TGIF: 20 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jul 1, 2016

Happy Fourth of July weekend, 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. Close to 250 candidates this week signaled their intention to run for the General Assembly, meaning that close to 75 percent of legislative seats could be contested. About 27 percent of seats will go uncontested -- 21 in the House, and 10 in the Senate. A number of GOP-affiliated independents have filed in hopes of outflanking some of the ruling Democrats. For now, the more interesting number is 15; that's the number of incumbent Democratic state reps who face primary challengers. The influence of the House progressive caucus has waxed and waned over the years, although more so the latter in recent times. Now, Sam Bell of the RI Progressive Democrats is pumping up the fight, pointing to what he calls the need for more real Democrats. "I think the media over-hypes the RI GOP and ignores the Dem vs. GOP battle inside the Democratic party," Bell tweeted Friday. Not to be outdone, Rep. Joe McNamara (D-Warwick), state Democratic Party chairman, offered his own list of "the Top 10 ways the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget builds a stronger Rhode Island." The rundown's talking points range from the $30 million cut in the annual unemployment insurance tax to the new tax exemption for some retiree income, a hike in the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a wage hike for direct care workers. On the GOP side, Republican Chairman Brandon Bell presses on in the face of the loss of one-third of House incumbents. (Some legislative candidates may fail to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, or slip away for other reasons.) Moving ahead, 2016 will offer a test case for the ability of progressive Democrats to challenge the ruling orthodoxy on Smith Hill.

2. Here are some of the top primary races featuring incumbent House Democrats: Rep. Thomas Palanagio (Providence) vs. Moira Walsh; Minority Leader John DeSimone (Providence) vs. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell; Anastasia Williams (Providence) vs. Michael Gazdacko; John Carnevale (Providence) vs. 5 rivals (see #6); Eileen Naughton (Warwick) vs. David Kruzona and Camille Vella-Wilkinson; Joseph Solomon (Warwick) vs. Jennifer Siciliano; Jared Nunes (Coventry) vs Kathleen Decker; Patricia Serpa (West Warwick) vs Nicholas Delmenico; Teresa Tanzi vs. Rachel Clough and Ewa Dzwierzynski; Kathleen Fogarty (South Kingstown) vs. Spencer Dickinson; William O'Brien (North Providence) vs. William Deware; David Coughlin (Pawtucket) vs. David Norton; and Jan Malik (Warren) vs. Jason Knight

3. Governor Gina Raimondo landed on another national list last week -- New York Times' columnist Frank Bruni's look at "14 Young Democrats to Watch." Raimondo's inclusion seemed unsurprising -- since she has national buzz and got touted by the Daily Beast "as the only Democratic star of 2014." Still, when I tweeted a link to Bruni's column, a few detractors were quick to offer their own poor reviews of the governor. That's a small sample to be sure, but it offers a window into how some Rhode Islanders view Raimondo as she moves toward the mid-point in her term. If the governor can build on her success in attracting GE, she'll likely win more converts. Meanwhile, Linda Finn, a former rep and current candidate, called it an example of "how only in RI does someone who gets national recognition for a job well done, get slammed by locals."

4. State Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry), who faces a GOP primary, this week sent out a tweet making his displeasure clear about, at minimum, a perceived slight (he declined to elaborate). Meanwhile, in Cranston, the competition between Republicans Steven Frias and Shawna Lawton for the chance to take on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has some GOPers shaking their heads. Adding to the intrigue is the acknowledged interest of Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Wawick) in replacing Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) as House minority leader. Morgan maintains she's backing a slate of more than 20 candidates for both chambers solely to build Republican ranks. "I'm recruiting candidates because this is the only time when people can really change the makeup of the legislature," she told me earlier this week. "You know, we can get up there and we can put all kinds of good ideas on the table; we can fight against the toll law, we can say that the community service grant program needs to be reformed, but unless we've got our own team on the field, we are hobbled in our ability to stop bad legislation and get good legislation passed."

5. He might not be the dean of the Senate -- that distinction goes to Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. But Senate Finance Chairman Daniel DaPonte first won election as a 20-year-old in 1998, and he's been representing in the chamber ever since. Give a listen to DaPonte's appearance on RIPR Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A as we discuss Brexit, public debt, and a range of other topics.

6. State Rep. John Carnevale (D-Providence) faces five -- count 'em -- five Democratic opponents, and it may not be a stretch to think the four-term rep encouraged one of the entries, in hopes of further dividing the vote. For the record, the candidates are Ramon Perez, Lisa Scorpio, Anthony DeFilippo, and David Marshall. With the fallout from questions about his residency, Carnevale still faces separate probes by State Police and the Providence Board of Canvassers. So will any of his opponents close ranks in the hopes of offering one opponent a better shot? Scorpio says that's a possibility.

7. Interesting wrinkle in the seat held by state Rep. Carol McEntee (D-South Kingstown) who won a 2015 special election for the seat previously held by Don Lally. She's being challenged by an independent named Douglas Buonanno. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Buonanno is the son of Susan Cicilline-Buonanno -- who ran and lost in the 2015 special election won by McEntee. The independent run is surprising since 1) Douglas Buonanno's uncle is US Representative David Cicilline, one of the state's most avid Democrats; and 2) McEntee has developed a profile as a loyal supporter of Speaker Mattiello. Here's Buonanno's explanation for his decision to go independent, via FB: "In the last year it has been demonstrated clearly that political parties are more entrenched and polarized than ever before in my lifetime. At the local level, an agenda by and for the people seems to be brushed aside for special interests contradictory to what's best for members of the public. It's because of this that today, I handed in my forms declaring my intent to run for State Representative in District 33 as an Independent candidate. I believe the people of Narragansett and South Kingstown need a strong, independent voice fighting to defend the common good while others today are so quick to ignore it. The campaign will allow for time to talk about the issues that directly effect our towns but I want to make it clear, I am running because I believe it's time we take our state government back. No other reason. I understand that this decision will come with much scrutiny from some but I will not stand by and let a place I love so much be taken advantage of. I plan to be a part of this special community for years to come, so if not now, when?"

8. Senate Finance Chairman Dan DaPonte on whether Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed might hand off the presidency if she wins re-election to both her Senate seat in November and the leadership role in January: "I don't know. I mean, obviously, everything's possible," he said on Bonus Q&A. "That's happened in a couple of House leaderships in the passed. She has never expressed to me when she eventually would want to leave or retire or not run for re-election ...." Would DaPonte be interested in becoming Senate president, if and when Paiva Weed leaves? "I'd certainly be interested, but I'd also have to see when that would happen in terms of timing and everything else ..."

9. More ProJo layoffs: four people have been let go, according to the Providence Newspaper Guild. The laid-off employees are a marketing person; a multimedia ad rep; features reporter Jenna Pelletier; and Carrie Simonelli, a content editor in features. "Like any organization, the Journal continues to restructure and rethink resources to meet our reader and advertiser needs," Publisher Janet Hasson told RIPR. "While we reduce in some areas we also have added resources like an online producer, social media editor, press operator, and events manager."

10. Based on updated info from the Secretary of State's office, these are the 31 lawmakers who will go unchallenged in November. Reps: Raymond Hull (D-Providence); John Lombardi (D-Providence); Scott Slater (D-Providence); Charlene Lima (D-Cranston); Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston); Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick); Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich); Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham); Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly); Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston); Gregory Costantino (D-Lincoln); Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield); Michael Morin (D-Woonsocket); Stephen Casey (D-Woonsocket) Robert Phillips (D-Woonsocket); Athur Corvese (D-North Providence); Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls); James McLaughlin (D-Cumberland); Mary Duffy Messier (D-Pawtucket); Gregg Amore (D-East Providence); Joy Hearn (D-Barrington); Marvin Abney (D-Newport). Sens: Gayle Goldin (D-Providence); Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence); Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket); William Conley (D-East Providence); Roger Picard (D-Woonsocket); Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket); Frank S. Lombardi (D-Cranston); Erin Lynch Prata (Warwick); James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown); Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly).

10. Governor Raimondo on her holiday weekend plans: "Like many Rhode Islanders, I look forward to spending quality time with my family and friends - at local restaurants, at cookouts and at the beach. Every year, my family and I look forward to marching in the historic Bristol 4th of July Parade."

11. FiveThirtyEight.com has Hillary Clinton as an overwhelmingly favorite (78%) to beat Donald Trump, while Rasmussen Reports has Trump with a closer lead.

12. Congrats to WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tim White (and Wayne Worcester and Randall Richard) on the publication of their book, The Last Good Heist: The Inside Story of the Biggest Single Payday in Criminal History. Stay tuned for a forthcoming RI Public Radio interview with Tim about the project. In the interim, check out my story from a few years ago on how the Channel 12 reporter picked up the tale from his father, the late Jack White.

13. State Sen. William Walaska talks with RIPR healthcare reporter Kristin Gourlay about his fight with chronic lymphocytic leukemia "and the recently signed legislation it inspired. Now, health insurers must cover off-label drug use for life-threatening conditions that go beyond cancer."

14. Phil Eil has been waging a long fight to get records from a 2011 drug trial in Ohio. So who better to offer a look, via Columbia Journalism Review, on the 50-year history of the Freedom of Information Act? Meanwhile, Dan Kennedy's annual Muzzle Awards -- for efforts to squelch free speech -- include the US Drug Enforcement Administration, due to the DEA's role in Eil's public-records plight.

15. Give a listen to Steve Inskeep's NPR interview with President Obama. Here's an excerpt: Q: You mentioned people fearful of change. The way that voters express that when we talk with them is that they are concerned about changing the traditions, values or institutions of this country that have made the country great over time. Immigrants do bring new ideas, new cultures, different religions, other things. Does it matter particularly if they do change the country? A: "Well, I think that there are some bedrock values that shouldn't change, and in fact, haven't changed. It's the immigrants that change, not the values themselves. The values of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the values of free speech, the values of religious tolerance, the values of pluralism, the values of us being a nation of immigrants that can absorb people from every corner of the world and yet at the end of the day, because we all pledge allegiance to a flag and a creed, we become one. Those traditions should not change. I think, ironically, that if you look at the values that immigrants bring when they come here — whether they're coming from Poland, or Italy, or now Vietnam, or South Korea or India — the values they bring are quintessentially American values. They're striver's values; they're the values that say we're going to make something of ourselves, regardless of the station in which we were born. When you look at second-generation immigrants, or third-generation immigrants, they are as American as any kid here. And that's been our strength. That is part of what separates us from the United Kingdom or Europe, is we've had that tradition of being a nation of immigrants. And so, you know, when people are concerned about some of the changes that immigrants may bring, you know, they need to go back and read what people were saying about their grandparents or great-grandparents when they came."

16. Rhode Island ranks a somewhat respectable 33 in the Small Business and Entrepreneurial Council's Small Business Tax Index for 2016.

17. RIPR's Ambar Espinoza has a rundown on what the state budget means for the environment.

18. About 12,000 inmates are poised to get Pell Grants -- named for the late Senator Claiborne Pell -- as part of an experimental program. Critics argue the effort is misguided; supporters say it reduces spending on prisons.

19. A relaxing reads for your holiday weekend: Will smarter machines cause mass unemployment?

20. Even Michael Dobbs, the creator of the original, British version of House of Cards, has been taken aback by the sudden political turn of events following the UK's vote to leave the European Union: “People have been saying to me it’s like House of Cards. But it’s really more like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.”