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

Aug 4, 2017

Your humble correspondent never expected to be in the Statehouse for a budget vote in August. Then again, Rhody politics is full of surprises, right? So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. A semblance of order was restored to the Statehouse budget process when the Rhode Island Senate made an overdue vote Thursday for the state's new $9.2 billion spending plan. On the surface, the compromise that ended the month-long impasse seemed like a square deal: the House got its budget passed (with the start of the car tax phaseout, a key priority for Speaker Nicholas Mattiello), and the Senate registered its concerns about the sustainability of that phaseout. Yet divisions remained even after the spending plan was quickly signed by Governor Gina Raimondo. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio maintained the stalemate was based solely on policy differences. Informed of that, Mattiello chose his words carefully: "I'd probably vary a little in my interpretation." The speaker also described as redundant the new requirement for the state Department of Revenue to assess the sustainability of the car tax phaseout, starting in 2021. (But if the measure is important to the Senate, Mattiello added, "We respect that.") Looking ahead, Mattiello expressed hope that the impasse of 2017 will be just a hiccup. "This can't happen again, you can't have budget standoffs," he said. Without offering specifics, the speaker vowed "to work on creating systems that this never happens again." But it's impossible to take the politics out of politics, and very difficult to balance the concerns of two competing chambers.

2. Providence Ward 7 City Councilor John Igliozzi, chairman of the Finance Committee, is part of a family whose influence in Silver Lake goes back to when the section was an Italian-American stronghold. Igliozzi has held his seat for about 20 years -- a period that coincides with Silver Lake's transition from a largely Italian section to a heavily Latino area. That could explain why Igliozzi, speaking on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, is critical of President Trump's proposal to sharply scale back legal immigration to the US. "I always said kind of just the opposite -- which was every time we talk about build a wall -- I said instead build mini-Statues of Liberty all along the border and create welcome centers and just processing centers," he said. "And have the ability to bring people in, process them, give the opportunity to acquire a better standard of living. But also have them part of the system and paying their taxes .... and then it's more organized and more beneficial for everybody."

3. Yet Chairman Igliozzi is considered less welcoming by the Providence councilors who run into difficulty in getting their ordinances heard in the Finance Committee. One example is how Ward 2 Councilor Sam Zurier's proposal to remove councilors from leadership posts until indictments are resolved -- a measure that might have precluded former Council President Luis Aponte's initial refusal to relinquish his post -- hasn't been heard in the FinCom. Igliozzi maintains the gripe is overstated, in part since Aponte wound up exiting relatively quickly: "It worked," Igliozzi said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week. "At the end of the day, the will of the council prevailed and we moved forward. It's all about not one person can be greater than the whole." Igliozzi also defended the absence of Finance Committee hearings on Ward 14 Councilor David Salvatore's proposal to block pension spiking by former councilors like Balbina Young. "That type of ordinance, you know, I think there's a lot of value to having people who have past experience in running city government ...." Igliozzi said. "There's nothing worse when we have people who have no experience. They come in to government and then it's a whole process of trying to figure out where the men's and ladies' room are."

4. The Boston Globe's Jon Chesto takes a peek at The Partnership For Rhode Island, the newish business group established to boost economic development in the state (staffed by a former Andrew Cuomo operative). Excerpt: "The Partnership for Rhode Island’s first big initiative: a leadership training program for top school administrators. A group of 20 principals just went through orientation; they’ll continue their day jobs while attending monthly training sessions. Meanwhile, superintendents will attend corporate leadership sessions hosted by CVS Health. The hope, of course, is that by giving school leaders new skills, teachers and students will also benefit."

5. Rhode Island has punched above its weight in terms of the level of media attention devoted to Ocean State natives Sean Spicer and Mike Flynn. Yet there's another Rhode Islander who continues to keep a low profile while having been part of President Trump's orbit: Ken McKay, who led two campaigns for former governor Don Carcieri and had a cup of coffee as state GOP chairman before setting his sights on Washington, D.C. McKay worked as an adviser on Trump's campaign. More recently, McKay was quoted in March in a CNN story on the difficulties faced by America's First Policies, an outside group set up to build support for Trump's policies, with anticipated backing from Bob and Rebekah Mercer. As CNN reported, "It's a new challenge for Trump big-money supporters: How can a group support an incumbent president who is far more likely to drive the conversation than their ads might? 'Americans seem to trust their friends and communities more than their leaders,' said Ken McKay ...."

6. RI media news; longtime ProJo reporter Lynn Arditi is joining RIPR as our health reporter on August 15. We're excited to welcome this talented and versatile reporter with a deep knowledge of Rhode Island. Meanwhile, reporter Carol Kozma, who joined the ProJo a few years ago from SouthCoast Today, is also leaving the Rhode Island daily. She was assigned most recently to Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry. The ProJo's executive editor, Alan Rosenberg, tells me changes are planned to make up for the impending departures: "We'll make sure we have someone covering both healthcare and Warwick. These are important beats for us." In one change, Jackie Tempera is moving from the Statehouse to Providence.

7. About 400 people filled out applications at Amazon's warehouse in Fall River this week. As WBUR's Asma Khalid reported, "Amazon's relationship with retail is complicated. The company once thought to be the job killer — decimating Main Streets across America — has now become the job creator." At the same time, a Northeastern business professor told Khalid "the jobs gained are not balancing out the jobs lost in part because the average Amazon employee brings in more dollars than the average retail employee." Plus, there's that thing, you know, of how Google and Amazon are taking over the world, with potentially dark consequences for retail and media.

8. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is rolling into 2018 with a campaign balance of almost $500,000 and and no announced opponent. Councilor John Igliozzi credits Elorza with making some improvements in the city's finances, including restoring the rainy day fund and overseeing a string of budgets without tax increases. But he said Elorza squandered a chance to make progress on Providence's severely under-funded pension by not using a five-year deal with city firefighters as leverage. In terms of his own political future, Igliozzi hedged when asked on Bonus Q&A by guest panelist Dan McGowan if he is campaigning to be the next council president. "Of course, I would love to hold the mantle," he said, while also pointing to the importance of the Finance Committee and the council status quo possibly holding (with Sabina Matos as acting council president) until after the 2018 election.

9. A Rhode Island milestone passed without notice last Friday, July 28. That was the 10th anniversary of when Buddy Cianci got his first taste of freedom in the Ocean State after serving about five years in prison for his 2002 Pluder Dome conviction. He wound up taking in a meal at the Old Canteen as a pack of reporters, including WPRI-TV's Tim White, WPRO's Steve Klamkin, Dan Barbarisi, then of the ProJo, and myself, camped outside. Buddy's return signaled a new dynamic in Rhode Island; he quickly resumed a WPRO talk-show gig, where he became a nemesis of Providence Mayor David Cicilline. Many suspected -- rightly -- that it was only a matter of time until Buddy would seek vindication with yet another run for City Hall. But Cianci's last-gasp 2014 campaign was well off in the future in the summer of 2007. Looking back, that moment serves mostly as a reminder of how much things can change in 10 years. Gina Raimondo, for example, was a virtual unknown at that point. Don Carcieri was still governor. And no one had heard of the debacle that would become 38 Studios.

10. The condition of Rhode Island's bridges is slowly improving under RhodeWorks, as Ted Nesi reported earlier this week: "RIDOT is responsible for 8.83 million square feet of bridge decks across the state. As of June, 76.5% of that deck area was structurally sufficient, up from 75.2% when the department began publishing monthly tracking numbers in April 2016. A total of 228 bridges were structurally deficient as of June, down from 247 last October." Meanwhile, although Minnesota moved aggressively to improve bridges after a 2007 collapse, things are pretty bad elsewhere, according to a report by NPR's David Schaper: " 'America's infrastructure is like a third-world country,' says former Republican Rep. Ray LaHood, who served as transportation secretary under President Obama. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which tracks the number of bridges with structural defects in each state, found 55,710 bridges nationwide that need to be repaired or replaced. 'That's a very costly item,' says LaHood, adding that 'most states simply do not have the money to take care of them, so they're patching them and they're doing the best they can to keep them in a state of repair where people can drive over them, but it's a serious, serious problem.' "

11. Councilor Igliozzi is a believer in the subsidies known as tax stabilizations, calling them a "positive economic tool" that have catalyzed projects that will yield more tax revenue in Providence. But he remains guarded on his stance on New York developer Jason Fane's proposed 46-story residential tower in the I-195 District. "I do find it interesting that they would agree to a 46-floor tower in that area," he said on Bonus Q&A, referring to the I-195 District Commission, "because one of the big things in that area is always about the pristine nature of the East Side and the colonial look of it. So that's going to be an interesting question I'm going to ask, to say how do we justify that aspect and is it balanced off correctly? Is it worth the benefit to have the new tower versus what the skyline will look like?"

12. Supporters of abortion rights staged a demonstration on Douglas Avenue, near the scene of Senate Democrats' closed caucus in Providence Monday night. They were able to elicit beeps of support from a number of passing cars, but that doesn't change the underlying dynamic in the General Assembly; how legislative leaders have more to lose than gain from putting a vote on a highly charged issue like abortion to their members .... Meanwhile, NPR's Sarah McCammon had a noteworthy story on how Medicaid is a crucial source of support for centers that counsel pregnant women to have babies rather than an abortion: "Sometimes simply explaining to them, we can help them through the process of obtaining Medicaid, is all it takes for them to realize, you know, 'I can do this; I can be a mom,' " said Tina Tuley-Lampke, head of the Hannah Center in Bloomington, Indiana. "And so it is very ironic to me that people who are pro-life would not also be pro-Medicaid."

13. Now that the budget is passed, attention will shift a bit toward the PawSox' proposed new Pawtucket stadium. The state Senate plans to hold Finance hearings in September, both at the Statehouse and on the road, although the House has not yet firmed up plans. Meanwhile, a top Red Sox said the PawSox would prefer to stay in RI (although Worcester, Springfield and Montreal are also considered possible destinations): "I know the hope is to stay in Rhode Island and stay in Pawtucket and it sounds like the mayor of Pawtucket is committed to making that happen," Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy told this week. "So now it's up to Larry and the mayor and the city and state to make the deal. Red Sox would like to like to see them stay in Rhode Island, it's such a great fanbase."

14. Read up on some program changes coming to RIPR this weekend.

15. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline used an op-ed in USA Today this week to outline Democrats' new marketing effort, dubbed "A Better Deal," aimed at the middle class anxiety that helped mobilize support for Donald Trump. According to The Washington Post, "The campaign-style motto, panned by some liberal activists as details began to trickle out ahead of the Monday rollout, is designed to revive a party desperate to win back at least some control next year. The push comes months earlier than most campaign-year sales pitches begin — an acknowledgment of the need to shore up public opinion of the Democratic Party in the faster pace of modern politics." Meanwhile, not every Democrat can boast as appealing a narrative as retired Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath -- now a U.S. House candidate in Kentucky -- whose campaign ad based on her dream of becoming a combat pilot went viral.

16. Something to keep in mind amid the usual back-and-forth on the minimum wage: a new study shows that restaurants with 3.5 stars on Yelp are slightly more likely to go out of business after a $1 wage hike, while higher-rated restaurants are less impacted by wage increases.

17. Arnold Schwarzenegger is taking on gerrymandering -- named for former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. That's noteworthy, since the practice is seen as a key for Republican hopes of maintaining the GOP's hold on the U.S. House.

18. U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse (and seven New England colleagues) this week introduced a Senate resolution declaring September 25 as National Lobster Day. Meanwhile, while you're drawing your butter in excited preparation, give a listen to this NPR story on the double-standards still faced by lobsterwomen. Excerpt: "People would come up to us and be like, 'So who caught these lobsters?' Molly Samuels recalls. 'And we were like, 'We did.' And they were like, 'But who really caught them?' And we were like, 'We did.' And they'd ask, 'Whose boat?' and we'd say, 'Our boat.' So it's just this back-and-forth thing. So, yeah, it's still weird.' " But people are slowly coming around. And Sadie Samuels says she and her sister are following in the wake of many women who got no glory, and were mostly known as fishermen's wives."

19. A master class in deadline writing: New York Times reporter N.R. Kleinfield on covering 9/11 after happening to be near the Twin Towers on the day of the attack.

20. A hot summer day is a great time for catching a cold one, right? So meet Patrick McGovern, the Indiana Jones Of Ancient Ales and Extreme Beverages. Via NPR: "His latest book, Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created, delves into the early history of fermentation. He takes us all the way back to supposedly drunken monkeys feasting on fermented fruit juice or honey they found, long before any human had figured out how to brew beer. And he takes us through his modern re-creations of some of these ancient brews and their cultural importance. 'Just about every culture you can think of, they have a fermented beverage that's central to the social activity, religions, and a lot of times, it becomes economically very important,' McGovern says. 'And I'm always surprised when I see a book on the Paleolithic, or even just more modern recent history, where they don't really even discuss it.' "