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

Aug 15, 2014

There's already hint of fall in the air as the political calendar inexorably moves toward Rhode Island's September 9 primary. So thanks for stopping by for my Friday column, and, as always, feel free to send your tips and thoughts my way, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. After years of prelude, Rhode Island will choose a Democratic gubernatorial nominee in a little under three weeks. All indications point to a tight three-way race between first-time candidate Clay Pell, and the top rising stars from the class of 2010 -- Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras. With an absence of recent public polling, the tea leaves can be seen in the Taveras camp's continued focus on Pell (see item 2). Along with the effectiveness of the candidates' ground games, the race may come down to a simple question (who do voters most like among three people with pretty similar policy stances?) and whomever holds the hot hand in the last week or so of the campaign. And if past practice holds, WPRI-TV and the ProJo may prime the pump by releasing will release on Tuesday at 5 pm a new poll ahead of their upcoming gubernatorial debates (Democrats, August 26; Republicans, September 2).

2. Former congressman Patrick Kennedy focused his criticism on Pell while stumping with Taveras at Rumford Towers in East Providence Tuesday. As noted by former ProJo political columnist M. Charles Bakst (a Raimondo supporter), Kennedy's rap on Pell's experience is doubly significant. For starters, Kennedy (as he readily acknowledges) mightily benefited from his family name in seeking office.Yet as Bakst writes on Facebook, Kennedy also "paid his dues by running first for the Rhode Island House and serving there for six years, much of his early time as a maverick willing to take on the chamber's leadership." What's more, Bakst points out, Pell's revered grandfather, the late senator Claiborne Pell, and President John F. Kennedy -- Patrick's uncle -- were close friends. "So were Senator Pell and Patrick's late father, Sen. Ted Kennedy," Bakst continues. "Indeed, Senator Kennedy delivered a moving eulogy at Claiborne Pell's funeral. My point is that Patrick Kennedy's willingness against this historical background to publicly question Clay Pell's suitability for the governorship is worth notice." (On a related note, Pell's campaign manager, Devin Driscoll, says supporters point to Pell's education stances as the top reason they support him. "Our campaign has momentum moving into the final weeks of this race for one reason -- we've got a real plan to get the state back on course, with new ideas and a fresh perspective to the long-standing challenges faced by Rhode Island," Driscoll says.)

3. Do moderates and conservative-leaning independents vote in the GOP primary between Ken Block and Allan Fung, or do they decide to pick among the three major Democrats? Back in 2006, independents helped power then-US Senator Lincoln Chafee's decisive GOP primary victory over Stephen Laffey, and Chafee's campaign aggressively encouraged Democrats to disaffiliate, so they could vote in the Republican primary. Common sense suggests most independents -- who represent close to half of Rhode Island voters -- will vote in the Democratic primary, so the level of exception is particularly important for Fung and Block. Block's campaign says Block's message of fixing Rhode Island appeals to a spectrum of voters. "We are not specifically running an independent or a Republican message," says campaign manager Jeff Britt. "We're running a Rhode Island message." Fung spokesman Rob Coupe says, "The party affiliation of Cranston voters reflects statewide percentages, although there is a slightly higher percentage of unaffiliated voters in Cranston. That is a good sign for Allan Fung, especially given the strong support he has received from unaffiliated voters in Cranston over the past several years. Mayor Fung has been elected by overwhelming margins, which indicates that many of these independent voters are Fung supporters."

4. Speaking of the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, Sam Howard argues that the flap over Fung's shot-in-Ohio TV commercial ("Where Allan Fung pretends to eat on TV") is far less significant than "whatever took Gordon Fox down." Nonetheless, in a GOP primary where both candidates are something other than lifelong Republicans, the issue takes on, at least briefly, added symbolic importance for some partisans. And was it wise to apparently cede decision-making on the spot to what BuzzFeed calls "America's Most Conservative, Most Christian Political Consulting Firm"?

5. Three views of Rhode Island: 1) Josh Barro riffs on the lack of political polarization in the General Assembly, complete with a bevy of DINOs, what Dawson Hodgson calls "a uniquely bad governing culture," and our familiar economic dysfunction; 2) the aforementioned Sam Howard says Barro's piece perpetuates three myths; 3) Even if we remain the Biggest Little State of Confusion (a timeless play on the wording of this classic tourism-promotion commercial, the British paper The Independent says the Ocean State remains a great place to visit.

6. "There was polarization before the shooting, but it was quiet polarization. Now, we have loud polarization." Those words were uttered not in connection with the disturbance this week in Ferguson, Missouri. Rather, it was the friendly-fire shooting of Providence police Officer Cornel Young Jr. 14 years ago that led to that observation. (And in that instance, it was an energized community, not top-down political leaders, that yielded some progress.) For a sense of the feeling on the ground in Ferguson, listen to this NPR interview with the Rev. Willis Johnson, who interceded with an angry young person when emotions were at a peak.

7. Democratic candidate for treasurer Frank Caprio says he supports releasing un-redacted copies of documents sought by the Providence Journal and good-government groups about the state's hedge fund investments. "It would be my focus to not only provide that information, but to make it easily accessible to the outside world," Caprio said during the taping of a Q&A airing Monday during Morning Edition on RI Public Radio. "I don't think there should be any secrets when it comes to how the state's money is being invested." Rival Democrat Seth Magaziner, during the taping of an interview airing Tuesday am on RIPR, was more circumspect. "These are contracts that we have already entered into as a state and it's very difficult to get out of them without a significant financial penalty, in many cases. But I will go through each one, one by one, with legal counsel, to see what we can release. And then going forward, whenever new contracts are being signed, I'm going to make sure that we always insist on full transparency, and if there's a fund manager that's not going to accept that, they're not going to manage Rhode Island funds, not on my watch."   

8. During a debate broadcast Thursday on RI-PBS (featuring yours truly and Scott MacKay) as panelists, Democratic Secretary of State candidates Guillaume de Ramel and Nellie Gorbea staked out their separate messages. Gorbea highlighted government transparency and her previous experience as a deputy secretary of state, while de Ramel (who steered clear of explaining why he hired then-Speaker Gordon Fox for some legal work in 2011) emphasized jobs and his good-government plan. Gorbea is also rapping de Ramel for having accepted $1000 in campaign contributions from businessman and former Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who owns a Westminster Street building leased by the secretary of state's office to store state archives. Yet de Ramel's campaign notes that Paolino also contributed to former SoS Matt Brown in 2002, when Gorbea was working for Brown, and that she attended a meeting in 2005 where the request to lease the building at 337 Westminster Street was approved.

9. CD1 Republican candidate Cormick Lynch says President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a mistake, although Lynch also faults President Obama for his handling of Iraq. "I think the Obama administration was as irresponsible exiting Iraq as the Bush administration was in their entrance to it," Lynch said during a taping of this week's RIPR Political Roundtable. He says the Bush administration should have either not gone in to Iraq or been "honest about what it would take to accomplish the objectives there, which would have a minimum of 400,000 troops over a decade. And if we don't have the political will to do that ... we shouldn't have gone in."

10. Even with a less-than-robust approval rating, US Representative David Cicilline remains the favorite in the First Congressional District. Considering this, and how about half of General Assembly opponents are going unopposed, does it make sense for newcomers like Lynch, Stan Tran, and Matt Fecteau to run for Congress? The first-time candidates generally respond by saying the issues about which they care the most are federal, not state issues. Yet it's worth remembering that Cicilline, Jack Reed, US Representative Jim Langevin (and Patrick Kennedy) served in the state legislature before shooting for Congress.

11. Then Again: "No Congress in Four Decades Has Been Paid More to Do Less than This One."

12. Latino Public Radio is staging its annual "Barbacoa Politica" tomorrow (Saturday, August 15) from 5 to 10 pm at its main studio, 1246 Cranston St., Cranston. Among those expected are candidates for governor and other state general offices and Providence mayor. On a related note, the 2014 endorsements of the Rhode Island Latino PAC include Angel Taveras governor; Ralph Mollis for LG; Ernest Almonte for treasurer; Nellie Gorbea for secretary of state; Peter Kilmartin for attorney general; and Jorge Elorza for mayor of Providence.

13. Oppenheimer Funds isn't the only group upset by the state's move to sell almost $600 million in debt backed by tobacco company settlement funds. Karina Holyoak Wood, policy director for the RI chapter of the American Lung Association, notes how the move comes years after the state sold off tobacco settlement money for pennies on the dollar. "Yet not one penny of that money has ever been devoted to tobacco control and prevention programs or tobacco healthcare costs," Holyoak says in a statement. "While we can’t change what past government officials did, one way our current officials can right this wrong is by committing to honor the spirit and intent of the settlement going forward by adequately funding state tobacco control efforts. Rhode Island earned an “F” in the Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control Report 2014 for inadequately investing in tobacco prevention and control. Rhode Island invests less than $400,000 in tobacco control annually, far short of the $12.8 million CDC recommends. With over 1,500 Rhode Islanders dying annually from tobacco-caused illness, and economic costs due to smoking hovering around $870 million annually in the state, it’s in everyone’s interest to invest in smoking prevention."

14. Red Sox chairman Tom Werner doesn't exactly project strong leadership from afar, even with his ultra-successful track record in show biz and sports. Werner ultimately lost out in the race to succeed Bud Selig as the next MLB commissioner. Eric Wilbur wasn't rooting for Werner to claim the prize, although he says the loss could result in a higher valuation for the Sox-owned NESN and less money for the Sox payroll as a result.

15. Thanks to Ted Nesi, guest-hosting WPRI-TV's Newsmakers, for inviting me to join him this week. Tune in this weekend as we talk with Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Frank Ferri and CD1 Democratic candidate Matt Fecteau.