing Puerto Rican population, a salsa band from San Juan as a headliner, and LaShonda, a Shakira big booty double for the main event.  No expense was spared for barrels of cheap beer, slabs of catered ribs, and buckets of shrimp.  Everybody in City Hall, building contractors, sanitation engineers, caterers, and off-duty police got a big cut.  No one could outspend or out party Big Al.

This time around nothing or no one could dislodge the mayor.  The howls of Black Lives Matter fell on deaf ears, the cancel culture was unsuccessful in toppling statues of Revolutionary War heroes active in the Three-Cornered slave trade, and the Puerto Ricans, thanks to a hefty share of no-show jobs and oversized welfare checks were as happy with Big Al as were the working class whites who ran the lathes and power drills at Fenwick Ball Bearing.

Even his much publicized dalliance with one of the Las Vegas tarts who performed at the grand opening left no marks.  Of course the mayor needed some fun now and again, so let her rip, Mr. Mayor, said voters.

Late in Lovett’s tenure the circus again came to town.  This time, after many years of reform, the lions, tame bears, and bearded ladies were no longer; and the show was decidedly G-rated.  Big Al took one look at the propriety, demureness, and cleanliness of the whole works, understood that the day of circuses and his beneficent rule were over, hung up his spurs, and spent his final days on Bimini.

Municipalities were never the same.  There were too many watchdogs, auditors, and federal snoops around for the likes of Big Al to govern like cities should be governed – something for everyone and a lot of hoopla on the side.  America too, under the tutelage of President Biden, one of the most colorless presidents ever to sit in the Oval Office, drew in its horns and became concerned about everything.  Politics remained as corrupt as ever, but without the bombast of the Al Lovett days – more insider trading, securities fraud, and Ponzi schemes. 

Happy as ever in retirement Big Al smiled at his lovely young, chocolate-and-cream companion, took a sip of his pina colada, and dozed off under the palms.

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