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

Jul 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day! Thanks for stopping by for my Friday column. Feel free to share your tips via idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org and to follow me on the twitters. Without further ado, and with a lot more political fireworks on the way, let's get going.

1. Buddy Cianci's here and there and everywhere. It was a no-brainer that Cianci's latest comeback would draw attention away from other political races and cast temperature-taking about Rhode Island politics in a national light. Buddy loves being the center of attention -- the ringmaster -- while insisting all the while that his only intention is to make a positive difference in Providence. So what effect does Buddy have on the Democratic primary for governor? The thinking generally breaks into two schools of thought: 1) by focusing on potholes and other shortcomings in the capital city, Cianci's message will boost Gina Raimondo in her battle with Providence's current mayor, Angel Taveras, especially as she ramps up her campaign in the near future (see #2); But .... 2) Cianci has gone out of his way not to fault the incumbent at City Hall, and Taveras' almost completely consistent best-in-the-field approval rating over recent years speaks for itself and cognition, too, that Taveras led fiscal improvements while the state was still mired in recession. There's little love lost between Cianci and US Representative David Cicilline, who won City Hall as the anti-Cianci back in 2002. So if Buddy keeps hammering a message that the roots of Providence's woes pre-date Taveras, it could accrue to the current mayor's benefit, bolstering his public image .... Meanwhile, Clay Pell will be looking to walk through the middle as Taveras-Raimondo battle intensifies.

2. Enjoy the lull in the governor's race, relatively speaking, while you can. A new phase will emerge once we get past the July 4 weekend, with some fresh advertising and sharper tones on the Democratic side of the fight.

3. Speaking of fresh advertising, Clay Pell launches a new TV spot today. With the July 4 holiday as a backdrop, the spot emphasize how Pell is the only Democrat in the primary with military experience, featuring a testimonial from one of his former colleagues in the US Coast Guard.

4. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello rejects suggestions that Rhode Islanders are being nickel-and-dimed to death. Representative Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) floated that critique during the House budget debate, and the ProJo later reviewed the extent of government fees. Mattiello says that even with the gas tax going up next year, most people "are paying much less than they ever have before" due to smaller, more efficient cars. As far as Morgan's rap, Mattiello says, "It's easy to criticize someone else's work product. Quite frankly, I haven't seen her work product or her ideas to do anything. Rather than be negative, I've created an infrastructure fund," which, he predicts, will save taxpayers money over time by reducing state borrowing. Tune to Rhode Island Public Radio Monday morning for my end-of-session Q+A with the speaker. There's a sneak peak here, with Mattiello's thoughts on Buddy Cianci, RI's ominous structural deficits and more.

5. We've come a long way since the Wall Street Journal dismissed pre-Renaissance Rhode Island as a smudge on the way to Cape Cod, or have we? 1) A Connecticut brewer claimed rights to 401 for one of its offerings, leading a Pawtucket outfit to change its name; 2) Said Pawtucket brewer doubled-down on Rhode Island's shady rep by renaming itself Crooked Current and making plans for a corruption museum; 3) a conservative blogger said Providence needs to double-down on corruption because it's the city's best brand. How about a little perspective? Twenty-six New York state lawmakers (a number that could rise to 30) have left office due to criminal or ethical issues in the last 15 years, and as we've said before, many other states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, and Louisiana, to name a few), are hardly strangers to corruption and misbehaving pols. Take a spin through this BuzzFeed listicle (h/t Ted Nesi) on why the Biggest Little is great, if you need a refresher.

5. Speaker Mattiello, who punted on whether Buddy's comeback is good or bad for RI's reputation, offers this prescription for improving the state's reputation: "I want to promote the state. I want to be a person that's got a high-profile position that works hard every day to promote the state. I want to enact budgets with good policies. I want to pass good policies in the House and the General Assembly so that the public has confidence in the state .... I believe the citizens of this state are very proud of this state, but they get frustrated with some of the polices. So what I'm going to do, I'm going to move as hard and quickly as I can to change the policies, and you've seen that in my first 90 days as speaker," with changes like cutting the corporate tax rate from 9 to 7 percent, and raising the estate tax exemption from about $922,000 to $1.5 million.

6. The Rhode Island ACLU is out with its take on the General Assembly's best and worst actions of 2014. The worst list includes the passage of a bill mandating the taking of DNA from people merely arrested for a number of offenses, and another offering additional prison time of up to 10 years for gang-related acts. On the other hand, the ACLU applauds the NECAP moratorium and how the legislature took no action on some bills considered ill-advised by the civil liberties group.

7. Speaking on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q+A this week, RI ACLU executive director Steve Brown said there's still a long way to in improving government transparency after changes a few years ago to the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Access RI will be issuing a forthcoming report on the subject.

8. Buddy Cianci understood triangulation well before Bill Clinton became a household name, and yes, the guy is a remarkable character with a lot of brio, name recognition, the ability to assemble a strong war chest, and a superb understanding of politics. But remember this: three of Cianci's six mayoral victories came on razor thin margins, including when he won his 1990 comeback by 317 votes. Seen one way, this can be viewed as evidence of Buddy's mastery in surviving (and manipulating) close elections. The flip side, though, is that a lot of things need to fall right for a polarizing candidate. So how much of a backlash develops in response to his candidacy? There's been a whisper of that in letters to the editor in the ProJo and a piece in the Economist, yet so far, Providence's business community has remained quiet about Cianci's second comeback.

9. Considering Patrick J. Kennedy's emergence as an outspoken opponent of legalizing marijuana, some might wonder if the former RI congressman is being paid for his advocacy. Kennedy says he is not being compensated, and what's more, has faced difficulty in attracting funding support for the message. "We really haven't been as successful as I was hoping in terms of galvanizing strong philanthropy to stop the power of big money behind the commercialization of marijuana," Kennedy told me  during a recent conversation. "Honestly, I was hoping to get someone like Michael Bloomberg, who's clearly come out against cigarettes and a lot of other things that cause public health challenges in our population, to really kind of step up. I've met with his office. I've obviously met with many others that I consider potential sources to help fund really a public education campaign to offset the myths around the harmlessness of marijuana, which really doesn't measure up to what the facts are. We've been running this basically with the goodwill of a lot of public health folks and trying to get the message out on our own."  

10. The Democratic primary for treasurer between Frank Caprio and Seth Magaziner is shaping up as the top under-card in Rhode Island's 2014 election season. Magaziner's camp, relishing the news that Caprio sat down with Republican leaders, released the following statement: "No one's shocked that Frank Caprio courted the Republican Party and considered running as their candidate - he was just hoping Democratic Primary voters wouldn't notice. This is the same Frank Caprio who told President Obama to ‘shove it’ before leaving the Democratic Party. We are confident Democratic Primary voters will reject his Republican politics in September." Caprio's campaign pushes back by calling Magaziner a Wall Street acolyte. The former treasurer has cut a populist profile on 38 Studios and continues to pick up endorsements from groups that didn't support Caprio during his 2010 run for governor, including AFSCME's Council 94, the RI State Association of Fire Fighters, and the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. The National Education Association Rhode Island, meanwhile, sided with Magaziner, who also has support from the likes of Deval Patrick, Bill Clinton, and Patrick Kennedy. Magaziner's camp says he raised more than $120,000 in Q2, from 456 individuals, 73 percent in-state, and 64 percent new donors; Caprio's Q2 figures were not yet available.

11. With the drumbeat about a brain drain of younger people leaving Rhode Island for jobs elsewhere, perhaps the greater threat is the exodus of some of the state's best political talent to Harvard University. The latest departure is Arianne Corrente Lynch, who joins former Clarendon Group colleague Christine Heenan (not to mention former Don Carcieri press secretary Jeff Neal, one of the best RI flacks in recent memory) in Cambridge. Arianne is transitioning from her own consulting shop into a post as associate director of communications for Harvard Public Affairs and Communications. 'Rhode Island is an amazing place with so much potential," says the Connecticut native and former deputy chief of staff in Providence, a class act whose presence will be missed by many in the Ocean State.

12. At this rate, the winner of the three-way Democratic primary to replace Gordon Fox in House District 4 might spend more than the $93,000 dropped (without taking inflation into account) by Patrick Kennedy in 1988. At least two of the candidates, education activist Aaron Regunberg and education reformer Heather Tow-Yick, are raising big bucks. Regunberg says he raised $32,500 in the second quarter and has cash on hand of $44,500. Tow-Yick's campaign says she pulled in $36,000 in Q2 and has about $40,000 on hand. Also competing in the race are business lawyer Miriam Ross, and independent candidate Ethan Gyles.

13. When Lincoln Chafee squeaked into office in 2010 with 36 percent of the vote, you had to wonder if time was on his side -- whether even Rhode Island's problem-plagued economy would improve enough over four years to bolster his re-election hopes. As we know, conditions didn't change quickly enough for Chafee to feel good about his chances. Yet as the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat winds down his last months in office, there's a bit more evidence for his consistently upbeat message. For example, the state Department of Labor and Training recently revised upward, by 1,800, the number of jobs created in the first quarter of 2014. In a statement, Chafee said, “Job growth in Rhode Island continues to steadily move in the right direction, as evidenced by the 2014 first quarter tax data, which shows better than estimated positive movement. We are seeing this progress because of our investment and dedication to education, infrastructure and workforce development – the building blocks of a strong economy.” Improvements can't come fast enough for those left behind in the state, and Rhode Island has badly lagged Massachusetts in regaining jobs lost during the recession. But as Chafee moves toward the next chapter in his life, he'll be leaving on an up note of economic improvement.

14. Are casinos coming or going? Rhode Island voters will decide this November whether to expand Newport Grand into a full-fledged casino (with Will Farrell managing the pro-casino referendum campaign), while our Bay State counterparts could either squelch or green-light a big expansion of gambling in Massachusetts. While growing saturation of New England's gambling market seems likely, the Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen, reporting from Atlantic City, offers a reminder of what happens when the marketplace gets too glutted: "The Revel, the $2.4 billion hotel and casino that opened on the boardwalk just two years ago, filed for bankruptcy and will close in August unless a new sucker — um, excuse me, buyer — can be found. When it opened, the Revel was held up as the rock-solid revival of New Jersey’s shaky gambling business. Governor Chris Christie put his constituents’ money where his mouth is, pumping $260 million into the project."

15. In a time of newspaper downsizing -- not too mention uncertainty about the ProJo's future -- the Portland Press-Herald is offering a deeply reported 29-part serial about a Maine Indian tribe.

16. Rhode Island Public Radio is staging two live hour-long discussions with the candidates for governor. The Democrats are up on Tuesday, July 8, and the Republicans, Tuesday, July 15 (each from 7-8 pm). The first forum is sold-out, but you can listen to it on RIPR. If you'd like to send questions, drop us an email at news (at) ripr (dot) org. Use the subject line "Gov Debate."

17. Don't let the Fourth of July pass without remembering Providence-born George M. Cohan, who wrote such songs as "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "The Yankee Doodle Boy." TGIF also recommends reading aloud some verse from the great Walt Whitman.