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

Dec 20, 2013

The year ended as 2013 began: with Rhode Island's political/media class fixated on the looming race for governor in 2014. At least we're a bit closer now. With that in mind, welcome back to my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and your cordially invited to follow me on the twitters. Let's get to it.

1. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo proved as good as her word, confirming before year-end her (totally unsurprising) plans to run for Rhode Island's top job. Was the treasurer's four-and-a-half-minute video greeting a bit long and a bit schmaltzy? Sure. But the rollout also served a variety of purposes: 1) It confirmed what we all knew (that she's running) while placating impatient supporters; 2) By using a video and brief phone interviews with reporters, Raimondo controlled her message while putting off detailed policy prescriptions; 3) The treasurer, who one year ago declined to rule out a possible party switch, reaffirmed her self-narrative as a Democratic problem-solver ready for a bigger stage; 4) Optics! Raimondo delivered her message in front of a Christmas tree, emphasized her love of being a mom, and touted her family's excitement about waiting for Santa Claus. Can you imagine Lincoln Chafee doing anything remotely similar? The intended meta-message is the suggestion that Raimondo -- despite powerful friends and contributors, elite academic credentials, campaign coffers bulging with more than $2 million, and a central role in a polarizing debate over public pensions -- is just an average Rhode Islander.  

2. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras reacted to Raimondo's announcement by welcoming her to the race and asking her to sign on to his "People's Pledge" proposal to limit the influence of super PACs in the gubernatorial race. Raimondo said she was open to considering it, but first wants to see the final composition of the field. That's a not-so-subtle reference to Clay Pell, who has said he might decide on his possible run by late January. (Kate Coyne-McCoy, ex of EMILY's List, and the founder of a pro-Gina super PAC, says she plans to go "full bore" with fundraising in January.) With Devin "Short Pants" Driscoll having left a full-time Democratic gig in Chicago to take the temporary role of coordinator of Pell's exploratory campaign, the tea leaves augur toward a run by Pell. Btw, Driscoll, who fell in love with Biggest Little politics after graduating from Providence College in 2008, plans to call the Ocean State home going forward.  

3. Happy Hour special: Taveras confronted his 800-pound gorilla -- fundraising -- with an email ask late Friday afternoon citing Scott MacKay's recent observation that Taveras may face stiff odds if Raimondo continues out-raising him 3-to-1. "I am proud to have the support of thousands of people from every corner of Rhode Island," Taveras wrote. "This is a campaign based on Main Street values. But we need to make sure we have the resources to make sure our story and vision can be heard."

4. The conventional wisdom got upset when Exeter voters resounding defeated a move to recall four of five town councilors last Saturday. Jonathan Boucher, executive director of the state Democratic Party, was among the first to report the results on Twitter; the Dem party was among the outside groups making contributions against and for the recall; help on the ground came from Dems including Raimondo and Seth Magaziner. Still, it's hard to say if the results will make the General Assembly any more likely to pass gun-related measures. The school shooting last year in Newtown, Connecticut, did nothing to gin up legislative support on proposed gun laws. Yet some advocates think Exeter will prove more impactful, since it showed how the issue plays in a local election.

5. There are glimmers of pushback against the anti-John DePetro backlash. Monique Chartier this week highlighted a ProJo LTE by David Quiroa, president of the Alliance for Guatemala, who detects more than a whiff of political correctness, even as he says he disagrees with 99 percent of what DePetro says. Elsewhere, some of the chatter on Twitter between the union-backed For Our Daughters and conservative writer Justin Katz seemed increasingly petty and mean-spirited.

6. Governor Lincoln Chafee is non-committal on the idea of launching an independent investigation into Rhode Island's disastrous investment in 38 Studios. During an interview this week, Chafee emphasized the state lawsuit aimed at cutting down about $90 million in exposure for taxpayers. As is his wont, he also points to how Rhode Island got into the mess (without mentioning the absence of oversight once the deal was completed): “There was panic and then there was group-think from, when you look at the board of the EDC – big business leaders and members of the chamber of commerce. It’s unbelievable to think we’d invest that kind of money in a retired baseball player that had no business experience in an industry that's very, very difficult to be successful."

7. Democratic Secretary of State candidate Guillaume de Ramel says he wants to make government more business-friendly, although he's a bit vague when asked what he'd specifically do to change the situation. "I'd love to see technology being used," de Ramel said during RIPR's Bonus Q+A this week (at about 3:30). "Some of these [state] regulatory agencies, all of them -- promulgate rules and regulations, how do you keep up to speed with what they're doing? We can email notices of proposed rules changes. We can also create a map to have a better idea of what the state regulatory map is." For more de Ramel, listen to his turn on our Political Roundtable.

8. de Ramel says he opposes a constitutional convention because he considers it too costly and unnecessary .... On a related note, I'd like to clarify (following TGIF item #9 and a related remark on RI-PBS' A Lively Experiment last week) that Common Cause of Rhode Island hasn't yet taken a position on the advisability of holding a ConCon.

9. As speculation continues about the post-Belo future of the Providence Journal, the Boston Globe is showing how newspapers can do new and innovative things online: For starters, The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev, presented as a novelistic take on fact-finding. Dan Kennedy's take: "The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue." There was also a narrative via tweets of a poor teenager finding a better future. 

10. Crime stats in Providence are pretty flat, as Dan McGowan has reported. Yet Brett Smiley's floating of a public safety plan this week seems like smart politics, in part since crime remains on the mind of many city residents. The most striking element is how Smiley wants to impose a 10 percent surcharge on gun and ammo sales to fund anti-violence efforts -- an idea likely to mobilize fierce opposition from gun owners.Smiley insists the General Assembly can be convinced to support the concept. "This is one of those areas that comes up from time to time, where the average Rhode Islander and our reps' and senators' constituents, are actually ahead of their representative -- similar to marriage equality," Smiley says. "I know that a majority of Rhode Islanders will support this proposal and it’s just a matter of organizing them to take action to notify their reps and senators that this is something they should be on the right side of.”

11. Elsewhere in the race for mayor: Council President Michael Solomon got a boost when East Side councilor Sam Zurier announced his support for Solomon via Facebook.

12. These were the 10 top-clicked stories on our politics blog at RIPR this year, at least through earlier this week. Not surprisingly, number 1 has to do with the legalization, after a 16-year fight, of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island -- a story that attracted national attention.

13. On a related note, Amy Mello, who served a field director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, has been named the field director for the national pro-same-sex marriage group Freedom to Marry. "She is creative in designing programs that mobilize supporters, strategic in using the most state-of-the-art targeting and field tactics, and relentlessly committed to winning," Marc Solomon, the organization's national campaign director, says in a statement. "She’s the perfect person to help us finish the job and win marriage nationwide.” Mello will remain based in Rhode Island, where she'll help implement Freedom to Marry's Roadmap to Victory plan. The goals include increasing to more than 50 percent the number of Americans living in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. 

14. Governor Chafee remains a believer in HealthSourceRI, the state-based version of Obamacare, as he told me during an interview this week. "Now that we're trying something different, there are a lot of critics out there, but I'm still willing to cast my lot with, 'let's try something different,' " Chafee says. He says the previous approach was unsustainable for cities and towns and the state, with frequent double-digit cost increases in buying employee benefits through Blue Cross and United Healthcare. It remains to be seen if the General Assembly will have the appetite to shell out tens of millions of dollars to maintain HealthSourceRI, however, which still faces questions about enrollment, as Ted Nesi recently reported.

15. Reporters were permitted to tweet from US District Court in Providence this week and the Earth didn't spin off its axis. That's a good sign as far as providing more information from inside courthouses, one hopes, even if skeptics might doubt the value of 140-character (or less) messages. It helps that the judge who paved the way, William Smith, is on Twitter (@JudgeWESmith). Elsewhere, Rhode Island's state courts system is still working on updating its own social media rules, says spokesman Craig Berke. My last update on that process, from last June, is here.