TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Feb 14, 2014

What a week in Rhode Island politics. Welcome back to my weekly column, and thanks for stopping by. As always, feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Let's get snapping.

1. After a dramatic series of twists and turns this week, the proposed pension settlement was finally made public Friday afternoon, during a news conference at the state Administration building on Smith Hill. The deal would slightly increase the unfunded liability for Rhode Island's pension plan, from $4.8 billion to $5.1 billion, although that's still about $4 billion less than the pre-2011 overhaul figure of $8.9 billion. The combined cost for the state and cities and towns would climb by $24 million just in fiscal year 2014. Governor Lincoln Chafee, state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Lynette Labinger, the lead counsel for the unions challenging the 2011 overhaul, sang from the same hymnbook in praising the certainty of an agreement as preferable to what might happen in a years-long court battle. Raimondo, the architect of the earlier overhaul, pulled out some of her earlier talking points in justifying her support: “At the end of the day we need to find solutions, and what I’ve said from day one – this is math, not politics – and this is about securing our future," Raimondo said. "This is a very good deal for the people in the pension system and the people of Rhode Island.” The proposed settlement offers some modest sweeteners for public-employees, including a 2 percent one-time cost of living adjustment on passage of the settlement; a different formula for determining COLAs; and some adjustments on retirement ages. Yet the settlement would also leave unanswered questions about the constitutionality of the 2011 pension overhaul, and only time will tell whether it would lead to further backsliding. The outcome of the settlement is itself far from certain; to move forward, it first has to be approved by six different groups of public-employee plaintiffs, a process expected to take place within 60 days. There's a series of other hurdles, and opposition by more than 50 percent of any one union group would send the case back to court. The settlement also faces General Assembly approval, and any changes to the plan within the legislature would most likely lead to a resumption of the court fight.   

2. While the outcome of the proposed pension settlement remains far from certain, it may ultimately resemble a baseball trade in which each team walks away satisfied. Public employees would get some mild improvements in their benefits. Raimondo can still hail the 2011 overhaul as a national model, as she did when asked about the broader message. "I do hope other states follow our lead," Raimondo said, as a Wall Street Journal reporter sat among the local media members during the Administration building news conference. While there was no immediate reaction from House Speaker Gordon Fox or Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, the proposed settlement is close enough to the 2011 overhaul to be politically palatable. One dissenting voice came from Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a GOP candidate for governor, who objected to the increased cost for taxpayers, as well as the unveiling of the details late on a Friday afternoon. While Fung's support for fighting the case in court may have intellectual appeal -- as a way to settle a thorny legal question once and for all -- the unpredictable throw-the-dice stakes of that option led the two sides in a sharply different direction.

3. The gag order imposed on the pension mediation by Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter proved remarkably leak-proof. Although the order was lifted Friday, parties to the case said they could only talk about the results of the mediation and not what happened during the closed-door talks.

4. It was four years ago this week when Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy's surprise decision to not seek re-election set off a significant reshaping of Rhode Island's political landscape. within a week, more than 50 of the sharpest young politicos in town feverishly pondered the possibilities over beers at Nick-a-Nee's, the stellar Jewelry District dive bar. As it happened, David Cicilline's move to seek Kennedy's seat created the City Hall vacancy that would be filled by Angel Taveras; it also led Steven Costantino (now secretary of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services) to give up his post as House Finance chairman (making a vacancy filled by Helio Melo), and John Lombardi (now a state rep) to leave the Providence City Council after more than a quarter-century, setting the stage for Michal Solomon, now a Providence mayoral candidate, to become City Council president. David Segal's move to run for Kennedy's seat offered an opening for Chris Blazejewski, now one of the rising stars in the General Assembly, to take his East Side-based House seat. Similarly, the campaign by Bill Lynch opened the way for first Ed Pacheco and now David Caprio to become state Democratic chairman (and Cale Keable took over the state rep seat formerly held by Pacheco). So while human history unfolds over millions of years, the occasional reshaping the tectonic plates of local politics happens more quickly, although the opening of a fresh fissure often comes as a surprise.

5. Margaux Morisseau, a leader in the Statehouse fight against payday lending, plans to run as a Democrat this year against state Senator Nick Kettle (R-Scituate). Kettle, one of just five Republicans in the Senate, first won election in 2010, defeating long-time GOP senator Leo Blais, and he beat Democratic ex-rep Scott Pollard by 201 votes in 2012 to win re-election. At 23, Kettle is among the youngest members of the General Assembly, and his place in the legislature shows how voters are receptive to youthful candidates -- of either party. Morisseau says she has lived in Scituate's Clayville section (named for Henry Clay of Kentucky) for about 15 years, and she works as director of community building and organizing for NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, a nonprofit in Woonsocket. She says she's running because she's gotten increasingly interested in politics, and thinks she can do a better job than Kettle in representing the district, Morisseau declined comment on a topic that recently put Kettle in the news -- his role in creating the Octo-Guthrie Facebook page satirizing Rep Scott Guthrie. She says she's not aware of other potential candidates in the Senate District 21 race.

5. The poll released this week by the Providence Journal and WPRI-TV affirmed the finding of the news partners' last survey in November -- that the race for governor remains up for grabs. Although the most recent entry in the Democratic primary, Clay Pell, lags behind Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras with 15 percent of the support (and 25 percent of respondents undecided), Pell says he's fine with the finding -- for now. "I think we're in a great spot coming straight into the race," Pell said this week on RIPR's Political Roundtable. "My plan is to focus on the economy, to focus on how we can invest in our small businesses, to focus on how we can make sure our kids have the education they need [to achieve]." Meanwhile, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says he doesn't put much stock in the latest ProJo-WPRI poll, mostly due to how Pell announced his run just about two weeks ago. "This poll shows us nothing but name recognition," MacKay says.

6. While candidates like to decry the influence of money in politics, it remains to be seen if the three major Democratic gubernatorial campaigns will reach a "People's Pledge" to curb the local impact of third-party spending in 2014. Gina Raimondo seemingly has the most to gain from an agreement since she: 1) has, by far, the biggest pot of money; and 2) might be concerned about organized labor going to bat for Angel Taveras and/or Clay Pell; this analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows strong labor influence among top political contributors from 1989 to 2014. Yet the sweeping nature of Raimondo's People's Pledge proposal -- which would include spending on "paid phones, paid canvassers and opposition research" -- raises questions about where this is headed. To buttress her pitch for a "comprehensive" pact, Raimondo's campaign manager, Eric Hyers, points to the big bucks that can fall through the cracks, including $8 million in the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren race in Massachusetts, "mostly on mailers, phone-banking and get-out-the-vote initiatives."

7. Providence Phoenix news editor Phil Eil says his criticism of the Providence Journal comes from a place of love and concern about civics. "I should say that the ProJo is the start, the middle and the end of my day," Eil says in a lively interview with Richard Asinof. "It’s invaluable to me. And I admire a lot of the writers who work there – Kathy Gregg, Phil Marcelo, Ed Fitzpatrick – people who I think are doing essential work." Eil has also expressed frustration about the reluctance of ProJo managers to engage in conversation -- and that's understandable since they almost never talk to reporters (something I know about as a former media critic for the Phoenix). Freedom of speech includes the right not to speak, of course, yet the reticence from Journal editors stands in striking contrast to some of their out-of-town peers. In 2005, for example, the editor and publisher of The Boston Globe spoke with me for a story looking at possible conflicts from the then-overlapping ties between the Globe, the New York Times, and the Boston Red Sox. At a time when newspapers face an existential threat, there could be value for a community institution like the ProJo in opening itself to dialogue, particularly with Tom Shevlin, Angus Davis, and others tweeting occasional suggestions to strengthen the paper. For now, though, we'll almost certainly have to wait to see if the next ownership on Fountain Street is more willing to converse with outsiders.

8. Some other legislative races are starting to emerge, in addition to the one noted above in item 3. Republican Sharon Gamba plans to challenge Democratic state Rep Robert Craven of North Kingstown; Republican Robert A. Nardolillo III is off and running against Democratic Rep Scott Guthrie of Coventry; And as Ted Nesi first reported a few weeks back, real estate agent Chris Wall, a one-time staffer for former secretary of state Ed Inman, is running a Democratic primary challenge to freshman state Senator Gayle Goldin.

9. While the state GOP still doesn't have a candidate for lieutenant governor, the Democratic side of the fight continues to heat up. Ralph Mollis filled a fundraiser to capacity during the height of Wednesday's snow storm. Meanwhile, Dan McKee has hired Jen Burton and Bobby Gravitz of Sway as his media consultants.

10. The scheduling of a November 3 trial for accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has prompted a debate about the appropriate penalty for a conviction. One of the justifications often cited by death penalty supporters is a belief that capital punishment is less costly than keeping someone locked up for life. Yet as Forbes and others (see here and here) report, it's actually a bigger bite for taxpayers to put a criminal to death, due to the lengthy appeals that happen in capital cases. Meanwhile, although there's generally a sharp liberal-conservative split on capital punishment, former CD1 candidate John Loughlin recently broke with the dogma on his WPRO radio show. Loughlin said keeping Tsarnaev locked up for life would be a harsher penalty, and therefore more just.

11. How's this for a dichotomy: On one hand, the General Assembly has had a strong disinclination to pass gun-related legislation; Rhode Island, for now at least, remains among the minority of states that don't even submit information for a national database meant to keep dangerously mentally ill people from obtaining guns. On the other hand, candidates like Gina Raimondo and Brett Smiley are embracing anti-gun stances as part of their campaigns. Raimondo championed taking RI's pension fund out of gun-related businesses, and Smiley is pushing his proposal to fund anti-violence effort through a tax on guns and ammunition.

12. Aside from working on that drone project, Amazon has some suggestions on 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.

13. Peter Kerwin flagged on Twitter an interesting read from Jay Rosen on what Rosen sees a decline in political reporting. Rosen's rap is that some reporters focus way too much on the inside game of politics and not enough on real voters, their concerns, and their influence on elections. It's a fair point -- to an extent -- yet the inside game can be just as important to the outcome of important policy decisions. On a related note, former Brown professor Darrell West, now at the Brookings Institution, has a new paper about nudging news producers and consumers "toward more thoughtful, less polarized discourse." The common-sense solutions include avoiding "false equivalence" in reporting, casting a wide net for sources, and incorporating more reader reaction in social media. Yet with an ocean of information vying for the attention of news consumers -- many of whom self-select along their own ideological beliefs -- it could be hard to convince web portals and search engines toward in-depth materials, rather than just the most popular stuff. Shameless plug: public radio listeners rate high in their understanding of the news.

14. The Washington Post took note of the latest attempt to make calamari the state appetizer, a development that would make Rhode Island the first state with such a distinction. Yet when it comes to foods with official status, Reid Wilson writes, "Oklahoma does it best; in 1988, the legislature designated an official state meal. The menu includes fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie and black-eyed peas."

15. Harley-Davidson is an iconic American brand, and Adam Davidson says unionized workers played a key role in helping the company to overcome a threat to its very existence. Excerpt: "Harley’s lesson is complex, but also clear. Organizing a nonunion plant does not guarantee manufacturing success, but for certain companies — with strong brand associations, customizable product lines and world-class equipment and processes — union workers can be not a cost but an asset. And that’s good news for much of the manufacturing industry. The United States, after all, is in the midst of the long shift from commodity competition, in the form of low-cost generic goods, to, well, just that kind of work."

16. Give a listen to "Collecting money for songwriters, a 100-year tug of war," a fascinating brief history via NPR of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

17. A ProJo headline this week -- about Attorney General Peter Kilmartin's spokeswoman's assertion that he is indeed a Rhode Islander -- led me to tweet something about how the absence of kangaroos at the Providence Biltmore. If that left you puzzled, here's the back story, which I remembered from Bruce DeSilva's classic 1989 Rhode Island Monthly piece about the statewide daily: A former reporter, Fraser Smith, recalled how, "One day, someone called the city desk and said they heard there was a kangaroo in the lobby of the Biltmore ... I went over and looked around. No kangaroo. I asked people, 'had there been one there earlier?' No. I came back and told the editor, 'no kangaroo.' He said, 'Okay, in that case give me two or three inches [of copy].' The thinking was, if somebody out there had heard that there was a kangaroo in the Biltmore, we had to let him know it wasn't true. And that wasn't the only 'no kangaroo' story I ever had to write." So there you have it.