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

May 3, 2013

May rolls in with history being made in Rhode Island. Welcome back to my weekly column. As always, your thoughts and tips are welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org. Let's head in:

1. The legalization of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island made this week one that Governor Lincoln Chafee will long remember. His unstinting support for the cause is among the traits endearing Chafee to friends and admirers, like former aide Stephen Hourahan, who emceed the signing ceremony Thursday on the south steps of the Statehouse. It could also bump up Chafee's backing a bit among progressives -- a not insignificant factor given a potentially close multi-candidate gubernatorial race next year.

2. What's next for Ray Sullivan after he led the grassroots campaign that played a crucial role in building up legislative support for same-sex marriage? In the short term, his plans include going hiking in the woods, "not responding to emails and phone calls," and "getting invited to some really great weddings" after the law takes effect August 1. There's a transition ahead for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the group that spearheaded efforts in recent years to move forward same-sex marriage. MERI's campaign arm, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, was successful, Sullivan says, since "we engaged tens of thousands of people," and connected them to their state legislators. He calls that effort -- and the ensuing turning over of the conventional wisdom about same-sex politics on Smith Hill -- a lesson that can be applied in similar battles in other states. "It's the first time I've ever seen a situation where traditional Statehouse politics ran into grassroots organizing," Sullivan says. He calls Rhode Island "the mighty number 10" and says the smallest state could propel momentum for coming same-sex marriage battles in Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana.

3. Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick), an opponent of same-sex marriage, won due praise for conducting committee hearings on the subject in a gracious and even-handed way. McCaffrey remains a candidate to one day succeed Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. Yet he's got to hold his Senate seat to do that, and Laura Pisaturo gave him a good run for the money last year, attracting 46.7 percent of the primary vote.. So is Pisaturo planning to give it another shot in 2014? "It's too early to say," she tells me, adding that she isn't ruling anything out.

4. When Chafee to New York this week to seek positive press for the state, he ran into some appropriately tough questions from Bloomberg's Josh Barro. The ensuing headline -- "Chafee's Confusion About Moral Obligation" -- speaks for itself. Barro asked a question on the mind of a lot of public employees in RI: "If Rhode Island can’t afford to keep its promises to retirees, how can it afford to keep its promise to the 38 Studios bondholders?" Chafee responded in part: “Even if the cost-benefit showed that, to the penny, we were better off defaulting, I’d consider it not honorable and damaging to our reputation. I don’t know if you can factor that in as dollars and cents.” That left Barro wondering, "Aren’t the pensions a moral obligation, too? After all, people spent their careers working for state and local governments in exchange for specific pension benefits. I asked Chafee, why it was acceptable to freeze the COLAs and unacceptable to break the moral obligation on the bonds. He responded: 'Good question. A lot of discussion about that and, in fact, we’re in court on that issue with the unions.' But he never got around to explaining why his position is right and the unions’ is wrong."

5. During the same-sex marriage bill-signing ceremony on Thursday, House Speaker Gordon Fox hailed the end of the 16-year battle as a triumph of small d democracy. He went so far as to call a profane and mocking satirical online video from 2011 -- after he backed civil unions, instead of same-sex marriage -- a legit form of activism. Fox said for democracy to work "it needs you and it needs us. You have to make known what your concerns are. You have to be engaged, you have to be involved, you have to stand up.” That's all well and good. Yet it also causes some unintended irony for citizens wondering why Fox hasn't heeded an outpouring of public opposition to the master lever.

6. Also well and good is a healthy sense of skepticism. So you can't fault lawmakers like Representative Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) for asking -- as she did during a House Judiciary hearing this week -- if any of the new gun bills being considered by the General Assembly would have prevented the school shooting last year in Newtown, Connecticut. Yet the legislature has a track record of being a lot more skeptical about new gun laws than about spending taxpayers' money. The leading example, of course, is the decision to significantly expand the EDC loan-guaranty fund that wound up luring 38 Studios, disastrously, to Rhode Island. Of 113 lawmakers, only former Rep Robert Watson, smelling trouble, voted against the stand-alone bill. So why don't legislators bring the same skepticism to fiscal issues that they do for gun laws? Put simply, no organized group on money matters come close to rivaling the single-issue influence of the NRA and other gun-advocacy organizations.

7. Regardless of where people stand on gun laws, common ground would seem to exist in efforts to reduce gun-related violence. With that in mind, the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence is holding its annual fundraising event on May 10, 6-9 pm, at the Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park.

8. In the aftermath of 38 Studios, there is ample skepticism about steering public dollars to the n0w-vacant Superman Building. Meanwhile, the question of how to bring more population density downtown hovers in the air. During a turn on RIPR's Bonus Q+A this week, Providence Housing Court Judge and RWU Law professor Jorge Elorza noted part of the challenge facing a post-industrial economy. Riffing on a point made in NYT columnist Thomas L. Friedman's most-recent book, The World is Flat, Elorza said: "If you go to any Third World nation and ask someone in their developing sectors what the future of their economy looks like, they can tell you precisely what it looks like, because they will progress through the various stages of development that First World nations have already gone through. But for countries like the United States, there's no road map. It's our job to create the future. And so if we expect to continue to be leaders in the global economy, we have to be innovators, we have to creators, we have to be designers, we have to be artists -- and that's an area where we have a distinct advantage n in the state of Rhode Island."

9. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin appears to be leading a charmed political life since, we as we noted here a few weeks back, he is on course to lack an opponent in 2014. Compare that with expected primaries for other four state general offices: Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras for governor; a likely battle between Ralph Mollis and Daniel McKee for lieutenant governor; Ed Pacheco, Guillaume de Ramel and perhaps Nellie Gorbea scrapping for secretary of state; and Frank Caprio and Ernest Almonte heading toward a potential clash for treasurer. It remains to be seen, though, if Caprio -- traditionally a Democrat -- runs as a member of that party.

10. Who will manage this Democratic free-for-all in 2014? Scuttlebutt about David Caprio succeeding Pacheco as state party chairman have faded a bit with the political re-emergence of Frank Caprio. Now that same-sex marriage is a done-deal, watch for Speaker Fox to shift his attention to filling the post being vacated, effective Friday, by Pacheco.

11. Speaking of the Donkey Party, Charlie Cook notes how it can't count on the support of millennials: "[They] appear unencumbered by some of the baggage that previous generations carried. People of this age group seem more open to alternative approaches to dealing with policy issues than the standard more-government-is-always-better approach that Democrats are tempted to pursue as well as the government-is-always-evil approach associated with Republicans."

12. Everyone loves a winner: Red Sox manager John Farrell is more popular in Massachusetts than Santa Claus and Mother Teresa.

13. Don't miss my colleague Scott MacKay's take on the Superman Building.

14. Former farrier Lincoln Chafee picks Java's War to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. For a Korean-American-inspired jalapeno mint julep, courtesy NPR, click here.