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

Mar 22, 2013

Welcome back to my weekly column. A 12-hour legislative committee meeting on the same night when the RI GOP invalidates a vote for chairman? Just another day in the Biggest Little. Your tips and thoughts are welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org. Let's get to it.

1. Perception is important in politics. That's why either side in the intense same-sex marriage debate is loath to write off a big presence when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the issue. No matter that many of the arguments are very familiar; No matter that the 12-hour committee hearing was the longest in recent memory: No matter the choreographed quality of the competing crowds of supporters and opponents making noise near the rotunda.  Did the stream of testimony change any lawmakers minds? "I don't know," Senator Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry), a member of Judiciary, tells me. Regardless, either side would hail it as a victory if they had significantly more witnesses or demonstrators than their counterparts.

2. If history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the perennially anemic state GOP went straight to step 2 when it invalidated a closely split vote Thursday night for a successor to outgoing chairman Mark Zaccaria. The split echoes a longstanding division between conservative and moderate elements (even if the differences between competing candidates Dan Harrop and Mark Smiley seem more strategic than philosophical). The squander also mirrors the struggles of a party that has seen its legislative representation shrink from 18 to 11 members over the last decade, despite a seemingly fertile climate for making gains on Smith Hill. Zaccaria says a second vote to choose a new leader will take place as soon as April 2, so his successor can attend an RNC meeting the following week. Q: How do Democrats avoid this kind of lapse? A: Although the state Democratic Committee votes in a new chairman, party activists and cronies loyal to the House Speaker tilt the balance in the favor of his candidate.

3. Things keep heating up between dueling Democrats Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras with 18 months until the 2014 primary. The Providence mayor campaigned over the summer and fall for a $40 million infrastructure improvement plan; the treasurer teamed up this week with Taveras ally Gordon Fox for her own infrastructure plan ... Raimondo staffed up with Andy Roos; Taveras hired former Jack Reed aide J.B. Poersch and his firm SKDKnickerbocker ... Angel is set on Wednesday, March 27, to release an "economic development action plan for Providence"; Gina this week joined "national payday lending reform advocates calling on federal regulators to take decisive action to stop banks from making unaffordable, high-cost payday loans."

4. PR man about town Bill Fischer added to his characteristically busy portfolio by recently taking over spokesman duties for the owner of the embattled Superman Building. What it less known is how Fischer has helped develop some of the state's best political talent, both in his current public-relations work (some of it in an earlier version with Jennifer Bramley) or in past political work. The alums include: Carlos Lopez, right-hand man to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung; Tony Simon, deputy district director for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Devin "Short Pants" Driscoll, communications director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage; Paul Tencher, the newly minted campaign director of the US Senatorial Campaign Committee; Stephanie Mandeville, executive director of the RI Democratic Party; Andrea Marcoccio, director of the Montana Democratic Party; and Dan Meuse, deputy chief of staff for Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts.

5. Speaking of the Superman Building, Taveras seemed to lay out three options for the iconic structure: 1) do nothing; 2) invest in its future or 3) demolish it. The first and third options would send up a red flag of distress. It's understandable that some people are gun-shy after 38 Studios, but clear differences exist in this case. The Superman Building is a bellwether for the capital city; it can signal either vitality or economic dysfunction. Filling it with residents would edge up the critical mass of downtown Providence (and the Masonic Temple offers an example of the successful re-use of a former eyesore). Reasonable people can disagree about whether tens of millions in tax credits are the answer for the Superman Building. But reductionist comparisons to 38 Studios may undercut the future of a vital downtown linchpin. 

6. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has had the good fortune to avoid the politically perilous time-bomb quality of the AG's office. (Back when Sheldon Whitehouse was AG, for example, he faced stormy times with the friendly-fire death of Cornel Young Jr. of the Providence police, and the death of witness Jennifer Rivera.)  For now, Kilmartin also seems immune from the state GOP's attempt to build a slate of statewide candidates (Brendan Doherty isn't interested, probably smartly, considering his lack of a law degree.) So it's no surprise that Louis Jacobson has rated Kilmartin as one of the least vulnerable AGs in the nation. As Jacobson notes, Kilmartin won with less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2010, yet there are no glimmers yet of a primary challenge in 2014.

7. Watch for the payday lending issue to heat up soon, after efforts to move forward the issue in previous legislative sessions have gone nowhere. The RI Payday Reform Coalition has a Statehouse rally with RI mayors slated for 3 pm on Wednesday, March 27; a legislative hearing is for early April; Advance America lobbyist, former House Speaker Bill Murphy, remains a presence on Smith Hill. And Gina Raimondo and Speaker Gordon Fox are on opposite sides of the issue.

8. Rave of the Week: Paula Hodges of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England is a fan of state Senator Dawson Hodgson. During Thursday's same-sex marriage hearing in Judiciary, she tweeted: " exudes the intellectual fortitude of a real statesmen. If only we could multiply him a few times over at the [General Assembly]"

9. Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, says the center's plan to eliminate the sales tax could be done for about $100 million and would benefit low-end consumers who pay a bigger chunk of their income to sales taxes. He joined us to talk about that and other issues this week on RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A. We learned that Stenhouse, a former Red Sox, roomed with Terry Francona in the minor leagues, in Memphis, in 1981. Stenhouse's father, Dave, was also a ballplayer, with the bygone Senators, among others, and his son Kevin plays for URI. As uniformed players, they don't have to worry about cash-flush MLB's plan to eliminate pensions for non-uniformed personnel.

10. The ProJo's Katherine Gregg has a rich knowledge of public records stemming from her time covering the Statehouse. During an Everyday Exposes discussion at RIC on Tuesday, she described how Superior Court Judge Robert Krause made public previously secret pension records in 1991. As Gregg explained it, Krause's action came not in response to litigation by the ProJo, but a decision by former Governor Bruce Sundlun (The RI Federation of Teachers unsuccessfully sued to block the release of the information). It was part of an overall tone set by Sundlun, Gregg said, in the aftermath of the banking crisis he inherited upon taking office. That goes to show the importance of leadership;  Sundlun was known for his bull-in-a-china-shop persona, yet his commitment to government transparency was meaningful.

11. Roger Williams University Law School has a free panel discussion and film screening next Thursday, March 28 (6-8 pm) on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision extending legal counsel regardless of the ability to pay. The panel includes US District Court Judge Jack McConnell; deputy AG Gerald Coyne; and RI Public Defender Mary McElroy, among others.

12. Congrats to PR firm Duffy & Shanley on its 40th anniversary. D&S is among the largest family-owned communications firms in New England and its clients include Fortune 500 companies like Staples, AT&T, and Motorola. The company says it was "arguably the first PR-only agency based in Providence [when] the “open for business” sign was hung in March 1973 with just two people in the office and four clients – Reynolds Metals Development Corporation, Rhode Island State Nurses Association, the City of Cranston, and Tupperware employee relations. Advertising was added three years later and began to flourish in the early 1980s with the addition of The Providence Journal and Rhode Island Tourism as clients." D&S plans a proper celebration later this year.

13. It continues to be the best and worst of times for local media. The rise of the Interwebz offered a new showcase for my buddies Ted Nesi and Dan McGowan (and the mind trust at WPRI-TV deserves credit for recognizing the value in putting more money into meaningful online journalism). Yet there's truth, to0, to what ace political reporter David Bernstein -- who lost his job when the Boston Phoenix went belly up -- recently tweeted: "Walk into a city hall or statehouse hearing, Anywhere USA, & count journos. Glory days?" Alan D. Mutter agrees with my half-full analysis, offering these observations.

14. Caught The Fighter recently. It captures the texture of Lowell and has a superb soundtrack.

15. Showing how everything comes around in time,  the General Assembly is adding QR codes to hearing notices, just about a dozen years after the ProJo's parent Belo Corporation struck out with a similar concept.