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

Aug 25, 2017

We're edging ever closer to a lively election year, as seen by the events of the past week. So 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. Progressive Democrat Dawn Euer's decisive win in a special state Senate election in District 13 offers a silver lining for the tiny GOP faction in the General Assembly. Sure, Republicans would have preferred for their candidate, Mike Smith, to win the race. Yet a steady uptick in the progressive presence on Smith Hill could represent a looming challenge for the Democratic mainstream, as state Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) noted on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week: "The progressives are so far away from the institutional Democrats who run the state -- let's not mince words -- that they're as much if not more of a problem for the institutional Democrats than the Republicans are. Were there to be enough progressive Democrats and enough Republicans who were opposed to one thing -- let's say the budget -- we could form a coalition that busts the budget; [you] simply need 26 votes to do it. Doesn't mean we have to agree on why we don't like the budget. But that should be a concern right now on the institutional Democrats' mind."  

2. At the same time, Euer's win highlighted a few axioms of Rhode Island politics: for starters, women tend to win when they run for office in the Ocean State (even if they remain underrepresented in the General Assembly). Secondly, the ground game remains vital, particularly in legislative races with potentially narrow margins of victory. Back in 2013, Euer was part of the team that used a robust grassroots campaign to convince state senators to support same-sex marriage. (She'll now take the seat once held by former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. TPW personally opposed same-sex marriage, but allowed the votes to take place that enabled the issue to move forward.) The lessons of that organizing fight help explain why Euer's Senate campaign knocked on more than 10,000 doors and relied on more than 350 volunteers.

3. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung could have used a Thursday photo op with the city's new $250,000 street sweeper to talk about how he's going to sweep Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo out of office. The GOP mayor still used the occasion to tune up the messaging for his gov run. He criticized UHIP and DCYF, and expressed empathy for the hard times being endured by some Rhode Islanders. Fung talked about his plans to keep speaking outside Cranston and how he's going "to fix the state." If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, right? But Fung remained evasive on the question of whether he's actually running (which, of course, he is). Why be so coy? It's still early in the campaign season. Announcing now would open Fung to more Democratic attacks and heighten scrutiny. (Fellow Republican candidate Joe Trillo, the former state rep from Warwick, has not yet announced for similar reasons). House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan of West Warwick remains the question mark in the GOP field for governor; her decision to get in or stay out will likely depend on her fundraising and whether she can raise enough to make a competitive run. Regardless, the GOP primary promises to be lively. Fung is well-known statewide thanks to his 2014 run, and his moderate profile could attract independent voters in a general election. But Trillo has strong ties with national Republicans and his links with President Trump could be a big boost in the small voting pool of a GOP primary.

4. When Fung lashed into Raimondo following his photo op Thursday, the rapid response came from the Democratic Governors Association, not the Rhode Island Democratic Party. The DGA emailed its statement to reporters and tweeted it, too. Meanwhile, with an election year looming, the RI Dems' best rhetorical weapon -- former party chairman Bill Lynch -- has scaled back his role from that of a paid senior adviser to an uncompensated volunteer. For now, the RI Democrats' messaging seems to mostly reside on Twitter, with a series of "Missing" posters criticizing various Republicans. That's a far cry from the kind of attack and counter-attack that Lynch can deliver -- and it suggests an ongoing vacuum in the Dems messaging capacity (an issue first diagnosed by this column in 2015 -- see #3). On the other side of the aisle, RI Republican Chairman Brandon Bell relishes opportunities to skewer the state's ruling Dems, even if the GOP doesn't have much to show for it. Looking ahead to 2018, Governor Raimondo will have all the cash she needs to convey her message. And outside groups like the DGA and DSCC, and their GOP counterparts, will contribute to the debate. (Asked why the RI Dems didn't respond initially to Fung's criticism of the governor, the party's communications director, Ann Gooding, passed along a statement from executive director, T. Kevin Olasanoye, a day later: "Rhode Islanders rejected Allan Fung's message once already, and they'll do it again in 2018, if he can even survive a reality show GOP primary titled 'Who Loves Trump the Most,' " Olasanoye said.

5. Ezra Klein summed up how part of America feels about President Trump by calling the president "a monument to our past defending monuments to our past." Yet it could be wrong to believe that Trump's support is cratering, in part because most of Trump's supporters appear to stand behind him. State Rep. Michael Chippendale's House district includes Foster, Coventry, Glocester -- and each of the towns backed Trump by a considerable margin over Hillary Clinton last November. On RIPR's Bonus Q&A, Chippendale said he believes the president is maintaining his support House District 40: "It's holding up fairly strong. In my conversation with folks, constituents, they are very much supportive of his agenda. Certainly, there are some folks who have been turned off by some of the recent personality things, I guess you could say, and the war with the media. But they are so strongly anti-establishment, his supporters, that I don't think his behavior is hurting him with those folks. They want someone who's going to go down there and throw the furniture around and raise holy heck and change things and turn everything upside down. Because the way they see it, and I don't disagree 100 percent, is that the Washington political machine is broken. You need someone to go in there and rip it apart so it can be rebuilt the proper way."

6. Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. The same might be said about rising energy costs. A string of politicos spoke out or issued statements this week when the state Public Utilities Commission approved an electricity rate hike for National Grid, including Governor Raimondo and Mayor Fung, and Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee and expected primary rival Aaron Regunberg. Meanwhile, Invenergy's proposed Burrillville energy plant would produce lots of low-cost energy, but the proposal has become politically toxic. And while Raimondo and other pols tout Rhode Island's status as home to the first offshore wind farm in the US, debate continues about whether Deepwater's project is worth the cost to ratepayers. The governor's communications director, Mike Raia, said the regulatory process for Invenergy's proposal is still playing out. Here's his description of Raimondo's approach to energy: "Rhode Island families and businesses demand and deserve access to energy that is clean, reliable and affordable, which is why she is pushing hard to ensure that Rhode Island stays ahead of the curve to advance the use of renewables and working to help more Rhode Islanders take advantage of initiatives to reduce energy use in their home and business."

7. Congrats to Tom Giordano, executive director of The Partnership for Rhode Island, and his wife, Liz, on the birth of their daughter, Julia.

8. Back in 2012, Michael McCaffrey, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the tradition of former lawmakers and legislative employees moving into judicial positions. That was around the time when House legal counsel John Flynn became a Drug Court magistrate and former Rep. and Sen. Charles Levesque became a Family Court magistrate. McCaffrey's view was that seeing government from the inside was good experience for serving on the bench. But others view the quadrupling in the number of magistrates since 1994, to about 20, as a patronage system that locks out less-connected candidates. "It's crystal clear that major reforms are needed for how magistrate positions are filled in RI," Ken Block tweeted, following the latest appointments: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's legal counsel, Richard Raspallo, as Superior Court magistrate; former Pawtucket Rep. J. Patrick O'Neill as District Court magistrate; and Andrea Iannazzi, a legal adviser to Governor Raimondo, as Family Court magistrate. The process for magistrate-selection is opaque. Applicants apply after a public notice, but Common Cause of RI points out how the public has no knowledge of or participation in the appointment process until magistrates are scheduled for confirmation in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Magistrates serve for a 10-year term and earn close to $150,000.

9. Rep. Chippendale said the extent of "scoops" in the state budget, the taking of funds intended for other uses, "completely, in my opinion, destroyed the honesty of a good budget process. Because it was all about making sure we can fund this campaign promise," he said, referring to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's pledge to wipe out the car tax, "and I think that's a bad way to govern, a bad way to lead." Now, Governor Raimondo has been warned about a likely shortfall in the new state budget. In a statement, House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney downplayed the concern: "The $25 million in savings assumed in the budget is a reasonable management tool that requires skillful decision-making in order to design and execute fiscal policies that take into account important considerations such as staffing, consultants and other operational spending priorities. Some of the savings issues highlighted in the memo are examples of where I believe the Administration can, and will, put renewed emphasis on monetary policies which ensure that Rhode Island taxpayer money is the last dollar used when services are provided."

10. Former RI AFL-CIO President Frank J. Montanaro Sr., who died this week at age 83, was remembered as a powerhouse in the local labor movement and an impactful player in improving benefits for unionized firefighters. He was also Rhode Island's Democratic national committeeman. The state Democratic Committee is expected to take up discussion of a successor during a meeting in mid-October.

11. Last week's column included Phil Eil's excellent essay on how mental health can be a challenging thing for reporters. For another perspective on that theme, consider former ProJo reporter Chip Scanlan's 2006 essay on the bygone era on what he called "The Heart Attack Beat." Excerpt: "For an ambitious young reporter who loved writing stories, it sounded like the assignment of a lifetime. My editor, Joel Rawson, wanted daily narratives for the front page of The Providence Journal. The idea also seemed impossible. I’d written narratives before, but usually had at least a week and even more on some occasions. Never a day. But good editors, like reporters, are in the sales business, and Joel poured it on thick. This was a chance for great storytelling, he said, to write like his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Breslin, whose columns gleamed with details like the sun glinting off a mobster’s pinky ring, and unforgettable characters like Clifton Pollard, who dug JFK’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Rawson wanted stories that took readers into gritty South Providence, where cars rusted on cinder blocks, and to tony Barrington where sailboats were silhouetted against the sky."

12. RI Senate spokesman Greg Pare said the schedule for PawSox hearings is being finalized and that dates are expected "soon."

13. Winning a lump sum payment of more than $300 million sounds pretty sweet, right? But then the police need to boost security around your home due to the public interest. Add to how research shows that being a big lottery winner doesn't make people happier. Plus, there's the way that lotteries function as a tax on poor people. So maybe we should just be thankful for what we have, eh?

14. Via Current: "Love it or hate It, truckers say they can't stop listening to public radio"

15. Ask a Muslim, via WBUR's Anthony Brooks: "Many Muslim-Americans will tell you that this is a tough time for them. From the 9/11 attacks to President Trump’s proposed travel ban, Muslims in America feel besieged by discrimination and misunderstanding. So Robert Azzi, a Lebanese-American Muslim who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, is hoping to clear up some of that misunderstanding by encouraging dialogue with an invitation to 'Ask a Muslim Anything.' That’s what Azzi calls the series of conversations that he's been leading at community centers, churches and town halls across New Hampshire. At a recent event in the town of Dublin, in the southwestern part of the state, he welcomed a small audience with the traditional Muslim greeting. 'As-salamu alaykum. Peace be upon you.' Azzi is a veteran photojournalist who spent years in the Middle East after growing up in New Hampshire, where there are very few Muslims. Azzi started these conversations a year and a half ago because of what he saw as growing Islamophobia. He wanted to address people’s fears and questions head on.

16. Former Rhode Islanders: Brown alum Cara Camacho has joined The Clearing House in DC as vice president of public affairs .... High Times lauds URI alum Tom Angell as "the activist leading the marijuana movement." (h/t Bob Plain)

17. Business Insider: Artificial intelligence and computer-generated imagery "will transform information warfare, boost hoaxes," and have other worrisome effects.

18. The AP's Michelle Smith has a great read on Judge Frank Caprio, 80, and his quirky status as an Internet sensation.

19. "Generations of Village Voice Writers Reflect On the Paper Leaving the Honor Boxes"

20. "The Crowds In Boston Shouted Themselves Hoarse. Did Anyone Really Hear Them"