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

Apr 15, 2016

Happy mid-April, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Is RI DOT's hybrid design for remaking the 6/10 Connector essentially a fait accompli, now that the agency has submitted plans for a roughly $600 million re-construction plan? In an essay that also wound up in the ProJo, James Kennedy of Transport Providence argued that a boulevard can accommodate the tens of thousands of cars that pass through the Connector daily, and he called on Governor Gina Raimondo "to trash the RIDOT highway-boulevard 'hybrid' and build a real boulevard, before 6/10 Dig becomes the next Icelandic embarrassment." Yet Raimondo hasn't uttered a contrary word, and key Rhode Island elected officials side with DOT in questioning the boulevard's feasibility. "Certainly for people who use 6 and 10 to commute -- something like 50,000 vehicles a day -- to turn that into a regular slow-moving municipal boulevard would probably be pretty much of a nuisance," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who advocated for federal transportation money to help remake the Connector, told me. "I'm going along with what the state has decided, which is the 6/10 proposal that was filed [Thursday] by the Department of Transportation. If the state and the city want to negotiate further changes, there's some room for that." Remaking the 6/10 Connector will have a big impact on a broad swath of Providence, for years to come. For his part, Kennedy believes the fight for the boulevard isn't over, and an ad hoc coalition of liberals and conservatives have joined him in backing the concept. "We hope people skeptical of RI-DOT's tunnels will check out our alternative," Kennedy said via email. "Our plan is most likely to prevail because it has broad community support from groups as diverse as UNITE-HERE 217, the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, and the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. We can bring left and right together to save money, reconnect the grid, and open up 70 acres of development. This grant is structured so that most of the review comes after the grant is complete. We call on the governor to do a more representative job in future meetings, as RI-DOT gerrymandered this round away from many of the affected neighborhoods. Nonetheless, we're getting heartening support from some suburban residents as we make our case that this is best for them as well. This fight has just begun, and we're already winning."

2. Political backing for Robert Kando, the embattled head of the state Board of Elections, has been informally linked to the state Senate since Kando became the BOE's executive director in 2005. So it's worth giving a close read to the answer offered by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, during an interview on RI Public Radio this week, when pressed on whether Kando should be fired: "I haven't had the chance to evaluate his performance, but at this point it does appear that what we need is a functioning Board of Elections prior to the next election, which is going to be very significant. Whatever that takes, it takes. I am not going to say he should stay or go, because I am not directly his supervisor .... Whatever the cause, though, [of problems at the BOE], they need to straighten it out and get their act together over there. We have a presidential election coming up, and it's [BOE] not functioning." (A message on Kando's office phone said he's away until May 2, and he could not be reached for comment.)   

3. A focus on the economic anxiety of Americans has propelled the sharply different campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. So with the percentage of middle class Americans shrinking, what's the answer? Senator Whitehouse, during an interview scheduled to air Monday on RIPR, said the economic sentiment propelling Trump and Sanders "is a message that the existing machinery seems rigged to benefit special interests and people who already have it made. From my perch in Washington, I do not dispute that. That's a point that I argue myself all the time. I think what's going to happen now is that that message has been so clear in this electorate that when we come back, whoever the new president is, I think there will be a much stronger move towards economic fairness. When Donald Trump, who is right now the leading Republican candidate, is saying it's time to throw out the carried interest exception, that lets hedge fund billionaires pay lower tax rates than firefighters and truck drivers, that's a big step for the Republican Party. It has always defended that carried interest exception. I think that we're going to see a lot more of these special interest loopholes under a lot more pressure after this election."  

4. Speaking of billionaires, ICYMI: Fortress Investment Group -- the overlord of ProJo owner GateHouse Media -- paid its top three executives almost $43.8 million in bonuses last year, even though the company's shares fell by 31 percent.

5. While Clinton loyalists love calling Rhode Island "Clinton Country" -- a message that was a part of Bill Clinton's visit to CCRI on Thursday -- the Brown University poll released in February reflected a competitive race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. With Rhode Island's April 26th primary slightly more than a week away, it's worth remembering that Rhode Island voters will directly pick only 15 of the state's 33 Democratic delegates -- a situation that works to Clinton's advantage. And with a close race expected, the local Democratic establishment's uniform support for Clinton should boost her ground game.

5. Back in the days when William V. Irons was state Senate president, the Providence Journal exposed how Irons voted against a pharmacy choice bill opposed by CVS while earning lucrative commissions for insurance policies covering CVS employees. (By the end of 2003, he abruptly resigned his post, rather than revealing more information about his clients.) Irons went on to use a best-defense-is-a-strong-offense approach in challenging the authority of the state Ethics Commission -- and the state Supreme Court sided with him in a 2009 decision that weakened the Commission. In the time since, the General Assembly hasn't rushed to restore the Ethics Commission's ability to police core legislative functions. So when Senate President Paiva Weed joined RIPR for an interview this week, I asked whether Irons' vote against pharmacy choice while receiving CVS-related commissions was acceptable. Her ultimate answer: "I'm not going to pass judgment on a former legislator. But what I do believe is that the legislature should be governed by the Ethics Commission. And two years ago, the Senate passed a bill that would have sent to the voters and [potentially] restored the power of the Ethics Commission to have jurisdiction over [lawmakers'] speech in debate. Acts that are criminal in nature continue to be prosecuted and need to be prosecuted." With House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello working on his own ethics bill (see #5 from last week), Paiva Weed said she's confident a compromise can be struck that will give voters a voice on ethics reform this November. Yet until that happens, questions will remain about the particular details -- and whether a meaningful bill will win approval in both chambers of the General Assembly.

6. With Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor going before the House Finance Committee this past Wednesday, the question was whether lawmakers would use the opportunity to roast Pryor for the botched rollout of Rhode Island's tourism campaign. To the surprise of some observers, the committee members present treated Pryor gingerly. That was noteworthy, considering the peevish tone displayed toward Pryor during an earlier hearing, on economic incentives, back in January; (see #4). Maybe it was because just a fraction of House Finance members were present. Maybe it's because lawmakers believe the Raimondo administration's approach of spending more money on tourism promotion makes sense -- regardless of how badly the campaign's launch was handled. And maybe, as a lawmaker we encountered after the meeting said, sometimes there's just no rhyme or reason to how things happen at the Statehouse. 

7. Sam Bell of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats used a ProJo op-ed this week to cite Bernie Sanders' record in Vermont as a roadmap for how progressives can challenge the status quo on Smith Hill. Bell also pointed to three Sanders supporters who have announced primary challenges. For the record, the trio (all mentioned previously in this column) are David Norton of Pawtucket, Moira Walsh of Providence, and Bill Deware of North Providence. Bell, who said he's not a spokesperson for any of the candidates, added: "I do hope we see more primary challengers emerge. As strong as the machine is right now, they can't change the fact that Rhode Island is a Democratic state. When Democrats learn about the machine's Republican policies, they get angry. When they get angry, sometimes they run, and we're always happy to support great progressive Democrats! (I should say that we do make strategic endorsements and will back candidates who help advance Democratic values even if we disagree with them on a number of issues.)"

8. Other General Assembly races: Doris De Los Santos is making another run against Sen. Frank Ciccone.

9. With lawmakers set to return from their spring break during the last week in April, Governor Raimondo is expected to unveil a slate of judicial nominations in the near future.

10. Providence, Part I: Scott MacKay on the likely tax hike facing Providence homeowners. Excerpt: "As is the case with too many other communities, Providence politicians have had a history of short-term thinking when it comes to budgets. The tactics have usually been somewhat akin to dealing with potholes – patch them and hope for the best. Over the years, the pols skimped on making adequate contributions to the pension system. They bought the votes of city workers by giving them pension and health care benefits taxpayers couldn’t afford. And in election years, they declined to raise taxes to keep up with costs. This attitude isn’t novel either. A.J. Liebling, the great 20th Century journalist, began his career at the Providence Journal in the 1920s. He found Providence a "lovely place to work," but also said, "There was nothing you could do about anything, but then nothing was so bad that you felt a burning urge to do anything about it."

11. Providence, Part II: Dan McGowan's must-read coverage of the Providence pension trial.

12. The state Supreme Court sided against the Providence Journal in a decision this week regarding access to a state police report from a graduation party involving Lincoln Chafee's son in 2012. As Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, "This ruling flips the public records law on its head. It puts the burden on journalists to show government wrongdoing before they can access the documents needed to look for that wrongdoing.” The outcome also highlights the concerns of some reporters about the most recent revision of the state's Access to Public Records Act -- that when it comes to balancing privacy, courts may tend to deny information to reporters. More on the decision from the ACLU and Tim White (a NEFAC board member).

13. On the other hand, we are suffering from an excess of politicians' empty talk, as Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter for ex-South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, notes in this essay for PBS NewsHour. Excerpt: "I used to work for a politician as a speechwriter, and I confess I came up with fair amount of verbal rubbish in my day. But let’s give our politicians a break. We expect them to speak far too often, about far too many subjects. Think of the president. A half-century ago, the president spoke only rarely in public, once a week maybe. Now he speaks in public settings all week long, sometimes several times in a single day, to all sorts of gatherings on a vast range of topics. It’s not natural to orate that often. You run out of interesting things to say. And, to make it worse, your every utterance is scrutinized by reporters and political adversaries for anything offensive or controversial. So, what are politicians supposed to do? They have to speak all the time, but without saying anything that might cause trouble. They have no choice, really, but to generate reams of semi-meaningless verbiage."

14. Not long after Goldman Sachs was part of a newly announced Rhode Island initiative, the company is paying $5 billion as part of a settlement related to dubious financial practices. That might sound like a lot of money, but critics call the settlement a sham.

15. Why body cams might not be the answer to concerns about police treating different races and ethnicities differently.

16. Senate President Paiva Weed is keeping her future plans close to the vest, so it's fair to wonder if she might pull a Bill Murphy, walking away from the Senate presidency if -- as expected -- she wins re-election in November and another term as the chamber's leader in January 2017. "At this point my plan is to get through today and run for re-election for my Senate seat," Paiva Weed said Thursday, the last legislative day ahead of the General Assembly's spring break next week. (Murphy, the lawyer-lobbyist, yielded the speakership in mid-session in 2010, paving the way for Gordon Fox to become speaker.)

17. Lincoln Chafee has no regrets about his short-lived presidential run, as Boston.com reports, although -- like many pols -- he does find fault with the media: " 'All they talk about is process; How come you don’t have bumper stickers? And then the real trivial thing: Why are you wearing a tie in the summer?’ he said, both laughing and shaking his head. 'Can we please — Bernie says the same thing — can we please talk about the issues?' In the events in which all the candidates attended, Chafee hopes his candidacy had a positive impact, however limited it may have been, on the importance of America’s role in the world and how the country is perceived."

18. RI-PBS was kind enough to ask me to join Wendy Schiller, Brian Newberry and Joe Shekarchi, along with Dyana Koelsch, on A Lively Experiment this week. Take a peek this weekend.

19. Panamanians are upset about getting a bad rap with the Panama Papers. We can speak from personal experience (from some post-US invasion reporting in 1990 and a more recent pleasure trip) in saying it's a lively place to visit.