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

Nov 3, 2017

The heavy winds came, lots of Rhode Islanders lost power, and now we're trying to move on. 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. There are only 368 days until Rhode Island's next statewide general election. A lot of voters won't start to pay much attention until some time next summer. Yet things are certainly warming up. Republican Allan Fung hopes to define Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo as a failure, and Patricia Morgan is using a similar message. But Raimondo has more than $3 million in her campaign account -- about 13 times more than Fung, her next closest fundraising rival -- so she'll have ample resources to tell her story. As RI Public Radio exclusively reported this week, Raimondo has hired Jonathan Blair to run her re-election campaign. "There is no doubt Gina would go out and find the person she thinks is the best and most talented," one observer noted. Blair has run campaigns for more than a dozen years, but his most salient experience is managing the 2016 re-election campaign for Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat plagued by low approval ratings. (In the end, Malloy won a squeaker, with the results not becoming clear until a few days after the election.) Meanwhile, with Morning Consult showing another less than stellar rating for Raimondo this week (41 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval), the governor shared some insights into her re-election message. "What I have said is that there's clearly more work to do," Raimondo told me earlier this week, during one of her occasional sit-downs with reporters in the cafeteria at the state Department of Administration building, when asked about these kinds of findings. "I mean, a couple of years ago we had the highest unemployment rate in America, the worst roads and bridges in America. That didn't happen overnight. We've been in decline for a long time -- we've been ignoring investing in our people, investing in our economy, fixing in our roads and bridges, investing in our schools. So we've made huge progress. We led the nation in unemployment and now we're in the middle of the pack. Many, many people are working. But I think people want to see more -- and I agree .... We've made great progress ... but [we're] probably only half-way there." Raimondo also sent another signal that she may run against the General Assembly next year, offering this answer when asked if her next budget will include the car tax phaseout backed House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello: "We'll have to see. I hope so, but I gotta get the numbers. I can't commit to anything at this point."

2. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's Republican gubernatorial campaign is spending the better part of $100,000 on an initial campaign commercial getting a lot of play on Facebook and TV. Fung's campaign, piloted by Andrew Vargas Vila, a former regional political coordinator for the RNC, clearly thinks this is a good idea. If nothing else, the Fung spot offers a sunny contrast to ongoing negative headlines about UHIP and other RI frustrations. Yet it's not like the Cranston mayor, a familiar player on the local scene, needs to build his name recognition. Plus, the spend comes 10 months ahead of even the Republican primary, and it's a proportionately large drop, considering how Fung had only about $230,000 on hand at the end of Q3.) Fung may wind up yearning for the money for this ad buy when he's in the thick of things later next year,

3. State Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) thinks more allegations of sexual harassment at the Statehouse may be forthcoming. She declined to offer specifics or to say whether the higher-ranking rep who allegedly harassed Rep. Teresa Tanzi is still a member of the General Assembly. "I don't think that person is a threat any longer to women at the Statehouse," Ajello said on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, using language that was about as specific as she would get. The Providence Democrat said she does believe the current level of attention on sexual harassment amounts to a real opportunity for change in American culuture, and that new training at the Statehouse will help to improve the situation. As far as Tanzi's decision to not identify the source of the harassment, and whether that may unfairly tar some members of the legislature, "The victim's rights should be thought of as primary," Ajello said. ".... I think we will hear from others, but the importance of protecting victims of sexual harassment, I think, is more important than protecting those males at the Statehouse" who do not engage in harassment. (Meanwhile, although news organizations often do a poor job of reporting on themselves, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik has aggressively covered the story involving NPR's former top editor, Michael Oreskes.)

4. Lt. Gov Dan McKee is set to reveal his 2018 campaign plans during a 10 a.m. event on Tuesday, November 7. McKee has been tightlipped when asked about his next move, saying only that the his announcement will take place at a Warwick business, with hundreds of supporters on hand. For now, Democratic primary challenger Aaron Regunberg has stockpiled about $213,000 in his campaign account at the end of Q3 -- about three times as much as McKee. So would it be a smart for McKee to seek re-election as an independent, perhaps with Republican support? It's not that much of a stretch when you consider organized labor's general distaste for McKee (as well as Republicans' anxiety about an unapologetic progressive like Regunberg being a heartbeat away from the governor's office). Switching from a D to an I could also make strategic sense, since doing so would spare McKee a primary and he could then tailor his message to independents, Rhode Island's biggest bloc of voters. However, asked whether McKee is receptive to the idea of changing his affiliation, consultant Mike Trainor offered a flat one-word response: "No."

5. GateHouse Media, the owner of The Providence Journal, keeps gobbling up newspapers, in hopes of building a big enough overall audience to justify the spending. But the company's revenue for Q3 was down 6.4 percent from the previous year, in a situation blamed by the company on hurricanes in Florida and Texas. "Despite the challenges we encountered in the third quarter, we remain enthusiastic about the fourth quarter and 2018," Michael E. Reed, president and CEO of GateHouse parent New Media Investment Group, said in an earnings announcement. "We continue to pursue innovative opportunities that make our products more relevant and valuable to consumers and small businesses in our communities. Further, we continue to see an attractive pipeline of acquisition opportunities that can expand or strengthen our existing business segments." However, not everyone shares Reed's optimism. Some observers liken GateHouse's acquisition strategy to a race against time.

6. The PawSox stadium saga might surpass the longest game when it comes to twists, turns, and a hard-to-detect conclusion. The deal is alive once again in the state Senate, now that the team is willing to share inside financial information on a confidential basis with the state auditor general. And yes, the Senate could still vote on the proposal this month -- the timeline favored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio back in August. "He is open to that, but awaiting the recommendation of the Finance Committee at this point," spokesman Greg Pare told me. The big question remains Speaker Mattiello, who finds himself in the middle of competing constituencies. Many state reps remain skeptical about the stadium proposal, and it could be a hot topic if Republican Steven Frias mounts another challenge to Mattiello in his Cranston district. On the other hand, legislative special interests like labor are all-in for the stadium deal. Meanwhile, Gov. Raimondo and the speaker are essentially playing a game of chicken. Mattiello says the Commerce Corp. should negotiate a better deal for taxpayers. Gov. Raimondo says she's open to legislative changes, but doesn't see a need to renegotiate the deal. Mattiello, first in the pool on the PawSox' ill-fated Providence stadium quest in 2015, is now the laggard. It's anyone's guess if -- and when -- this conflict gets resolved. (Weirdness factor: could President Trump mollify Mattiello's concerns by picking Frias for a federal post?)

7. Some changes in Gov. Raimondo's office: Deputy Chief of Staff Jeremy Licht is leaving for the private sector, and Rosemary J. Powers, who has worked in the Deval Patrick and Andew Cuomo administrations, is coming on board as a DCOS. Meanwhile, Rebecca Webber is leaving as CoS at Commerce.

8. Remember when Boston was a has-been? As Ira Jackson writes in The Boston Globe, In 1967, "[T]he future was bleak, racial tensions were high, and when Boston was viewed as a once-great city with a proud past but not much of a future .... When [mayoral candidate Kevin] White boldly proclaimed that Boston would become a world-class city, he was widely ridiculed." Jackson, who served as a chief of staff during White's 16 years as mayor, writes that City Hall's persistence and vision helped move Boston forward. Jackson points to the importance of investments in infrastructure by government: "We wouldn’t have a technology corridor if we hadn’t expanded the [MBTA] Red Line to Alewife and Quincy...." He also points to the importance of respect, tolerance and inclusion. Boston's overnight success was actually a very gradual process that built on earlier wins and gained momentum over time. That's something worth remembering in view of Rhode Island's long-running battle to reinvent its own economic relevance.

9. Republican Robert G. Flanders Jr., expected to join the race for the seat held by Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, plans to make an announcement in Central Falls on November 16.

10. During his 2014 last-hurrah mayoral campaign, Buddy Cianci downplayed any responsibility for Providence's severely underfunded pension. But as WPRI.com's Dan McGowan reported this week, using recently made available records, Cianci was well-aware of how the situation was deteriorating -- and made it worse. That's quite a contrast to Warwick, where, as Scott MacKay notes, Mayor Scott Avedisian predicts the city's pension could be fully funded in about a dozen years.

11. There's always a Rhode Island angle, right? So of course, Paul Manafort worked as a campaign adviser to former Gov. Ed DiPrete. With help from WSHU: "But long before Manafort worked for DiPrete or Donald Trump, before he became a high-powered Washington lobbyist and international political operative, he started learning politics at the age of 10, when his father joined the New Britain Board of Aldermen. As a teenager, Manafort worked on his father’s successful campaign for mayor of New Britain. The older Paul Manafort was a three-term Republican mayor, serving from 1965 to 1971, in a city that was dominated by Democrats. In a 2016 interview with the Hartford Courant, Manafort said his father was a successful politician because he understood working-class Americans." Later, Manafort's client in Ukraine had a big fall. Meanwhile, Manafort's indictment answers some questions and raises another.

12. Via The Pew Research Center: "Among developed nations, Americans' tax bills are below average"

13. Reaction to President Trump's tax plan: U.S. Sen. Jack Reed: “The Trump-Republican tax bill is all about rewarding the wealthiest at the expense of low- and middle-income households. We need to prioritize tax cuts for working Americans. Instead, the Trump-Republican tax scheme sells off tax breaks for people with student loans, high medical bills, or a child or parent in need of care – and gives all this and more to the ultra-wealthy. It takes away some incentives for charitable giving, caps the mortgage deduction, and eliminates the deduction for state income taxes and sharply curtails the property tax deduction. Based on a preliminary review, it appears that about 5,000 families in the entire U.S. stand to gain $269 billion over a decade from the Trump estate tax repeal.  Meanwhile, about 8 million families nationally – including 99,000 in Rhode Island – could see an average tax increase of $794." Meanwhile, the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity likes what it sees, via CEO Mike Stenhouse: “Our state’s partisan political class will no doubt trot out their standard, mindless, and divisive class warfare mantras, but having attended two national seminars to learn details of the President’s tax reform plan, I can assure the people of Rhode Island that this sweeping reform plan is indeed designed to mostly benefit the middle-class. It is disappointing that our state’s political leaders would choose to deny Rhode Islanders the chance to keep and make more money just because they are hung-up on an anti-jobs, tax-the-rich platform. This free-market approach to economic development benefits far more people and creates far more growth than our state’s existing crony-socialism approach.”

14. Ethan Epstein's lament: "I guess it’s not altogether surprising, given that the most famous political figure to emerge from Rhode Island in modern political history was the notoriously corrupt (and violent) Buddy Cianci, the long-time mayor of the city that I grew up in. But as a member in good standing of the Rhode Island diaspora, can I confess to feeling a bit embarassed that the holy trinity of Trump administration ignominy have connections to the smallest state? ...."

15. Nevada hasn't had a Democratic governor since Bob Miller left office in 1999, but Eric Hyers -- who ran Gov. Raimondo's 2014 race and two previous campaigns for U.S. Rep. David Cicilline -- hopes to do something about that.

16. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence is sponsoring this event next Thursday, November 9, at Providence College: "Ten Men consists of RI men from diverse walks of life who share a common vision--a world without domestic violence. This November, Ten Men members are calling on men in Rhode Island to stand with them at the 4th Annual Men's Summit. We ask our supporters to invite the men in their lives to get involved! Come be a part of the conversation about how men can help prevent violence against women and girls, promote healthy masculinity, and create the cultural shift needed to end domestic violence."

17. Check out Phil Eil's profile of Sen. Whitehouse in RI Monthly. Excerpt: "In the decade since arriving in Washington, the junior U.S. senator from Rhode Island has become perhaps the state’s most outspoken and nationally visible politician — and also the bearer of its darkest message. He has written that 'Congress is unwilling or unable to stand up to corporate power' and that the American media system is awash with a 'massive propaganda effort…churning full steam to deny the facts of major policy issues wherever those facts are contrary to corporate interests.' He has said that the 'Supreme Court…shows patterns that are completely inconsistent with disinterested neutrality' and that 'lawlessness is the rule' at federal regulatory agencies like the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He has called the current Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump, 'disgraceful,' 'childish' and 'careless with the truth,' and said that the current White House has a 'toxic spirit.' "

18. Rep. Ajello, part of a big incoming class of lawmakers elected in 1992, said she plans to seek re-election next year. She plans a fundraiser/celebration of her quarter-century in office on Monday evening, November 6, at The Duck & Bunny on Wickenden Street.

19. Here's an assessment by NPR's John Ydstie of Brown alum Janet Yellen's tenure as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve: "When Yellen took over as Fed chair from Ben Bernanke in 2014, the economy had largely stabilized after the turmoil of the Great Recession. But interest rates remained near zero. While there were calls from some to raise rates quickly to avoid sparking higher inflation, Yellen engineered a consensus at the Fed for increasing rates gradually. The policy led to steady job growth and a downward march of the unemployment rate to its current level of 4.2 percent. Most economists view that as very near to full employment. Meanwhile, inflation has remained in check. In fact, it has hovered below the 2 percent level that Fed policymakers think is best for economic growth. While Yellen has her critics, she is widely viewed as a successful Fed chair. Even President Trump said Thursday that Yellen is 'a wonderful woman who has done a terrific job.' It would not have been unusual for Trump to reappoint her even though she was a Barack Obama appointee. Three presidents in recent history — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama — have reappointed Fed chairs initially nominated by presidents of the opposing party. However, Trump made clear he wanted to put his own stamp on the Fed."

20. A rogue Twitter employee silenced President Trump's Twitter for a few hours.