by Benson Tucker
Meet Dave Fisher, as I first saw him, in his campaign announcement video, titled “The Big Announcement.” He looked like this:
His appeal sounded like this:
“It pains me to see the decline of this city that I grew up in, that I have so much pride in, and I feel that our current leadership, at the municipal level, at the state level, really is not bringing anything new to the table, and that’s why I started this [Facebook] page, that’s why I started a blog, to kinda get my ideas out there and see what kinda reaction I could get from people, and see how much support I could garner from the residents of Woonsocket for a run for the Mayor’s office.”
Fisher’s tone is grave as he announces his reason for running, but as he gradually transitions to describing the campaign itself, he begins to sound almost shy, like he’s making an honest disclosure. When he gets it off his chest, he feels better. He pronounces the words “Mayor’s office” triumphantly.
Dave Fisher is running for Mayor online. I first interacted with him on Twitter, where he looks like this:
The focal point of his web presence, which is essentially his campaign, is his Facebook page:
This is where he aligns himself with progressive local causes, like this one:
When I met him in person, Dave Fisher wore a worn wool jacket over a faded green- and white-checkered shirt, as well as a well-kempt beard and a light backpack. He carries himself with a casual earnestness: free of the pomp and sound-byte-readiness infecting many seasoned urban politicians. He captures a seriousness of purpose without inflating too much his seriousness of self.
Fisher became involved in local politics over the last few years while writing and editing for ecoRI.org, and recently worked as the campaign manager for Abel Collins B’00, a 2012 Independent candidate for the RI House. Collins received just over 9 percent of the vote. Fisher, 38, is still an outsider to government, with more experience in the scrappy realms of local organic food and digital journalism. Since he is still far from a household name in Woonsocket, he entered November’s race before any other candidates in the field, posting his “Big Announcement” on February 13.
So far, Fisher has done no registration paperwork and has collected no donations. As he put it, “My campaign consists of a Facebook page and a blog.” Fisher is decidedly not playing any traditional game of government. “Our government, at every level, is a dinosaur,” he declared during our interview. “It’s on the verge of total petrification and collapse, because people don’t have faith in it.” Fisher sees restoring faith in government, and in Woonsocket, as the heart of his mission, and he seems to believe he can do that by giving it a modern face.
But it isn’t just a lack of faith that brings Woonsocket’s government to the verge of total collapse. The City’s debt burden has some local leaders considering bankruptcy, and Moody’s rates Woonsocket bonds as having “significant credit risk.” According to Ted Nesi of WPRI, the city’s interest alone accounts for 12 percent of government spending, and Woonsocket’s obligations amount to nearly a fifth of the value of all property in the city.
Despite his doomsaying about the status quo, Fisher doesn’t consider bankruptcy—at base a technique for renegotiating crushing debts—a viable option. When it comes to municipal pride, he’s a sort of knight traveling into darkness to uphold the full faith and credit of Woonsocket. At the same time, his campaign is founded on democratic media and a rejection of conventional wisdom. “Most people who know me would say I’m a reasonably intelligent guy,” Fisher claimed towards the end of our interview, amongst other credentials. The darkness is vast, but Fisher has a vision of the transformative capacity of ordinariness.
A New Chapter for Woonsocket
The way Fisher tells it, the history of Woonsocket is in sore need of a turning point. Like many other Rhode Island cities, textile mills drawing power from the Blackstone River drove the city’s growth. The mills began to decline in the mid-twentieth century, their descent reaching critical mass in the 1960s. After losing industry as its economic center, Woonsocket entered an age centered on multinational chain stores like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Staples, which Fisher accuses of draining money out of the city. “Now we’re at a point where even those big box stores are leaving town,” Fisher explained, “and that’s pretty indicative of where the city is right now.” In the last thirty years, Woonsocket’s population has fallen from 46,000 to 41,000, and the share younger than 20 has dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent. Over 75 percent white, the city is largely composed of the working-class descendants who have stuck around.
Fisher has ideas for building a more “resilient” economic center to sustain the city in the long run. One of his major initiatives would hinge on betting big on renewable energy. Fisher looks at the flat roofs of Woonsocket schools and sees opportunities for solar panels. While the Woonsocket school system’s energy bill is less than a million dollars in a city budget over fifty million, Fisher notes that municipalities are free to sell as much energy as they can produce back to National Grid. Pointing out that Rhode Island entrepreneurs have already begun to offer renewable energy installations funded by future savings at no up-front cost, Fisher sees this strategy as entirely positive.
For the buildings on Woonsocket’s Main Street, Fisher envisions shops on the ground floor with live-work spaces above them where local artisans would produce their goods. But if even chain stores are packing up, it’s unclear whether such artisans would earn much of a living. A lack of local demand across the economy fuels the cycle of the city’s problems. Fisher bemoans the unfilled condominiums that now occupy many old mills, which he sees as misguided artifacts from an exciting late ’80s housing boom when Woonsocket conceived of itself as the perfect Providence-Boston-Worcsester bedroom community.
For Fisher, this is an example of the outmoded “attract and retain” model of economic development that persists across the country: localities throw money at hints of big, transformative cash-ins to bring growth to their area, but the windfall often fails to materialize. “It pits cities against each other,” Fisher claimed, “and it leads to things like the 38 Studios fiasco,” where the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation loaned a video game studio 75 million dollars to come to the Ocean State and received under two years of payments before 38 Studios closed its doors.
Fisher prefers long-term economic thinking to chasing the quick fix. He would have the mills filled by light- and medium-manufacturing: “Those are going to be the only concerns that can take on a building that size and support the property taxes and support the footprint of the building.” Rather than figure out how to snatch more of the national pie, Fisher wants Woonsocket to find prosperity through global markets. “It’s really detrimental for us as a nation to be infighting as far as which city’s going to get this business,” he explains, and high-tech manufacturing would respond to global demand. A turn to global economic thinking might help Woonsocket recapture the local industrial vitality that has been slipping away for a century. Though textiles have been displaced by electronics and chemicals, manufacturing still makes up the majority of United States exports.
Getting From Here to There
Overturning a local economy is always difficult, and it becomes nearly impossible with a debt burden like Woonsocket’s. Here, too, Fisher sees great promise in updated thinking: “We have to use the power that we do have at the municipal level and try to find ways out of these financial messes. And there are a ton of them out there, but because our government and the people we elect are largely still stuck in the 1950s, or ’60s—or even ’70s, that’s 40 years ago now —they’ve failed to recognize new sources of revenue.”
I pressed Fisher for details. “The absolute number one thing that Woonsocket can do is have a full-time grant writer on staff. There are literally billions of dollars available in federal and private grants,” Fisher argued.
Given the transformations in how money makes its way to urban problems over the last few decades, Fisher’s strategy makes sense. Since the Clinton administration, America has entered an era of contest-style thinking about urban aid. In 1966, President Johnson’s Model Cities program accepted the vast majority of over 150 applications for targeted aid; Clinton’s Empowerment Zone program, on the other hand, set out to competitively distribute extreme federal support to only ten areas.
This competitive mentality now pervades public and private funding, placing a high premium on innovation. President Obama’s Race to the Top education reform challenges school systems to remake themselves, while Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge seeks to identify (and, for a lucky five cities, fund) creative, high-impact problem solving programs. These are only the most visible examples of the new urban funding order, and Fisher’s think-big approach may be just what funders are looking for.
But finding new money for transformations won’t cover the city’s ballooning obligations. We discussed the city’s unfunded pension problems, a major issue for Woonsocket and cities across the state. To encourage cities to address the issue, a recent state initiative called the MAST program has made some state aid to cities conditional on their pension plan meeting certain benchmarks. When I asked Fisher if Woonsocket was on track to receive these benefits, he was not familiar with the program. Fisher admits that some will write him off as unaware of how government works, and he rebuts, “What I’m more familiar with is how government doesn’t work, and that’s what I want to change.”
“A Total Paradigm Shift”
Fisher doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and much of his appeal is about a change of attitude: “My challenge to the people of Woonsocket is, yeah, we have a lot of problems, but we have a lot of potentials, and we have a lot of successes, too. We need to start focusing more on those successes and more on those potentials than, basically, complaining about everything.” For Fisher, a habit of negativity has kept good ideas from getting off the ground, and he promises to seek out bold proposals from every corner of the city.
Fisher points to this approach as a distinction between him and current Mayor Leo Fontaine. When unexpectedly high enrollment in the Woonsocket school system required a few new hires, Fontaine told the Blackstone valley newspaper Valley Breeze: “I know that the law says that we have to have these assistants but at the same point the other law says that we can’t spend money that we don’t have.” Facing serious challenges, Woonsocket’s leaders have seemed cornered.
In a blog post on his campaign website, Fisher called Fontaine a “one-step thinker,” pointing to Fontaine’s idea to sell unused recycling bins to Cumberland for a one time profit. Fisher argues for another path: “We could keep these bins and offer a low-cost recycling solution to our city’s businesses, increasing our recycling rate, and thus increase the annual profit share from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation for years to come.”
Fisher recently told the Valley Breeze that in March he would begin a series of public meetings to flesh out his platform with community ideas. Woonsocket is the right size for this sort of engagement to win a campaign, if the momentum is right. According to Fisher, Fontaine won the last election with just under 3000 predominantly elderly votes. Fisher hopes to access new voters by campaigning in
new ways. As yet, there’s nothing on paper to make Fisher a candidate.
Converting casual clicks to ballots in the box will require convincing Woonsocket citizens that Fisher can really succeed. I asked him what he would say to a skeptic, but his response might not be strong enough to win over non-believers: “We’ve tended to become more insular, to just draw the blinds when we see something going on. But at the end of the day, the successes and failures of our city and state are not on the mayor, the city council, the general assembly. We all share-every citizen, it’s on our backs-the successes, the failures, and I think that’s a powerful message we need to convey to people. And if that’s not something different that will convince people that I can get this done, because I’m talking about bringing us all together, and making us more cohesive as communities.”