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

Jan 17, 2014

Welcome back to my weekly column. The political year is quickly gaining momentum, so let's head on in. As always feel welcome to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org and to follow me on the twitters.

1. It's just a matter of time until Clay Pell announces a Democratic gubernatorial run, judging by his conversation with me earlier this week. "I want to take action now," Pell said, in explaining why he's focusing on governor rather than a different office. The grandson of the late Senator Claiborne Pell asserted that his experience and values "will be critically important in moving the state forward." Not exactly the tone of someone undecided about a run, eh? While Pell, 32, was fairly broad in exploring his voice as a candidate-in-training, I elicited some additional info on his issue stances. Asked if he would have signed as governor the pension overhaul of 2011, Pell said, "If I had been in that position, I think I might have done things a little bit differently ... I think that [the issues being debated in closed-door, court-ordered mediation] could have been done on the front-end as part of the negotiation to avoid some of the uncertainty we're going through now." Pell was non-committal on whether the state should move to pay back $12.5 million to 38 Studios' investors in 2014, saying that more "outside advice and input on the impacts of our next steps" should first be obtained. On whether Rhode Island should hold a constitutional convention, Pell said it "might be an expense, might be a distraction." Pell, btw, seems to share a touch for the idiosyncratic with his distinguished grandfather; the objects in the East Side home he shares with his wife, former Olympian Michelle Kwan, include a suit of armor.

2. Wednesday's State of the State speech marked the early onset of Chafee nostalgia -- at least in some quarters. House Speaker Gordon Fox said the governor's spending plan was "Chafee-esque," a modifier he defined as a commitment to candor and core beliefs. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed noted how Chafee inherited a dismal economy (few could doubt the governor's approval rating would be far better if he served during better times). The governor himself seemed more relaxed while delivering his address -- unburdened, perhaps, by not having to seek re-election -- and he was received warmly by lawmakers and others. Still, Chafee's budget will face dramatic revision as it moves through the legislative process. The legislative leaders signaled particular concern about four bond questions encompassing $275 million in borrowing and cuts in Medicaid and other social service spending. And though Chafee predicts better days ahead, the governor's critics found his optimism misplaced, considering the state's persistently high unemployment.

3. Quip of the Week: Richard Licht, director of the state Department of Administration, on why the pension mediation is dragging on as long as the Paris Peace Talks: "Well, maybe it's as complicated as the Paris Peace Talks." The next update is January 27.

4. Things are percolating in the race to replace Gina Raimondo as state treasurer. After previously snagging the support of North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, Frank Caprio this week announced the backing of Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena and Johnston Democratic Town Committeeman Richard Delfino. Seth Magaziner fired back Friday afternoon by detailing an impressive campaign team that includes Tad Devine on strategy/messaging; former longtime Patrick Kennedy staffer Kathy Hinckley as campaign treasurer; Andrew Myers on polling/messaging; Brad Dufault and Ray Sullivan on direct mail/media; Katie Nee as senior adviser; and Andrew Sia as finance director. Magaziner's campaign manager is Evan England, who has managed previous runs in Massachusetts, including Suzanne Lee's 2013 Boston City Council campaign. Ernie Almonte rounds out the Democratic field for treasurer.

5. Speaking of Raimondo, her formal gubernatorial campaign launch on Monday signaled several new approaches for the pacesetting fundraiser of the field: 1) not surprisingly (considering the more liberal voting composition of a primary), Raimondo swerved to the left, emphasizing her "progressive" agenda in a news release and touting her support, for example, for driver's licenses for undocumented drivers; 2) The backing of Latinos was highlighted, through the presence on-stage of such elected officials as Grace Diaz and Luis Aponte, and "Latinos for Raimondo" placards; 3) Raimondo's team unveiled a series of social-media initiatives, including a Twitter town hall. Fellow Democrat Angel Taveras kept a lower public profile this week, although his administration touted a budget surplus.

6. It was only a matter of time until the departures start trickling out of ChafeeWorld. Now comes word that the governor's amiable spokeswoman, Christine Hunsinger, has left to pursue the ever-popular "other opportunities." Faye Zuckerman, ex of the ProJo, takes over as director of communications/press secretary. Chafee moved to bolster his press office last week by bringing over an experienced loyalist, Debbie Rich, from the DMV.

7. More Richard Licht, on the race for governor (at 8:16): "Campaigns matter ... A lot of the [past] front-runners at this far out either lost in the primary or lost in the general election. So I don't think it matters what Richard Licht thinks today about the race. I think there's a lot of very strong candidates. But how they run their campaigns is going to make a difference, because they all have the potential to win. They're all smart people, capable people, so it doesn't really matter who's the favorite today."  

8. As a crusading attorney general in New York, Eliot Spitzer has his share of fans among Rhode Island progressives before he crashed amid scandal and ongoing tabloid stories. Add Dawson Hogdson, the Republican hope for attorney general, to admirers of Spitzer's populist approach while in office. As he announced his campaign on Tuesday, Dawson embraced the insurgent role, excoriating, for example, how Moody's Investors Service warned Rhode Island lawmakers not to skip a $2.5 million payment to 38 Studios' investors last year. Asked what he would have done about that as AG, Hodgson said, "Well, to start, you open your mouth, and you tell Moody's that those types of business practices are not tolerated in the state of Rhode Island. We're a sovereign government and our legislators have an obligation to examine all the impacts of their decisions for their people. And they were clearly trying to impact how this legislature was going to approach the initial 2.5 million payment on that bond. Moody's is an organization that plays a role in the financial industry, but has hardly covered itself in glory during the recent financial crisis. And I for one would never allow them to tell me how to serve the best interests of my constituents." When the AP's David Klepper followed up by asking if taking on Moody's was a role for the AG, Hodgson said, "There are many aspects of the career of Eliot Spitzer down in New York I certainly wouldn't agree with, [but] how do you think he would have reacted if they [Moody's] tried that with the State of New York? It would have been a matter of standing up for the people and telling them, 'Those business practices are not permitted here.' and hold them accountable, put them on notice."        

9. Speaking of 38 Studios, a bill to establish a state office of inspector general has languished after being repeatedly introduced for many years. State Representative Larry Valencia (D-Richmond) argues the estimated cost of creating the office ($500,000 to $1 million) would more than pay for itself by rooting out waste and mismanagement. Valencia argues an IG would help to preclude the kind of boondoggles that sometimes take place at the state's many quasi-public agencies, like a squander of $75 million at Resource Recovery a few years ago.

10. The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Justice, a coalition of 17 groups, is set to unveil its legislative agenda at the Statehouse Tuesday, at 3:30 p.m. Planned Parenthood lobbyist Paula Hodges share this word: "We have spent a lot of time over the last year building capacity for the coalition, restructuring, recruiting new members and the National Institute for Reproductive Health is helping to support our capacity building with a 'Strengthen our State' grant in 2014. We have a new logo and brand and will be recruiting future community partners." The move comes as abortion rights have faced new restrictions in many states.

11. While the impact of outside money in Rhode Island elections this year remains to be seen, the New York Times' Nicholas Confessore had a great story last Sunday looking at how Republicans have generally had greater success in flipping statehouses across the nation. You can also hear Confessore talking about his story on NPR's Fresh Air.

12. The ProJo's estimable Bill Malinowksi and I will be on a panel this Monday, January 20, at 1 pm talking with Providence mayoral candidates about nonviolence and making the capital city a safer place. The forum will take place at the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, 265 Oxford St., Providence, and the public is welcome to attend.