Representative Bob Watson looks good, looks healthy. It’s been six months since he entered rehab, a milestone he was happy to note.
“Recovery isn’t counted in days and weeks,” he said during an interview at Felicia’s, “it’s counted in months and years.”
How long it will take Watson to recover from 20 years in the General Assembly is harder to say.
“I’m going to focus on myself and my law practice,” he said, noting he’d spent nearly his entire professional career in the General Assembly. “When I came out of law school, I immediately ran for state Senate.”
The seat in 1988 was open and Watson won. He paints an unrecognizable picture of himself as an first term elected official.
“As a state senator I was wide-eyed. The learning curve was a two-year learning curve,” he said. By the time the next election came along in 1990, he got displaced by then-Town Councilor Mike Lenihan.
He got another bite at the apple in 1992, when he won election to the House District 30 seat he’s held ever since. No more wide-eyed innocence. Watson found his voice and began speaking out. He never stopped.
Watson said he learned from his first stint in the state Senate to follow his instincts.
“When I showed up [in the House], Wayne Salisbury would say, “This is what we’re going to do,” Watson said, referring to the then-House Minority Leader. “I would say, “Ok, here’s what I’m going to do.”
Over the years, some have said Watson hasn’t done much for East Greenwich. By Watson’s way of thinking, that’s a good thing.
“It was not about doing stuff as much as it was about preventing things from being done,” he said. “There were a lot of bad bills that never saw the light of day because I was lying in wait.”
He continued, “Very few people spoke out as I did. And I’m not sure there’s someone left to do that. It certainly was important on 38 Studios, it wasn’t persuasive, but it was important.”
Watson was referring, of course, to his lone opposition to the legislation that enabled Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios’ video-game company to secure a $75 million guaranteed loan from the state.
Watson’s also feeling a degree in satisfaction for having stood with then-Gov. Lincoln Almond in 1995 advocating a plan that would alter the pension plan for all new employees.
“It was very modest, what we were doing,” he said. That proposal didn’t go anywhere. “I stayed in politics to say yet again, ‘I told you so.’ I’m proud of that.”
Things like that “reminded people while I might have had a couple of hiccups in my life I did a lot of good things,” he said.
The “hiccups” have loomed large in the last 15 months.
In April 2011, Watson was pulled over at a sobriety checkpoint in New Haven and was arrested there for DUI and possessing marijuana. Subsequent blood test results showed traces of marijuana and cocaine. His blood alcohol test came back within the legal range. Watson admitted to smoking marijuana occasionally to combat pain from pancreatitis. He denied doing cocaine. That case is pending.
After the arrest, Watson said he had not applied for a medical marijuana card, which makes possession of small amounts of marijuana legal.
As a result of the incident, Watson lost his House Minority Leader status to Brian Newberry.
In January, Watson was arrested a second time, this one in South Kingstown, again for possessing marijuana. Watson pleaded no contest in that instance, receiving a small fine and community service.
He entered a residential rehab program after the second arrest.
“Politics is an alcohol-driven sport,” Watson said during the interview. “There’s an awful lot of substance abuse that permeates politics. Recovery hasn’t been difficult. Recovery has been a blessing. I wish I had focused on it sooner rather than later.”
Watson said he first got interested in politics and government during sixth grade with Mr. McGuire at Eldredge.
Although he said he was a “student of Richard Nixon,” Watson's story of becoming a Republican relies on chance more than anything.
“In 1972, I rode my bicycle to town and went to the campaign headquarters for the Democrats.” In those days, each party had a storefront office on Main Street, he said.
“I asked the Democrats if I could help. They said I could clean up after an event. I went to the Republicans and they needed someone to man the office while others went door-to-door.”
Watson said it was an obvious choice: “Go clean up after the Democrats or go run the Republican Party headquarters on Main Street. That’s how I became a Republican. It’s as simple as that.”
Watson credits the other EG Republican pol, Donald Carcieri, for getting the Separation of Powers bill passed and for the way Carcieri brought the state together in the aftermath of The Station nightclub fire.
But he doesn’t have a lot to say for businessman-politicians.
“Business is top-down management,” he said. “Government is consensus building. A good politician builds consensus. A good politician makes everybody believe that they’re making the decisions … that their agenda is being catered to.”
So what now for one of Rhode Island’s consummate political players?
“I don’t consider my exit from politics as much a retirement as it is a sabbatical,” said Watson. As long as I stay committed and true to my recovery process … I think that I could always provide a positive influence.”