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

Mar 28, 2014

Welcome back to my Friday column. Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to drop me a line with feedback or juicy tips at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and remember you can follow me all week long on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Nicholas Mattiello's decisive victory this week in the speaker fight signals a major reset in the political values of the Rhode Island House. While Gordon Fox became generally less liberal as he moved up the Statehouse ladder, he was certainly more progressive than the norm for legislative leadership. Mattiello seems philosophically in tune with such past speakers as William Murphy and John Harwood, and that's a big part of why he won the three-day fight for votes last Friday though Sunday. It might seem strange to those accustomed to a more familiar liberal-conservative split among Democrats and Republicans, but Mattiello's moderate-to-conservative lean typifies the bulk of Smith Hill Democrats. (Yet as Andrew Morse notes, the reform-oriented self-description of Michael Marcello's faction was also called into question by their support from Frank Anzeveno, among other things.) For now, liberal legislative observers are a bit freaked out, fearing setbacks (or a blocked progress) on such issues as reproductive rights, guns, payday lending, and immigration. Mattiello responds by saying the economy is paramount, even if it's not realistic to accomplish too much, too quickly, in this session. The ascent of a more conservative leadership team, including the appointment of Representative Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown) as vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, sends one message. Yet a rising star on Mattiello's team, Representative Cale Keable (D-Burrillville), the new chair of House Judiciary, says liberal concerns are overblown. "I think Nick is an open-minded person," Keable says. "I don't think he's tied to political (ideology)," or intent on rocking the boat on issues that would upset progressives. "I don't think Speaker Mattiello really cares much, if it's good idea, if it comes from the the left, the right, or the middle," Keable says. Yet the true measure of the significance of this reset can be measured only with the passage of time.

2. To recap, the three things that people outside of Rhode Island know about us : 1) Our Statehouse got raided; 2) A state senator swore at a guy, in a videotape that went viral; and 3) The Pell Prius has been found.

3. Amid all the hype over the discovery Thursday date of the missing Pell Prius in North Providence: here's one of your most overlooked stories of the week: Speaker Mattiello has inherited the process for endorsing a Democratic candidate for governor. (The speaker has serious impact on party endorsements mostly since state committee members are elected through House districts.) Asked this week during RIPR's Bonus Q+A who he's backing in the gubernatorial race, Mattiello responded, "Not decided yet; stay tuned."

4. So why is the speaker often called the most powerful person in state government? 1) He's the gatekeeper for legislation in the House, much of which traditionally gets held to assure lawmakers' support for the budget; 2) The House plays the lead role in shaping the budget; 3) With three representatives on the five-member Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the speaker (who serves as chairman) has effective control of JCLS, the powerful hiring and spending arm of the legislature; 4) The speaker collects a lot of campaign contributions, much of which gets redistributed in the form of contributions to favored legislative candidates; 5) The speaker controls legislative grants, aka re-election insurance; 6) The speaker has considerable influence on the state Democratic Party (see item 3), not to mention supporting or opposing various legislative candidates through his staff and office.

5. Is 2014 the year when the state Ethics Commission regains its ability to police legislative behavior? At first blush, the emergence of a bill backed by state Senator James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) that could strengthen the Ethics Commission (through a statewide vote) might seem auspicious. The bill has been in the works for more than two years, after all, and one would think its appearance unlikely without the support of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and her leadership team. Yet Paiva Weed remains bearish on the Ethics Commission, based on comments she made last weekend during a legislative forum in Newport: “To suggest, whether it’s at the state level or the federal level, that we should have an Ethics Commission appointed by the governor, able to pass judgment on the votes of another branch of government, the General Assembly, is scary.” Speaker Mattiello was majority leader back in 2010, when the House last passed a bill to strengthen the Ethics Commission. Yet he now says strengthening the commission isn't a priority, adding, "I'm not sure if I'm going to have time to even consider that." Strengthening the Ethics Commission wouldn't single-handedly wipe out corruption and skullduggery. Yet it would take away arguments like this one from John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island: "Not fixing this problem is a self-inflicted wound for our state by those who are supposed to represent us. It hurts the trust we have in our institutions and leaders. It may even hurt the economy of our state. It’s past time the legislature heeded the advice of James Madison and helped protect us from the fallibility of our leaders."

6. While his two Democratic rivals for treasurer have grabbed headlines with noteworthy support (the mayors of Johnston and North Providence for Frank Caprio, some guy named Bill for Seth Magaziner), former state auditor general Ernest Almonte is stepping up his campaign. Almonte says he's picking between three candidates to succeed Josh O'Brien as his campaign manager (while continuing to work with Pete Kavanaugh from Hilltop Public Solutions). The Scituate Democrat also rolled out a polished biographical video this week. (In related news, Almonte -- like Speaker Mattiello -- is a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and they're making plans to set off on a ride.) Almonte says he'd also picked up support from Engineers, Local 57, and the Rhode Island Troopers Association.

7. On Tuesday -- the same day when the focus remained on Nick Mattiello's election as speaker -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung unveiled a six-part government reform plan. The elements include restoring Ethics Commission oversight of the legislature; establishing a line-item veto for the governor; limiting lawmakers to five two-year terms; eliminating the master lever; implementing a voter initiative mechanism; and the ever-popular ending of "the last-minute barrage of legislation and committee hearings without public notice." While Fung's initiative got scant attention in comparison to Mattiello's elevation, the Cranston mayor vowed to pressure a potentially balky General Assembly to implement his plan. “I will use their resistance as a rallying cry to the citizens of our great state," Fung told reporters. "We all have to come together to make our voices heard and demand a government structure that is fair, transparent, and most important of all, accountable to its citizens.”

8. Fung's rival, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, touted an endorsement this week from former WHJJ talk-show host and conservative favorite Helen Glover. Via statement, Glover said, “Ken Block is the only gubernatorial candidate that has put together a comprehensive plan to fix Rhode Island. He has a unique ability to cut waste and fraud, and his tax cutting plan versus other candidates’ records of raising taxes clearly sets him apart as the only fiscal conservative in this race.”

9. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Angel Taveras got a favorable headline this week ("Providence's pension return tops state's since 2011") and trying to reel in pensions for criminals seems certain to meet with public approval. Yet as of this writing, the city has yet to announce the hiring of a successor to Will Farrell, City Hall's former liaison to the City Council and the General Assembly, who left in late January. Taveras spokesman David Ortiz says chief of staff Gonzalo Cuervo "is directly involved in legislative affairs and we are interviewing candidates for the position."

10. State Representative John Lombardi (D-Providence), a longtime former city councilor in Rhode Island's capital city, placed second to Angel Taveras in the 2010 mayoral race, and a Lombardi 2014 run seemed likely for a long time. Yet the calculation changed recently, and Lombardi this afternoon said he plans to seek re-election as a state rep this year. He says the decision is based on a variety of reasons, including the effort and money that would be required in a mayoral fight. With a run by Buddy Cianci seeming increasingly likely, Lombardi says he did not coordinate his decision with Cianci.

11. Providence mayoral hopeful Lorne Adrain has impressively staffed up, hiring Shorr Johnson Magnus and Jay Howser as media consultants; David Binder Research for polling; 270 Strategies (which includes President Obama's national field director and director of digital organizing for 2012) for digital; and Jim Crounse from Ambrosino, Muir, Hansen and Crounse for direct mail.

12. The Rhode Island Black Business Association is sponsoring a Providence mayoral candidates' forum on Monday, March 31 (6 pm) at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 475 Cranston Street, Providence. The forum will feature Adrain, Jorge Elorza, Daniel Harrop, Brett Smiley, and Michael Solomon. Brown professor Marion Orr will moderate.

13. While Governor Lincoln Chafee, Gordon Fox and Teresa Paiva Weed have offered a unified front in the past on repaying 38 Studios' bondholders, Speaker Mattiello sounded a different note in pointing to an ongoing study on the merits of repayment. "The General Assembly should protect the interest of our taxpayers," he said during this week's RIPR Bonus Q+A. "How we protect that, I'm not sure right now. We've got an analysis and a report that's being developed at this time by an expert. I'm going to look at the report and that's going to help me make my decision."

14. "No" ballots in the first round of voting on the proposed state pension settlement are due back by Thursday, April 3. Yet it's unclear when the results will become public, in part since it's not known how long it will take ProMail to tabulate the ballots.

15. William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Maybe he was talking about Rhode Island, a place where Buddy Cianci looms over the Providence mayoral race, Leo Skenyon is back in the center of political power, and all roads lead back either to North Providence or a Bevilacqua.