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

Feb 13, 2015

Cold enough for ya? We thought so. Give it time, and we'll be complaining about something else. Thanks for stopping by in the interim. As always, feel free to share your tips, thoughts, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The arrest of state Representative Joseph Almeida (D-Providence) on Tuesday, on a charge of unlawful appropriation over $1500, captivated attention on Smith Hill and beyond. To some, the charge was a not-so-surprising development for a lawmaker whose money problems have made repeated headlines in the past (Almeida maintains his innocence in the current matter). Other observers wonder about the optics of a lawmaker being brought into court in handcuffs, in a case involving a relatively small amount of money -- and whether there's more to this than meets the eye. "I don't know what kind of messages it is, if it in effect it is a message being sent to Representative Almeida or anyone else," Representative Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) said, when asked for his reaction, during a taping of this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "Obviously, it was not a good thing to happen. But I will tell you this: it will not be a distraction for any members of the House. Consequently, what we went though last session [with a state-federal raid sparking the exit of Gordon Fox as speaker], we produced a good budget and we had a very productive session." At minimum, however, some lawmakers may take extra care when it comes to their campaign finance filings.

2. Don't look now, but lawyers for the state have requested a delay in the pension court case until January 2016.

3. The National Association of Secretaries of State this week recognized former North Providence Town Councilor Paul Caranci with its Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award for helping to expose corruption in that town. Yet Caranci says he doesn't think he committed an act of political bravery. "At the time, I just saw it as something I needed to do to uphold the oath of office I took and to abide by the fiduciary responsibility I believe I owed to the citizens I represented," he told me in an interview this week. Before going to the FBI, Caranci spoke with his wife about the possible consequences -- and he said he's now working for an Indiana congressman since he couldn't find work in Rhode Island. "But at the end of [talking about it], we came to the conclusion that if we didn't try to put a stop to the corruption, simply to preserve the lifestyle that we had built for ourselves, then we would really be acting no differently than those who were using corruption to enhance their own quality of life. When you bring it right down to that level, we really had no choice. We knew what we had to do, and now it was just a matter of doing it." 

4. Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena was among a panoply of local officials on hand at the Statehouse Friday as Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order intended to help cites and towns save money through new and innovative approaches (the details of which remain to be determined). "Today's really historical because we finally have a seat at the table," Polisena said. "We used to be left out in the parking lot all the time, but the mayor's finally have a seat at the table with the governor and lieutenant governor, which is very important to all of us." Apparently, Polisena's memory doesn't reach back three years to when he was one of the local officials at Lincoln Chafee's side, as the then-governor focused attention on cities and towns' fiscal plight. What's more, Polisena said in a clip used in a 2012 gubernatorial video (at about 1:55), "This guy [Chafee] gets it. He realizes we're [cities and towns] in trouble." (When I asked what's different now, Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee -- the point person for Raimondo's effort -- pointed in part to what he called a "very powerful" executive order and a related joint legislative committee. McKee contends the timing is better now than in 2012. "You're going to get some things done, and that's the main thing," he said. "What are those things? We really have not identified those things in a way that you could actually put a list out, but that's what the process is for. The process is, talk to these municipal leaders and starting creating a list, and then working with the governor's office, sharing and then saying, 'These are things we can do today, these are things we can do down the line.' So it's a different climate, and all you can do is move forward."

5. With an audience of municipal leaders, Governor Raimondo declined to say during her Friday news conference whether she will cut, raise, or level fund aid to cities and towns. "I say I'll be submitting my budget on March 12th," she said, "and between now and then we'll be working hard at it. But here's what I know: cities and towns right now are doing their best, but they're struggling. And families in Rhode Island and businesses in Rhode Island are struggling, because property taxes are high and rising. And the way we're going to fix that is by coming together and coming up with creative solutions to keep costs down, and that's what today's about -- how can we work together to streamline, how can we work together to consolidate, how can we work together to regionalize, so we can keep costs down, keep property taxes down, but deliver high-quality services to the people of Rhode Island." For his part, Lincoln Chafee backed the accelerated school-funding formula, increased aid to distressed cities, and boosted PILOT money.

6. The role given by Governor Raimondo to Lieutenant Governor McKee in leading the quest for municipal savings is noteworthy, not just because of the traditionally limited portfolio of the LG, but since many Democrats and related interest groups backed McKee's Republican opponent, Catherine Taylor, last year. McKee campaigned on a pledge of making the LG's office a go-to destination for municipalities, and through Raimondo's executive order, he's starting to deliver on that pledge.

7. Pennsylvania and Tennessee are among the states that audit a small portion of candidates' campaign finance reports, with the idea of boosting integrity in the process. Yet Rhode Island doesn't routinely audit finance filings, as I reported in a story for RIPR this week.

8. Old friend Dan Kennedy has a great read on why Jon Stewart is the anti-Brian Williams. Excerpt: "Two high-profile departures from the hot celebrity glare of television were announced late Tuesday. One of those leaving is among the most respected people in media. The other is a charlatan. The object of our respect, of course, is Jon Stewart, who announced he’ll be retiring from The Daily Show later this year. A satirist of the highest order, Stewart has been our truth-teller-in-chief since 1999. The charlatan, needless to say, is Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months without pay as anchor and managing editor of NBC’s Nightly News. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back." ,,,, Meanwhile, we're deeply saddened by the unexpected death of New York Times media critic David Carr, who collapsed in his newsroom Thursday. Like others with an interest in media, I learned a lot from Carr's columns; he'll be deeply missed.

9. As the Providence Journal undergoes its first major online design since being acquired by New Media Investment Group last September, about a dozen copy desk jobs are slated to be eliminated next Wednesday, February 18. New Media's GateHouse Media is consolidating functions at a hub in Austin, Texas.

10. WPRI.com's Dan McGowan has a good read on Angel Taveras' parting memo to Jorge Elorza -- and why the city released only a heavily redacted version of it.

11. The irrepressible Joseph Shekarchi on why he has close to $300,000 in his war chest -- a very large amount for a state lawmaker: "I keep my options open. You don't know what's going to happen. We're in the first year of a four-year cycle, so I don't see a lot of changes coming in the next three years. But we keep our options open; you never know in politics, and it does a couple of things: number one, it gives me a lot of legislative freedom. I don't have to really worry about a campaign opponent looking over my shoulder every time. It also gives me the opportunity, if a higher office became available, then I'd consider it." (Shekarchi has long made clear his interest in running for mayor of Warwick, if and when Scott Avedisian moves on.) 

12. More than 100 millennials turned out at Finnegan's Wednesday for the first formal meeting of the Millennial Professional Group of Rhode Island, an effort to recruit young people and to keep them in the Ocean State. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and state Representatve Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence) were among the speakers addressing the group. Asked about what's next for MPGRI, co-founder Travis Escobar said via email, "MPGRI will be surveying millennials and asking them to reflect on the things that keep them here, but also on the issues that could force them to leave." Escobar said the group will keep up its #ChooseRI campaign on social media while trying to build partnerships with businesses and other groups. "We pledge to collaborate with other professional groups to host networking events that will spread awareness of the 'brain drain' and partner with college student organizations on matters of backbreaking student loans that are currently crippling our generation's ability to invest in the local economy (i.e. home ownership). Further, we plan to host a 'Millennial Summit' to engage millennials across RI and neighboring states to create a strategic plan that will inform policymakers about ways to keep us here as productive members in our communities."

13. Some highlights from RI Public Radio: One man's view on how to overcome racism .... Snow could push the school year into late June.

14. Efforts to cut the interest charged by payday lenders have gone nowhere fast on Smith Hill in recent years, in large part to the organized opposition of the payday industry. But as The New York Times reports, federal regulators are now looking at the payday lending business, "drafting regulations that could sharply reduce the number of unaffordable loans that lenders can make."

15. Although the General Assembly is on its annual mid-February break this coming week, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed will apparently be shivering like the rest of us. Their spokesmen say the legislative leaders don't plan to vacation out of state.

16. Sound advice from PR man David Preston on how to get reporters *not* to read your email.

17. We've been told the age of driverless cars is approaching. So no surprise then that a would-be entrepreneur is pitching automated parking as a way to avoid parking tickets.

18. Don't miss a great read from Phil Eil on why Rhode Island suffers from a paucity of Jewish delis. Maybe Phil's next story will be on our barbecue shortage.