TGIF: 12 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics + Media

Nov 22, 2013

Welcome back to my Friday column, and thanks for stopping by. As always, feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Let's get going:

1. Holiday parties, good cheer, and scattered early workday departures will mark the holiday lull between Thanksgiving and New Year's. But make no mistake: a full plate of highly charged issues looms for the General Assembly as it prepares to meet in the blockbuster election year of 2014. The fate of the 2011 pension overhaul tops the list. "Status quo" was the word from the latest update this week for Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft Carter, who sent the two sides in the pension dispute to mediation last December. The expectation is that some kind of conclusion will emerge before long, and in theory at least, a wide variety of changes are possible once that football gets tossed to the General Assembly. The pension isn't the only thorny subject. Amid lingering upset over the 10-cent toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge, a legislative commission on East Bay Bridges faces a January deadline for reporting its findings; a $149 million deficit looms for the budget year starting July 1, 2014; there's more bad news on unemployment; and the long shadow of 38 Studios (see item 2).

2. To the surprise of no one, legislative leaders aren't rushing to embrace state Senator Dawson Hodgson's plan to seek an independent commission to investigate 38 Studios. Through his spokesman, House Speaker Gordon Fox declined comment on the topic; multiple requests failed to elicit a response from the office of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. Hodgson hopes to mount a GOP challenge to Democratic AG Peter Kilmartin next year, and some may discern a political connection in the legislation; yet there's a potent rejoinder in how the failure of 38 Studios left taxpayers on the hook for about $90 million. Republicans have already emerged as the sharpest critics of repaying bondholders. Regardless of the outlook for Hodgson's bill, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry thinks 38 Studios is a political winner for the GOP, in large part since lawmakers have to sign off on a payment to bondholders of $12.5 million -- up from $2.5 million in 2013 -- and will need to do likewise for a number of future years. "That vote, however it comes down, should be a central issue in the 2014 campaign both for GA seats and for the governor’s race," Newberry says. Like Hodgson, Newberry cites a need to answer lingering questions about how the deal for 38 Studios came together and the extent of legislative involvement. "The House should investigate itself and uncover what happened, who was responsible and why," he says. (For his part, Fox has denied that the EDC's job-creation program was expanded specifically for 38 Studios.) Meanwhile, Governor Lincoln Chafee is "generally supportive of the idea of an investigation so long as it does not interfere with the State’s ability to recoup money in the current litigation" over 38 Studios, according to spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger.

3. The WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released this week had something for everything: Angel Taveras' camp can claim a reset after a few tough weeks inside the mayor's inner circle; Gina Raimondo can argue she's within striking distance without having even gone on the air; Republican Allan Fung is lurking in the wings, waiting for the Democrats to bloody one another; the lack of recognition for Clay Pell and Ken Block shows room to grow, and so on. Still, the biggest takeaway is the most simple: RI's 2014 race for governor is up for grabs.

4. If it's better to be lucky than good, then Rhode Island's seeming non-policy on responding to the casino threat from Massachusetts continues to serve the Ocean State well. In the latest in a series of casino setbacks, voters in not-too-distant Milford this week rejected a proposal backed by Foxwoods (even though supporters outspent opponents by the staggering margin of 33-1). Gambling remains Rhode Island's third-largest revenue source, after the income and sales tax. Bay State voters have proven quite reluctant to sign off on casinos. Yet expecting Rhode Island's gambling stream to stay unaffected in the future remains a roll of the dice. 

5. Could Jorge Elorza emerge as the Bill de Blasio or Martin Walsh of Providence politics? It seems like he wants to, judging by Elorza's emphasis during his formal campaign launch on Monday. The son of Guatemalan immigrants emphasized how his family sacrificed so he could move ahead. He said his upbringing in the West End makes him authentic. Naturally, Elorza also touted his past efforts as a Providence Housing Court judge. Yet Elorza, when asked, says it's for voters to decide if he's the top progressive in the race.

6. The sharp-eyed Jon Pincince noted how Lorne Adrain wants to be mayor not just for one term, but two. "I want to fully engage in the hard but necessary work of forging a better direction for Providence over the next 8 years," Adrain says on his campaign Web site. The two-term pitch is a marked contrast to how Angel Taveras is shooting for governor after just one term. Imagine the personal ad: "NE city with broad swaths of poverty, high taxes, troubled schools and considerable charm nonetheless seeks LTR with competent chief executive." So do the other mayoral hopefuls (including Michael Solomon, Brett Smiley, Elorza, and probably John Lombardi) take up the two-term idea? And if so, does it resonate with enough voters to make a difference?

7. RIPR's Catherine Welch was among the first reporters to pick up on how Alex and Ani's Carolyn Rafaelian was seeking an EDC grant to make Belcourt Castle in Newport more eco-friendly. The request for $18,500 was dropped after the story blew up.

8. ICYMI: the young founders of Snapchat rejected a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook. Three Billion! Business Insider has a solid read on how the company will make money by deleting data.

9. Props to WPRI's Ted Nesi and Tim White for an impressive data-dive on the performance of RI's local pension plans. As Ted tweeted, municipalities should be posting this performance info as a matter of course on their own local Web sites.

10. Best wishes to Congressman David Cicilline's hard-working DC-based spokesman, Rich Luchette, who's taking on a new gig as deputy communications director for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. Fitzgerald, a Democrat, is expected to run against John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, next year.

11. Governor Lincoln Chafee uses an impeccable source whenever he needs to do a microphone check: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address. Lincoln knew the power of economy; the speech checks in at a super-modest 272 words. The Gettysburg address marked its 150th anniversary this week. For some thoughts on how the media would greet the speech today, read PR man David Preston's take.

12. Good news for fans of Lombardi's 1025 Club, the scene of countless political events in Johnston over the years. The cost of adapting to new fire standards was cited as the explanation when the 1025 Club closed a few years ago. But now the Lombardis are back with a new takeout and catering operation, located at 1031 Plainfield Street. TGIF culinary correspondent M. Charles Bakst sampled the 1025's chicken escarole soup, roast chicken, roast potatoes and pasta sauce ($18 for the whole bit). "It was terrific," Bakst reports.