2015-12-23 / Front Page

Carson Proceeds Deliberately in Year One

By Tom Walsh


As an advocate and member of the Friends of the Waterfront, one of Lauren Carson's favorite spots in town is the Van Zandt pier with views of the bay. As an advocate and member of the Friends of the Waterfront, one of Lauren Carson's favorite spots in town is the Van Zandt pier with views of the bay. With 15 of her closest friends and relatives crowded into the Rhode Island House chamber last Jan. 6 to see her sworn into office, Democrat Lauren Carson, a newcomer to the House of Representatives, didn’t know quite what to expect.

“My strategy going in was to ask fellow House members, as a way to break the ice, ‘Have you got any advice for me?’ I asked that question a lot, and I think 30 or 40 of them said the same thing—‘Just observe and listen. Try to get a feeling for the way the chamber operates.’”

So she did.

Carson, 61, vaulted onto Newport’s political stage in September, 2014 when she ousted veteran House District 75 Rep. Peter Martin in the Democratic primary. With no general election foe that November, Carson’s House career had begun.

She said she took things slowly at first. Her first legislative offering was a House resolution concerning last summer’s Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Newport. Such measures seldom get anyone onto the front page. But it was a start.

Her first real bill came shortly thereafter—a measure she introduced in the House to ban “powdered alcohol” in Rhode Island. “I had read something about it the week before I was sworn in,” Carson recalled this week in a phone interview with Newport This Week, conducted with Carson from Park City, Utah, where the Newport lawmaker was visiting her mother for Christmas.

This product, packaged in similar fashion to Kool-Aid, has been banned in at least 20 other states. Carson’s bill stalled in the rush to adjourn near the end of the 2015 General Assembly session.

However, Carson has emerged in other ways, with her leadership on two study commissions—including a House panel looking at the potential impact of flooding in low-lying business areas of Newport, Providence and South County. The other panel resulted from legislation that Carson sponsored— a commission to study Rhode Island’s tourism industry and recommend ways to achieve coordinated statewide branding and marketing efforts.

“Rhode Island needs an overarching state brand and marketing initiative to successfully promote the state to tourists throughout the region, the country and the world,” she said.

Carson’s status with these study panels suggests that as a freshman lawmaker, she has already gained favor with more powerful colleagues such as House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, D-Cranston. “I have a very good relationship with the speaker,” Carson said. “I think I have established myself as a thoughtful member of the House. I do check in with him to let him know what I’m doing.”

Carson said she was also proud to have invited Mattiello to join her in a tour of Newport several months ago. “We toured the Colony House and The Breakers,” she recalled. “He told me that he hadn’t been to The Breakers in something like 30 years. I was happy he did that.”

Besides serving in the 75-member House, where she attended every 2015 session, Carson works as an environmental policy analyst for Rhode Island Clean Water Action. A resident of Newport’s flood-prone Point neighborhood, Carson’s regular job, along with her legislative duties, places her in a potentially pivotal position to deal with future problems linked to climate change.

“There’s a growing awareness of these issues,” she said, adding that renovations now planned for the city’s Gateway Center located on America’s Cup Avenue—once a tidal marsh—are headed in the right direction with numerous drainage and other exterior improvements such as rain gardens.

Carson also serves on the House Oversight Committee, the panel investigating the ill-fated $75 million deal with 38 Studios, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s failed video game company.

“We’re very committed that this situation not be repeated,” she said. With that goal in mind, Carson said the Oversight Committee’s goal is to recommend policy changes to ensure that the state not repeat mistakes that were made leading up to the loan. “There needs to be more transparency,” she said.

Carson said for loan requests of this magnitude, there could be an ongoing oversight role for the House Finance Committee, the panel that annually handles the governor’s state budget proposal. “I really think that people thought this loan would work,” she said. From testimony she has heard so far, Carson said, “There seemed to be this group of 20 people who put the whole thing together.” Among those, she said, was Keith Stokes, a Newport resident and the former executive director of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that granted the loan to 38 Studios.

Was Stokes one of the 20 people?

“I’m not passing judgment,” she said. “But I think he was one of them. But there is no reason to believe that he was consciously doing anything illegal.”

Despite the high-profile issues Carson has faced in her first year in the House, she maintains that her priority is serving her District 75 constituents. As she wrote in a recent newsletter, “I have focused on issues that are important to all of Newport—maintaining a sustainable tourism economy, supporting the quality of life for our senior citizens, protecting our world famous environment and planning for our shared future on Aquidneck Island.”

As for the 2016 Assembly session?

She predicted that Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s truck toll proposal that foundered in the House at the end of the 2015 session would quickly re-emerge when the legislature convenes in January. The plan is intended to pay for desperately needed repairs to state bridges and highways. “Tolls will be front and center,” Carson said. “I think we have to toll. The state of our roads and bridges is embarrassing.” She said she did not have information about where tolls would be placed in the vicinity of Newport.

Carson also mentioned another measure widely opposed by Newport officials in 2015—the socalled “mooring bill” that would have added a state mooring fee on top of existing local fees, as well as a marine safety patrol with “full police powers.” The bill was sponsored by Rep. Scott A. Slater, DProvidence.

“I don’t know, but I won’t be surprised if it comes back again,” Carson said.

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