Trial by Fire

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Donald L. Carcieri needed a vacation. The newly inaugurated Rhode Island governor was exhausted after a year and a half of spending his way out of obscurity, storming the campaign trail, and, after he won last November’s election, plotting his transition to office. So on February 15, forty days after taking the oath of office as the state’s fifty-seventh chief executive, Carcieri, a former corporate chieftain, retreated with his wife, Sue, to the couple’s beachfront condo in Jensen Beach, Florida. One of their three daughters and three of their thirteen grandchildren also went along for the trip.

Carcieri’s holiday came to a sudden halt in the early hours of February 21. He had spent much of previous day chasing his grandsons around Disney World, and the boys were tucked safely into bed when the phone rang. On the line was his chief of staff, Kenneth K. McKay IV, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer and fellow political neophyte. McKay reported that a major fire had engulfed the Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, a decaying mill town ten miles south of Providence. Details were sketchy, but McKay was on his way to the scene. Carcieri told him to call back as soon as he knew more.

McKay phoned again forty-five minutes later. “It looks really bad,” he told Carcieri. Officials thought at least twenty people were dead, nearly the same number killed in a stampede at a Chicago dance club only a week earlier.

“You’ve got to get me out of here,” Carcieri said.

The first flight departed West Palm Beach airport at 5:30 a.m. It was there that Carcieri got his first view of the fire on television. Later, while changing planes in Atlanta, he stood transfixed in front of a monitor tuned to CNN, watching video footage shot inside the Station for a local television story on nightclub safety. In the video, Great White, a down-on-its-luck 1980s hard-rock band, rips into its set as fiery props shoot off in three directions. Sparks can be seen climbing soundproofing material on the walls and jumping to the roof. Smoke spreads quickly as patrons scramble toward the front door.

By the time Carcieri arrived in West Warwick just after 10 a.m., firefighters had uncovered more than fifty bodies in the smoldering nightclub. “I was just in shock,” he recalls. “They were removing victims in body bags. I just flashed back to 9/11. The place was just totally leveled. Nothing left. And they had one of these clamshells that was moving debris so they could get at people.”

“It was just awful,” he says. “Awful.”

Eventually the death toll rose to one hundred, making the blaze the fourth deadliest club fire in U.S. history. Injuries numbered close to 200. The fire was particularly devastating in as small a state as Rhode Island, where many residents, including the governor, could claim some connection to the victims or survivors. A few nights after the tragedy, when an exhausted Carcieri collapsed into bed and turned on the news, a name listed among the dead cut through the fog; it belonged to the daughter of old friends. Many Rhode Islanders, including Carcieri, had dined at the Station during its former life as an Italian restaurant; others had quaffed a beer there during its days as a hangout for local sailors.

In the days after the fire, cable news junkies around the country saw Carcieri on camera again and again, a calm, unassuming, but stable presence as he patiently fielded questions from the army of reporters who’d descended on the state. He expressed grief for the victims, and in the subsequent days and weeks he pushed the medical examiner to speed up the identification of the bodies, many of which were burned beyond recognition. He ordered fire inspectors to survey every bar and restaurant in the state. He called for a commission to study the Rhode Island fire code. Along with his wife, he spent much of the two weeks after the fire consoling victims’ families and visiting survivors in Rhode Island and Boston burn units. Hospital vigils surrendered to wakes and funerals.

Buoyed by his Catholic faith, Carcieri displayed a remarkable mixture of anger, compassion, and confidence, soothing the state’s frayed nerves. Showing a humanity politicians don’t often display in public, he both reflected and eased the emotions wracking Rhode Islanders. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Carcieri, who has four grown children, says of the fire. “When your young kids are out with friends and they’re not home on time—I remember it. You hear a siren go by. It’s the worst sound.”

While governors of the country’s smallest state are accustomed to working in obscurity, Carcieri (pronounced Cuh-CHER-ry) found himself suddenly thrust onto the national stage. He drew flattering profiles in the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. Commentators referred to his “Giuliani moment,” likening his handling of the crisis to the steadying actions of former New York City mayor and fellow Republican Rudolph Giuliani following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Just days after the fire, Carcieri’s approval rating surged to 69 percent, according to a poll by Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.

“He took charge of the situation,” says Rhode Island House speaker William Murphy, a Democrat from West Warwick. “He showed a great deal of compassion to the family members who lost loved ones and to those who survived. Seven weeks into his term, he showed magnificent leadership for the State of Rhode Island. There was no doubt he established himself as governor.”

Carcieri’s transformation from political rookie to state savior was all the more dramatic coming just days after he had been criticized for remaining on vacation as a blizzard blanketed New England with more than two feet of snow. His week in the Florida sun even drew a crack from The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno. The chairman of the state Democratic Party suggested printing T-shirts saying “My governor went to Florida and all I got was a blizzard and this lousy T-shirt.” Following the Station fire, the blizzard controversy melted away like so much snow. It was the latest unlikely development in a career full of unorthodox twists and turns.


“MY NAME IS DON CARCIERI and most of you don’t know me.”

With that simple statement, Carcieri announced his candidacy for governor in April 2002. Though respected in Rhode Island’s insular business community, the former CEO of Cookson America, a manufacturing holding company, was a stranger to most voters outside his hometown of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. His previous political experience had been confined to high school, where he served four years as class president and a stint as student body president. But Carcieri quickly put the state’s political establishment on notice. “This is a popular uprising,” declared Republican National Committee member Eileen Slocum at Carcieri’s campaign kickoff.

Carcieri filled his campaign staff with former colleagues, most of them, like him, political novices. His campaign chair, his finance director, and his business manager were all former executives from his days at Providence’s now defunct Old Stone Bank. An official from the Providence Chamber of Commerce became his communications chief, and a former teacher served as a top policy adviser. Once in office, Carcieri—who calls himself an “elected leader” rather than a politician—turned again to the private sector to fill out his cabinet. His director of administration is a former executive at FleetBoston Financial Corporation, and venture capitalist Michael McMahon ’69 oversees the state’s economic development agency.

Former Republican National Committee political director Curt Anderson, a paid Carcieri consultant, says he’s never worked with a campaign staff with less experience. “Most of the people in the campaign were just friends with him,” Anderson says, “not the sort of hired-gun staffers you normally bring into a campaign.” Anderson says Carcieri had to be prodded into responding to attacks by his opponents. “We didn’t do a lot of polling in the race, and he didn’t understand why we did any,” Anderson says with a laugh. “When you say to him, ‘This is what you do in campaigns,’ he’d say, ‘Well, maybe that’s not the way we want to do it.’”

Carcieri’s affability disguises years of hard-earned management success. His speech, peppered with talk of redundancies and inefficiencies, is sometimes reminiscent of a high school economics teacher’s. It’s this straightforward charm, combined with a Clinton-like ability to connect with people of all social and economic backgrounds, that seduced the state’s voters and reporters.

“For a guy that spent his whole life outside of politics, he’s one of the best natural politicians that I’ve met,” says Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst ’66, who has covered Rhode Island politics for more than three decades. “Some people plot from the day they’re born to be governor. And this guy just breezes into it.”

Carcieri’s smooth transition from the boardroom to the statehouse puts him in close company with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. But while Carcieri shares their corporate acumen and business connections, his deep roots in his native state set him apart. “I’ve been here my whole life,” Carcieri says of Rhode Island. “I love the state. I’ve always been convinced it was capable of doing much more. I just said, ‘Okay, either you sit back and grouse about it or you try and do something.’ ”

Carcieri likes to say he was born and raised in East Greenwich “before all the big subdivisions and before it became a fancy place to live.” The son of a legendary local high school teacher and coach, he was a star on the East Greenwich high school football, basketball, and baseball teams. At Brown, where he played defensive back on the football team and pitched for the baseball team, he flirted briefly with engineering before switching to international relations. The only child in his family to attend college, he supplemented his state and school scholarship aid by working construction and raking clams on Narragansett Bay. He gave up baseball his senior year to work a dawn shift sorting packages for UPS so he could pay for a wedding ring. He and Sue married a few weeks after commencement.

Following Brown, Carcieri spent two dreary months selling linoleum in Pennsylvania, then took a job as a high school math teacher. A few nights each week, he sold encyclopedias door-to-door. A computer-programming job at a Boston bank led to a job at Old Stone Bank, where he settled in and climbed the corporate ladder, eventually becoming an executive vice president.

In 1981, after ten years at Old Stone, Carcieri, a regular churchgoer, quit his job to run the Catholic Relief Services office in Jamaica. Combining his business sense with his idealism, he worked with local farmers to diversify their crops and to market their produce to local hotels and restaurants. He also helped organize a plastic recycling business. But living in Jamaica was difficult on his family. Although they had a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, Carcieri’s children felt cut off socially. Security was always an issue. “At the top of the stairway, where the bedrooms were, there was a big iron bar and an iron gate,” Carcieri says. “What you did the last thing at night was you padlocked yourself upstairs.” In the end, the strain on the family was too much.

Back in Rhode Island, Carcieri resumed his corporate career, helping Cookson America launch a start-up to produce and market silver bars for investors. By 1991 he’d become president of Cookson America; four years later he became one of two managing directors of the company’s London-based parent, Cookson Group. In 1997, Carcieri’s final year with the company, it posted more than $3 billion in revenue. When he left after being passed over for Cookson Group’s top job, his severance package totaled more than $2.4 million. After leaving Cookson, Carcieri joined charitable boards and became something of a local activist. He doted on his grandchildren and spent time at his Florida condo and at a summer home near the mouth of Narragansett Bay. All the while, he says, he was concerned that the state was drifting along under poor management and that Rhode Island’s reputation for corruption was keeping business away.

In April 2001 Carcieri invited Dave Duffy, an influential player in Rhode Island public-relations circles, to join him for breakfast. Carcieri told Duffy he wanted to run for governor. Duffy nearly swallowed his sausage in shock. As he recovered, he recalls, he realized that Carcieri “was born to do this.” Carcieri, he says, is “the perfect Rhode Island story.”

In the Republican primary Carcieri won two-thirds of the vote, blowing away James Bennett ’79, who’d been endorsed at the state party’s convention. Carcieri, determined to make himself a household name, spent a total of $1.5 million of his own money in the primary and general elections. His message throughout was simple and consistent: his corporate experience uniquely qualified him to steer Rhode Island through rough financial straits.

“When I left Cookson,” he says, “we had 12,000 to 13,000 employees worldwide. We had plants all over the world. Large, complex organizations are something I’m used to. [The public sector’s] a different environment, but the principles are the same. We’re delivering services. We’re doing things. I’m a problem solver. I like to figure out ways to do things differently.”

But with corporate scandals dominating the national headlines, Carcieri’s big-business background also drew criticism. Carcieri’s Democratic opponent, Myrth York, a wealthy liberal lawyer and former state legislator who was running for governor for the third time, aired a series of ads implicating Carcieri in two Cookson controversies: the death of fifteen Brazilian workers at a mine that sold tin to the company and the poisoning of a Philadelphia neighborhood by a factory operated by a Cookson subsidiary. Carcieri dismissed both accusations as desperate distortions. In the end, voters had a hard time seeing Carcieri, with his easy smile and quick laugh, as the embodiment of the greedy corporate CEO. Carcieri prevailed in the general election with 55 percent of the vote—a true upset for a political unknown in a state where only 10 percent of registered voters are Republicans.


CARCIERI HAD POLITICAL CAPITAL to burn when he stepped to the lectern in the colonnaded chamber of the Rhode Island House of Representatives on March 5 to deliver his first annual budget address. After two weeks spent almost entirely on fire-relief efforts, the speech marked a return to the realities of governing.

“It’s kind of crazy what happens,” Carcieri told a friend on the phone one morning in March. “You get inaugurated on the 7th of January. Within a couple of weeks you’ve got the State of the State [address]. And then you have the budget, which is basically put together by the previous administration. What I inherited would blow you away in terms of what we had to do. We had to completely reshape it.”

Faced with a projected deficit of $175 million and a state law requiring a balanced budget, Carcieri would soon be squaring off with some of those who had recently sung his praises. Indeed, key areas Carcieri targeted for savings included groups close to the Democratic-dominated General Assembly. When he proposed requiring state workers and teachers to help shoulder mounting pension costs, for example, he raised the ire of union leaders and teachers who accused him, a former laborer and teacher, of forgetting his roots. When he suggested freezing local school aid, he predictably drew howls from city and town officials, including Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83, who described the budget as “devastating.” Even Carcieri’s proposal to close the deficit with increased income from gambling revenue aroused controversy.

In a move to raise additional dollars and placate local politicians, including Cicilline, Carcieri also proposed a step that alarmed his alma mater: dropping the tax-exempt status of colleges around the state. When the announcement sent university officials scrambling for political leverage, Carcieri responded that he was just trying to promote discussions with the universities—although he then acknowledged that the proposal may have had the opposite effect. “The colleges are starting to prepare for war,” he said, “in the sense of hiring lobbyists, lawyers, and all that. And that’s not what I want.”

At the same time Carcieri has called for new investments in college scholarships, adult literacy, and business-development programs while leaving most social services untouched. “He may have run as a Republican,” says Democratic State Senate president William V. Irons, “but his social agenda doesn’t reflect it. He’s not a Bush Republican. He’s not trying to balance the budget on the backs of working people.” (On other social issues, Carcieri is closer to his national party, but his stands are more Catholic than Republican: he is pro-life, opposes legalizing gay marriage, and disapproves of the death penalty.)

Indeed, Carcieri’s first-year agenda is more modest than the platform on which he campaigned. Any plans for reorganizing state departments were put off until at least next year. “The state’s like a big tanker,” Carcieri says, using his hands to outline a ship’s hull. “You don’t turn a big tanker like that,” he continues, snapping his wrist. “You do it slowly— just start turning it ever so slightly. And that’s about all you can hope for. But it’s those subtle changes in direction that then get multiplied in the future.”

In a move that meshes with his pledge to attract new business to Rhode Island, Carcieri has focused on the state’s reputation for cronyism. This spring he has used his political muscle to lobby for so-called “separation of powers” legislation, which would wrest from the state’s legislative branch some of the overwhelming power granted to it in the Rhode Island Constitution. The legislation, which would also increase the power of the governor, is popular with voters, who have twice backed a nonbinding referendum on the issue. Not surprisingly, some lawmakers are wary of relinquishing power.

How much of Carcieri’s program survives the legislature could largely hinge on how his personality plays around the statehouse. He’s instituted weekly lunch meetings with House and Senate leaders, and in a nod to old-school bipartisan politics, he has attended a fund-raiser for Murphy, the Democratic Speaker of the House. “You learn in life,” Carcieri says, striking a characteristic tone, “that even in a big company you only get things done through other people. The best thing you can do is get people around a table and say, ‘Okay, let’s thrash around the issues.’ ”

The effort appears to be paying off. “There’s been more communication in the eleven weeks we’ve been up here this session than I can recall in the past eight years,” Murphy says. Senate president Irons applauds the Carcieri administration for showing respect for the independence of the Senate. “These guys are get-it-done people,” Irons says. “We will disagree, but the chemistry of trying to accomplish things is just leagues ahead of where it has been.”

In a bid to make himself more accessible to the general public, Carcieri has dedicated an afternoon a month to meeting with constituents. He has also agreed to appear on a local radio show once a month to field questions from listeners. Political gimmicks or not, the moves have helped distinguish Carcieri from his predecessor, Lincoln Almond, who earned the nickname “The Missing Linc” for his low profile and laconic demeanor.

“It’s nice to have a working governor like us,” declared Rhode Island Medical Society president David Ettensohn, introducing Carcieri to a crowd of 700 doctors and nurses who were protesting outside the statehouse on a warm mid-March afternoon.

“He said it, I didn’t,” responded Carcieri, who had been waiting in his office to testify at a House hearing when he decided to go outside and speak to the rally. In his off-the-cuff remarks he thanked the health-care workers for their role in treating victims of the West Warwick fire. Back behind his desk a few minutes later, Carcieri reflected on the scene outside.

“When you see doctors and nurses rallying, you know you’ve got a real problem,” he said, before launching into an analysis of Rhode Island’s health-care system.


WITH THE FIRE INVESTIGATION in the hands of the attorney general’s office and state and local police, Carcieri has more fully immersed himself in the routine of government life. There are meetings to chair, appointments to make, proclamations to sign, dinners to attend. But the fire still crops up in unexpected ways, as it did one March afternoon when, acquiescing to his persistent executive assistant, Catherine Zadorozny, the governor agreed with a shrug and a smile to greet the queen of a local St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“We’re very appreciative of what you’ve done with West Warwick,” the girl’s mother told Carcieri, explaining that her family had known one of the fire victims.

Later Carcieri pawed over papers on his desk as Zadorozny, who’s been with him since his Cookson days, reviewed his schedule for the upcoming week. She reminded him that the one-month anniversary of the fire was only a week away. Carcieri had ordered state flags to resume flying at full staff on that day.

He nodded. “A month,” he said, a slight grimace darkening his face.

Zachary Block is the BAM’s staff writer.
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