Lots of pushback to Joe Nocera’s ALEC-in-Woonsocket column

Rhode Islanders who picked up their New York Times this morning probably did a double take when they reached the op-ed page and saw Providence native Joe Nocera’s column blaming the American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – for Woonsocket’s plight. Nocera picked up the theme from former WPRO reporter Bob Plain, who’s been covering Woonsocket for liberal blog Rhode Island’s Future.

But as Plain admitted Tuesday, his case for linking ALEC and Woonsocket is based solely on “enough circumstantial evidence to at least raise the question.” And Providence Phoenix editor David Scharfenberg, who previously looked into whether ALEC was behind Rhode Island’s voter ID law, is unconvinced:

[P]laying the ALEC card seems a bit cheap here. Brien is an unabashed conservative, with or without ALEC. And while the group may provide the legislator with a bit of intellectual succor, there’s no evidence to suggest it had anything to do with Brien’s decisionmaking on Woonsocket’s finances.

Josh Barro, now writing for Bloomberg View, says Nocera hasn’t done his homework:

The truth is that Woonsocket is the most indebted municipality in Rhode Island, relative to its property tax base, and a majority of its debts are related to pension and health benefits for municipal retirees. …

Whatever happens in Woonsocket, there will be a lot of hard choices made and pain experienced. Defenders of the public employee compensation status quo desperately wish that weren’t the case, and that Woonsocket’s troubles were simply invented or created by ideologically-driven conservatives. As actual lawmakers in Rhode Island — most of them Democrats – are learning, the situation isn’t nearly that simple.

Substance aside, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis adds a shrewd meta observation from the media-critic perspective: “This is further evidence that Plain has energized the liberal blog in a way not seen since the era of its founder, Matt Jerzyk.”

• Related: Q&A with NYT’s Nocera on paywalls, Providence and CEO pay (April 11, 2011)

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