TGIF: 14 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics + Media

Mar 29, 2013

Welcome back to my weekly column. Spring is starting to pop, and there's never a shortage of news hereabouts, so let's get to it. As always, your thoughts and tips are welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org.

1. Advocates are making a full-court press to get the General Assembly to approve same-sex marriage precisely because they believe victory is within their grasp. Christopher Plante of the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island thinks Senate Judiciary won't pass the bill backed by same-sex marriage supporters.  Yet Rhode Islanders United for Marriage says it has generated more than 1000 volunteer shifts and stimulated more than 8500 telephone conversations since January. As I describe in my RINPR feature on the grassroots battle for and against same-sex marriage, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage sends volunteers door-knocking in search of support four to five nights per week. The group has backing from Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Coalition, the Gill Foundation, and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, experienced staffers (Ray Sullivan, Devin Driscoll, and David Turley, among others), and volunteer organizers like Patrick Crowley, the political director for the National Education Association RI. On the other side of the issue, evangelical pastors have been able to mobilize crowds of opponents at the Statehouse, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence (and its RI Catholic Conference) remains influential. Plante says opponents have their own grassroots campaign to push back, for example, against Senator Lou Raptakis' evolution in favor of a full Senate debate on same-sex marriage.

2. There continues to be much back and forth among insiders about who will be the East Side establishment candidate for mayor of Providence in 2014, when Angel Taveras is expected to seek the governor's office. Talk of late has focused on House Speaker Gordon Fox, three-time gubernatorial candidate Myrth York, and Housing Court judge Jorge Elorza. Fox lost one precinct in his re-election win last year, and challenger Mark Binder has continued to lob periodic rhetorical bombs at the speaker. A decade has passed since York's last run for office, but she maintains close ties with the East Side establishment. Elorza, meanwhile, has used board positions on the Rhode Island Foundation and the Miriam Hospital to build significant relationships on the East Side. So while Council President Michael Solomon hopes to be the institutional heir-apparent at City Hall, the clear inference is that he has yet to come remotely close to closing the deal with the politically vital East Side.

3. In February, it was clear that Senator Jack Reed was heading into 2014 in enviable shape -- and things have only gotten better for Rhode Island's senior senator since then. Reed emerged as the next in line to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee when Carl Levin announced retirement plans in March. Reed is also potentially poised to head Senate Banking with the retirement announced this week by Tim Johnson, although the conventional wisdom is that Reed -- a West Point grad and former Army Ranger -- would prefer Armed Services (the senator hasn't publicly commented on the question). Meanwhile, there could also be a big game of musical chairs with subcommittee slots on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Reed, already a member of the committee, could move up, thanks to the pending departures of Johnson and Tom Harkin.

4. On the opposite end of the seniority stick is Congressman Joseph P.  Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who, despite his famous family legacy, is virtually powerless as a freshman member of the House minority. That lack of standing for Bay State pols is magnified by the death of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry's move to Secretary of State, and the pending retirement of Tom Menino after a remarkable 20 years as the mayor of Boston. Kennedy, who bears a resemblance to his grandfather, Robert Kennedy, holds out hope as a freshman legislator that personal relationships will help to lessen gridlock. During a taping Friday of WPRI/WNAC-TV's Newsmakers, the former Massachusetts prosecutor discussed a range of subjects. He defended the Citizens Energy dealings of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy II, with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, asserting that Citgo was the only big oil company willing to aid struggling Bay Staters. Plans for casinos -- like one targeted in his district by the Mashpee Wampanoags -- should rise or fall, he says, based on local community support. Kennedy dodged when asked if his cousin, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, may one day seek elective office in his current home of New Jersey.  

5. Among the past or present mayors who may run for governor next year, Cranston's Allan Fung offers a clear contrast as the only one who opposes same-sex marriage. "I support civil unions but not same sex marriage," he tells me via email.  "I believe in this for both the traditionalist definition of marriage as well as the religious reasons. Also, I do not subscribe to the theory that some are advancing that it is a legal fundamental right."

6. Congrats to Phil Eil, David Scharfenberg's newly chosen successor as news editor of The Providence Phoenix. Phil started freelancing at the Phoenix during my tenure, and his skill as a writer quickly became clear. Scharfy, meanwhile,  is set to leave behind a compelling body of work, including his look this week at how male voters might fuel Gina Raimondo's rise as possibly the first woman governor of Rhode Island.

7. The Superman Building saga seems like a metaphor for Rhode Island: We've got great history and some super scenery, but adapting to new approaches is fraught with difficulty.

8. State Senator Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield), who joined us this week for Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A, offered this explanation (at about 6:30 in the Q+A) for why he opposes Moderate Party leader Ken Block's push to abolish the master lever: "I think that's a minority push to try to even the playing field, to be frank with you." Block, we suspect, would argue that leveling the playing field is precisely the point.

9. NPR is canceling "Talk of the Nation," effective June 30. The show will be replaced by an expanded "Here and Now," out of WBUR in Boston. Sadly, Ken Rudin's "Political Junkie" segment will end as part of the change, with the last one slated for broadcast on June 26.

10. Mark Smiley, given the nod this week as the new chairman of the RI GOP, says the party needs to compile real evidence on what local Republicans believe and then raise the focus on getting out the findings. "The first thing that we have to do is, we need to control our message," Smiley said during a recent interview. "I don't think the people of Rhode Island have actually heard the message of the RI GOP in a very long time, 10 years, maybe more. You hear the rhetoric going back and forth in federal campaigns or gubernatorial campaigns, but that's just fighting between the two parties. The actual message of the RI GOP gets drowned out because we're not organized, we're not focused on getting that message out."

11. My former colleague Megan Hall and I used to compare our daily work to being somewhat like ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu. Between blogging, reporting daily news and doing NPR-style features, we could pursue two of those tasks in a day -- but not all three. Of course, that doesn't even get into tweeting, staying abreast of the news, doing deeper research, and avoiding a crushing pileup of email. So my ears perked up when I heard about Douglas Rushkoff's new book, "Present Shock," aka "the tyranny of the digital, always-on 'now.' " On a related note, I'd love to read a take by Ted Nesi on the balance between information overload and the effectiveness of reporters' digital intake.

12. New York Magazine goes long on the current circumstances of Matt Lauer, who started out back in the day at WJAR-TV.

13. Surely, the baseball gods have a sense of humor, scheduling the Red Sox' first game of 2013 -- after a year and a half of lost seasons -- on April Fools' Day.

14. The ProJo's Ed Fitzpatrick did a fine column months ago on how Providence City Solicitor Jeffrey Padwa will celebrate his 50th birthday in Durban, South Africa, running a 56-mile ultra-marathon to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House of Providence. As part of that effort, Padwa is staging a fund drive at Coal Fire Pizza, 385 Westminster Street, in downtown Providence, on Monday, April 8, from 5:30-7:30 pm.