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

Nov 4, 2016

Fasten your seatbelt for what promises to be an impactful Election Day next Tuesday. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your comments and tips are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. While the nation remains transfixed by the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, all eyes in Rhode Island are on Republican Steven Frias' challenge to Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Indications point to a competitive race. Frias gave himself a chance by pursuing an early focus on door-to-door campaigning in House District 15; he estimates he's knocked on more than 5,000 households. The Republican has also framed the election as a referendum on the status quo. That's a savvy message in a conservative-leaning district at a time when Rhode Island's economy remains less than robust, and when the last legislative session was punctuated by unflattering headlines about former House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison and outgoing state Rep. John Carnevale. Mattiello has responded by saying he's used the power of the speakership to improve the state, cutting a series of taxes and promoting a more business-friendly environment. Unlike Frias, Mattiello grew up in Cranston, and he was active in community groups even before first winning election as a state rep 10 years ago. He's made the point, too, that it's good for the state's third-largest city to be represented by the speaker. Incumbents with a big cash advantage can usually cruise to re-election. So why has this battle become more competitive? Here are a few reasons: 1) Frias has wielded a concise, focused message; 2) Mattiello, usually a good communicator, has had a few messaging stumbles, like trying to blame Frias for 38 Studios; 3) The endorsement of Mattiello by former Frias opponent Shawna Lawton raised questions; and 4) Mattiello's heavy campaign spending has drawn attention to the extent to which he's trying to maintain his office. So will Cranston voters return Mr. Speaker to the rostrum? Or do they strike a symbolic blow against the status quo by electing Frias? We'll have the answer Tuesday night.

2. The stakes at the Statehouse: If Mattiello wins, he's indicated he'll move forward with an eventual phase-out of the much-disliked car tax. If Frias scores a victory, it will obviously spark a leadership scramble in what former speaker Bill Murphy once dubbed "the House of Ambition." An upset win could become a textbook case of how an underfunded rival can vanquish a powerful rival, with possible implications for Rhode Island's 2018 gubernatorial race. Frias says a win on his part would send a shockwave through the Statehouse: "That sends a huge message to these people up there, they say, you got to get your act together, you have to get serious about ethics, you have to get serious about making us more competitive with states like Massachusetts."

3. A second day of mediation over Rhode Island's lawsuit against Hewlett Packard Enterprise, over the long-in-the-works computer system for the DMV, ended without progress Friday. TGIF has learned that HPE has expressed concern that talks with the state have been unnecessarily focused on the company's CEO, Meg Whitman. As the ProJo has reported, Whitman promised then-Governor Lincoln Chafee in 2013 that the company would dedicate the necessary resources to finish the long-delayed DMV computer project. Whitman, as it happens, was a guest of the Clintons during the third presidential debate, and is seen as a potential member of Hillary Clinton's Cabinet. (Asked for comment, HPE shared its initial statement from earlier in the week: “HPE has met all contractual obligations with the State of Rhode Island and has made a substantial effort to reach a fair resolution of the dispute under the Rhode Island Motor Vehicle System (RIMS) contract. Given the progress that has been made by both parties, it is unfortunate the State has derailed this project by being unwilling to pay for additional work that the State requested and HPE performed. HPE is now forced to pursue legal remedies to recover compensation for its work.”

4. Here are some of the other General Assembly races we're keeping an eye on: Mike Smith (I) vs. Rep. Lauren Carson (D-Newport); Linda Finn (D) vs. Kenneth Mendonca (R); Anthony Paolino (D) and Vin Marzullo (I) vs Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick); David Place (R) vs. Rep. Cale Keable (D-Burrillville); Rebecca Schiff (R) vs. Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D-Jamestown); Luis Vargas (I) vs. Rep. Joe Almeida (D-Providence); Mark Bourget (I) vs. Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick); Robert Quattrocchi (R) vs. Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Scituate); Karin Gorman (R) vs. Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston); Stephanie Westgate (R) vs. Thomas Winfield (D-Smithfield); Margaux Morisseau (D) vs. Sen. Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry); and Billy Charette (R) vs. Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland).    

5. Sam Bell of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats thinks the focus on re-electing Speaker Mattiello by some Democrats resulting in short shrift for other candidates: "On the whole, I expect Democrats to pick up several seats in the House, with Linda Finn, Julie Casimiro, Lisa Tomasso, and Evan Shanley all likely to win," Bell said. "But our party has missed key opportunities. In contrast to House Leadership, I would like to commend the behavior of Senate Leadership. They really are working to ensure that Democrats win seats from the GOP, and we are particularly excited about the possibility of having Cathie Cool Rumsey back in the Senate. Senate Leadership has also made serious investments in helping the more uphill campaigns of Jim Seveney and Margaux Morisseau.That's what a leadership team should be doing. It's a real shame that House Leadership and the official Democratic Party, which is controlled by House Leadership, aren't making the same effort that Senate Leadership is." Democratic Party special adviser Bill Lynch defended the party's efforts, and said they replicate the approach of previous years. Regardless, with Republicans starting four seats down in the House (after the exit of Joe Trillo, Dan Reilly, Doreen Costa, and Karen MacBeth), the Democratic caucus may barely lose representation in that chamber, if at all. Spending by outside groups (including the Gaspee Project, the Roosevelt Society of RI, and the Alan Hasssenfeld-funded RI For Gun Safety) has topped $100,000 in legislative races. It would mark a rebuke to the truck toll critics if all or most of the following Democratic reps/candidates win their races: Lauren Carson, Cale Keable, Dave Bennett, Evan Shanley, Susan Donovan, Jason Knight, Patricia Serpa, Dennis Canario, Jay O’Grady, Ken Marshall, Deb Ruggiero, Joe McNamara, Lisa Tomasso.

6. Scott MacKay's observations on a caustic presidential campaign.

7. Where the campaigns will be on Tuesday night: House Speaker Mattiello and his supporters will start the evening at the Cranston Grange ....  Steven Frias and Republicans will be at Rhode Island Shriners Imperial Room in Cranston ....  RI Democrats will gather en masse in the Garden Room at the Providence Biltmore. Via news release: "Doors will open to the public at 6:30 P.M. with elected officials and candidates speaking from 7:45 P.M. on. U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Congressmen Langevin and Cicilline, Governor Gina Raimondo, and all state officers and Democratic mayors are invited and expected to attend."

8. The Out of Towners, Rhode Island edition: long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan Eric Hyers had a pretty good week. Hyers, who managed Governor Gina Raimondo's 2014 campaign and previous wins by David Cicilline, is now trying to seal the deal for Montana's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, who is locked in a tight re-election race ... Steve Neuman, formerly Raimondo's chief of staff, is helping lead Hillary Clinton's Michigan campaign, where 538 likes her chances ... Ian Prior, who ran Brendan Doherty's 2012 run in CD1, is keeping busy as the communications director for American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS and the Senate Leader Fund/One Nation ... and last, but not least, West Warwick native Paul Tencher is trying, amid a tight race, to return Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh to the Senate.

9. State Rep. Blake Filippi (New Shoreham), the only independent among 113 General Assembly members, thinks the truck toll issue resonates with voters -- and he believes the constitutionality of the RhodeWorks law "is still up in the air." With the Raimondo administration believes it has a stronger case based on recent approval by the Federal Highway Administration, "the federal Highway administration does not dictate what the dormant commerce clause is in the United States Constitution, " Filippi said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A. "The dormant commerce clause prevents states from unfairly favoring in-state commerce against out-of-state commerce, and the toll bill disproportionately moves the cost of our infrastructure repair onto interstate commerce. I fear the truckers are going to sue, and a court is going to say, 'your bill is unconstitutional unless you broaden those that are tolled' ... If we've spent $50 million on gantrys, I fear the state is going to say, 'we have no choice [but] to expand tolling -- and that's why we need to install a test gantry right now, the one that was on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Put it up, toll a truck, start the lawsuit, figure out if this is legal and then spend $50 million on gantrys."  

10. One of the subplots playing out in the election on Tuesday is whether House Majority Leader John DeSimone can stage a comeback as a write-in candidate. The Working Families Party has continued to contribute to primary winner Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, on a close basis to DeSimone's spending. "The primary proved that DeSimone is out to touch with the district, and that is still true," said Georgia Hollister Isman, state director for RI Working Families. "Even though he is spending lots of money and using questionable tactics, voters like Marcia's commitment to $15 minimum wage, reducing gun violence and increasing government accountability. Marcia and her team have been out knocking on doors every day. They are getting a great response both from primary voters and from new voters who will show up next week. They will be continuing to talk to voters all the way through election day." Meanwhile, Republican Roland Lavallee faces a challenge as a GOP candidate in Providence. (DeSimone did not respond to a request for comment.)

11. Governor Gina Raimondo put her stamp on the venerable Rhode Island State Police by this week appointing Ann Assumpico as the first female colonel in the agency's history. Raimondo pointed to Assumpico's decades of law enforcement experience when asked if the new superintendent was picked because she's a woman. Yet it's hardly a stretch to think that Raimondo identifies with the similarly petite (5'2", according to the ProJo) colonel as a strong woman who has overcome a series of challenges. The pick also solidifies the governor's state goal of having the RISP better reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the state.

12. Three RI Republicans, Joe Trillo, Lee Ann Sennick, and Gary Sasse, discuss their presidential choices.

13. So are political consultants worth the cost? "Consider a few of this year’s election results," writes Molly Ball in The Atlantic. "In the most expensive House primary in the country, a wealthy Maryland Democrat hired some of the best pros money could buy and bombarded voters with TV and radio ads, direct mail, and robocalls—only to finish the race $13 million poorer and seven points shy of victory. At the presidential level, Hillary Clinton’s push for the Democratic nomination was nearly derailed by a candidate whose campaign manager was a comic-book-store owner with no experience in elections outside of Vermont. And while Clinton’s staff-heavy operation ultimately prevailed, her worst showings came in caucuses—the sort of contests where on-the-ground organizing is supposed to make the biggest difference. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, is a field-organizing specialist. On the Republican side, the most expensive and professional presidential campaigns proved remarkably ineffective. Ted Cruz’s campaign paid almost $6 million to a state-of-the-art analytics firm that touted its slicing and dicing of the electorate based on personality profiles. Marco Rubio’s campaign and super pac spent $105 million; Ben Carson’s spent $78 million. Most notoriously, Jeb Bush, between his campaign and his super pac, employed a flotilla of the best-credentialed consultants in Republican politics, burned through $139 million of his donors’ money—and dropped out after just three primaries, having won four delegates and as little as 3 percent of the vote in the states where he competed."

14. Is America on the abyss? Andrew Sullivan begins with this: "The most frustrating aspect of the last 12 months has been the notion that we have been in a normal, if truly ugly, election cycle, with one extremely colorful and unpredictable figure leading the Republican Party in an otherwise conventional political struggle over policy. It has been clear for months now, it seems to me, that this is a delusion."

15. When print advertising for The New York Times, with its affluent audience, drops by almost 20 percent, it's bad news for other newspapers, too. For a depressing take, consider this. Left unanswered is the question of how the news-gathering role traditionally played by newspapers (with their larger staffs) will be funded in the future.

16. Meanwhile, here's part of how GateHouse Media, owner of the ProJo, is responding to a changing media environment (via the Boston Business Journal): "GateHouse today announced plans to hire “up to 100 digital sales executives in the coming months.” If it follows through on hiring all 100, that would represent an 8 percent increase to the some 1,300 digital ad reps currently working at the company nationwide. The Pittsford, New York-based company says about 10 of those new hires will be in the New England area initially, 'with more to follow.' "

17. We could all use a beer about now. So give a listen to the story of how Jim Koch, the major domo behind Sam Adams beer, found his road to success.