TGIF: 18 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Oct 2, 2015

Hurricane Joaquin blows toward Rhode Island as the state remains vexed by its own ring of challenges: the hangover of 38 Studios, trying to modernize state agencies, financially troubled fire districts, you name it. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As always your tips and thoughts are welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Former House Finance Committee chairman Steven Costantino, now commissioner of Vermont's public insurance program, this week rolled out a variation on the "I was just doing my job" line in response to media inquiries about his role in 38 Studios. "My only involvement in the matter in RI was because of my former position in the RI legislature," Costantino said in a statement distributed by his office. "I did not play any role in bringing the company to RI as did others in government. I was tasked with handling the legislation affecting the company by my superiors." Does this wash, considering how the recently released court documents identify Costantino as the guy who plugged the $75 million that later went to 38 Studios into a state loan program? (During the deposition process, Costantino mostly said he had difficultly recalling details.) "Steve Costantino acts as if he knew nothing," H. Philip West Jr., the longtime former head of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said during this week's RI Public Political Roundtable. "I don't think that's true, but I really don't know what he knew." By contrast, West finds heartening how Don Carcieri's administration director, Rosemary Booth Gallogly, and EDC analyst Sean Esten raised probing questions about 38 Studios. Yet as West notes, "the public has unfortunately lost some steam for reform," since citizen anger after the credit union crisis of 1991 propelled hard-hitting legislative hearings (the "Teitz Commission"), a detailed outside review, and changes including a smaller legislature and four-year terms for state general officers. "People were really upset because it was their money that they were seeing frozen in these credit unions," West said. "In the case, it's different because it may be higher taxes, but it's like tail pipe exhaust in the ether; you smell it, but you can't say what belongs to who. We need to recognize that Rhode Island has to go forward and address these problems."

2. 38 Studios Scorecard: A) A coalition of groups is calling for an outside probe into 38 Studios and legislative hearings; B) Governor Gina Raimondo backed an outside probe as a candidate; she now believes it should follow the conclusion of the state's lawsuit over 38 Studios; C) House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed are showing renewed support, following last week's document dump, for legislative hearings; D) Vermont's governor is standing by Steven Costantino; E) Michael Corso's legal team says Corso suffered financially from 38 Studios; F) Gordon Fox is in prison, in an unrelated corruption case; F) Phil West points to the 38 Studios debacle as a prime reason for why the State Ethics Commission should have oversight over General Assembly behavior. "The difficulty that we face right now is that those 113 members of the General Assembly think they are not going to get caught on anything unless they commit a federal crime," West said on Roundtable. "They need to understand that they could be prosecuted within the state. They need to put the question [giving voters the chance to restore Ethics oversight of the legislature] on the ballot, which they've refused to do for six years. They need to do it now." 

3. Lincoln Chafee took to the op-ed page of the ProJo* to argue that he's paid a price for launching the lawsuit over 38 Studios. At the same time, Chafee has steadily declined to accept any responsibility for what happened to 38 Studios** after he took office, pointing to his 2003 US Senate vote against the war in Iraq as evidence of his sound judgment.

4. Governor Gina Raimondo has a far more challenging set of goals than attracting an ongoing stream of adoring out-of-town media attention. There's the fundamental need to create more good jobs in Rhode Island, not to mention the related task of chasing the potential of the former I-195 land. Yet #TeamGina also has a big lift in overhauling troubled agencies like the State Department of Children, Youth and Families, and the state Department of Transportation. On Thursday, Raimondo and DOT director Peter Alviti held a detailed briefing to update reporters on their attempts to bring more accountability to the transportation agency. Some of the measures, like making sure there's a point person to track a project from inception to completion, seem quite basic. "It's not rocket science," Alviti told reporters. Yet the fact that such fundamental changes have yet to be implemented points to a troubling level of competence in some parts of state government. Meanwhile, the fate of Raimondo's controversial RhodeWorks infrastructure plan remains unknown in the House; Speaker Nicholas Mattiello says his views will firm up after the release next week of consultant's study on the impact of truck tolls (House Republicans plan to reveal their own plan Wednesday). For now, Raimondo has pursued a pragmatic strategy by planning transit improvements, both with and without additional funding.

5. How widespread are the problems at DOT? In one example, the state has never done an inventory of its highway drainage systems. Because of that, as I reported this week, the US Department of Justice could impose penalties due to clean water violations from years of unmonitored runoff spilling from highways around the state.

6. Teny Gross is planning to continue his mission of trying to reduce violence while launching a new nonprofit in Chicago. In some respects, the change doesn't seem surprising, considering the 15-year length of Gross' tenure in Rhode Island and the frustration he's sometimes vented about the difficulty of attracting financial support for promoting nonviolence. Yet Gross has had a strong impact in Rhode Island, drawing supporters in law enforcement and elsewhere. Due to various factors, Providence now has considerably fewer homicides in 2000 (30) or 2002 (23), and overall crime remains way down, although violence still extracts a big toll in the city's tougher neighborhoods. So these these words I wrote 12 years ago about the street workers at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence remain just as true now: "In some ways, the street workers seem to face daunting odds. Guns are easy to find in Providence, shots are fired virtually on a nightly basis (even if no one is hurt), and the conditions that influence violent crime -- include poverty and longstanding beefs -- aren’t easily remedied. Still, after shadowing the street workers in their rounds on two recent nights, it’s hard not to have a sense that they’ve accomplished a lot in a short period of time. Everywhere they go, it seems, they know the players, the terrain, the history, and what’s at stake."

7. Marti Rosenberg is starting a new role later this month at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, as project director for the State Innovation Model grant. The grant process is aimed at achieving "measurable improvement in health and productivity of all Rhode Islanders" while decreasing the overall cost of care. Over the last five years, Rosenberg has built the Providence Plan's health initiative and worked closely with the HealthSource RI crew. Rosenberg's work on healthcare issues also includes 11 years as the director of the now-defunct liberal/union advocacy group Ocean State Action. 

8. One of this week's stunners was insurgent Democrat Bernie Sanders' $26 million haul in Q3 -- about as much as the amount raised by Hillary Clinton, almost all of it in small-dollar donations. Back in Rhode Island, running for legislative office remains cheap by comparison, although efforts to create a more level-playing playing field are going nowhere fast, mostly due to court decisions following Citizens United. On a related note, Rhode Island College is hosting a panel discussion next Thursday, October 8, from 2-3:30 pm, entitled, "The Best Government Money Can Buy: Is There a Future for Campaign Finance Reform?" The panel includes Anthony Corrado from Colby College; Josh Israel from Think Progress; John Marion from Common Cause of RI; Mike Stenhouse from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity; and John Walsh, who was former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's campaign manager in 2006.

9. A hat trick of Bonus Chafee! 1) The Democratic presidential candidate will be in CNN's Las Vegas debate on October 13; 2) BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray reports on Chafee's visit with the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative in DC. Excerpt: "Chafee supports lifting sanctions against Russia in response to its hostilities in Ukraine. He openly states that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stay in power if it will mean a peaceful end to the Syrian conflict (the Obama administration says Assad must go). He thinks the U.S. can learn from Cuba’s health care system and laments the idea of American chain businesses setting up shop there. He believes the U.S. disrespected former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who he says 'wanted good relations with the United States.' "; 3) Old friend Mark Arsenault, ex of the ProJo and now with The Boston Globe, catches up with Chafee as he stumps for votes in New Hampshire. Mark has always been an excellent wordsmith and this is a fun read.

10. EcoRI reports on concerns about the quality of construction at Deepwater Wind's Block Island wind farm.

11. Media Notes: 1) Congrats to Providence newcomer Daniel Denvir on landing a reporting gig with Salon; 2) we're sorry to hear Amy Anthony's temporary AP assignment is drawing to a close next week. Amy is an excellent reporter, so she's bound to land on her feet; 3) Welcome to RI, Carol Kozma, who's coming to the ProJo after reporting at the Standard-Times in New Bedford; 4) We're not getting rid of that Nesi kid any time soon (Congrats, Ted!). He says he's signed a contract with WPRI through 2018.

12. Robert Watson of East Greenwich, the former House minority leader, was famously the only one among 113 lawmakers to vote against the standalone bill for 38 Studios in 2010. So is a more robust two-party system part of the fix for what's ailing Rhode Island? Phil West was asked about this turning his Roundtable appearance this week. His response: "Bob Watson always used to say to me when he was minority leader of the House, Common Cause ought to be supporting a two-party system. I think we need a two-party system. Part of the problem is that the Republican Party in the country has gone so far to the right that it becomes very difficult to support Republicans in Rhode Island, and I don't know how we get beyond that."

13. On the other hand, West -- the godfather of Rhode Island's revolving-door law -- criticized Governor Raimondo over the hiring of Don Lally, four months after he stepped down as a state rep. "I think she got bad advice," West said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "Her staff clearly was saying to her you don't have to [push for an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission]. And then she did this maneuver that I thought made her look bad, I think it made Don Lally look bad, and he should have known better than to take that job. The Republicans filed an ethics complaint against him. There it is. We'll see what happens."

14. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state and federal prosecutor, is among a group of US senators introducing legislation meant to reduce sentences for some drug offenders and give judges greater discretion in sentencing for low-level drug crimes. As some of the excesses of the drug war are walked back, Whitehouse said in a statement, “This bill marks an important step toward making our criminal justice system fairer by reducing overcrowded prison populations and giving prisoners the help they need to avoid committing future crimes. It also reflects a growing bipartisan recognition that we cannot incarcerate our way to safer communities, and that the current system too often pushes individuals into a cycle of recidivism that is hard to break."

15. Related: RIPR healthcare reporter Kristin Gourlay reports on how law enforcement is turning to the courts as part of the response to Rhode Island's opiate crisis. In a story for Vice, the aforementioned Daniel Denvir argues that murder prosecutions for drug sales are a new front in the war on drugs.

16. Former RI congressman Patrick J. Kennedy has kept a lower -- and seemingly happier -- profile since deciding not to seek re-election in 2010, a move that set off a chain reaction within Ocean State politics. 60 Minutes will include a report this Sunday on Kennedy's marriage to his wife, Amy.

17. Tourism is one of the areas of state government that Governor Raimondo vowed to improve as a candidate. Back in 2008, I reported in the Phoenix on Rhode Island's seemingly scattered approach to one of its largest industries, with five independent tourism councils, city-based efforts in Providence and Warwick, and a Tourism branch in the state's economic development agency. Three firms have now been picked to lead the new tourism/business attraction effort, and the campaign is slated to emerge in 2016.

18. Beer Wars: Massachusetts regulators found that a distributor paid $22,500 to get Yuengling -- a competitor of Narragansett -- into 20 Bay State bars. Yuengling, which made a big move into Massachusetts and Rhode Island last year, said it did not know about the bribes.

This post has been updated.