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

May 16, 2014

Thanks for stopping by for my Friday column. You can follow me through the week on the twitters and your thoughts and feedback are welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org. Let's head in.

1. With time ticking down to the end of the legislative session, the debate over repaying 38 Studios bondholders is turning red hot. The stakes are higher since the size of the next payment is more than $12 million, up from $2.5 million. But did the back and forth have to come down to the waning months of the legislative session? Of course not. On Thursday, Robert Cusack of WhaleRock Point Partners told the House Oversight Committee he last year advised lawmakers on how they could assess the 'knowable" impact of not paying back the 38 Studios money. The difference is the fall from power in March of former House Speaker Gordon Fox. That explains why a vivid scene played out during Thursday's House Oversight meeting. Cusack, Gary Sasse and Leonard Lardaro spoke in detailed technical terms about markets and municipal finance. Some Oversight members responded by acknowledging their own lack of fiscal know-how or suggesting how Rhode Island might be seen as heroic if it stood up to Wall Street rating agencies and other powerful interests. The lawmakers acknowledged the frustration of their constituents over 38 Studios. State Rep Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) invoked the Bible, saying, "We can't be loved if we don't love ourselves." And so the debate continues as the lawmakers head closer to a vote on the 38 Studios money.

2. With Buddy Cianci looming on the periphery of the Providence race for mayor, Providence City Council Michael Solomon is buttressing the strong foundation for his run by bringing in two experienced operatives -- Jake Bissaillon as campaign manager, and PR man/consultant Bill Fischer as campaign spokesman. Bissaillon served as the council's chief of staff before leaving to devote more time to his classes at Roger Williams University Law School; he managed Steven Costantino's 2010 mayoral run and previously worked at Vision Strategies, the precursor to Fischer's True North Communications. Fischer has a long resume as an operative, with his most recent campaign work coming as the former spokesman for Clay Pell's gubernatorial campaign.

3. Although URI economics professor Leonard Lardaro is known for his caustic (and some would say entirely appropriate) critiques of policy-making in Rhode Island, he offered a refresher Thursday for the House Oversight Committee. Lardaro indicted the 38 Studios debacle as a symptom of the state's tendency toward parochialism and myopia -- "paro-pic" thinking in his coinage. He went on to warn that an adverse ruling in the pension case and shrinking gambling revenue (due to increased competition from Massachusetts) could make things even worse. (Although Lardaro was sharply skeptical of sJ Advisors' prediction that Rhode Island's credit will sink to junk bond status if it doesn't pay the 38 Studios money, he said not paying would reinforce negative perceptions of the state.) It's worth keeping Lardaro's tough talk in mind, in part since he said back in 2008 that Rhode Island was past the point where it could solve its own problems.

4. Thought Question: with Governor Lincoln Chafee in lame-duck mode, the race for mayor of Providence up in the air, a series of thorny issues facing the General Assembly, and the campaign for governor up for grabs, does anything of actual substance in the state get done before next January?

5. Congrats and welcome to the ProJo's new Statehouse reporter, Jennifer Bogdan, who is coming from the Atlantic City Press in New Jersey to fill the vacancy created by Phil Marcelo's departure. Meanwhile, up in Boston, the Globe has in recent times hired the likes of Felice Freyer and John L. Allen Jr., brought back the estimable Walter Robinson, done up-to-the-moment online presentations of superb reporting (by ex-ProJoer Jon Saltzman), and has an owner who talks about the need to be "aggressively relevant." One hopes the ProJo can find its way back to enhanced dynamism when it has new ownership.

6. Don't look now, but Aereo -- whose disruptive technology (it allows users to watch live TV online) is the subject of a case in the US Supreme Court -- is signing up people in Providence.

7. The race for attorney general Democrat Peter Kilmartin and Republican Dawson Hodgson highlights some sharp contrasts. Hodgson says the state deal to buy power from Deepwater Wind is way too costly, while Kilmartin defends it as part of a move to renewable forms of energy. The two candidates couldn't be farther apart in how they discuss warnings to Rhode Island lawmakers from rating agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poors. In view of the shot across the bow this week from S&P, House Republican leader Brian Newberry and Democratic power broker Robert Walsh each detected a whiff of extortion. That corresponds with Hodgson's view of Moody's warning to RI lawmakers last year not to default on the 38 Studios' money. When he announced his AG campaign in January (see #8), Hodgson said fighting back "would have been a matter of standing up for the people and telling [Moody's], 'Those business practices are not permitted here.' and hold them accountable, put them on notice." Kilmartin offered his view during an appearance on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. Asked if he had a problem with the rating agencies' warnings, Kilmartin said, "It's an opinion, and I don't know what action anyone can take against someone for an opinion."

8. In a bid to outdo one another, Republican gubernatorial candidates Ken Block and Allan Fung are embracing the insurgent role on 38 Studios. Block this week vowed to discontinue the use of moral obligation bonds if he's elected governor. Fung used a statement to pose a series of questions to Governor Chafee, including whether Chafee will pledge to withhold payments without a thorough investigation of how the deal came together. The stance against repayment contrasts the Republicans with their Democratic counterparts; Chafee also offered a favor for the two GOPers by calling them unfit for office; That's probably music to the ears of the conservative faithful.

9. When a panel led by former ProJo reporter Arthur Gregg Sulzberger recently completed a so-called "innovation report" for the New York Times, there was no indication that the Times was on the brink of a big change. Now, though, Jill Abramson is out as the paper's top editor, and the change has obsessed media types. FWIW: the last major change involving a high-ranking woman at the NYT also had an RI connection.

10. Check our Paying For It, the five-part series by RIPR morning anchor/education reporter Elisabeth Harrison, on the cost of college debt.

11. Here's something different: Providence teacher and writer Kate Schapira plans to offer counseling on climate anxiety (or other issues) Tuesday though Saturday afternoons, through June 7, from a homemade booth near Burnside Park. She cites as her model Lucy from Peanuts and plans to contribute her five-cent charges to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island.

12. House District 4 candidate Aaron Regunberg has picked up an endorsement from ex-rep Linda Kushner.

12. Track 84 in Warwick is one of Rhode Island's truly great beer bars, with a remarkable selection and a zealous interest in the craft of brewing. There's a benefit there this Sunday, May 18, from 2-6 pm, to help out proprietor Dave as he wrestles with some health challenges.