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

Oct 14, 2016

Your humble correspondent is back on the beat after taking most of last week off. So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and your can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Governor Gina Raimondo touts the Democratic view of government as a positive force for everyday people, so the problems with the state's rollout of the new $364 UHIP system create another perception problem for the administration. "Once again, impatience on behalf of state agencies’ leaders and inadequate preparation resulted in a half-baked program being thrust upon Rhode Islanders," fumed House Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick), in a blistering election-season news release. "This time, it went beyond embarrassment and inconvenience, leaving our most vulnerable citizens -- children, the elderly, the disabled, the needy -- without support." Oversight and House Finance have scheduled a hearing to examine the problems with UHIP for next Thursday -- a scenario that offers the opportunity for both pertinent questions and ample political theater. Raimondo said she wasn't aware of federal government letters warning of problems with UHIP. So who made the decision to launch the new system? "This is a coordinated project between the Department of Administration, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Human Services, and our department of Information Technology," Raimondo's chief of staff, Brett Smiley, said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. (He said Health and Human and Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts was among those who signed off.) Smiley said the administration stands by its decision to move ahead with UHIP, and he predicts the expansive IT project will prove a success after initial hiccups, without additional cost for taxpayers. "We know there are some kinks, but we're working them out as they come, and the vast majority of the program is working properly ... This has been an expensive project, but in the long run will save Rhode Island tens of millions of dollars a year," Smiley said, while more effectively connecting residents with needed services.  

2. For Our Daughters, the group behind the boycott of WPRO talk-show host John DePetro, is trying to associate Steven Frias, the Republican challenger to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), with Donald Trump and his highly publicized lewd comments about women. A mailer sent by the group to Cranston voters shows  images of Trump and Frias, and asks: "Who with any conscience could support Donald Trump after hearing his latest repugnant comments about women?" The mailer provides this answer: "Cranston State Rep. candidate Steve Frias, that's who." The other side of the mailer asserts, in part, "Steve Frias is standing by his man -- instead of standing up for women." Frias has tried to distance himself from Trump since he launched his campaign against Mattiello; in July, (#6) Frias said he planned to support John Kasich at the RNC, although he said he would support the GOP ticket in November. "Trump’s comments were obviously offensive, but they are irrelevant to my state rep race," Frias writes in an email to TGIF. "What is also offensive and actually relevant to my race is that Rep. John Carnevale, who had been indicted for sexual assault, and had only evaded trial because of his victim's death, was appointed by Speaker Mattiello to be House Finance vice chair. Second, as the Republican National Committeeman, I am obligated to support the Republican presidential nominee. It is unfortunate that America is stuck with a choice between two very flawed candidates, which is a sentiment I have heard expressed to me by average voters." Mattiello's campaign, meanwhile, said it would return a $120 check gathered from Carnevale during a recent fundraiser. Campaign spokeswoman Patti Doyle offered this explanation: "[E]ssentially, John Carnevale attended a local fundraiser at Tommy's Pizza with his girlfriend who is a constituent of the speaker's. Under the circumstances, we are returning the check."

3. Some critics like to blame Rhode Island's perennial economic struggles on the long-running Democratic stranglehold of the General Assembly. But Massachusetts -- an emblem of prosperity and better public schools -- has an even worse two-party system in its legislature. "According to the Ballotpedia, Massachusetts elections for the state Legislature rank dead last among states in terms of competitiveness," WBUR reports. "We are near the worst on all three aspects of the site's Competitiveness Index, which scores states based on 'the percentage of open seats, incumbents facing primary opposition, and general elections with major party competition.' "

4. Trump's comments about women unleashed a torrent of stories about the prevalence of sexual assault in the US. Last Friday, writer Kelly Oxford told her account of being assaulted as a 12-year-old girl on a city bus, and asked women to share their experiences via Twitter; thousands responded.

5. Will truck tolls resonate as an issue in General Assembly elections next month? For now, the Rhode Island Trucking Association and their national allies are trying to keep the issue front and center, staging an informal rally and news conference at a West Greenwich truck stop next Tuesday "to discuss the devastating effects that 'RhodeWorks' -- the Rhode Island Department of Transportation's truck-only tolling plan -- will have on local businesses and commercial truck drivers that operate within the state of Rhode Island." For their part, Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello have argued that RhodeWorks will help the state's economy. And Brett Smiley, Raimondo's chief of staff, maintains the state is not entering uncharted legal territory by planning to toll only large trucks. The US Department of Transportation's recent approval of the state's gantry plan "clears the way for us to proceed with very minimal risk," Smiley said during RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A. "Anybody is kind of unfortunately welcome to file suit, but we believe that that solidifies our case and gives us the confidence to move forward."

6. House Majority Leader John DeSimone staged a brief news conference Wednesday to announce his write-in campaign against Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. Yet write-in runs are almost never successful, even if Ranglin-Vassell's 21-vote margin of victory in the September primary indicated a close race. More to the point, DeSimone has lost the support of Speaker Mattiello, Ranglin-Vassell's supporters appear highly motivated, and DeSimone's attempts to portray Ranglin-Vassell as an outsider to District 5 came up short in the primary. Or as Scott MacKay puts it, "Politicians love to say that elections matter. Except when some of them don’t like the results."

7. Speaking of write-in campaigns, former state Rep. Jon Brien of Woonsocket thought he could regain office with a write-in bid after being defeated by Stephen Casey during a 2012 primary. Yet with hindsight, Brien said he realized his attempted comeback was propelled by ego, not wanting to relinquish his place in the General Assembly, "and having a problem with that hard reality -- ya know, it's over." Looking back, he said it was a big mistake. But many lawmakers like to think their elective office makes them important, Brien said, although "you're not and you're easily forgotten." The former rep is now seeking a city council office in Woonsocket, and he said he's happier than in the past.

8. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield), Democratic consultant Kate Coyne-McCoy, and RI Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay joined me for a discussion at the Providence Athenaeum Thursday night on national and state politics. You can listen to it here. The panel generally agreed that a more robust two-party system would improve the General Assembly. Then again, two strong parties in Congress has done nothing to dim the prevailing hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., right?

9. Lively take from Brown professor Timmons Robert comparing the controversial Burrillville power plant proposal with Deepwater Wind's milestone wind farm off Block Island. Excerpt: "The tiny state of Rhode Island is at a crossroad, facing major decisions on investing in fossil fuel infrastructure or turning sharply to renewable energy.The contrast between two major projects -- a huge natural gas-fired power plant and towering offshore wind turbines -- could not be greater, and the long-term implications of the decisions for the state and the country are far-reaching. Depending upon which road it takes, tiny Rhode Island could be a leader of a new energy age for the U.S., or a middling actor locked into fossil fuel infrastructure for decades."

10. In connection with NPR's look at the state of US in 2016, I spoke with Reps. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) and Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls) about what it means to be an American. The question resonates with these lawmakers: Giarrusso came with his family to the US from Italy when he was 4, and Maldonado's mom came to Rhode Island from Guatemala when she was in her 20s. And despite some predictable partisan differences, I found a lot of common ground. Both Maldonado and Giarrusso relish the freedom and sense of opportunity in America, and they take pride in sacrifices made by their families. Both think dialogue is a key in reducing the sense of division in the country, although getting there is a challenge in a nation defined by partisan camps. On a related note, Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero will speak at Providence's Central Congregational Church at 7 p.m. next Thursday, October 20, on "What next .... Healing a broken nation after November 8."

11. Three short takes from Brett Smiley, from our Bonus Q&A conversation: 1) he's non-committal on whether Governor Raimondo next budget will include a cut in the car tax, although "we're very interested to see if there's an affordable way to provide some relief."; 2) There's still no timeline for forward motion on Wexford Science & Technology's proposed life-science park in the I-195 District, although "we have every reason to remain optimistic about the proposal."; 3) Asked if Raimondo will campaign for Speaker Mattiello, Smiley said, "If there's any way thast we can be helpful to the speaker, we will."

12. The battle continues in Providence over the infrastructure bond that critics pan as a council slush fund. Here's a statement issued by Councilors Wilbur Jennings, Nicholas Narducci, David Salvatore, Seth Yurdin and Sam Zurier: “The City Council leadership is holding the infrastructure bond resolution hostage to a ransom demand of ‘slush funds’ controlled by individual members. This ransom demand, when combined with the imminent deadline, seeks to extract political advantage from the city’s extensive infrastructure needs and scarce capital funds. With less than a month before Election Day, the city has not provided voters enough information concerning the infrastructure bond, and time is almost up. We urge our constituents to vote against the infrastructure bond unless a 'clean' bond resolution is approved in the next week.”

13. Another RI-Iceland connection! Former Providence resident Bjorn Levi Gunnarsson is in the running to join the Icelandic Parliament, as part of the well-liked Pirate Party, in elections slated for October 29. Fun Fact: Gunnarsson keeps a Providence Kickball League patch on his backpack (he was on the team Muscle Justice).

14. Lots of talk in newspaper circles this week about the Wall Street Journal's plan to cut editorial flab while dividing print and digital into separate desks. Here's a key excerpt: "For all reporters and editors, writing must come into sharper focus. We write many excellent stories, but in total, every day we write too many long stories and aren't nearly creative enough about how to tell stories in ways that engage our readers. We must urgently understand and address the reality that busy readers are looking to us to help them understand what is important and what not, what stories need a lot of time and focus and which ones less so. So we must be vigilant in keeping story lengths appropriate. Bluntly — but obviously, I hope — every story should be as short as it needs to be. There's no excuse for a single otiose word or punctuation mark in our writing. Too many stories have repetitive anecdotes or unnecessary quotes. We will cut them."

15. Nancy Carriuolo, formerly president of Rhode Island College, is now the VP for Advancement at the New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich.

16. Retiring state Education Department spokesman and former ProJo guy Elliot Krieger made the case for a Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan back in 2011. So here's part of his reaction to this week's news: "A few cranks today have suggested he doesn't deserve the prize, it should have gone to a 'real writer.' I think back to the day when I first heard Subterranean Homesick Blues - my childhood friend Mark Lewis - whom I hadn't seen in decades until last weekend at our h.s. reunion - was the first to buy the album and we listened together and I remarked: Is it folk or rock?, to which Mark presciently said: There's no difference anymore. Of course he was right - Dylan changed everything, including the way we think about music and, now, the way we think about literature. To suggest he doesn't merit this award is churlish and short-sighted; get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand. His works will endure as long as there are people to listen to music, to sing, to read, to laugh, to get angry, to fall in (and out of) love. So here's to: Visions of Johanna, Love Minus Zero - No Limit, To Ramona, Like a Rolling Stone, Positively Fourth Street, The Hour that the Ship Comes In, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol, Blowin' in the Wind, It's Al'right Ma, I and I, It Ain't Me Babe, Spanish Boots, I'm Not There, Idiot Wind, Just Like Tom Thumb Blues, Just Like a Woman, Series of Dreams, License to Kill, Feel My Love, Sign on the Cross - do you get the idea? I could fill this page with a list of his great songs, from so many different genres, eras, periods of his life and work, and yet all recognizably Dylan - his entire corpus is an account of his life and thoughts and feelings, as is the work of Proust, of Joyce (two whom the Nobel passed over, amazingly), Keats or Whitman - particular to Dylan, but universal as well, not only enabling us to see his life but to make sense of our own lives, in the moment and over time. I'm fortunate to be a near-contemporary, just a few years younger, and my life has in some ways followed the course of his music, been shaped by his music. To have been his contemporary, I imagine, is similar to having been Shakespeare's - not to see the work as a fixed monument in time, as we look back on the Shakespeare canon, but as a work of genius continuously unfolding and developing. This was a great day."

17. Former State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell has signed as CEO of the Greater Providence YMCA, which has an annual budget of $23 million. Via statement: “Steve O’Donnell brings integrity, strong leadership and an unparalleled understanding of all communities in Rhode Island, and we are excited Steve has chosen to join us in the next stage of his remarkable career,” said Gayle Corrigan, Chairperson of the Greater Providence YMCA Board of Directors. “Steve is the right person to lead the Y as it seeks to reestablish its presence in Providence and grow membership.  I am confident he will further the mission of the YMCA and maintain the unique place it holds in the fabric of Rhode Island.”

18. TGIF spent last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. We had some fantastic barbecue, of course, gawked at all the cranes in the sky, and noticed barely any homeless people or panhandlers around the city's downtown. That's a sharp contrast, of course, from Rhode Island, where concerns on panhandlers are spreading even to Newport. “Like Providence and Cranston, Newport is seeing a rise in panhandlers in intersections, on medians, and stepping into roads to solicit motorists," Councilor-at-Large John F. Florez said via statement, in rolling out a proposed ordinance. "While this Ordinance won’t curb panhandling on sidewalks, it will make it illegal to solicit in roadways. To address panhandling with compassion and assistance, while asking the city administration to fully adopt the attached ordinance and its specifications, I am also asking for the creation of a line item in the next budget to establish a work program for panhandlers that mirrors the successful program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

19. The Chicago Cubs fans delighted by the team's dramatic 9th inning comeback against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday include Eric Hyers, who ran Governor Raimondo's 2014 campaign. Hyers, who is now managing the re-election campaign for Montana Governor Steve Bullock, sent along these thoughts: "My family are all from Chicago and I was raised a staunch Cubs/Bears fan. Growing up in Massachusetts being surrounded by Sox fans was the worst because of all the 'we haven't won since 1918' whining. I always thought, 'Cry me a river -- Cubs haven't won since 1908!' It goes without saying that 2003-2004 were a couple dark years. Of course, the heartbreak of the '03 NLCS, but their collapse at the end of '04, after they made the big splash to grab Nomar and then missed the playoffs was also a pretty sick feeling. '08 and '07, getting swept in the NLDS was frustrating. And since then its basically been a rebuild, and all that is paying off. I told myself I wouldn't follow so closely every day this year, but that didn't really work. Game 1 of the NLCS was perhaps the most nervous I've ever been watching a ball game. Paced the entire time. Drove our cats crazy. I love this young team (and David Ross!) and their dynamic. They all get along and play hard."