TGIF: 11 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jun 13, 2014

Welcome back to my Friday column. The news keeps coming fast and furious, from near and far, although the local pace is bound to include just a few more leisure moments with the approach of summer. Feel free to share your tips and thoughts at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.  

1. In previewing the House budget for lawmakers on Tuesday Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he had received only positive feedback about it -- and he was particularly psyched about this ProJo editorial. Yet groups as different as the liberal Center for Economic Progress and conservative Center for Freedom and Prosperity already rapped the spending before reps sat down for the marathon budget debate Thursday. As expected, all the elements of the $8.7 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 passed by overwhelming margins. Yet debate will continue about whether the budget sets the stage for economic growth (the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce says it does) or doesn't fundamentally challenge growing state spending and ominous structural deficits ...  

2. The debate on that question is playing out even within the tiny 6-member Republican faction in the House of Representatives. House Minority Whip Joseph Trillo of Warwick heaped praise on both the budget and Mattiello's leadership style. Trillo said his "yes" vote for the House spending plan marked the first he's backed the budget in his 13 years in the chamber. But Representative Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) sounded a persistent alarm about what she called runaway spending. "We should not be finding other fees and other sources of revenue and other taxes. We’ve got an $8.7 billion budget," Morgan said at one point in the budget debate, during discussion about a new approach to collecting online taxes. "We should be streamlining government and finding effective ways to run it, so that we don’t have to keep going back to people and nickeling and diming them to death. I constantly hear the argument, oh, it's only 8 bucks, oh, it's only 90 bucks, oh, it's only 126 bucks. You know, after a while that becomes real money."

3. Despite the best efforts of Tim White, Ted Nesi, and Ed Fitzpatrick, Tuesday's WPRI/Providence Journal Democratic gubernatorial debate was pretty much what you'd expect going in: Clay Pell was more assertive, while front runners Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras generally played it safe. (Pell has since joined his two rivals by airing his first commercial of the campaign.) Yet this coming Tuesday's tilt between Republicans Allan Fung and Ken Block promises to be far more riveting. The GOP side of the governor's race has gotten chippy in a hurry, with Block waging an aggressive run and Fung doubling down on any and all attempts to link Block with President Obama (even going so far as to assert in a news release that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's upset loss is bad for Block). So the fireworks seem certain to fly at PPAC between the two RI Republicans.

4. You could be forgiven if you thought it was dump on Rhode Island week. Aaron Renn had a long piece in City Journal with the sub-headline, "Decades of liberal policies have made Rhode Island the nation's basket case. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe's excellent Kevin Cullen launched into a column with this observation, "If political corruption were an Olympic sport, there would be more gold in Rhode Island than Fort Knox." There are problems with each of these premises. Renn is spot-on in identifying the Ocean State's prolonged economic miasma and some of its ingredients, although the ruling ethos of legislative Democrats is far from liberal (consider voter ID and consternation in the left press about the statewide cap on the minimum wage). Renn notes, too, how large swaths of Massachusetts and Connecticut share RI's economic blues. Meanwhile, trying to brand Rhode Island as outlier on corruption might make good copy, but it's problematic coming from a Bay Stater (great headline on this Ed Fitzpatrick column) when the last three House speakers in Massachusetts have gotten jammed up. Ultimately, though, Rhode Island's problems are all too real, and there's not been a whole lot of progress since I penned this piece in 2008.

5. With Buddy Cianci hovering over the Providence mayoral race, talk has slowly been building about an Anybody But Buddy movement. The thinking is that shrinking the Democratic field would put a victory out of reach for Cianci. The thing is, though, that none of the current candidates show any interest in taking themselves out of contention.

6. The dream of restoring local ownership for the Providence Journal appears to be just that -- a dream -- based on GoLocalProv's report that GateHouse Media is closing in on the ProJo.

7. State Representative Jay O'Grady (D-Lincoln) has decided to seek re-election in District 46. He says he's pleased to help make a partial re-start of the historic tax credit program, the Made in RI manufacturing program and the infrastructure funding plan included in the House budget. O'Grady says his future priorities include examining the funding formula for local school districts. Republican Matthew Guerra is also running in District 46.

8. Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley is getting props for his new commercial, from both the mainstream and gay media. One of the latter says the spot "fits in with a growing trend of LGBT politicians telling personal stories, along with family members." More significantly, the buzz is helping Smiley with the goal of raising his profile in a crowded Democratic field. Yet Michael Solomon is also up on TV, and Jorge Elorza's campaign plans to roll out its "video strategy" in the coming weeks. Lorne Adrain's campaign declined comment on its plans.

9. With the prisoner trade that brought Bowe Bergdahl back to the US emerging as a cause celebre among some partisans, you'd never think that a US president (let alone a Republican icon) would trade weapons to a fundamentalist regime in Iran, right?

10. A Star is Born: State Representative Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) was a veritable quote machine during the House budget debate, scoring a hat trick of memorable phrases. First, he called Rhode Island "a pimple on the behind of some bigger states." He talked about how, "If you're going to eat an elephant, you've got to start with one bite." And then Giarrusso asked, "why be in poor little Rhode Island when you light your cigars with $100 bills?" Perhaps Giarrusso's quip-worthiness shouldn't be a surprise since he hails from the district once represented by another memorable talker, former House minority leader Robert Watson.

11. Rhode Island native Wylie Dusfrene is closing his landmark New York restaurant WD-40 -- a development considered by some NYC foodies "the loss of a history-making culinary laboratory," as the New York Times put it. As I learned from Rudy Cheeks, Dusfrene is the son of Dewey Dusfrene, once considered Providence's leading hipster and the proprietor of Joe's sandwiches on Benefit Street, the precursor to Geoff's. I got the news about WD-40 from Paul Grimaldi, and join him in hoping that Dusfrene sets a course back to Little Rhody.