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Poor little Rhode Island, maligned but fighting back

By LEON DANIEL, UPI National Reporter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Little Rhody residents feel undercherished by the national press, which can't seem to take seriously a state whose official bird is a chicken.

Rhode Islanders sniffle that the Wall Street Journal kicked sand in their faces this summer. The powerful newspaper described the nation's smallest state as dowdy, industrially stagnant and 'little more than a smudge beside the fast lane to Cape Cod.'

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That wasn't all.

Rhode Island is 'infested with crime and corruption,' the Journal alleged, and the capital city is 'the major base for New England's Mafia.'

'Baloney,' scoffs Ed Beard, a former congressman and proprietor of a blue-collar bar in Central Falls, a square-mile town that is part of the capital's urban sprawl. 'There's no more crime here than in any other state. Organized crime is a national problem, not a Rhode Island problem.'

But most Rhode Islanders probably would agree reluctantly with the Journal, which pointed out that the state's own newspapers 'routinely carry stories about loan-sharking, gambling, extortion and gangland-style murders.'

Before summer ends some 6.5 million tourists will have enjoyed with many of the 958,000 Rhode Islanders such events as the America's Cup yacht races off Newport and the jazz festival in that coastal haven for wealthy.

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The tourist hordes on the expressways zoom right past Cranston Bowl where Al Andreozzi, the manager, said the bowling business is improving slowly.

'A year and a half ago it was a disaster,' said the New Yorker who settled in Providence nine years ago. 'There's a little bit more money flowing now.'

Andreozzi said the recession hit particularly hard in Rhode island, the nation's largest producer of trinket jewelry.

'Jewelry is the last thing people buy when times are hard,' he said.

Rhode Island's 10.2 percent annual average unemployment rate last year was New England's highest. Its textile industry began fading a half century ago. Many of its other businesses are old and uncompetitive.

But Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy is convinced the state's smallness is an advantage. The former beer salesman likes to describe Rhode Island as a 'city-state,' manageable enough because of its size to regain the merchantile and industrial strength it enjoyed until early in the 20th Century. The Governor's Strategic Development Commission is designing an economy it expects to flourish in a future of technological change.

Although it is only 48 miles from top to bottom and 37 miles across at its widest point, Rhode Island is unusually diverse.

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It requires less than an hour to drive from Andreozzi's huge bowling alley in Cranston to Gray's Cash Market in the hamlet of Adamsville, named for John Quincy Adams when he was the third president of the United States.

A plaque at a crossroads adjacent to the country store commemorates the birthplace of 'the Rhode Island Red breed of fowl which originated near this location.'

'I'm slowly going out of business,' grumbled Leonard Waite, 58, owner and proprietor, who blames a new supermarket three miles away for his troubles.

Waite's 80-year-old father-in-law, John Hart, still runs an Adamasville grist mill he hopes some day will attract tourists. The mill grinds the corn meal used to make the johnnycakes Hart has for lunch every day.

Waite said he keeps his store open by selling candy from jars to children and cheese to their parents. The cheese is cheddar which he buys and ages in a cellar under his store. The store's counter is on old marble soda fountain with a spigot that no longer works. Waite uses an old-fashioned electric mixer to whip up frappes and milkshakes.

Waite said government subsidies have hurt his business by driving up cheese prices.

'Now the cheese companies just sell it to the government and take their money and run,' said Waite, whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower.

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Waite, born in his grandfather's house, has never lived anywhere but Adamsville and expects to die there.

'I haven't heard of any place I'd rather live,' said the man who did not think much of the story on Rhode Island the Journal ran in its June 28 edition.

'I'm a swamp yankee,' Waite explained. 'I don't take anybody's word for anything. People around here already know the news. They just buy the local paper to see who got caught.'

Waite's store sells the weekly Sakonnet Times, a recent edition of which carried a letter to the editor from a town councilman who apologized 'to the voters and taxpayers' for his 'lack of knowledge, poor insight, or just plain being stupid' in voting for the current council president.

'I never vote for the same person twice,' said Waite, a staunch Baptist descended from founders of the denomination. 'You've got to keep them on their toes.'

Although he is a conservative Republican, Waite does not agree with President Reagan that economic recovery has begun.

'I don't notice any difference,' he said. 'It never changes around here.'

Next door, at the grist mill, before leaving for his johnny-cake lunch, miller Hart introduced 'the new miller,' Tim McTague, 25.

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'It's an honor to be introduced that way,' said McTague. 'This mill dates from 1877.'

The millwheel was being repaired at a foundry so the millstone was being powered by the engine from a 1946 Dodge truck.

McTague said he feels privileged to live and work in Adamsville in the eastern part of Newport County, which has beaches, woods and rolling farms. During Prohibition, the town near the Massachusetts line was a smuggler's way station.

The rural community, less densely populated than any New England coastal area south of Maine, provides a sharp contrast to the nearby urban areas of Rhode Island, the state second only to New Jersey in population density.

There is nothing pastoral about Rhode Island's political scene.

The statehouse is dominated by blue-collar Democrats who hold 114 of the 150 legislative seats and all major state offices except secretary of state. Republicans, however, hold one of the state's two seats in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

It was the Democrats who sent bar owner Beard, a former house painter, to Congress for three terms.

'This is a state where blue-collar people can make it,' Beard said. 'I was one who did. There's opportunity in this state. Where else could a house painter get elected to Congress? This is a state where just about everybody can say he knows the governor personally.'

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Beard, a Roman Catholic of Irish descent, is proud of the state's diverse ethnic mix.

'There're probably more languages spoken in Providence than in any other city in the United States,' Beard said.

About one-fourth of the 400,000 jobs in Rhode Island are unionized.

The Journal article, written by Staff Reporter Stephen P. Morin - who had worked as a journalist in Rhode Island -- blamed aggressive unions, high taxes and costly energy for what the Conference of State manufactirers' Associations rated as the nation's second-worst business climate, behind Michigan.

'Sure, we've lost some jobs,' Beard conceded, 'but tourism in this state has terrific potential.'

Beard, 45, cashed in his $27,000 congressional pension to make the down payment on 'Batter's Choice,' his bar in Central Falls, the state's poorest town when measured by per capita income.

The tavern is filled with memorabilia from Beard's six-year stint in Washington.

'Sure, I miss it,' acknowledged Beard, who was defeated at the polls in 1980. 'It was a lot better than painting houses.'

He said he earns a 'modest salary' for an organization that raises money for Rhode Island charities.

Beard said he is proud of being listed by U.S. News & World Report in 1975 as 'the poorest congressman.'

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The father of two said he would not discount the possibility of making another run for his old congressional seat.

'An ordinary individual can get to the top politically in this state,' he said. 'We're like a family. There's a lot of love and compassion in Rhode Island.'

Beard said Rhode Island was proud to claim as its own the late Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion.

The Brockton Bomber, the former congressman was reminded, was from neighboring Massachusetts.

Undaunted, Beard said, 'Well, Rocky fought 29 of his fights in Providence.'

In some of those bouts, Marciano was as undermatched as the Journal was when it squared off with Little Rhody, which was sort of like going after a gnat with a baseball bat.

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