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

Apr 24, 2015

Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Lots of pots cooking, so we'll keep the formalities short. Your tips and comments are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me 24/7 on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The parent company of Twin River may have pulled an ace when it unveiled a plan Monday to transfer gambling from Newport Grand and expand it at a new site on 45 undeveloped acres in northern Tiverton, a dice throw from the Massachusetts border. With Newport remaining unwilling to add table games, a so-called convenience casino in Tiverton may be the most pragmatic option for protecting Rhode Island's third-largest source of state revenue. A more glitzy resort casino is likely to be developed somewhere in nearby southeastern Massachusetts. Yet John E. Taylor Jr., the chairman of Twin River's parent company, pointed during an appearance on WPRI-TV's Newsmakers to how Twin River gained serious market share and revenue while competing with Connecticut's two larger casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. He points to Twin River's experience in Lincoln in arguing a casino wouldn't fundamentally remake Tiverton's character (for more on this, see item #5). Critics like Liz Taber of Newport's Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling can reasonably call gambling a lackluster form of economic development. Yet pols tend to find gambling revenue irresistible, since it's a way of generating big bucks without raising taxes. In for a dime, in for a dollar, as the saying goes, and Rhode Island went in for way more than a dime a long time ago.

2. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he's keeping an open mind about the PawSox' proposal for $120 million in state lease payments over 30 years -- but he sure sounds like he wants the team's envisioned Providence ballpark to become a reality. "At the end of the day, I think most Rhode Islanders want the Pawtucket Red Sox to, in fact, stay in Rhode Island, and I believe that's everyone's goal," Mattiello said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "But if they're going to stay here, it has to be a reasonable proposal that the public's comfortable with." So how does the speaker define 'a reasonable proposal'? "Well, something that makes sense, something that keeps the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island, where the public is comfortable with the investment they're making." Mattiello said he believes better offers are coming out of Massachusetts, adding, "The question is not whether or not Pawtucket will stay in Pawtucket. They're going to leave Pawtucket one way or another, and does Rhode Island want to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island or not?"

3. If Mattiello thinks few people want to see the PawSox leave Rhode Island, he missed Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward's sharply unsentimental farewell-in-advance to the team, entitled, "PawSox died with [Ben] Mondor; it's time for us to move on." Ward argues that pols, given the track record in RI, shouldn't be trusted to hand out public subsidies. Key excerpt: "For decades, Rhode Island has done economic development like a crack addict looking for his next fix. All short term, all short sighted. Politicians buy labor happiness for two years, then rob taxpayers for 30. Some leaders behave like kittens with a shiny piece of tinsel. They keep selling us sizzle, when what we need is steak. And a Providence baseball stadium is all sizzle." Ward joins an amalgam of opponents that includes the Rhode Island Republican Party, the Progressive Democrats of Rhode Island, Coalition Radio, Occupy Providence and a smattering of state lawmakers.

4. Monday's 4 pm meeting of the 195 District Commission should be quite the time. Jim Skeffington and Larry Lucchino, a co-owner of the PawSox and the president/CEO of the Boston Red Sox, plan to make a presentation to the commission. They were originally slated to speak during a closed executive session, but the commission agreed to make that segment public. Meanwhile, longtime environmental activist Greg Gerritt (who wrote this about the PawSox proposal) is helping to organize a protest at the meeting. "We are planning a rally to let them know in no uncertain terms that they need to say NO to the new stadium for the PawSox," Gerritt writes in an email. "How dare they give away 120 million dollars of our money."

5. How will Tiverton residents react to the proposal for a convenience casino in the northern section of the town? That's one of the big questions facing the proposal, since it requires local support to move ahead. "Voter approval? Good luck with that," former state Representative John Loughlin, a Tiverton resident, commented on FB. Yet Justin Katz, also a Tiverton resident, doesn't envision a dramatic impact on the town's character. I asked Justin to sum up his view of the good and bad of Twin River's proposal; here's his dispatch for TGIF: "With the announcement that the Newport Grand video-slot gambling hall might move to Tiverton as a full casino, standard political lines in town have been jumbled. Some residents have legitimate moral objections to gambling, and others don’t like government’s role as a gambling monopoly.  Those are separate questions, though, from the use of a piece of Tiverton land. Details would have to be worked out, but on first glance, the proposed location ought to minimize many of the objections. Right on the town’s border and diagonal across a clover-leaf highway interchange from a site that Fall River, Massachusetts, has been considering for a casino of its own, the facility wouldn’t affect Tiverton’s character as much as development in other parts of town might. Extra town revenue from the casino is another consideration. Some worry the local government will spend the money, and the casino will close, leaving a gap for homeowners to fill. Others argue that taxpayers can insist on relief, right up front, and that this is just normal politics, from which we can’t and shouldn’t run."

6. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello gave a preview on RI Public Radio this week of the major changes ahead for Governor Gina Raimondo's budget, including his desire to eliminate the "Taylor Swift Tax."

7. Hillary Clinton's Rhode Island campaign is set to launch Monday with a 10 a.m. meeting of its finance committee, at the Mashpaug Shopping Center at 77 Reservoir Avenue, Providence. Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, and her director of state campaigns, Marlon Marshall, are slated to speak, according to the invitation sent by two longtime Democratic activists, formper Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. and Mark Weiner. Paolino, a Clinton supporter since 1991, said he expects the state's congressional delegation, as well as Governor Raimondo and Treasurer Seth Magaziner, to be active in the campaign. Mook also worked with Steve Gerencser, now chief of staff for Nellie Gorbea, on Howard Dean's ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign, as this Mook profile in Mother Jones shows.

8. In other news of presidential politics, Matt Bai zeroes in on Lincoln Chafee, and says his run may matter more than you think: "[T]here is something fearless and relentless about Chafee, who spent his postgraduate years shoeing horses in the Canadian backcountry. It’s not hard to imagine him livening up the debates in a few months, pounding away at Clinton’s ideological pliability in his firm and deliberate way. It’s not hard to imagine a conflict-starved media amplifying that quiet voice into every corner of Iowa and New Hampshire. And depending on how Clinton handles it, that might be just enough to pry open the door for an alternative like [Martin] O’Malley, who will have spent the past year chatting up every Iowan he could find, showing off his skills on the electric guitar and touting his own liberal record in Maryland."

9. Governor Raimondo signed into law this week three leadership-backed measures meant to discourage the misuse of campaign contributions -- a problem highlighted by the Gordon Fox case. The measures require candidates to keep separate accounts for campaign money, to have a separate campaign treasurer if they raise more than $10,000, and to file an annual bank statement with the state Board of Elections, to back up the details in campaign finance reports for PACs and candidates. "Elected officials must always uphold the highest ethical standards - Rhode Islanders deserve honest government," Raimondo said in a statement. "Strong campaign finance rules and a more transparent system highlight our commitment to accountability for those who serve in government across the state." Yet Rhode Island still doesn't have random audits of most campaign accounts, so critics question the impact of the new laws.

10. What will it take to overcome the years-long impasse over attempts to restore the state Ethics Commission's oversight of lawmakers? Apparently, more voters reaching out to officials like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Asked on RIPR's Bonus Q+A if an ethics bill backed by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) will get a floor vote this session, Mattiello said (at about 5:50), "At this time, it's not something I'm planning on." The speaker said his focus is on the budget and the economy. "I've got to be quite frank with you, I have not gotten one email out of my district asking for that ... Government is not less ethical than when you had the Ethics Commission oversight. There's been absolutely no difference." Mattiello also points to voters' rejection last year of a constitutional convention as a sign that ethics reform is not a key concern for Rhode Islanders.

11. Lots of RI connections with the Pulitzer Prizes handed out this week, and congrats to all: Jennifer Levitz and Helene Cooper, both ex of the ProJo, were part of respective finalist and winning teams at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Another ex-ProJo reporter, Zachary Mider, won with Bloomberg for explanatory reporting. The New York Times' Eric Lipton won a story with an RI tangent. And Brown's David Kertzer also claimed a prize.

12. On the other hand: Jack Shafer makes the case that reporters make too much of awards -- everyone has won something, right? -- and Pulitzer's hands are a bit messy: "Murder and catastrophes were Pulitzer staples, the more lurid and blood-stained the better."

13. Looking for an easy way to get the latest from Rhode Island Public Radio. Sign up for our daily email news digest, The Daily Catch.

14. Some other highlights from RIPR: Bob Kerr remembers different days at the ProJo .... Kristin Gourlay reports that Lifespan remains mum on Governor Raimondo's proposed Medicaid cuts .... Ambar Espinoza finds a Little Compton farmer defying RI's economic blues.

15. Congratulations to my colleague, RI Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay, who will join Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts as commencement speakers at RIC's graduation May 16 graduation ceremony. I'm looking forward to hearing Scott distill his decades covering RI politics into useful advice for the grads.

16. Quite the finding by WPRI-TV's Tim White: notorious serial killer Craig Price has compiled more than 1,500 days of "good time" -- despite a series of infractions behind bars -- meaning he's slated to be released more than four years early.

17. Does Speaker Mattiello aspire to any political office beyond the speakership? "I love the speakership -- it's the best job I could have ever hoped for ...." Mattiello said (at about 8:00) on our Bonus Q+A. "It's the best job that I ever envisioned and it's probably the last political job that I will ever hope to have. This is the pinnacle of my political career, so I'm honored to have it for as long as I have it." 

18. Mixed news: an 11-year-old Newport girl can serve as the state's honorary governor for a day, yet women hold fewer than a third of the 113 seats in the General Assembly.

19. The third floor at Providence City Hall has an exhibit on baseball, from the game's early days and the Negro leagues to the proposed riverfront stadium. Some good pictures here, courtesy of Dan McGowan's Providence politics Facebook page.

20. Black Mass is one of the most chilling books you'll ever read. Based on this trailer, Johnny Depp is very much up to the task of portraying Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster.