TGIF: 16 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Dec 5, 2014

The incoming administrations are assembling their staffs (read on), as time ticks down for the Class of 2010. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and tips via idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, an unabashed health policy wonk, will be unveiled next week as Governor-elect Gina Raimondo's appointee to lead the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, RIPR has learned. Roberts' enthusiasm for healthcare policy may explain why she's willing to go from the relatively stress-free job of LG to a sprawling secretariat encompassing four major state departments marked by thorny issues and, in some cases, perennial cost over-runs. Roberts, a Virginia native, first became fascinated with healthcare as a Brown University student while doing a lab at Roger Williams Hospital. She worked as a researcher at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket while obtaining an MBA at Boston University, and also gained experience with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI and a business-consulting firm operated by Ira Magaziner. That was before policy roles with Joseph R. Paolino Jr. and Bruce Sundlun, and then Roberts' first run for elective office, for an open state Senate seat in Cranston, in 1996.

2. Raimondo's decision to go out of state to pick Steve Neuman of Maryland as her chief of staff offers some insight into her leadership style. The conventional wisdom suggests that personal relationships and institutional memory are key elements of Smith Hill politics. Yet Neuman boasts a strong political background, and Raimondo wouldn't have picked him unless she considered him an ace. The incoming governor will have enough experienced loyalists around her that Neuman will have sufficient time and help in getting up to speed. Going out of state to fill a key role doesn't always work out -- remember Ioanna Morfessis? Yet Raimondo's pick of a skilled professional aligns with her message on focusing on the big picture before zeroing in on details. Within a few months, chatter about the gov's unusual move in going out of state will likely be forgotten.

3. Why did the state ask Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter to approve a jury trial for the state pension dispute? The smart money says it's due to how she ruled last April that there's "an implied in-fact contract" between the state and the public employees challenging the overhaul. Then again, it remains open to question if the case will ever go to trial, despite the April 20 court date set by Taft-Carter this week. Governor-elect Raimondo said even before her election that she hopes to resume settlement talks. That's understandable, given the greater uncertainty of what would happen in court.

4. State Representative Joseph Shekarchi, a close ally of Raimondo and a co-chair of her transition team, has made no secret of his desire to one day be mayor of Warwick. This has sparked speculation about whether Raimondo may pick Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian to lead the state Department of Administration. This scenario would achieve a few things: it would provide a new opportunity for Avedisian, who has shown no appetite for running statewide (and is considered by some to be blocked by his profile as a moderate Republican), and it would clear the way for Shekarchi (who has said he won't challenge Avedisian) to run for City Hall. Yet for his part, Shekarchi says there's no truth to the prospect of him stepping in to run in a Warwick special election, and Avedisian says he hasn't "spoken with the Governor-elect or any member of her team about any position."

5. The untold story in an about-face by the Providence City Council on a proposed high-rise hotel on West Exchange Street is how the project faced sharp opposition from UNITE HERE, Local 217. Local 217's lead organizer, Jenna Karlin, says the concern was about a special carve-out from city zoning and a lack of transparency in the process. Yet one has to wonder about whether the opposition involved questions of whether Local 217 members received assurances of finding work at the envisioned hotel. (Karlin says Local 217 hasn't spoken with the developer, Derek Mesolella, the son of longtime political bigfoot Vincent Mesolella.) Yet Local 217's sharp opposition to the project attracted the attention of Rhode Island's Building Trades Council, whose members are hungry for construction jobs. "We think this is a not a dead issue at all," Scott Duhamel, secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades, says of the hotel proposal. Duhamel says the Building Trades sympathize with Local 217 while remaining hopeful of being a part of the project moving forward. For now, Local 217 -- which focused attention in the last legislative session on a proposed higher wage for hotel workers -- has again shown an ability to have an impact.

6. A.T. Wall, Janet Coit and Steven O'Donnell are on the way back as the respective heads of the state departments of Corrections, Environment Management, and the State Police. Word around the Statehouse is that these three might be the only holdovers in the Raimondo administration.

7. Diane Mederos will be leaving as US Representative David Cicilline's district director around the end of the month, and Cicilline is beginning the process of seeking a successor. Formerly the four-term town administrator in Bristol, Mederos joined Cicilline's team in May 2013, filling the vacancy left when Chris Fierro got the job as chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Review.

8. Mathew Ingram makes the case that these are good times for journalism, even with the shrinking of newsrooms: "Just because thousands of people are no longer employed as full-time reporters or editors by a select number of mainstream news publications doesn’t mean journalism itself isn’t alive and well — and even growing." Yet the emergence of startups like Vox and BuzzFeed haven't reversed a trend toward less local coverage in places like Rhode Island. We still have a competitive news landscape, and that's good, but there's no real replacement for the ProJo's bygone network of local bureaus in communities across the state.

9. Scott MacKay examines the move by CVS Health to develop a technology center in Boston, rather than Rhode Island.

10. WPRI-TV's Tim White was out front in reporting on the cases of firefighter John Sauro and fire chief Paul Labbadia, and Jim Hummel this week weighed in with a story about how a Pawtucket police major was golfing or relaxing when he was supposed to be working. Does three stories indicate a broader trend?

11. Wesley Lowery, the tremendous Washington Post reporter -- who was arrested in August while reporting from Ferguson, Missouri -- will be in Providence tomorrow (4 pm, Saturday, December 6) as part of a forum at Brown's Rites & Reason Theater on race and the media. The panel also includes Barbara Morse Silva from WJAR and ESPN radio host Freddie Coleman, among others.

12. RIPR environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza is doing an ongoing series of how climate change is impacting Rhode Island. Give a listen to her latest report, on how Westerly is trying to balance business interests with the need to protect against future storms. Elsewhere around RIPR, check out Kristin Gourlay's latest installment on the coming hepatitis C crisis, and listen next Wednesday for my feature on the current state of police-community relations in Rhode Island.

13. A counter-example to the downsizing of local media is how Ted Nesi has expanded the franchise at WPRI (Channel 12), not just with his must-read blog, but through the weekly business show he conceived, Executive Suite. Whether featuring Citizens' CEO Bruce Van Saun or highlighting entrepreneurs' efforts (like Martin Keen of Focal Upright Furniture), Executive Suite makes for informative viewing. (Of course, you should also listen to RIPR's own business segment, The Bottom Line.)

14. Even with improvements in Rhode Island's economy, demand remains high for emergency food programs like the one operated by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. It's worth remembering the far-flung network of food pantries across the nation is a relatively recent phenomenon. They emerged in response to a bruising recession in the early 1980s, and never went away, even as the national economy improved. Critics point to shrinking federal support for feeding the needy.

15. "Wall Street needs a lesson from the DMV"

16. The out of town view (via the Boston Globe's David Scharfenberg, ex of the late, lamented Providence Phoenix) on the coming Gina Raimondo era.