Former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey stirred up controversy at Saturday's Operation Clean Government forum in East Greenwich.
Approximately 200 people from around the state attended the forum, which took place at the Varnum Armory on Main Street. OCG is a grassroots advocacy organization.
Verbal fireworks resulted during the event when Laffey, the keynote speaker, accused state Sen. James Sheehan of North Kingstown of being the type of politician who talks down to voters.
Sheehan wasn’t on the program, which included a panel discussion and remarks from the audience, but he had come to the podium in response to one such remark. Sheehan told the gathering that he understood the anger out there, but said that people had to understand that there have to be logical, reasonable ways to do things.
As Sheehan walked away, Laffey described him as the perfect politician on this topic.
“He said to you again that he understood, that he wanted you to connect with him, that he understands your pain,” said Laffey.
“These people keep saying this to you,” he said. “When they say it to you, they are talking down to you, like you don’t know what they are saying.”
Sheehan rushed back to the podium and told Laffey he was an egomaniacal person. “Everybody knows you like to play to the crowd,” he said. "You like to come back, fly in from Colorado, where you’ve given up on [Rhode Island].
“You have a very big ego, Mr. Laffey. You don’t even know what I’ve done, you don’t even have an idea where I represent, but you want to make me this puppet for everything you don’t like about government," Sheehan said.
“Mr. Laffey is coming here as the great bomb thrower, but not proposing solutions.”
Laffey, who was a U.S. Senate candidate in 2006, now lives in Fort Collins, Colo., where he recently started a media company and is currently filming a documentary entitled Fixing America.
OCG invited Laffey to be part of the forum, along with Edward Mazze, of the URI business school; Gary Sasse from Bryant University; and Larry Valencia, a former head of OCG, now a state representative from District 39.
In his remarks, Mazze told the audience that local government should be re-organized into a five-county state. “We continue to play the game that we can take care of the problem with a Band-Aid,” he said. He also said that in addition to massive cuts in government spending there will have to be increased taxes.
Sasse said that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem and that he wants to see some budget cuts before talking about a tax increase.
Laffey, in his keynote remarks and as a panel member, was the most blunt. He described all the past budget fixes as "phony-baloney" and said the City of Providence should file for bankruptcy now and do a restructuring similar to that of General Motors."
He was even more blunt about the huge pension debt, saying it should just be ended.
“The guy getting a pension is not going to get that money,” he said. “Give him a check and say the truth, 'We're really sorry they screwed it up, for forty straight years.'”
One audience member, Mark Gee, a Councilman from East Greenwich, reflected on the event.
"It was a wild morning at the East Greenwich Armory. It was unbelievable," Gee said Sunday. "People erupted with what I would say was controlled rage.
"The problems of Providence and Rhode Island are going to affect all the cities and towns in Rhode Island," Gee said. "I don’t think the legislators have the political courage to fix it."
Laffey was the Mayor of Cranston from 2003 to 2007.