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

Jun 15, 2018

The Rhode Island House budget vote is monkeying with our column-writing schedule, so this week's TGIF is a bit abbreviated. But we're still checking the pulse of Ocean State politics and appreciate your stopping by. Your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Two cross-currents are getting a lot of attention -- how 2018 is shaping up as the year of women in politics, and how President Trump, despite his less than stellar overall approval rating, commands very strong support among Republicans. A Morning Consult report out this week reinforced the view that Trump is very unpopular in the Ocean State (he has a 60 percent disapproval rate, up from 46 percent in January 2017.) So what does this mean for Rhode Island? Will a surge of female legislative candidates hasten the day when the House has a woman as speaker? Will Trump's fealty in the GOP give a primary boost to someone like US Senate candidate Robert Nardolillo, who is arguably more of an embodiment of the president's Republican Party than rival Robert Flanders? Answering these questions is impossible for now, but that didn't stop me from asking two Rhode Islanders for their views. Justine Caldwell, a Democrat challenging state Rep. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich), is one of the first-time female candidates trying to storm the Statehouse. She points to East Greenwich as a place where Trump's brand of politics isn't playing well. "Democrats in my district are fired up to vote in November and let it be known exactly how they’re feeling about the direction our country has taken," Caldwell said. "And Republicans I’m talking with are more open to Democrats like me who stand for a more collaborative, adult kind of politics. "We’ve seen the effects of that Democratic enthusiasm in the special elections around the country, and I expect the campaigns of all Democrats -- from Sen. Whitehouse and Gov. Raimondo, even to Matt Brown -- are feeling the surge of enthusiasm I’m seeing in my district." Not surprisingly, RI Republican Chairman Brandon Bell has a very different view on the outlook (and the RGA keeps dropping money into RI): "Trump's approval numbers are about at the same level as Raimondo's approval numbers. Trump's low approval numbers in RI do not trump Raimondo's incompetence in voter's minds. Voting for Raimondo will have no impact on President Trump.  But voting Raimondo out will put an end to the incompetent Raimondo administration."

2. The RI House approved a $9.55 billion budget shortly before 10 pm Friday on a 66-to-7 vote. Read all about it, and how the state will split revenue from the introduction of sports betting.

3. Gov. Raimondo's office appeared taken by surprise this week when House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello cited what he called systemic managemetn problems in the four agencies that make up the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services. "I think we need to get some managers into these positions that have significant managerial skills to work on straightening out these departments," Mattiello told reporters this week. (Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, pushed back, saying that the governor has made progress after inheriting agencies that have struggled for decades.) Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), who keeps a close eye on human-service issues, tells RIPR that Mattiello is partially correct about the level of problems within EOHHS. DiPalma said HHS has thousands of committed workers, but that staffing is too thin in some key parts of management. "Here's where I agree with the speaker: additional senior leadership is sorely needed across human services, categorically," DiPalma said on RIPR's Political Roundtable. "In the area of the operational, some of the area of data analysis, we have leaders that are one-deep. They're building their teams. They need to build more around their teams to address the operational aspects of every day of running the organizations." On UHIP, DiPalma said he's continuing to meet with contractor Deloitte and believes "we are moving in the right direction. I believe Deloitte has finally brought the right leadership team in."

4. Last week, Democratic Gov. Raimondo was the focus for criticism from rival candidates. This week, Republican Allan Fung became the target after WPRI-TV reported on a series of questions involving Fung's campaign headquarters at Chapel View. Worth noting is how Raimondo, rather than a surrogate, led the attack from the governor's office: “Mayor Fung’s failure to pay rent for his campaign office and his improper reporting of several other campaign transactions points to a pattern of corruption. The Board of Elections needs to get to the bottom of this, because there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. At the very least, it’s clear that Mayor Fung is incompetent when it comes to his campaign's finances. If he can’t even manage his campaign's finances, it’s no wonder Cranston is in distress.” Fung's campaign sought to downplay the matter, once again trying to use ridicule against Raimondo and other competitors: "Anything from Governor Raimondo talking about competency should run in the Onion or be featured by the Ocean State Follies," said Fung campaign spokesman Andrew Augustus.

4A. Meanwhile, while the flubbed HHS-nursing home deadline raised the specter of the state owing up to $24 million, the settling of the case is entirely unsurprising, consider how the General Assembly holds the power of the purse.

5. Rival Democrat Matt Brown continues attempting to use particular issues -- abortion rights, driver's licenses for immigrants, regardless of their status -- to peel off support from Raimondo. In a letter this week on the abortion issue, Brown talked a big game about the impact, although it's unclear if women's access to reproductive rights has actually been affected in RI. That may be beside the point; Brown's campaign got heavyweights like feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Kate Michelman, president emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America, to sign on to his letter. That in turn could boost Brown's fundraising and elevate his profile among left-flank out-of-town Dems. Meanwhile, Raimondo can tout good news on the jobs front. Yet the optics were not so great for the governor when civil rights icon John Lewis -- who had been unaware of Brown's run -- expressed regret over endorsing the incumbent. Meanwhile, Bob Plain writes that the issue mostly illustrates Brown's naivete.

6. The outlook on the PawSox and their quest for a new stadium in Pawtucket remains convoluted. In the view of Statehouse insiders, the project has fluctuated from dead to promising from one minute to the next. Now, though, with the General Assembly session expected to end next Friday (June 22), we may be approaching a higher degree of clarity. Either A) something will happen in the legislature next week; B) nothing happens next week and Worcester finally makes public its offer; or C) Both RI and Worcester simultaneously pursue the team after the close of business in the GA session.

7. Mayor Fung's wife, Barbara Ann, is playing an increasingly prominent role in the Republican candidate's campaign. Fung's better half took the lead in responding to a comment by rival GOP candidate Patricia Morgan: "When Allan becomes Governor, he'll be the first Chinese Republican Governor in the history of the United States & the first Asian American and racial minority Governor in the history of Rhode Island, and I'll be so proud of him shattering all of those glass ceilings. But, in true to Allan form, he's going to be sure that he's elected Governor of Rhode Island because he's going to be the best guy for the job, and just also happen to be the first all of the above.  And on the day he's inaugurated, he'll be a role model not just for every Asian American looking to be the first in their family to enter politics, not just for every kid who grew up in a cramped immigrant home in South Providence, and not just for every kid who went to a state school and were told that they could never be as good as those kids from the Ivy-ies.  He'll be a role model for every single person in Rhode Island, in the way that he leads with honesty, self-realization, and complete devotion to this amazing state we all call home." Cranston's first lady also went on talk-radio Friday morning to discuss the issue.

8. Hard-working Steve Ahlquist has the story of how former state Rep. John Carnevale -- who decided against seeking re-election in 2016 after it was found that he was not a legal voter in his Providence district -- is circulating a letter saying that he's trying to regain his old House seat. "I will be walking about our neighborhood in the near future and hope to speak with you about the issues that impact you," Carnevale, a Democrat, says in the letter posted by Ahlquist. The seat formerly held by Carnevale is now occupied by Rep. Ramon Perez, also a Democrat. UPDATE: Perez and a spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello say Perez has Mattiello's support in the race.

9. Speaking of former lawmakers seeking a comeback, ex-Coventry Rep. Scott Guthrie, a Democrat, is raising money in an attempt to regain the House seat being vacated by Rep. Bobby Nardolillo .... In other General Assembly campaign news, Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, a Democrat who preceded Rep. Jeremiah O'Grady (D-Lincoln), is also looking to return to Smith Hill .... Paul Roselli (D) of Burrillville has dropped out of the race for governor and is now seeking the state Senate seat being vacated by Paul Fogarty, setting up a primary with Kevin Heitke .... Christopher Millea, a Democrat who got edged by Rep. Bob Lancia (R-Cranston) in 2016, is making another run. With Lancia contemplating an LG run, Cranston GOP stalwart Don Botts is also seeking the seat.

10. Congratulations to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and former Central Falls city councilor Stephanie Gonzalez on their engagement. Elorza, meanwhile, has been appointed to the Board of Trustees for the US Conference of Mayors. The conference is led by someone worth keeping an eye on, Stephen K. Benjamin, the mayor Columbia, South Carolina, at a time on conflict between many cities and the White House. Check this story (and podcast) from Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere: "Benjamin is trying to thread a way through, and calling on his own experience to do it. He’s figured out how to be popular enough as a black Democrat that, in a city that is 48 percent white, 41 percent black and has a significant population of Republicans, his election last year was officially canceled because no one ran against him and he automatically got a third term as mayor. He had a great relationship with Republican Nikki Haley when she was governor and still texts with her now that she’s at the United Nations, and has a good one as well with new Gov. Henry McMaster, one of Trump’s strongest allies. (That record and reputation has people chattering that Benjamin could one day be the state’s first black governor.) Benjamin is continuing the conference’s lawsuit against the federal government over the citizenship question on the census, and railing against the White House and Justice Department for trying to crack down on sanctuary cities while the immigration bill is so far off Trump’s radar and mired in Congress that 15 Republicans have joined a discharge petition to try and force it into a vote on the House floor."

11. Is it time for Rhode Island to seriously consider instant runoff voting, or something similar, after Maine voters reaffirmed their support for the approach? "In our divisive time, it’s difficult to shape a governing consensus when you are elected with such a small slice of the electorate," notes Scott MacKay, referring to how Gov. Raimondo and Lincoln Chafee were elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. "Such elections breed distrust in a democracy that faces more than its share of challenges." Ultimately, he concludes, "There are no panaceas in conducting elections. Some voters will inevitably dislike the results. But it seems like a good time to take a closer look at what Maine has wrought."

12. Back in 1985, Neil Postman presciently wrote about how Americans were amusing themselves to death. Now, thanks to the iPhone age, screens have been raised at Fenway Park to protect fans playing Words with Friends from errant foul balls. And public officials are sometimes accused of not paying enough attention at public meetings.

13. President Trump's North Korea initiative -- a bold move toward peace, or a way to elevate a repressive dictator? From U.S. Sen. Jack Reed: “Clearly, this engagement marks a departure from the overheated and bellicose rhetoric we previously heard.  But we didn’t hear a lot of new nuclear pledges or commitments beyond President Trump’s offhanded remark that he will host Kim Jong Un for a White House visit.  In addition, President Trump agreed to forgo joint exercises with the South Koreans, which has been a bulwark of our defense policy for decades, without significant concessions like a concrete timeline for denuclearization from the other side. Given the lack of details we have right now, a careful review of any security assurances or agreement to denuclearize are needed to make sure they align with the best interests of the American people and our long-term security.  We must also not lose sight of the horrendous human rights record and atrocities using other weapons of mass destruction committed by the North Korean regime." .... Via Republican US Sen. candidate Robert Flanders: "There are two paths for North Korea: one of suffocating economic sanctions, military threats, an oppressed people, and continued hunger, pain, and suffering; the other, a modern future of hope and opportunity, a freer people, and a more prosperous country," Flanders said. "To achieve a safer and more peaceful world, North Korea must denuclearize. Through leadership and strength, President Trump has made significant progress towards this goal, and has re-established the United States as the world's leading force for peace .... "All Americans should be celebrating this historic moment."

14. The ProJo is showing some heightened vigor, thanks to a boost in local bylines with the addition of Kevin Andrade, Brian Amaral and Madeleine List -- not to mention the continued strong work of veterans like Kathy Gregg, Alex Kuffner, Katie Mulvaney, Amanda Milkovits, Patrick Anderson, Linda Borg, and Tom Mooney, among others. Contrast the detail and scope of that report with the problems, including increased corruption, that result when cities lose their newspapers (via CityLab): "According to a new working paper, local news deserts lose out financially, too. Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals, say researchers who tracked the decline of local news outlets between 1996 and 2015. Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper—a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line."

15. Is a new law to prosecute drug sellers an extension of a flawed policy or a necessary step to close a gap in state law? On a related note, check out The Fix, a documentary on RI's opioid epidemic made by WSBE Rhod Island PBS producer Kim Keough.

16. Don't miss RIPR environment reporter Avory Brookins' aptly named series, Ready or Not, on how climate change is affecting Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Related (via The Washington Post): "Antarctica’s ice sheet is melting at a rapidly increasing rate, now pouring more than 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean annually and raising sea levels a half-millimeter every year, a team of 80 scientists reported Wednesday. The melt rate has tripled in the past decade, the study concluded. If the acceleration continues, some of scientists’ worst fears about rising oceans could be realized, leaving low-lying cities and communities with less time to prepare than they had hoped."

17. Ah, Buddy. A clash over a Black Ship festival in Newport is being likened by at least one person to Cianci's epic battle with the University Club.