TGIF: 15 Things to Know About Rhode Island Media & Politics

Apr 18, 2014

Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and my short missives can be found on the twitters. Let's head right in:

1. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is positioned to remain the big winner of the realignment caused by the unceremonious departure of his predecessor, Gordon Fox. Past depictions of Fox as some kind of hyper-liberal are overstated: Fox backed the 2011 pension overhaul and a previous cut in the state's top tax rate, and it's not practical for a legislative leader in a moderate-conservative body like the General Assembly to govern from the left. Yet Mattiello's ascent certainly signaled a shift -- one that promises to be more sensitive to the concerns of business, and less supportive, perhaps, of new social initiatives. With time quickly ticking down in an election-year session, Mattiello could earn broad plaudits by combining his publicly stated support for tax cuts with a move to repeal the master lever; doing so would also equip his supporters with useful messaging for the campaign trail. Meanwhile, beyond the tax angle signaled by the presence of IRS agents during the March 21 on Fox's home and Statehouse office, we learned this week about scrutiny of campaign contributions and botched filings to the state Board of Elections. One hanging question: is there more to this case than those two issues?

2. As part of a look at the 50 states, a clip from MSNBC this week featured some nice footage of Theodore Francis Green, a hat trick of  mispronunciations of local political names (Cianci, DiPrete, and Loughlin), and an overarching message that Rhode Island is rife with unemployment and corruption. While the joblessness problem is certainly true, the worst-corruption tag is woefully subjective. Does Rhode Island have a history of political chicanery? Of course. But you can say the same about New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, and Louisiana, to name a few other places. MSNBC leaned on a survey of statehouse reporters. Yet in a guilty per capita ranking, Rhody placed 34th; the State Integrity Project rated Rhode Island as having the 9th highest corruption risk; and while other findings argue for our graft prevalence, Samuel Howard believes Rhode Island is among the least corrupt states. Suffice it to say, the amount of corruption in Rhode Island is very much up for debate, and calling us the worst based on one (perceptual) study is pretty weak stuff. Presented with an MSNBC interviewer's declaration that Rhode Island is "eternally corrupt," Governor Lincoln Chafee responded by saying the state is addressing its problems, but he didn't challenge the flawed underlying premise.

3. The State Republican Party got its way when it asked the state Board of Elections on Wednesday to eliminate aggregate individual donor limits in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision. GOP chairman Mark Smiley characterized the move as an attempt to level the campaign finance playing field; he pointed to how unions, in contrast to the $10,000 total limit on contributions by an individual, can have multiple PACs with an aggregate limit of $25,000 each (on the other hand, unions generally gather contributions in smaller increments). Yet it seems that Republicans, at least in Rhode Island, might fare better if there was less money in campaigns. Rhody Republicans had their most recent apex of political power back in the 1980s, when the GOP framed itself as the party of good government. Republican legislative candidates could stake a moral claim by challenging Democrats counterparts to set a relatively low campaign spending ceiling. The concept is moot, since other court cases have squelched, at least for now, efforts to create more evenly funded campaigns in Rhode Island. For his part, Smiley says via email, "I’d like to see less money all the way around in elections, but no matter what, the playing field must remain fair. This [Board of Elections] ruling technically counter balances the influence of the unions. Whether anyone here in RI takes advantage of that remains to be seen."

4. Amid improvement in Rhode Island's unemployment rate and a slide in gambling and tax revenue, Ted Nesi had a noteworthy report this week about how the cost of Rhode Island's soaring Medicaid enrollment remains unknown to state officials. That's significant since, as Ted notes, Medicaid already makes up almost 30 percent of Rhode Island's $8.2 billion budget.

5. The relative weak institution of the governor's office in Rhode Island, compared with the General Assembly, leads to a lot of grousing about the legislature's performance on economic issues. In speaking with reporters following her Monday news conference on boosting entrepreneurs, Gina Raimondo offered her view of how economic goal-setting should unfold. "It's the governor's job, the chief executive's job, to present a strategy, .... we need to move beyond piecemeal small steps, haphazard approaches, and that's the job of the governor -- to present, here's the vision, here's the strategy, and then to work with the legislature to enact legislation to make that vision a reality."   

6. The New York Times rates Larry Merlo, the top exec at CVS Caremark, as the eighth-highest paid CEO in the US, in 2013 with $22.9 million in compensation. That's a 26 percent increase from the $18.1 million received by Merlo in 2012, when he ranked as the 19th highest-paid CEO.

7. Moves by ProJo staffers to other media jobs have been relatively few in recent years, mostly due to the lack of voluntary turnover at the paper and the dour economy. But things are picking up a bit: Phil Marcelo recently left for the Boston office of the AP, creating a yet-to-be-filled opening in the ProJo's Statehouse bureau. And Maria Armental, who was part of a 2013 layoff, recently left town to report for the Wall Street Journal, joining a series of other Fountain Street alum (Michael Corkery, Jennifer Levitz, Dan Barbarisi, Jon Rockoff) who've gone to work for the WSJ over the last 10 or so years.

8. And you thought it was a new story when Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe? Back in 1904, the order was reversed when Globe publisher Charles H. Taylor bought the Sox. According to 365 Oddball Days in Red Sox History, the deal went down on April 17 of that year: "Taylor outbid John Fitzgerald, Boston mayor and grandfather of future President John Kennedy, to buy the Sox. Taylor bought the club for his son, John I. Taylor, a bon vivant around town who showed no interest in his father's newspaper operation. John loved sports, and his father figured running the Red Sox would keep him busy and out of trouble. Taylor's ownership of the Sox was often marked by reckless, erratic and impetuous decisions. He took the 1904 pennant-winners to last place in 1906, then rebuilt the club into world champions by 1912. Taylor's legacy still lives in two important ways. In 1907, he selected Red Sox as the team nickname. In 1911, he chose the site of a new ballpark on a five-sided block surrounded by Lansdowne, Ipswich, Van Ness, and Jersey streets and Brookline Avenue. A year later the ballpark opened as Fenway Park."

9. A parade of past challengers knows how even coming close to beating Second District Congressman Jim Langevin is a tall order. Yet Republican Rhue Reis, a 56-year-old licensed contractor and Foxwoods' poker room floor supervisor, promises to bring a feisty campaign against the seven-term Democratic incumbent. During appearances on this week's RIPR Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A, Reis said he favors repealing Obamacare, likes Rand Paul for president in 2016, and would have reluctantly supported the Paul Ryan budget passed by the House last week. Reis suggests his sweet spot will be calling out Rhode Island's continued economic doldrums and high unemployment: "The state's in a mess and [Langevin's] been there for 14 years," Reis says. "We've had a Democrat congressional delegation for over 12 years now, and are things getting better?" Asked why Republicans hold just 11 of 113 General Assembly seats, Reis blamed the master lever. He offered this response when it was pointed out how straight ticket voting hasn't impeded the election of mostly GOP governors over the last 25 years: "It's surprising to me. I don't understand it. You know, they must have something set up there, so they can use the Republican governors as a scapegoat when things go bad in the state." .... Meanwhile, Cormick Lynch is set on Wednesday, April 23, to announce his Republican campaign for the CD1 seat held by David Cicilline. The kickoff is at 11 a.m. at the Viking Hotel in Newport.

10. Former US attorney Robert Corrente sat down for an interview broadcast on RIPR this week about federal corruption investigations. Asked whether structural changes would reduce the threat of corruption in Rhode Island, Corrente says a more robust two-party system would help: "The fact that we have for quite some been essentially a single-party state -- regardless of whether you're a fan of that party or not a fan of the party -- it's not often a recipe for good government to have a lot of people running either unopposed or against only token opposition, because that tends to insulate them from the kind of public scrutiny that is sometimes necessary to clean up an institution."

11. Environmental issues tend to get short shrift in politics, so it's worth noting how the Environmental Council of RI and ecoRI News are sponsoring a gubernatorial forum on climate change. It's Thursday, April 24, from 9-11 am, at Brown's List Arts Building. Democrats Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo, and Clay Pell have agreed to participate.

12. For those who think Ocean State politics is the worst (see item #2), there's always New Jersey, dubbed by my colleague Scott MacKay as "Rhode Island on steroids." For proof positive, read Ryan Lizza's intriguing read on the falling political fortunes of NJ Governor Chris Christie. It's got it all: opportunism, presidential politics, Republicans co-opting Democrats + more.

13. The big news would be if Providence City Council President Michael Solomon, who represents Ward 5, did not win the endorsement of his home ward Ward 5 Democratic City Committee. But Solomon got the unanimous endorsement of the committee in the ward that offered the second most votes in the 2010 mayoral primary. Via statement, ward chairman Armand E. Bastini Jr says Solomon "has shown leadership both in our neighborhood and throughout the entire city. Michael cares about Providence and has a vision that will rebuild the city’s middle class, provide every child with access to a good public school, and improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods across Providence.”

14. Ralph Mollis might not be a champion fundraiser, but he has picked up some significant support in his Democratic primary battle for lieutenant governor with the better-funded Daniel McKee (who has his own following among charter school supporters). Mollis has a clean sweep in the four Democratic town committees who've endorsed so far in the race: Barrington, North Kingstown, Charlestown and Smithfield. The two-term secretary of state also has endorsements from the state Firefights Association and United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 328. So who wins -- the better-funded candidate or the one with the support of Democratic insiders?

15. My former colleague Lou Papineau's Providence Phoenix beer column is a lot of fun, both because Lou is a superb writer and since he brings a lot of passion (cheers) to his subject. His latest dispatch has good news for beer enthusiasts who live or work around Providence: Nikki's Liquors, which has a stellar selection of craft brews, is coming to Branch Avenue, right by Benny's and the state Board of Elections.