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

Jul 18, 2014

There are few places better than Rhode Island in the summer -- and that's doubly true for political junkies thanks to our very busy election season. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column, and feel free to share your tips and thoughts via idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org. You can also follow me all week long on the twitters. Let's get to it.

1. The most unusual moment in Rhode Island Public Radio's Republican gubernatorial debate on Tuesday came when I asked Allan Fung and Ken Block to name the current Rhode Island elected official whom they most admire. "I can't think of one," responded Block, while Fung singled out state Representative Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich), for advocating for small businesses. Even in a state with a meager GOP presence in elected offices, the candidates could have pointed to, say, Republican AG candidate Dawson Hodgson or perhaps House Minority Leader Brian Newberry. Block's campaign told the ProJo he had no regrets, even as state GOP chair Mark Smiley expressed disappointment and Fung's campaign called Block's view "a slap in the face of all Rhode Island Republicans." So was Block exhibiting the candor of a man who looks outside politics for inspiration, exposing a thin skin that would inform his governing style, or doing something else? That debate will continue to play out among the state's tiny GOP voting pool as we race toward the September 9 primary. Meanwhile, if you missed our one-hour debate with Block and Fung, you can listen to it here.

2. The calculus for victory in the Providence mayoral race changed significantly with Lorne Adrain's decision to end to his campaign this week. Speculation continues about whether Republican Dan Harrop will drop out, perhaps setting the stage for a two-man fight with the winner of the Democratic primary featuring top contenders Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley, and Michael Solomon. Some might consider Cianci's take -- that he expected a two-way race all along -- revisionist history. Yet Cianci certainly can't be counted out. For starters, he's more popular on the very important East Side than you might expect. And Cianci also benefits from an unusual quality in electoral politics -- a number of voters familiar with his checkered past consider him a can-do guy in a world of do-nothing pols. As one pro-Cianci Providence voter told me in a story that aired nationally this week on NPR,  "I think everybody in this state's politics is corrupt to begin with, but that's the way of the world."

3. As the voters of Rhode Island's capital wait for the chance to elect the new leader of Providence, it's worth considering the presence of two prominent graybeards: longtime Cianci loyalist Charles Mansolillo is managing Buddy's campaign, and veteran pollster Anthony Pesaturo was on hand when state Rep Ray Hull endorsed Brett Smiley this week ... Elsewhere in the mayor's race, Jorge Elorza unveiled a plan to increase jobs at the Port of Providence, and Michael Solomon picked up an endorsement from UNITE HERE, Local 217, which represents more than 3,500 hotel and food service workers in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

4. Former GOP state Rep Larry Ehrhardt of North Kingstown is endorsing the Democrat who beat him in 2012, Representative Robert Craven, over Craven's Republican challenger in District 32, Sharon Gamba -- and that's sparked a sharp response from House Minority Leader Brian Newberry. In an email this week to friends and former supporters, Ehrhardt praised the direction of the House since Nicholas Mattiello became speaker in March, adding, "Since the last election, I have watched Bob Craven emerge as one of the new leaders of the House. He has often sought my counsel. I have found him open to discussion and that we agree on a number of important issues. While we haven’t always been successful, I believe our voices are being heard more and more. I sincerely believe that Bob’s knowledge, experience, and position make him the best choice to represent House District 32 in the Assembly." Ehrhardt, who defeated Gamba in a GOP primary in 2012, doesn't mention her by name in his email.

Newberry responded to Ehrhardt's backing of Craven with a letter to the editor of the North Kingstown Standard-Times, citing "disappointment and sadness to read that former Rep. Ehrhardt has repudiated every value he stood for during his entire political career simply to pursue a bizarre personal vendetta against his former protégé Sharon Gamba by endorsing her Democratic opponent. One never knows what personal demons motivate individual acts but in this case it seems a classic case of a once great pitcher who has lost his fastball. To be clear, I strongly endorse Sharon Gamba for the traditionally Republican House 32 seat. No one will work harder on behalf of the people of North Kingstown to fight for lower taxes, less regulation and more individual freedom at the State House. In his email message former Rep. Ehrhardt notes that the new Speaker of the House has taken the body in a more conservative direction that he approves of. He fails to note that it was the votes of the House Republican caucus that put the new Speaker over the top and if the residents of District 32 are interested in continuing to see the House move in a more conservative, taxpayer friendly direction the best way to do that is elect more Republicans to office. With such a lopsided majority already the last thing Rhode Island needs is more Democrats in the General Assembly regardless of their personal qualities."

Ehrhardt responded to Newberry's response by invoking the pending elimination of the master lever, asserting individual candidates are more important than blind party allegiance. Ehrhardt says Newberry and he haven't spoken in more than two years, adding, "It takes two people to make an argument." Furthermore, says Ehrhardt via email, "Given the level of dysfunction demonstrated by the House Republican caucus this past session, under Mr. Newberry's leadership I might add, it is hard to believe that any Republican in such an environment can get anything accomplished short of securing fancy titles for themselves. (BTW, Mr. Newberry claims his six votes gave Speaker Mattiello the winning margin in the Speaker’s race. The actual vote was 61 to 6, plenty of room to spare!)"

5. As expected, the Democratic primary has taken a sharper turn, with Angel Taveras using Wall Street to rap Gina Raimondo, and Raimondo arguing that Taveras's Providence pension changes were "easy" compared with the state pension overhaul she championed in 2011. Other current and likely future lines of attack include issues involving campaign contributors and Providence, including schools and crime. So what sticks? Is there the campaign commercial equivalent of a killer app that tilts the balance in the final stage of the race, or just more repetition of familiar themes? UPDATE: Now comes Gina with the first attack spot: "Angel's not a bad guy," but you shouldn't vote for him.

5. Kara Sundlun's book about her late father, former governor Bruce Sundlun, "Finding Dad: From 'Love Child' to Daughter," is set for release November 11. Rhode Island politicos of a certain age will recall how the story of Sundlun's "love child" was once sent up at the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies as "Gov Child," sung to the tune of a song by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

6. The Summit Neighborhood Association has a candidates' forum slated for 7-9 pm Tuesday, July 22, at Summit Commons, 99 Hillside Avenue in Providence, with Democratic candidates for mayor (Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley, Michael Solomon and Christopher Young. Reinaldo Catone has been invited, the association says) and state rep in House District 4 (Aaron Regunberg, Miriam Ross, and Heather Tow-Yick).

7. Jack Reed's hold on what has been called the safest Democratic seat in the Senate stands in contrast to the outlook for the rest of the exclusive 100-member chamber. The Washington Post this week estimated Republicans have an 86 percent chance of retaking the Senate. Yet Nate Silver and some other analysts say the outlook is far less certain (even though he gives the GOP an edge). Hanging in the balance is whether Reed moves up (after winning re-election) to a powerful committee chairmanship.

8. If you want a reminder of how politics makes strange bedfellows, consider this: back in 2006, Senate Minority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky headlined a Hotel Providence fundraiser for Lincoln Chafee (a Republican senator at the time), as Chafee tried, unsuccessfully, to repulse a challenge from Sheldon Whitehouse. Now, supporters of reproductive rights -- a stance supported by Chafee -- are airing a spot against McConnell.

9. Are aging boomers the explanation for the shrinking size of the US labor force?

10. Listen to Matt Fecteau, David Cicilline's Democratic challenger, on RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A.

11. Via Esquire: "Reviled, pit bulls have become representative. There is no other dog that figures as often in the national narrative—no other dog as vilified on the evening news, no other dog as defended on television programs, no other dog as mythologized by both its enemies and its advocates, no other dog as discriminated against, no other dog as wantonly bred, no other dog as frequently abused, no other dog as promiscuously abandoned, no other dog as likely to end up in an animal shelter, no other dog as likely to be rescued, no other dog as likely to be killed. In a way, the pit bull has become the only American dog, because it is the only American dog that has become an American metaphor—and the only American dog that people bother to name."

12. A program note: TGIF is taking a stay-cation. See you in August.