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

May 2, 2014

A hint of summer in the air as we tap away this afternoon, so welcome back to my Friday column, where your tips and thoughts are always welcome via idonnis (at) ripr (dot). You can follow my news and notes through the week via the twitters. Here we go.

1. One after another, one state rep after another stood in the House chamber Thursday to second a bill introduced by Representative Joe Shekarchi (D-Warwick) to eliminate the use this year of the master lever. The abundance of unanimity was striking, considering how a vote to kill straight ticket voting never even got out of committee before earlier this week. Yet success has many fathers, as the saying goes, and failure is an orphan -- so some reps relished the good government moment while others toasted the leadership of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Still others predicted that wiping out the master lever -- assuming the state Senate signs on -- will have little or no effect on Rhode Island elections. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) could be right in asserting that straight ticket causes unnecessary confusion and unexpected outcomes, particularly in down-ballot local elections. There's merit, too, in showing how Rhode Island can overcomes its institutional inertia. Still, it's worth noting how the number of Republican reps in the House has dropped over the last 10 years from 15 to 6, and that's certainly not due to the master lever. So eliminating straight ticket voting could have more than symbolic purpose; it would also remove an excuse for why the RI GOP has failed to muster itself as an effective opposition party in the General Assembly.

2. Fundraising in the race for governor is fast approaching a collective $10 million, as the AP's Michelle Smith reported this week, and we've still got a long way to go. It's just a matter of time under the first candidate goes on the air -- probably the deep-pocketed Gina Raimondo -- probably with a warm and fuzzy biographical spot. TV stations love the ad revenue from camapign spots, even as overall political coverage on television has diminished over time, in part due to the rise of rival media such as cable and the Internet.

3. As the perceived front-runner in the race for mayor of Providence, Michael Solomon could also become the focus of criticism from other candidates. Yet the dynamic of the campaign is certain to change dramatically if and when 73-year-old Buddy Cianci gets into the race (he tells me he's leaning toward running). For starters, the race would change from an interesting yet relatively low-profile municipal affair to a broader referendum on Rhode Islanders and their tolerance for ethically challenged politicians. With Cianci in the fight, the mayoral campaign would attract much more media attention (including from out-of-town reporters), competing with the governor's race for attention (and sucking additional oxygen away from other down-ballot matchups). Although the other candidates are loath to acknowledge it, the specter of Cianci hovers over the mayoral landscape, perhaps keeping in a candidate or candidates who might otherwise fold their tents. The ultimate impact of a Cianci campaign remains up for debate. At minimum, however, it would seem likely to shift the target from Solomon's perceived front-runner status to the question of the relative worthiness of a third Cianci installment at City Hall.

4. Best wishes to the ProJo's Felice J. Freyer as she gets ready to cover healthcare at the Boston Globe. As I note in this post, Freyer will join a number of fellow ProJo alums, including Mark Arsenault, Cynthia Needham, Jon Saltzman, and Chris Rowland. Felice says A.H Belo's looming sale of the ProJo didn't precipitate the change; rather, she was recruited by the Globe's science and health editor, who raved about the other former Journal reporters who've come to the Massachusetts newspaper. The moving on of ProJo staffers to bigger and better places isn't unusual. The thing that's changed, however, is how the paper has done precious little new hiring to replace departing staffers over the last 14 or so years. Fortunately, though, the Journal intends to fill Phil Marcelo's former spot in the Statehouse bureau.

5. In other media news, let's offer a warm Rhode Island welcome to Jennifer McDermott, who's joining the Providence bureau of The Associated Press. As described in this AP report on her hire, McDermott has shown quite the nose for news while covering the military beat for The Day in southeastern Connecticut.

6. Newport environmental activist Lauren Carson has announced her plans to challenge state Representative Peter Martin (D-Newport) in the September 9 primary. Carson works for Clean Water Action and has been appointed to the 2014 Newport Charter Review Commission and the Newport Energy and Environment Commission. In her announcement, she says, "My years of experience as civic
leader, small business owner and community advocate in Newport have prepared me
for this next step of trying to serve the citizens of Newport and Rhode Island.”

7. Democrats running for state and federal office are set to make individual presentations of up to 5:30 to state committee members, from 6-9 pm, on Tuesday, May 27, at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

8. After we last week noted (#9) the number of long-shot challengers running this year for Congress, Katherine Gregg offered a reminder on the standout counter-example in recent Rhode Island political history: Republican Ron Machtley's stunning 1988 upset of House Banking Chairman Fernand St Germain, the 28-year Democratic congressman from Woonsocket. As a classic 1988 story by former ProJo reporter Kevin Sullivan recounts, Machtley was fortunate: his top GOP rival John Holmes had to leave the primary race due to a paperwork problem, and a hurtful ethics disclosure about St Germain broke right before the election. Yet Machtley's upset victory also offers some tips for latter-day insurgent candidates, including the importance of organization, the need for a compelling message, and the usefulness of some catchy schtick; Machtley used a pig called Les Pork to criticize St Germain over pork barrel spending.

9. Count some voting-rights oriented Democrats unimpressed with this week's House vote to eliminate the master lever. The Washington Post's Jaime Fuller touched on the reasoning in recently explaining why voting rights is Democrats' most important project in 2014. Excerpt: "This is a long-term project, which is why the Democrats have been so busy organizing these efforts and asking party leaders to talk about voting rights at the exact moment when the country is reminiscing about the last time we had a concerted push for expanding the vote. If Democrats can get more voters to register and manage to prevent more restrictive voting legislation, they figure they'll be one step ahead in the next presidential election. And in 2018. And in 2020."

10. While we're waiting for the local air war to begin, watch what many people are calling the best political commercial of 2014, this emotionally powerful spot by Dr. Monica Wehby, a Republican US Senate candidate in Oregon.

11. Here's a really good read from East Side Monthly: eight observers of Providence, including Clay Rockefeller, Frank Shea, Cliff Wood, Michael Riley, Ray Watson, and Kari Lang, offer their thoughts on what Rhode Island's capital city needs from its next mayor.

12. The one step forward, two steps back mode of the early season 2014 Red Sox doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence, even if the 162-game season remains more of a marathon than a sprint. Of course, with the Sox having done the once-inconceivable by winning three World Series championships since 2004, Boston is doing something right. Bloomberg Businessweek has a lengthy look at principal owner John Henry and the building of a Sox dynasty.