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

Jan 10, 2014

In the astute words of C. Andrew Morse: "In terms of news density, the holidays are over and the new year has definitely arrived." So read on, and welcome back to my weekly column, dear readers. Your thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Let's head in.

1. The Cranston ticket controversy is a prime example of how a busy day job can bog down an officeholder (Cranston Mayor Allan Fung) while his self-employed rival (Ken Block) gains momentum. Not long ago the conventional wisdom was that Block -- who won 6.5 percent of the vote as a Moderate in the 2010 race for governor -- faced an uphill battle in a GOP primary as a Republican convert. Now, the primary looks more competitive. Block has appeared considerably more campaign-focused than Fung in recent weeks, generating a string of minor coups (landing fundraiser Tony Bucci and operative Michael Napolitano, for example, and speaking out this week against violations of the state's Open Meetings Law). Chalk the disparity up largely to the demands of running a city (and Fung got some good news to accompany fallout of the ticket controversy).

2. Ready or not, 2014 will mark the first statewide election in which super PACs could be a significant factor in RI. "This will be interesting, because this is sort of our test run," John Marion, head of Common Cause of Rhode Island, and someone who keeps a close eye on campaign finance issues, said during an appearance on RIPR's Bonus Q+A this week. "I'm not sure what to expect. By one account, Rhode Island is small and cheap; we're a unified media market, so some of these big outside national groups might [think] a 100,000 [dollars] or even a million is a good investment here. On the other hand, we're not a swing state, so we might not see as much of this as we would if we were the color purple." So far, the only super PAC that's signaled plans to play locally in 2014 is the pro-Gina Raimondo effort founded by Kate Coyne-McCoy.

3. Heading into the race for governor, it looked like one of Angel Taveras' advantages would be the array of seasoned operatives salted through his administration. Yet there's been a steady trickle of political talent away from the mayor's team, including senior adviser J.R. Pagliarini; communications director Michael Raia; deputy city solicitor Matt Jerzyk; deputy chief of staff Arianne Lynch; finance director Peter Baptista; and now Marisa O'Gara (leaving as deputy director of community relations to run Jorge Elorza's mayoral campaign) and PR man-strategic consultant Bill Fischer

4. The Chafee administration is still looking for someone to study the pros and cons of paying investors in failed video-game maker 38 Studios. "We are continuing to look for potential academics or professionals that might be interested in conducting the research," says spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger. "We have discussed with some potential vendors." An earlier RFP to conduct a study on paying versus not re-repaying investors in 38 Studios didn't attract any bidders..

5. The next owner of the Providence Journal might want to take some notes from the Morrissey Boulevard headquarters of the Boston Globe. The Globe announced the hire of John L. Allen Jr., the preeminent reporter on all things Vatican. It continues to pursue ambitious reporting on a variety of fronts. And John Henry acknowledges the existential threat facing newspapers when he talks about the need to make the Globe "aggressively relevant."

6. Comings and Goings: Barbara Ann Fenton, Allan Fung's significant other, is taking what she calls a long-planned leave of absence as chairwoman of the RI Young Republicans. Pawtucket GOP chairman Scott Rotondo will step in as interim chair .... Andrew Gernt, the son of lobbyist Wally Gernt, has succeeded Richard Luchette as the DC-based spokesman for Congressman David Cicilline. Cicilline also hired Cumberland native Katie Spoerer, a former aide for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as a scheduler and administrative assistant. Meanwhile, Brown alum Alex Macfarlane, a Utah native, has been promoted from press assistant to deputy communications director.

7. Frank Caprio scored a coup this week in the race for treasurer with the endorsement of Charles Lombardi, the mayor of vote-rich North Providence.

8. Governor Lincoln Chafee remains unbowed as he pursues his last full year in office. Sure, his approval ratings remain poor, RI's unemployment rate remains high, but Chafee asserts his legacy will be a good one. Asked during a recent interview about what he's learned as governor, Chafee touched on "just how stressed-out people are out there, and the smallest issues become big issues, fanned by, I would say, irresponsible media. I think we got distracted over the last three years by issues we should not have focused on." Chafee predicts his department heads will be a big part of his legacy: "You look across all those agencies of state government, you see really good, methodical adherence to high standards, and that's what I think taxpayers want to see."

9. Another campaign finance note from John Marion of Common Cause. Back in 2005, when Common Cause backed a plan to level the playing field of RI elections, then-director Phil West recognized it would take more than four years to move the effort forward (since the General Assembly needs to approve it). Yet the effort is on hold for now, Marion says, due to other US Supreme Court decisions beyond Citizens United. "It's still on the agenda as something we'd like to see," Marion says. "We really have to re-write the bill, which is going to take a couple of years." Meanwhile, as the Center for Responsive Politics reports, millionaires now have the majority in Congress.

10. It seems fitting that Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for national battle on two emblematic issues. For the GOP, Obamacare epitomizes the government's ability to screw up well-intentioned plans at large public expense. And for Democrats, Republican opposition to more money for extended unemployment benefits (a fight led by RI's own Jack Reed) is mean-spirited and shortsighted.

11. Demand Progress, the tech advocacy group led by former state rep David Segal, has hired its first lobbyist. Via Politico: The group has registered its own Nathan White to lobby federal lawmakers, according to filings published late last month. The idea, says Executive Director David Segal, is to “ensure that the grassroots mobilization actually hits — by generating emails to Congressmembers from their constituents, rather than pushing petitions into the void, for instance. And direct lobbying is an important part of that multi-flank strategy that ensures that we have as much impact as possible,” he emailed to MT.The group’s main focus, according to filings, will be NSA reform and the USA Freedom Act. But they’ll continue to address copyright issues, as well as Computer Fraud and Abuse Act reform, which got a sliver of chatter on Capitol Hill last year but has not progressed.

12. Rhode Island's illustrious past keeps turning up. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest effort, includes a mention of how Helen "Nellie" Herron, the future wife of William Howard Taft, came from her native Ohio to visit Narragansett as a youth.