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

Sep 29, 2017

Rhode Island inexorably moves toward a fresh campaign season as we leave summer behind. 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. Governor Gina Raimondo has gotten most of her priorities through the General Assembly since taking office in 2015, even if some were scaled back by the legislature. But Raimondo's veto of two key labor bills raises the question of whether she may be moving toward a re-election strategy of running against the General Assembly. The governor infuriated the membership of the National Education Association RI by vetoing the continuing contracts bill in July. This week, she vetoed a second significant labor bill -- one that would make it easier for firefighters with heart conditions to get tax-free disability pensions -- while positioning herself in the role of taxpayer advocate. Meanwhile, with the state facing a projected $237 million deficit for the fiscal year starting in July 2018, there's likely to be a heightened focus on the affordability of the car tax phaseout championed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Will this lead to a stormy dynamic at the Statehouse in the new year? Stay tuned. For now, it's worth remembering that  even if Raimondo has struggled to hit a 50 percent approval rating, many Rhode Islanders view the General Assembly in a dim light (influenced in part by the cases involving Gordon Fox, Ray Gallison and John Carnevale.) Ocean Staters have also demonstrated a tendency for electing Republican governors, as a perceived check on the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. Back in 2002, neophyte politician Don Carcieri, a Republican, skillfully used the legislature as a boogeyman while vaulting into the governor's office. (Remember "the Alpo Relief Act"?) Still, barring a sharp slide in their working relationship, Raimondo, Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio may have more to gain by working together in 2018 than by settling into warring camps.

2. Democrat Val Lawson, vice president of the National Education Association RI and a social studies teacher at East Providence High School, is gearing up to run a primary challenge against Sen. Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence). Lawson is due to deliver a campaign announcement Tuesday, October 3 (6-8 pm), at the East Providence Yacht Club, and she's assembled a host committee of about 30 people. Lawson said she believes she can be an effective voice for the district; her top issues include school infrastructure, the school funding formula and trying to improve the economy. DaPonte, who has served in the Senate since first winning election in 1998, was stripped earlier this year of his chairmanship of Senate Finance. That sparked speculation that DaPonte might not seek re-election, but he tells me: "I am definitely running again for re-election in 2018. Regarding my opponent, this is the second attempt by the EP party boss John Faria to defeat me. I will have more to say about my opponent's close ties to him and his personal agenda for control of East Providence during the coming election year."

3. Speaking of 2018, it won't be a surprise if Governor Raimondo's campaign team launches a drone from the Statehouse before year's end to get footage of a string of development projects unfolding in Providence. There's the residential project near the base of Smith Hill, another apartment building on Canal Street, the hotel near Kennedy Plaza, and soon, the Wexford Innovation Complex. "Folks have been wanting to see cranes in the sky for a very long time," Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said when the Wexford development was announced last December -- and now there are tangible signs that the state has moved past the Great Recession. Of course, these projects collectively involve tens of millions of dollars in state incentives -- and it will take years to assess whether Wexford is the "game-changer" vowed by Raimondo. An eventual correction on Wall Street could also send a big chill through Rhode Island. For now, though, the governor has delivered on her pledge to bring jobs to the I-195 District, and construction at the site will continue throughout next year's race for governor.

4. Cranston Republican Steve Frias came close to defeating Speaker Mattiello in a hard-fought state rep race in 2016, so it probably attracted Mattiello's attention when Frias waited out the Senate Finance Committee's first PawSox hearing for a chance to comment in the run-up to midnight. Is Frias going to pursue a rematch against the speaker next year? He gave me this comment: "I will tell you what I have told everyone who asks me: I do not know if I will run again next year. I am touched by the encouragement that I have received from  people I meet wherever I go to run again. There are a number of things I need to consider before I make a decision. It was not an easy decision for me to run last time and it will not be a simple decision for me to do so again."

5. The momentum on the PawSox' proposal for a new stadium in Pawtucket shifted a bit this week in favor of a public vote on the team's proposal to use up to $40 million in public borrowing. A referendum is the last thing the team's ownership wants, since that would push the process back considerably -- the earliest a vote could occur would be in November 2018. But do the PawSox really have an alternative to Pawtucket? Is Worcester (or any other would-be destination) willing to even come close to the financial package offered in Rhode Island? These questions will linger as the debate plays out. During Tuesday's Senate Finance Committee hearing at Tolan High School, one supporter asked (paraphrase): "38 Studios, are we going to forever let that dangle over us like the sword of Damocles?" Yet the sharp debate about the stadium proposal is a direct result of 38 Studios. For now, the outcome remains far from certain. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has not ruled out a public vote, according to spokesman Greg Pare. Meanwhile, with the House Finance Committee set to hold hearings October 10 and 18, "Speaker Mattiello feels a public vote is one of the many possibilities that will be looked at by the [committee]," said spokesman Larry Berman, "He wants to see what information comes out of the House Finance Committee hearings and then he’ll assess future possible steps."

6. Paul A. Roselli, head of the Burrillville Land Trust, has created a Facebook group calling himself a Democrat and a candidate for governor. Earlier this week, his site outlined plans for an announcement next Tuesday, October 3, but that has been taken down. "A formal announcement is coming soon," and Roselli is expected to emphasize a focus on the environment and climate change. Meanwhile, there's still an online video of him using a puppet representing Governor Raimondo. His notice of organization identifies Roselli as an independent. With the puppet act, Roselli might resurrect a bit of the political theater perfected by the late Robert "Cool Moose" Healey, but it took Healey a series runs before he could win 21 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 2014. (Republican Allan Fung bested Raimondo by about 10 points in Burrillville that year.) Meanwhile, Lincoln Chafee -- who could draw a slice of the Democratic primary vote next year -- has said he might not decide on a run until the June 2018 filing deadline.

7. A new report from the Pell Center warns that Russia poses a bigger threat than the 2016 election. Excerpt: “[Russia] seeks to sow division within the United States and within the broader community of western democracies. While crimes need to be prosecuted if they occurred, the public should be sensitized and their attention reoriented to combat the broader Russian effort to weaken our faith in our free institutions, and undermine the political cohesion of the United States.”

8. Joseph R. Paolino Jr., the developer and former mayor and ambassador, has decided to pursue the vacant post as Rhode Island's Democratic National Committeeman. "After much consideration, I have decided to ask the members of the Rhode Island Democratic Party for their support to be the next National Committeeman for Rhode Island," Paolino said in a statement. "I hope to represent the members of our state party in Washington and look forward to working collaboratively to develop a clear message to defeat Donald Trump in the next election and win back the House and Senate." Paolino has the money and connections associated with the role -- vacant due to the recent death of Frank Montanaro Sr. -- and state Democratic Chairman Joseph McNamara said he has not received any other official expressions of interest. (UPDATE: State Sen. Josh Miller (D-Cranston), a progressive, has thrown his hit in the ring. Miller says it is crucial that Democrats have a committeeman who represents “the small business and working class perspective, and that this should be a priority when representing Rhode Island Democrats.”) The Democratic State Committee will make its selection during a meeting in Cranston on October 15. Fun Fact: One of Paolino's uncles, the late state Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Paolino, was chosen as Rhode Island's National Republican Committeeman in 1952.

9. RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell checks in on a range of issues, including fallout from the GOP U.S. Senate primary in Alabama, the Wexford development, the PawSox and much more, on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A.

10. "Why is Charlie Baker so popular?" Excerpt via The Boston Globe's Joshua Miller: [B]ehind those [approval] numbers and headlines about the nation’s most popular governor is a more complex picture — and perhaps a glimmer of hope for Democrats. Scores of interviews with residents, pollsters, Baker aides, Democratic operatives, and outside political observers paint a picture of a governor who is neither beloved nor detested; a man who is not shaping the political zeitgeist but is in harmony with a key part of it; a pol who is neither too hot nor too cold on key issues of the day. For now, at least for many of the state’s residents, Baker is the Goldilocks governor: just right. His wonky, straightforward style stands in stark contrast to that of his party’s bombastic leader, President Trump. What’s more, Massachusetts’ economy is strong, and unemployment is low; there’s a sense among voters that the state is generally headed in the right direction, while the nation is on the wrong track; Baker has crafted a likable media persona; he’s presented himself as a fiscal check on the Democratic Legislature; and there’s been an apparent dearth of crises in state government."

11. The war of words between Governor Raimondo and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin continues over 38 Studios records that have yet to be made public. "I was against 38 Studios from the very beginning and believe that Rhode Islanders deserve to know what happened," Raimondo said after signing a measure this week meant to break loose additional records, such as those in Kilmartin's possession. "It's time for Attorney General Kilmartin to stop opposing the will of the people, and to disclose all 38 Studios investigation records that his office has done everything to block from public view." AG spokeswoman Amy Kempe fired back, noting that a restraining order against the release of the pertinent records remains in effect. "It is ironic and politically calculated for the Governor to talk about the 'will of the people' when it was she and [State Police] Colonel [Ann] Assumpico who in effect stopped the investigation when it was set to be reactivated at the conclusion of the civil litigation," Kempe wrote in a statement. "Regardless of the Court outcome or her political posturing in this case, the public will never know the whole truth because she effectively put a stop to it. Moreover, the Governor conveniently forgets that she promised an independent investigation into the matter, but has broken her promise to do so." Kilmartin has cited high-minded reasons in defending his position. Yet pending the release of the documents, questions remain about just what they might reveal and whether Kilmartin's stance has any relationship to his status as a longtime former lawmaker.

12. Is voting integrity at risk in Rhode Island? Former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block says, yes. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says the state is on the case. Common Cause of RI's John Marion also weighs in.

13. Three things are certain: death, taxes and higher prices for Red Sox tickets.

14. The financial capacity of the Rhode Island GOP has lagged behind that of some of its counterparts in states like Connecticut. That helps explain this new email pitch from Chairman Brandon Bell: "We are at a crossroads here in Rhode Island.  We can either have Governor Raimondo and the Democrats continuing to raise our taxes, or we can elect a Republican Governor and members of the legislature who will fight tax increases and the progressive agenda.
The Rhode Island GOP has just launched a new program, which will be essential in funding the operation and infrastructure needed to win across the board in 2018. The Sail to Victory grassroots club is an easy way to invest in the RI GOP as we continue to build our voter outreach programs, recruit strong conservative candidates for all offices up and down the ballot, and maintain resources needed to assist all of our Republican candidates!" In a fundraising paradigm similar to what we use here at RIPR, Bell is seeking monthly contributions ranging from $5 to $20 a month.

15. House hunting in Greater Boston: "One Bedroom. No Parking. One Million Dollars."

16. Ed Fitzpatrick makes the case for why the nation needs a First Amendment refresher course. Excerpt: "The good news, such as it is: 48 percent of us know that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. But just 15 percent know it protects freedom of religion. If a Rhode Islander such as Roger Williams were still around, he might say: YouGottaBeKiddingMe! Only 14 percent realize the First Amendment protects freedom of the press. (That hurts). Ten percent know it protects the freedom to assemble peaceably. And a paltry three percent know it protects the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Yet five percent think the First Amendment protects the right to bear arms.) So perhaps it’s no surprise we are seeing so much rampant ignorance, blatant disregard and flat-out hypocrisy when it come to the First Amendment these days — both at the highest levels of our government and at some of our finest universities."

17. Former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha is set to announce his Democratic run for attorney general in Jamestown on Tuesday, October 3.

18. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich are different. Via Bloomberg, on a story involving a former exec with the global investment firm that has a role in managing New Media Investment Group, owner of the ProJo: "Mike Novogratz is reinventing himself as the king of bitcoin. The swaggering macro manager who flamed out at Fortress Investment Group LLC is starting a $500 million hedge fund to invest in cryptocurrencies, initial coin offerings and related companies. Novogratz will put up $150 million of his own money and plans to raise $350 million more by January, mainly from family offices, wealthy individuals and fellow hedge fund managers, said a person familiar with his plans. At that size, the Galaxy Digital Assets Fund would be the biggest of its kind and signal a growing acceptance of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether as legitimate investments. For Novogratz, 52, the fund marks a comeback to professional money management after humbling losses at Fortress and almost two years of self-imposed exile from Wall Street."

19. Apropos Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's documentary on The Vietnam War, we can only wonder how US involvement in foreign military conflicts would be different if there was still a draft. "If we still had a draft, I don't think we'd still be in Afghanistan," former Boston Globe foreign editor David Greenway told WBUR's On Point. Meanwhile, Scott MacKay wonders whether the course of the war would have been different had JFK not been killed in 1963.

20. A perfect story for the Selfie Age? "Italy woman marries herself in 'fairtale without prince' "