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

Apr 4, 2014

Happy April, happy opening week of baseball, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As always, your tips and feedback are always welcome, and you can follow me through the week via the twitters. Let's head in.

1. Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung signaled a new stage in his GOP primary fight with Ken Block by launching a video highlighting Block's putative support for Obamacare. (The key clip, part of an interview on WPRI's Newsmakers, omits an ensuing comment in which Block criticizes Obamacare). In case the point wasn't clear, Fung campaign manager Patrick Sweeney had already emailed a memo earlier in the week, subject-lined, "Re: Obama supporter Ken Block." The memo underscored Block's presidential votes in 2008 and 2012, touting Fung as a fiscally conservative Republican. The single-minded concentration on Obama and Obamacare suggests Fung's camp is concerned about Block's insurgent campaign. For his part, the on-message Sweeney says, "Republican voters deserve to have all the facts. The video simply points out that Ken Block voted for Barack Obama in 2008, supported ObamaCare in 2010, and then voted for Barack Obama again in 2012. Republicans are not going to nominate an Obama supporter for governor." Block issued his own statement on Monday, calling Obamacare "a horrible bill, ill-conceived, unilaterally passed by one party, and terribly implemented." After attracting support from such conservatives as Helen Glover, Block continues to hawk a simple message ("Let's Fix Rhode Island") with additional policy details. Given all this, the GOP primary is shaping up as a question of whether voters prefer a candidate with a longer Republican track record or a more recent convert trying hard to make a compelling case for their support.

2. All of the major candidates for governor except Gina Raimondo say House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello should commit to a vote this session on legislation that could restore the state Ethics Commission's oversight of the General Assembly. Asked about the question this week, Raimondo told me, "What I've heard [Mattiello] say is that his number one priority is the economy and jobs, and I think he's right to be very focused on that. And I think it's all of our job now, myself included, to get behind him and support him as he tries to come up with legislation that gets people back to work." By contrast, Ken Block's campaign points to the raid on former House Speaker Gordon Fox's home and Statehouse office last month in saying that restoring the Ethics Commission's oversight should be a priority. Allan Fung says via statement, "We must restore full jurisdictional authority of the Ethics Commission over the members of the General Assembly." Angel Taveras' campaign provided this quote from the Democratic candidate: "I believe that Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly should be restored. If it does not happen this session, I will advocate for it as governor." Finally, Clay Pell says, "This issue has cast a shadow over the Statehouse for too long. The General Assembly should absolutely pass an Ethics Commission amendment bill in time for it to appear on the 2014 ballot. If they do so." Raimondo's reluctance to challenge Mattiello on the ethics issue may have something to do with how the new speaker inherited (see #3 from last week) what could be a significant endorsement in a hard-fought three-way Democratic primary. Meanwhile, with ethics legislation held for further study following a Senate Judiciary hearing this week, the outlook for the issue doesn't appear robust.

3. In the latest shakeup since Nick Mattiello won the speaker fight, three of the top liberals in the House -- Representatives Teresa Tanzi (D-Narragansett), Larry Valencia (D-Richmond), and Maria Cimini (D-Providence) -- have been stripped of their slots on the House Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. Representative Art Handy (D-Cranston) remains in place as the committee's chairman, and Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) remains on the committee, although she's been replaced as vice chair by a new committee member, Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston). The other new additions to the House Enviro are Representatives Thomas Palangio (D-Providence) and Scott Slater (D-Providence). Tanzi, Valencia, and Cimini were among the half-dozen Michael Marcello supporters during the speaker fight who abstained rather than vote for either candidate. The speaker's spokesman, Larry Berman, says Cimini, Valencia, and Tanzi were not bounced because of how they came down in that vote. Rather, Berman says, Mattiello "wants people who are going to fulfill his agenda and his outlook."

4. Progressives are already talking about a need to focus their legislative efforts outside the building -- on the campaign trail, away from the Statehouse -- because of the more conservative tilt of the Mattiello speakership. The grassroots campaign that spearheaded the legalization last year of same-sex marriage offers a template for doing that.

5. With Gordon Fox a no-show in the House since his resignation as speaker, his constituents in House District 4 seem to be going without representation. Be that as it may, candidates are lining up to fill the seat, including education activist Aaron Regunberg, business lawyer Miriam Ross, local Teach for America head Heather Tow-Yick, and possibly education reformer Maryellen Butke, who is expected to reveal her plans soon. As Dan McGowan observed, if Butke gets in the race, "House D-4 will be the battleground for education reform in Rhode Island." Regunberg is far and away the most progressive candidate in the race, and because of that he's least likely to get Speaker Mattiello's backing.

6. It was over before it began: John Loughlin was probably Republicans' best hope this year against Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, but the GOP candidate from 2010 tells his colleagues at WPRO, “I’m not going to do it unless I can win it, and it appears to me that it’s not winnable, as least not for me.” That description is grist for the former Cicilline staffers who scoffed at a possible run by Loughlin. Commenting before Loughlin made his decision public, however, former Brown University professor Darrell West told me he considered the Republican "a quality challenger who should be taken seriously." Loughlin, after all, got a little more than 45 percent of the vote in his 2010 matchup with Cicilline. Nonetheless, West says, "Cicilline is a strong favorite for re-election this year because it will be easy for him to run against the national Republican party and its positions on many issues. The congressman spends a lot of time in the district and attends to local concerns and that generally predicts a positive election result." As is stands, Republicans Stan Tran and Cormick Lynch, and Democrat Matt Fecteau say they plan to run for Cicilline's seat.

7. As debate continues about Obamcare and HealthSourceRI, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Teddy Roosevelt-William Howard Taft bio, The Bully Pulpit, contains an echo of that disagreement. Long before Obamacare was called a form of socialism, developers and businessmen, Kearns Goodwin writes, called TR's conservation policies a socialistic threat to "traditional western individualism."

8. A few timely reads: Phil Eil has an excellent overview in this week's Phoenix on the power of the speakership in Rhode Island; Cumberland native Dante Ramos' recent riff in The Boston Globe (excerpt: "In an alternative universe, Rhode Island’s small size and intimate culture would be a political and economic advantage — not a recipe for trouble."); and my own 2007 take on how a disengaged public supports an environment ripe for misdeeds.

9. While jobs and the economy have emerged as key buzzwords in Rhode Island's current political moment, the focus will shift to social services, taxes and related policy questions during a candidates' forum, sponsored by the Economic Progress Institute (formerly the Poverty Institute), on Monday, April 7, from 5-6:30 pm, at the Ocean State Theatre Company in Warwick. The major Democratic candidates are expected, but not Republicans Fung or Block.

10. Is the US stock market rigged? 60 Minutes took a look at Michael Lewis' latest book.

11. West Warwick native Paul Tencher has come a long way since a child actor portrayed him, in a riff on his youthful rise as Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts' chief of staff, during the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies in 2007. After a slew of other gigs, he went on to lead Democrat Joe Donnelly's winning US Senate campaign in Indiana in 2012 and became campaign director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In his latest move, Tencher is now Democrat Gary Peters' campaign manager in a hard-fought US Senate battle in Michigan.

12. The other Democratic candidate, Todd Giroux, in his own words, via our Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A.

13. Mac Bennett, whose father is Providence economic development director Jim Bennett, recently signed with the Montreal Canadiens.

14. Was the New York Times' Tyler Kepner channeling the spirit of retired colleague George Vecsey -- never one to much like the Red Sox -- when he picked Boston for fourth-place in the AL East? After I tweeted my umbrage at the good-natured sportswriter, Kepner responded by saying I should thank him, since he picked the (World Champion) Sox for fourth last year, too.