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

Nov 10, 2017

It's starting to actually feel like fall, and the news keeps coming fast and furious. 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. After almost two four-year terms in office, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin suddenly finds himself with a high-profile controversy on his desk: the fatal shooting of Joseph Santos, 32, who was killed by officers Thursday after leading police on an extended chase. In a win for transparency, Providence Police moved quickly to release RI DOT and body cam videos (which buttress their description of what happened). Yet there's not a lot of good feeling when anyone less than an arch criminal dies in a hail of more than 40 rounds, and we can't immediately rule out further developments. Kilmartin's office will now have the lead in reviewing the fatal shooting -- a situation that will help define his legacy as Rhode Island's top prosecutor. Thorny issues have long dogged a series of AGs: Jeff Pine (a troubled strike force); Sheldon Whitehouse (the Jennifer Rivera case); and Patrick Lynch (the Station fire). By contrast, Kilmartin has lived a charmed life as AG, even with the miasma left by 38 Studios. Meanwhile, one other takeaway from Thursday's daylong shooting drama is the sharp contrast between the Providence PD, which moved quickly to answer questions, and the long-vaunted Rhode Island State Police, who who were mum by comparison. In the same way, Pare handled most of the news conference near the scene on the day of the shooting, with Col. Ann Assumpico playing a minor public role. State Police spokeswoman Laura Meade Kirk said the agency is still pursuing its investigation with Providence and the AG's office, and will provide further details when they become available. (Update: State Police held a news conference Sunday.)

2. A better read on Rhode Island's projected deficit for the budget year starting in July 2018 should come into view with the end of the November revenue estimating conference. Details were not available as TGIF was going to press, but early indications were of a possibly ballooning deficit. If that's the case, oceans  of red ink will provide more early grist for GOP challengers to Gov. Raimondo. Conversely, a lower deficit would play to the incumbent's advantage. Yet in a worrisome trend, caseloads have grown through the UHIP saga, escalating state costs for social spending. (Update: as Ted Nesi reports, the amount of state revenue expected in the current budget year has come in about $10 million below expectations.)

3. Democrats running in Virginia, New Jersey and other states had a good week, so what does that mean for Rhode Island's 2018 election season? It's hard to know, of course, since we're about a year away from the next general election. Bill Lynch, a special adviser to the RI Democratic Party, cautions against too much instant analysis based on Tuesday's results. But he does see the results -- especially an uptick in voting among Virginia Democrats -- as a repudiation of President Trump. “Clearly, it sends a strong message to the White House, for sure, that people have a different feeling about Trump now than they did just about a year ago,” Lynn told me. The same message is reinforced by a new poll from Western New England University showing that Trump's approval rating in Massachusetts is a lowly 19 percent. Certainly, Democrats will try to link the eventual GOP gubernatorial nominee with the unpopular president (an image of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung wearing a Trump hat has already gotten play on social media.) But national politics tends not to influence state-based races in Rhode Island, where voters seems to view GOP governors as a check on the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. (On the other hand, George W. Bush was a huge factor in 2006, when Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse vaulted into the U.S. Senate by defeating then-Republican Lincoln Chafee, who remained well-liked at that time.) At any rate, Gov. Raimondo's less-than-stellar approval ratings give RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell hope that voters are ready for a change. Meanwhile, Bell said, “People need to be careful about blaming Trump for everything within the state. I’m not really sure there’s going to be that negative an impact.” And besides, Democrats may still have to up their game in 2018 to make real progress.

4. Peter Neronha, Democratic candidate for attorney general, said, if elected, he will use the AG's office to push for random audits of Rhode Island elected officials' campaign accounts. In response to a question about whether such an approach is needed -- given a string of cases where finance violations have revealed other wrongdoing -- Neronha said, "Yeah, I think that's a good idea." So just a good idea, or something he would champion as AG? "Absolutely, yeah, when I think anything's a good idea, I would use a bully pulpit to advance it," Neronha said during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "I think that's a really important part of being attorney general. I thought that was an important part of being the U.S. attorney. You drive change by speaking about the things you care about." Of course, implementing random audits of campaign finance accounts would require increased funding for the state Board of Elections, and the General Assembly's willingness to approve such a move remains in doubt.

5. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee avoided making things personal when he announced his re-election campaign earlier this week. At the same time, it's clear that the jagged contrast between McKee, a 66-year-old from the bit more conservative Blackstone Valley, and Aaron Regunberg, his progressive 27-year-old challenger. "I don't know Aaron that well, so I'm not going to comment about him," McKee told reporters. "But I can tell you that my point was that in the last year seven lieutenant governors became governors in the country. They were prepared to be governor, as I am. So I think it's very important that that's an evaluation the voters will make, but it's one they should take very serious, because a lieutenant governor could become governor. And you want to make sure that person has the experience to actually manage a state." Regunberg answered by welcoming McKee to the race, and later rolling out some early endorsements from environmental groups. There's still a long way to go in the race, but watch for the volume to grow steadily louder on the issue of age and experience.

6. Big doings in East Greenwich with a judge ousting Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and town government being prepared to put her back in on Tuesday. Democratic activist Justine Caldwell offered this reaction to the judge's decision: “The East Greenwich Town Council has acted with impunity since being elected last year. Residents like me have been doing all we can to persuade them to rein in their illegal conduct, but nothing has worked. I’m happy that the Court has strongly reminded my Town Council that merely being elected does not confer them license to disregard our laws." In a statement, Council President Sue Cienki said, “We are extremely disappointed in the court’s decision.  We firmly believe in responsible and transparent government, and we were not aware of any compliance issues until today’s ruling. Any violations of the Open Meetings Act were inadvertent. Moving forward, we will take all necessary measures to ensure our legislative process is fully compliant. Today’s decision will not deter or distract us from continuing to push for a more accountable, professional, and fiscally sound Town government. We have scheduled a Town Council meeting for Tuesday, November 14th to address the court’s decision and ratify all Town actions that have taken place since June 19, 2017.”

7. A year has passed since President Trump won election, surpassing Hillary Clinton by a mere 70,000 or so votes in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,  to snag the White House. For some perspective on that event -- and what's happened since then -- check out this NPR-annotated version of Trump's 2016 victory speech.

8. With lobbyists and lawyers plying attorneys general with campaign contributions, how will Peter Neronha avoid the impression of undue influence? "That's one of the challenging things about running for office -- right? -- is you know you need the money to run a campaign and introduce yourself to the Rhode Island voters," Neronha said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "When I think of that issue, I want to make sure that when I become attorney general everyone knows why I'm making the decisions, and has confidence in them. I don't think that means you can't take contributions from people who may be lobbyists or not. I think what you have to do is have the track record that indicates you can make these decisions by calling everything straight down the middle and give people confidence that that's what you're going to do."

9. Apropos Veterans Day, Ken Burns' recent documentary series on Vietnam is a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by members of the Armed Services, regardless of the merit of the political decisions made by elected officials. Meanwhile, a new cost of war report by Brown University finds that the average American taxpayer has spent more than $23,000 on U.S. wars fought since 2001.

10. Rhode Island figures in what is called the first U.S. instance of whistle-blowing, from more than 240 years ago: "They formed a plan: Capt. John Grannis of the U.S. Marine Corps would go overboard without permission, known today as AWOL, to deliver their whistleblower report. Had his actions been detected he could have been jailed or executed, for a service member fleeing during war was a capital offense. He could also have been captured, as the British had occupied Rhode Island’s Newport, very close to where Grannis would have to travel.

11. Mark Tracy has joined Democrat Rebecca Kislak in the race to succeed Aaron Regunberg in House District 4. Meanwhile, some of the Republicans who ran for the General Assembly in 2018 -- including House candidate David Place in Burrillville and Senate hopeful Jon Keith in Cranston -- are gearing up for another try. State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said he hopes to convince as many of the '16 candidate who lost to make another run, although the entries will not include former GOP Chairman Mark Zaccaria, who is assisting Bobby Nardolillo with his U.S. Senate run.

12. Fortress Investment Group, the hedge fund that helps manage the owner of The Providence Journal, is contemplating offering a loan to help keep Harvey Weinstein's company afloat, Bloomberg reports. (Update: No deal.)

13. Fake news with a Rhode Island connection (spoiler alert coming up fast) : "Democrat Senator Hal Lindsay of Rhode Island is calling for Democrats to 'take to the streets in protest' on November 4th, the anniversary of Donald Trump’s landslide victory over Hillary Clinton. Lindsay, who is known for his extreme and violent leftist views, told LLOD correspondent Cynthia Luwhoe: 'The American people aren’t going to stand for this kind of treason. Trump and the Russians have conspired to take over America and break the Constitution. We have to make sure there is widespread and rampant violence if that happens. We must resist.' Democrats on the hill are distancing themselves from Lindsay’s approach, calling him a dangerous loose cannon. Nancy Pelosi canceled her Texas Hold ‘Em game so she wouldn’t have to come face to face with him."

14. PawSox update: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, via spokesman Larry Berman, said the House will not initiate a vote on the bill to create a new stadium in Pawtucket, although, "The Senate has taken the lead in this issue and the House would consider anything that is passed and transmitted to the House." Meanwhile, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said there is not yet a timetable for a vote in Senate Finance: "The Finance Committee is presently waiting on the auditor general’s report to the Senate president. We did not place any time restriction on that … we want the auditor general to do his diligence. The Senate president is awaiting the recommendation of the Finance Committee. He is open to convening the Senate in November, but pending the recommendation of the Finance Committee."

15. Law student and former RI House candidate Luis Vargas makes a conservative case for the Dreamers. Excerpt: "Free-market supporters understand that when you introduce competition into a market, it lowers the cost of a good or service while often increasing quality and safety. This is as true when it comes to flat-screens and cars as it is when it comes to labor – which is why, if you support keeping the minimum wage low and allowing people to contract for what they feel their labor is worth, you should support more open immigration policies. Immigrants, especially DREAMers, are entrepreneurial in spirit and deeply committed to family – values we need to continue to welcome if we want to remain the largest and strongest economy in the world."

16. GOP gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan tells me she intends to remain as RI House minority leader while running for governor. Morgan denies that she indicated otherwise during a recent South County GOP event. She also rejects the idea that serving in both roles may be too taxing: "I'm a really hard worker," said Morgan, demonstrating the fast-on-her-feet communications skills that will help fuel her campaign.

17. Part I -- Who knew? Belo, which sold the ProJo a few years ago to GateHouse Media, is killing it with digital marketing at the company's flagship Dallas Morning News, according to astute media observer Ken Doctor: "The big idea: Sell midsize and larger local companies vital digital marketing services, often in addition to advertising space itself. Sell them space -- print and/or digital -- and a service. That's plus one. Sell them two services. That's plus two. Sell them three services. That's plus three. It's more than an idea. It's become the strategy separating The Dallas Morning News from most of its peers in the newspaper trade. Most importantly, it's a strategy seems to be slowly bearing fruit."

18. "YouTube's Rapid Response Partisans Game The News of Tragedy"

19. Part II -- Who knew? Brown University has a Humans to Robots Laboratory, and it's helping to plumb the question of how well robots can perform tasks done by humans: "There, on a recent afternoon, a robot with bulky red arms set about pulling the petals from an artificial daisy. The robot, known around the lab as Winnie, held the flower in a pair of rubber-tipped pincers, then retracted its other arm, rotated it slightly, and pointed it down toward the daisy. It emitted an idling-motor sound, as though contemplating what to do next. Then the hand jerked down toward the flower, grabbed a petal, and flung it on the table. It retracted again, with a mechanical reeeh-raaah! noise. The movements evoked a prehistoric bird." The whole story is well worthy a read for an overview on the effects of automation.

20. A 61-year-old Rhode Island man, Dave DeVarney, is running through Vermont's 251 towns. "You just go with it because as soon as you decide the weather is too bad you get a defeatist mentality," DeVarney tells Vermont Public Radio.