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

May 30, 2014

While we've had a glimpse of spring and winter weather over the last week, politics remains the thing for all seasons in the Ocean State. So welcome back to my weekly column, and feel free to share your thoughts and tips at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org. You can also follow my missives all week long on the twitters. Let's get to it.

1. You know the race for governor is starting to get real when Gina Raimondo's first commercial goes into heavy rotation on local cable and broadcast TV channels. Angel Taveras responded with an email pitch seeking more contributions. Raimondo, Taveras, and Clay Pell touted their bona fides while speaking Tuesday night during a state Democratic Party showcase at the Convention Center (Taveras might have had the most memorable line for true-blue Dems when he said he considered himself the only candidate to have had clothing on layaway at Ann & Hope). The early advertising start by Raimondo is a testament to her best-in-campaign fundraising; she can keep buffing her image before taking a different tack. Yet Taveras enhanced his populist cred when the City of Providence filed a redlining suit against Santander. With a little more than three months until the September 9 primary, each of the Democrats' fundamental challenge remains unchanged: Pell needs to ramp up his support and overcome early stumbles that raised questions about his campaign; Taveras has to keep collecting the money and honing the message needed to survive Raimondo's all-out onslaught; and Raimondo has to convince liberal-leaning primary voters that she's the best choice to lead Rhode Island forward. 

2. Raimondo's signature accomplishment remains the 2011 state pension overhaul that she propelled through skillful use of the bully pulpit. Her TV spot mentions how Rhode Island's pension system "had to be saved, no matter how hard it got." During the Democratic showcase Monday, Raimondo cited the pension overhaul as a prime example of how she can get things done: "It took courage, it took boldness and we solved a failing pension system. Ninety percent of the members of the GA voted for it, and we solved that crisis, and the state's better for it." But is Rhode Island's pension problem really "solved," if it remains the subject of a high-stakes court battle with an uncertain outcome? Here's the response to that question from Raimondo's campaign, via Nicole Kayner: "The state pension reform law is working and did solve the state's pension problem, and now the pension system is on a healthy path. The state believes it has a strong case and will prevail in court. In the meantime, the system continues to become stronger and will be able to provide the pension checks people need."

3. Adriano Espaillat -- who hopes to become the first Dominican member of Congress -- will be the beneficiary of a fundraiser tomorrow night at Sky Lounge on Broad Street (contribution levels range from $50 to $500. Espaillat is trying to topple 22-term congressman Charles Rangel, 83, who hasn't received the endorsement of either President Obama or NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. The host committee for Espaillat's Providence benefit includes state Senator Juan Pichardo, who became the first Dominican-American state senator in the US when he first won election in 2002.

4. With Frank Ferri joining the Democratic race for lieutenant governor, Joseph "Joe" J. Solomon Jr., a cousin of Providence mayoral candidate Michael Solomon and the son of Warwick city councilor Joseph Solomon, is running for the Warwick state rep seat being vacated by Ferri. Solomon, legal counsel in the House policy office, has already lined up the support of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who says via statement: “I absolutely support Joe Solomon, who is a good candidate. I respect his perspective on the economy and the need to get more people to work in good-paying jobs. He would be an asset to the House of Representatives.” Update: Republican Ralph Leone is also running for what House Minority Leader Brian Newberry calls "a very winnable seat."

5. A bill to provide economic incentives and assistance for the redevelopment of the Superman Building is posted for Senate Finance on Tuesday.

6. Two highlights from Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley's appearance this week on RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A: Smiley declined to comment directly on how his campaign would be more helped or hurt by a possible Buddy Cianci campaign, but said, "I don't think the city of Providence is ready to go back to the old ways and a mayor who spent time in federal prison for corruption;" On the demand for a $15 minimum wage for hotel workers: "The best way forward for our city is through a broad-based minimum wage increase [to $10.10]. I'm very concerned that raising the minimum wage for just one classification of workers would actually be bad for those workers; I think it'd be great for hotel jobs in Warwick."   

7. Are legislative leaders using good-government sops to soften the election-year blow of an unpopular move to shovel more taxpayer money down the drain hole of 38 Studios? After years of inaction, the General Assembly appears to be lining up to let the voters approve possible changes to the state Ethics Commission. The move to repeal the master lever sailed through the House, and the scuttlebutt is that the Senate will also sign off, albeit with a delayed implementation date. Faced with voters still angry about 38 Studios, lawmakers on the stump this summer might point to good-government changes (as well as some expected improvements in tax competitiveness).

8. Jose Batista Jr. has assumed the leadership of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, taking over from Gonzalo Cuervo. A Providence native who graduated from Bryant and Roger Williams University Law School, Batista says the PAC plans to make endorsements in August and to also stage a series of debates. Batista paraphrases PAC founder Pablo Rodriguez ("genetics isn't politics") in rejecting the idea that Latino candidates like Angel Taveras and Nellie Gorbea might have an edge in gaining the group's support. In fact, the PAC has demonstrated an independent mindset with its past endorsements, once even throwing its support to Stephen Laffey, the former Republican mayor of Cranston.

9. With perhaps three weeks left in the General Assembly session, the House version of the fiscal 2015 budget could be posted as soon as late next week. So will the Senate be on board with the spending plan before its made public, or will see some of the bumpy back and forth typical of recent history with a change in leadership?

10. There are changes at the Hamilton Group consulting shop, which was founded by Peter Baptista and Nick Hemond in 2011 and which worked on several legislative races in 2012 (Matt Jerzyk signed on in early 2014). Baptista says the trio recently decided that Hemond and Jerzyk would leave the Hamilton Group to focus on their respective legal careers. Baptista plans to continue operating his consulting operation by himself. Separately, Bill Fischer, spokesman for Michael Solmon's Providence mayoral run, says Jerzyk no longer has a paid role with the campaign, but remains a supporter.

11. Moral obligation bonds have gotten a black eye due to Rhode Island's losing investment in 38 Studios. But former governor Lincoln Almond used his Statehouse endorsement of GOP gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung to defend MOBs. "If we didn't have moral obligation bonds, we wouldn't have Fidelity [Investments]," Almond said. "We wouldn't have Southwest Airlines, when we had to expand the airport. Moral obligation bonds, for a legitimate public purpose, are important to government -- very important." Almond rued how 38 Studios amounted to "the second time" the state has blundered away public dollars, after the Sundlun administration loaned a startup known as Alpha-Beta more than $30 million. The former governor declined to comment on whether he agreed with Fung's stance against repaying the 38 Studios bonds.

12. In the aftermath of revelations about the VA's poor treatment of veterans, consider this: Pew Research says about half of the veterans of the post-9/11 wars served with someone who was killed.

13. With three city and town endorsements so far, Secretarty of State candidate Nellie Gorbea got 14 votes when the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs offered its endorsement this week to rival Dem Guillaume de Ramel (who got 22 votes). Does that suggest a rising tide of support for Gorbea? Time will tell, but at minimum she'll have to contend with de Ramel's early efforts to bulk up support in communities -- like Johnston and North Providence -- where he got beat by Ralph Mollis in 2006.

14. Mashapaug Pond in Providence is both a restful spot on a nice day and a reminder of the toll of industrial pollution in poor neighborhoods. My colleague Ambar Espinoza did a great radio story this week about the Urban Pond Procession, which has rallied the community around the pond in trying to make it better.

15. Yuengling of Pennsylvania, the oldest independently owned brewery in the US, is returning to Rhode Island, posing a challenge not just to Jim Koch's Boston Brewing, but perhaps locally based Narragansett as well.