TGIF: 19 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Nov 6, 2015

Nothing like spring weather to usher in November, but that's going to change, right? Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual your tips and thoughts are welcome via email (along with suggestions for "Coming & Going"), and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Rhode Island's political/media cause celebre of the week was the "white privilege" controversy involving House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. The speaker was interviewed as part of the Providence Journal's #RaceinRI series, and one short quote -- "I don't think there is a white privilege" -- lit up the Twittersphere and beyond. A New York Daily News columnist, the liberal web site ThinkProgress, and a chorus of others cited Mattiello's statement as prime evidence of white privilege. At the same time, a reading of the ProJo's full story suggests a more complex picture: Mattiello readily acknowledges that racism has played a role in economic disparities, and he expresses a certainty that racism persists in Rhode Island, adding, "we have to work hard to move from that, and we have to make sure that everybody's treated equal, feels equal, and has the same opportunity in society." So how can someone simultaneously deny white privilege and affirm the reality of racism? Perhaps Mattiello, who is more a creature of western Cranston than College Hill, was unfamiliar with the phrase. In an indication that he was reflecting on his own outlook, the speaker told the ProJo, "I don't think anybody in society views any particular nationality as having any privilege over any other. I certainly don't." It's unsurprising that Mattiello's "white privilege" remark sparked controversy -- and, yes, the speaker could have been better prepped for the interview. Yet the silence emanating from black, Latino and other state reps, some of who won office with the speaker's backing, is telling. It was Mattiello, not his predecessor, the biracial Gordon Fox, who backed the state's long-sought racial profiling law and a ban on consent searches of juveniles. In a reflection of how he profiles more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, the speaker also supported a hike in the last session of the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. So while politicians make impolitic statements at their own peril, a single eight-word sentence rarely tells the full story. 

2. The supposedly staid process of House Oversight Committee meetings veered off in an unexpectedly more provocative direction Tuesday evening. Oversight Chairwoman Karen MacBeth outlined a "success fee" arrangement enjoyed by Michael Corso for his work with 38 Studios, charging that this explained why Corso was so unwilling to register as a lobbyist (why put himself in jeopardy, in other words, for violating a state law prohibiting lobbyists for being paid for the success or failure of particular bills and related actions). MacBeth called on State Police and the Attorney General's office to review the matter. (A lawyer for Corso didn't return a call seeking comment this week). At minimum, the "success fee" revelation amplified the public record of the extent of Corso's 38 Studios-related deals, from tax credits and office construction to the project itself. Corso was close to former House speaker Gordon Fox (now imprisoned in an unrelated corruption case), and Fox's financial problems were well=known, so speculation continues about their dealings. House Oversight is showing success in surfacing some fresh details, and the committee bears watching under the direction of Representative MacBeth. At the same time, some may wonder how much the committee can accomplish; will Corso and/or Curt Schilling do anything other than take the fifth if they can be convinced to appear before the committee? On the other hand, (and this is a big if) if one-time House Finance Committee chairman Steven Costantino could be convinced to return from Vermont to talk about 38 Studios, it would make for compelling political theater and perhaps some fresh insights.

3. Can the state Department of Transportation be trusted to oversee Governor Gina Raimondo's $1.1 billion RhodeWorks bridge-improvement plan? That question underscores the sharp current debate over the governor's plan. Opponents doubt the math, the rollout was less than ideal, there are unanswered questions, and more broadly, any kind of big government initiative still faces a 38 Studios-fueled cloud of generalized suspicion. (Don't miss Ted Nesi's breakdown of how DOT says the truck-toll bond would save $612 million.)    Add to that a checkered history at DOT, where even basic functions, like knowing the location of highway storm drains, have been botched, to the detriment of taxpayers. DOT director Peter Alviti maintains that changes being made by the Raimondo administration at the transportation agency are sufficient to raise accountability and ensure a successful outcome. He points in part to the introduction of a "project management" system, in which "a project from conception to final payment to a contractor for building is under the authority and responsibility of a single person, instead of a baton being passed, or a project being passed, from one person to another." Alviti also cites a 10-year schedule of infrastructure projects as a way to lower costs and speed completion. "These are well-proven methodologies," Alviti said."They're best practices elsewhere. We're adopting them into DOT for the first time." Count detail-minded state Senator Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) among the believers in DOT's upward trajectory. "It is with this project management-based program and asset management system .... that I believe RIDOT is establishing the right foundation to effectively and efficiently manage the increased funding and corresponding increased number of projects emanating from RhodeWorks," DiPalma told me. "It is critical RIDOT possess the right capacity of personnel, with the necessary capabilities, to manage the increased volume of projects." Yet critics extending beyond legislative Republicans and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity still don't buy it. "Are you dumb enough to pay for the upcoming state tolls fiasco?" Arlene Violet asked this week. With a House vote on Raimondo's infrastructure plan looming in the new year, count on more debate in the interim,

4. Now that the I-195 Commission has signed a letter of intent with Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology, watch for company president James R. Berens to sketch the vision for Wexford's plans when he keynotes the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting on November 23.

5. While most Rhode Island voters are unaffiliated, independents are a rare breed in the General Assembly, due in part to the bleak outlook for climbing the leadership ladder as an outsider. Blake Filippi nonetheless triumphed as an independent last year over longtime lawmaker Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) -- a victory that he attributes mostly to "hard work and developing ideas that resonate with the people. We spoke a lot about corruption, we spoke a lot about 38 Studios, and environmental concerns in our district and statewide. And also, economic development is really resonating with people because their children are moving out of state, and their grandchildren are moving out of state to find jobs, and they only see them on Thanksgiving and Christmas." Filippi, who caucuses with Republicans, rejects the suggestion that it might have been misleading for him to run as an independent. "If 85 percent of the legislature was controlled by Republicans, I'd caucus with the Democrats," he said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, "because you can not have one-party control of a legislature and expect fair compromise and a fair debate. I'm caucusing with Republicans because I want to shift the balance." In the 2014 campaign, Walsh supporters accused Filippi of not actually residing on Block Island. On RIPR's Bonus Q&A, he said he lives on the island "probably about seven to eight months a year, and in the wintertime I move off, and I have an apartment in Providence where I serve in the legislature."

6. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block helped lead the successful effort to kill the master lever, and he's remained active as part of the coalition calling for an independent outside probe of 38 Studios. So I asked Block about the outlook for building a broader citizen movement to press the case. Here's his response: "When RI citizens can actually be motivated to take action, our politicians eventually listen. Citizens taking action does not occur nearly as often as it should -- and I understand why. Most normal people don’t have the time or the inclination to bird-dog their government -- people just want their government to do the right thing in the first place. I hope to continue to motivate greater numbers of people to help bring the change that RI so desperately needs. We need to change our political culture. We need to change our economic climate. We need to change the culture of our state government. We need to push consolidation in Rhode Island. WatchdogRI has been very successful at helping to drive the change conversation in Rhode Island, and my current focus is to continue with some large projects with WatchdogRI (we are currently taking a deep dive into the UHIP project), and put a lot of energy into my businesses and family."

7. The noted political operative Jeff Britt is returning to Rhode Island from Florida later this month and plans to stick around for about a year. A liaison to dissident legislative Democrats for Don Carcieri back in the day, Britt worked for Ken Block in 2014 and Gordon Fox's legislative opponent, Mark Binder, in 2012. Britt said the change in location is unrelated to politics, and that he doesn't have any campaign activity lined up for 2016, although "that's always an option."

8. Matt O'Brien is slated to start December 7th as the new state government reporter for the Providence office of The Associated Press. The wire service reports that O'Brien, 35, has a degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins and most recently worked for the San Jose Mercury News as a business/technology reporter.

9. Changes continue in the hierarchy of the Gatehouse Media-owned Providence Journal, with Earl Baer being unveiled this week as the paper's new vice president of sales. He has a background in digital sales in California and sounded an optimistic note about the ProJo in a story heralding his arrival: "Newspapers like The Journal, with a long and trusted relationship with its readers, 'are really well-positioned to reclaim' their position as the 'go-to trusted adviser' for local businesses looking to advertise." (On the circulation side, the ProJo has sold slightly more than 3,000 digital subscriptions, along with about 67,500 daily paid print copies.) Baer succeeds Scott Connolly, who left Fountain Street over the summer to become a senior VP at Cramer.

10. Speaking of media changes, WPRO is in the process of losing 60 percent of its five-person news staff in three weeks: Kim Kalunian this week tweeted word of her exit; Digital content editor Sam Wroblewski left last week for a post at WJAR; and Andrew Augustus is poised to join Mayor Jorge Elorza's media operation at City Hall. The departures leave only two news staffers, intrepid news director Bill Haberman and the redoubtable Steve Klamkin. Yet the exits also follow the departure of longtime general manager Barbara Haynes and respected ad rep Joe Lembo. Meanwhile, the stock for WPRO's corporate parent, Cumulus Media, plummeted by more than 80 percent over the last year and the corporation is attracting some withering criticism from radio industry observers.

11. Representative Filippi's father, Paul, ran the famed bygone Celebrity Club near Mount Hope -- the first integrated music spot in Providence -- so I was curious about the rep's take on Speaker Mattiello's "white privilege" remarks in the ProJo's #RaceinRI series. Back when the Celebrity Club was operating, "The cops used to show up and beat everyone up for integrating," Filippi said during Bonus Q&A. "So I'm very attuned to the issues here. We need to enforce vigorously equality of law, and if the law is being applied in an unequal manner in this state, the hammer needs to come down." The rep declined to address Mattiello's remarks, adding that he doesn't like the term "white privilege." "When you use that term, it seems like it's something you have to take away," Filippi said. "I think more in Dr. Martin Luther King's terms; we have to speak about equality. I think that we have two types of equality; you have equality of law -- which we have a guaranteed right to in this country -- and equality of opportunity. And I think developing equality of opportunity is a much more difficult, amorphous concept than enforcing equality of law." 

12. Will former ProJo reporter Arthur Gregg Sulzberger get the nod when a new deputy publisher of The New York Times is named within two years? Sulzberger has come a long way since back when a member of the Narragansett Lions Club thought he'd be susceptible to intimidation. He's been working inside the NYT for years, helping to oversee a much-discussed innovation report, while still drawing admiring reviews reminiscent of how colleagues regarded the prince during his Fountain Street days (and still declining interviews).

13. Check out this six-part look at the rise of Bernie Sanders by our colleagues at Vermont Public Radio.

14. Craft brews are a growth sector near and far, so will Governor Raimondo get behind the effort to make the business more viable in Rhode Island? As local beer guru (and former colleague) Lou Papineau tells it, the two most important needs are eliminating the limit on sales (other than growlers) at local breweries, and allowing for pint sales in tasting rooms. Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger offers this update on the state's response: "The team at the Department of Business Regulations is currently working closely with industry stakeholders to discuss how to make RI a better place to do business, and both of the concepts you mention have certainly been part of that discussion around possible statutory and regulatory reform. While we are very early in that process, we think that this industry area is a promising potential growth area for RI business owners and entrepreneurs, and are looking to remove hurdles to that growth in partnership with brewers, vintners, distributors, and retailers.

15. Coming & Going: Providence native Joe Nocera is moving from being an op-ed columnist to the sports section of The New York Times .... Congrats to Deloitte's Larkin Barker, a one-time press secretary for Elizabeth Roberts, who worked for Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2008. She's getting hitched in Arlington, Virginia, this weekend with Nick Barbash, a legislative assistant for US Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) .... Red Sox PR impresario Dr. Charles Steinberg is in as the new president of the PawSox; he's slated to face the media Monday at McCoy Stadium.

16. Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed are scheduled to fly to Israel Sunday as part of a week-long mission paid for by the Jewish Alliance of RI. The mission is billed as a way to promote potential partnerships and to share information on government, education and entrepreneurship. The trip includes visits to historic sites, a military briefing, and a meeting at the US Embassy. Some of the others slated to go on the trip include lawyer Chris Boyle; DEM director Janet Coit; Babara Cottam, executive VP at Citizens Financial and chair of the state Board of Higher Education; Superior Court Judge Richard Licht; and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa.

17. Did Abraham Lincoln make a stop at Burrillville's Western Hotel?

18. There was a lot of hurt and anger after the Station fire in West Warwick in 2003, and new regulations, but little else in the form of political ramifications. Contrast that with the fallout from a recent fatal nightclub blaze in Romania, where the country's prime minister -- already under fire in a broader corruption controversy -- has resigned, along with the mayor of Bucharest and the country's interior minister. Earlier protests in Romania attracted up to 20,000 people.

19. Joe Ganim has won a ticket back to City Hall in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 12 years after being convicted on 16 felony counts. And they say Rhode Islanders are too tolerant when it comes to corruption?