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

Feb 28, 2014

Welcome back to my weekly column. Don your ear muffs, cook up some cocoa and settle in for another exciting seven days in Rhode Island politics. Your thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and feel free to follow me on the twitters. Let's get to it.

1. Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, is a close observer of Rhode Island politics. So I was interested in his prediction this week that Ken Block is going to win the Republican primary for governor. "I think Ken has kind of hit his stride in what Republican primary voters usually [support]," Walsh tells me. He notes how Lincoln Almond decisively beat the better-known Ron Machtley in a 1994 primary, and how the same thing happened when Don Carcieri beat Jim Bennett in 2002. Speaking on the heels of a new policy initiative by Block, Walsh describes the Barrington resident as a "plain-spoken businessman with a sense of urgency -- I think that's resonating," as seen, he says, by how Block picked up an endorsement this week from conservative state Rep Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown). Walsh also counts as significant how John Robitaille called for GOP primary voters to keep an open mind in considering Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. "To me, that's a huge signal that there may be a sea change here," Walsh says. The union chieftain also questions whether a pragmatic sort like Block, who attracted 6.5 percent of the vote while running as a Moderate in 2010, would run again without "a credible business path to victory." Walsh, a Clay Pell supporter who says he lacks a stake in the GOP race, also calls Fung's attempts to redefine himself on issues like gun rights as clumsier than those of Block. The idea of the Cranston mayor running off to a shooting range, Walsh says, referring to an iconic image from the 1988 presidential race, "is about as politically appealing as Michael Dukakis in a tank."

Naturally, Fung's campaign manager, Patrick Sweeney, isn't buying it. Sweeney points to how "Block voted for Obama twice and supported Obamacare at a time when Obama could not be more unpopular among Republicans." It's "an unheard of negative -- deadly," Sweeney cites a poll (which he declined to provide) supposedly showing how likely GOP primary voters are 83 percent less likely to back Block because of his support for Obama. "Mr. Block is the Charlie Crist of Rhode Island," Sweeney continues. "He is seen as opportunist; he chastised Rhode Island Republicans, [and] created own party -- which cost John Robitaille the election in 2010. He switched parties based on a poll and flip-flopped on multiple positions based on this same poll." Sweeney asserts that Block has no real grassroots support, in contrast to Fung's Cranston-based GOTV operation and the more than 1000 contributors who have donated to the mayor's campaign. Sweeney says Block won't attract moderate independent voters to GOP primary, because of the Democrat primary, "and his disingenuous attempts to move to the right will turn-off prior supporters." By contrast, he says, Fung is likely to attract independents based on the profile he's established and previous campaigns. Sweeney notes how the last Brown University poll showed a statistical dead heat between Fung and Gina Raimondo in the general election; he suggests Walsh is knocking Fung because he would be a more formidable threat in November.

2. Stan Israel, the retired former head of Service Employees International Union, District 1199, is contemplating a run for the General Assembly. Israel lives in a section of Barrington represented by Jan Malik, who first won his office in 1996. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do," says Israel, who retired in 2011 as one of the grand old men of Rhode Island's labor movement. For his part, Malik, a liquor store owner and outspoken advocate of reducing the state sales tax, says he plans to seek re-election. In 2012, Malik defeated Republican challenger Peter Costa Jr. by a margin of 676 votes (55 pecent/45 percent) in 2012. Should he run, Israel, with his many friends and allies in labor, would certainly be a stronger challenger.

3. Early indications suggest the General Assembly is less than lukewarm about voting on the proposed pension settlement in this session. For their part, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed have remained non-committal, vowing to hold off with their views until after the settlement faces its initial union votes. Things could change among more lawmakers, of course, if support for the settlement gains momentum. Yet for now, there are signs of a split: with public-employee retirees taking a dimmer view of the deal, and younger workers a more favorable one. "It's a long way to go," Governor Lincoln Chafee told me Friday afternoon after meeting with municipal officials. "The main goal is to avoid millions of dollars in litigation fees, lawyer fees, and also the risk of setbacks, and I'm very confident the General Assembly will see it as I do: this is a good settlement."

4. As Americans debate the size and role of the federal government, it's worth recalling how some of the safeguards we take for granted can be traced to Theodore Roosevelt's (Republican) presidency in 1906. Aided by investigative reporters who exposed abuses and threats to public health, Roosevelt shepherded  legislation to regulate railroads, inspect meat, and impose oversight on the manufacture of food and drugs, overcoming opposition led by the powerhouse Rhode Island senator Nelson Aldrich. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book The Bully Pulpit, notes this quote from the New York Times: "During no session of Congress since the foundation of the government has there been so much done, first, to extend the federal power of regulation and control over the business of the country, and second, to cure and prevent abuses of corporate privileges."

5. The five-member GOP caucus in the state Senate wielded an outsized influence last year when it came down in support of same-sex marriage. Yet the caucus will be subject to some flux this year, since Dawson Hodgson is challenging Peter Kilmartin for attorney general. (Hodgson says "two very good R candidates" are running to succeed him -- Kim Page, chairwoman of the North Kingstown School Committee, and East Greenwich town councilor Mark Gee.) Senator David Bates of Barrington, who was first elected in 1992, he tells me he remains undecided about whether he'll seek re-election. Meanwhile, a Democratic candidate has emerged for the seat now held by Bates: Barrington Town Councilor Cindy A. Coyne. According to her announcement, Coyne, a former state police lieutenant who is now an administrative supervisor at Johnson & Wales' Department of Campus Safety and Security, was the top vote-getter in her 2010 council run, her first bid for public office. Left unmentioned was how she's married to deputy attorney general Gerald Coyne, Coyne has his own legislative connection; he served as legal counsel during George Caruolo's time as House majority leader.

6. Think you can get around high cable fees via Netflix and Hulu? You might have to think again in view of the latest signs of consolidation in the cable industry, as the New York Times recently noted: "Cutting the cord, in Comcast’s universe, just doesn’t save you very much money. Comcast has carefully set up pricing to get you whether you watch shows the old-fashioned way, on a boob-tube fed with a cable, or whether you prefer to veg out with Netflix on your iPad. Either way, you’re probably paying hundreds of dollars a year to maintain your vital hook to the outside world. And if you consider the added costs of Netflix and streaming rentals, it’s possible that the cord cutter may be paying more, over all, than someone who subscribes to cable."

7. The Providence Newspaper Guild ratified a new contract Monday that extends through December 31, 2014. Guild president John Hill says the deal includes no raises and minor tweaks to the healthcare plan -- a sign of how A.H. Belo is looking to maintain the status quo while shopping the Providence Journal to prospective buyers.

8. Planned Parenthood is planning a big national offensive this election year, Politico reports. So it's worth noting that hereabouts, Bill Fischer, on his way out from the Pell campaign, will be representing Planned Parenthood of Southern New England at the Statehouse this year.

9. Props to our indefatigable operations manager at Rhode Island Public Radio, James Baumgartner, who has piloted a series of improvements in our weekend lineup, starting tomorrow. You'll still be able to hear great programs like Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, This American Life, and On the Media, but they'll be joined by The Moth Radio Hour, Bullseye (about popular culture), the TED radio hour, The Dinner Party Download, and much more. You can read about the changes here. Oh, and if you're into bicycling and/or dry wit, check out James' Twitter feed.  

10. When in doubt of your ideal job, start your own consulting shop. It happens in the nation's capital, and it happens here, as Dan McGowan reported this week on Michael D'Amico's plans. Congrats, meanwhile, to Gonzalo Cuervo, who will move up as the first Latino chief of staff in the history of Providence City Hall. Cuervo's father was part of the first wave of Colombians to settle in Central Falls, as he told me in a 2012 interview, right on the heels of James Diossa's ground-breaking victory.

11. As speculation continues about the next move for House Speaker Gordon Fox, it's worth remembering that Fox -- like his predecessor, lawyer-lobbyist Bill Murphy, was part of a huge incoming class of lawmakers elected in 1992, a gut-check year election season following the credit union crisis. Besides Fox, only eight members of that incoming class remain in the House: Representatives Edith Ajello; John DeSimone; Robert Jacquard; Charlene Lima; Eileen Naughton; William San Bento; Anastasia Wiliams; and Thomas Winfield. Just three reps have more seniority: Don Lally (who came in via a 1989 special election); Brian Patrick Kennedy (1988); and the dean of the House, Elaine Coderre (1984). All this matters since if and when Fox leaves, his move would likely signal broader turnover.

12. Hansi Lo Wang from NPR's Code Switch unit, which looks at the intersection of race, ethnicity, and culture, is in town to develop a story on our possibly barrier-breaking gubernatorial race.

13. Amid wider gloom about Rhode Island's economy, the Quonset Business Park continues to establish itself as a hub for renewable energy. Last week, as reported by RIPR, a 500-kilowatt solar farm won approval. The project is spearheaded by Bella Energy of Colorado, and will be built on a five-acre parcel that is not suitable for commercial or industrial development. This follows approval of a similar solar project in December, after Governor Chafee flipped the switch on New England’s most powerful solar rooftop array last November. As the ProJo’s Alex Kuffner pointed out, “The state-owned business park on Narragansett Bay is quietly becoming a hub for renewable power in Rhode Island as the QDC looks to maximize the use of marginal properties that are not suitable for traditional development.” The Business Park is home to more than 175 companies, 9500 full and part-time workers, and the Port of Davisville ranks as one of the top-10 auto importers in North America. There was also the renewal of the longest signed lease in Electric Boat’s history at Quonset (25 years). The company could double its workforce there within ten years.

14. We've noted before the Rhode Island connection of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, who created Chief Gansett for Narragansett Beer and illustrated ads for the brewer. As it happens, Saturday, March 1 marks the anniversary of when the NEA's Read Across America was launched some 17 years ago, on Seuss's birthday. So with National Education Association Rhode Island executive director Robert Walsh backing Clay Pell's gubernatorial run, it's worth noting how Pell and his wife, Michelle Kwan, will kick off the RI's Read Across America, (10 am, Warwick Mall). The lineup of readers also includes Jack Reed, Deborah Gist, Peter Kilmartin, the Cardi brothers, George Nee, David Cicilline and teacher of the year Pat Page of East Greenwich, yet apparently no one with the initials GR or AT.

15. Speaking of Narragansett, fifth-generation Pennsylvania brewer Yuengling has imminent plans to storm the Massachusetts market after an absence of many years. I've enjoyed Yuengling's lager and other brews during visits with family in the New York area. It remains unclear if the brewer plans to sell its products in Rhode Island; meanwhile, some press reports call Yuengling a competitor of Narragansett.  

16. It's Follies time, one of my favorite nights of the year. For the uninitiated, the Providence Newspaper Guild's annual satirical review at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts, was launched as a way to heal the rifts of a bitter 1973 strike at the ProJo. It features a cholesterol-bomb buffet, an animated cocktail hour, scathing skits about the past year in the Biggest Little, and the appearance of a Mystery Guest. See you at the bar.

17. Frank Deford has an intriguing idea for shrinking the length of baseball games and making the national pastime more enticing: shrink home plate.