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

Nov 17, 2017

Sure, Rhode Island is on a glide path for the holiday season, but a dynamic election year is fast approaching. 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. (A quick program note: my TGIF column is taking next week off and will resume on December 1.) Here we go. 

1. A slowdown in early electioneering looms with the march toward Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yet the broad strokes of Rhode Island's 2018 election season have already come into view: do Rhode Islanders think Gov. Gina Raimondo is steering the state in the right or the wrong direction? Can Robert G. Flanders Jr. make an effective case for ousting Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, or will President Trump prove an anchor on his aspirations? And will progressives -- led by lieutenant governor candidate Aaron Regunberg -- build on earlier election results, or will voters favor a more centrist brand of Democrats? The 2018 election represents the chance for a Rorschach-like reading on Rhode Islanders' psyche and their view of the economy: Does shrinkage in the unemployment rate, the attraction of new companies, and additional job efforts trump underlying weakness in the state's economy? Are citizens content with the pace of change or do they crave more radical steps in a different direction? These questions will come into sharper focus as Rhode Island moves deeper into 2018, helping to shape the state's direction.

2. Skilled political operative Jeff Britt has signed on with Rhode Island Democrats for the 2018 campaign season, but that doesn't preclude Britt from working on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's re-election campaign. "I'm excited to be working for the party and I'll work wherever they want me to work," Britt tells me. In 2016, Britt helped Mattiello squeak past Republican challenger Steven Frias, partially on the strength of an aggressive mail ballot effort. Meanwhile, sources indicate Britt's role with the RI Democrats was engineered by Brett Smiley, Gov. Raimondo's chief of staff, yet Britt said he remains a big Mattiello supporter.

3. The poll commissioned by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's gubernatorial campaign shows him leading the GOP field at this early stage in the race, although there's more to the findings than meets the eye. First, a caveat: Fung's campaign declined to release the full poll, and that it makes impossible to assess its value. But GOP rival Patricia Morgan didn't question the credibility of the findings. "It's not surprising," she said. "Everyone knows Allan Fung and I've only just begun." At any rate, a close read reveals that a greater percentage of respondents in the poll prefer a candidate other than Fung. The total received by Morgan, Joe Trillo and "unsure" adds up to 54 percent, compared with the 45 percent backing Fung.

4. "How American politics went bat-crap crazy" On a related note, while a number of prominent Republicans are now calling for Roy Moore to end his U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama, distrust of the media plays big among Moore's supporters.

5. Robert G. Flanders Jr, and his supporters did everything Thursday but sing John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" in an attempt to paint the former RI Supreme Court justice as a regular guy who should be elected to the most elite club in politics. A college pal, for example, said everyone he knows "would rather have a beer with Bob than a Chardonnay with Sheldon." Flanders talked about how he had worked as a trash collector, a floor sweeper, a bagger in a mattress factory and a dishwasher. Then again, the Ivy-educated Flanders can quote Latin ("Sic transit gloria mundi," he once told the ProJo, explaining how an unexpected knee injury set back his athletic career), he's served on Rhode Island's top court, and has been known for driving a snazzy Porsche around hardscrabble Central Falls. If Flanders gets past fellow Republican Bobby Nardolillo, the East Greenwich resident may represent Whitehouse's most formidable opponent since the Democrat won election to the Senate in 2006. That was when Rhode Islanders' dislike for George W. Bush enabled Whitehouse to oust then-Republican Lincoln Chafee. This time around, "There aren’t a lot of signs that Whitehouse is all that vulnerable," Rhode Island native Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report tells me. "And, the results of elections that have taken place in 2017 suggest that 2018 is going to be a tough year for Republicans nationally. This does not bode well for the GOP Senate nominee in such a blue state.”

6. PawSox consultant Guy Dufault said Rhode Island "probably will" lose the team if the Pawtucket stadium deal "doesn't get done early in the next General Assembly session." At the same time, Dufault believes the legislature will approve the move, and that supporters will satisfy House Speaker Mattiello's concern about Pawtucket's stake in the deal. While opponents contend that PawSox-related spending will go to other Rhode Island entertainment venues if the team leaves, Dufault said up to $2.3 million in annual income and sales taxes collected through the franchise would vanish. The ultimate question is whether any community -- Worcester, Montreal, or elsewhere -- is really willing to match the tens of millions of public borrowing on the table in Rhode Island. Skeptics doubt it, think the PawSox are unlikely to leave the state, (although they're floating an Attleboro possibility) and believe the issue could be far more easily resolved after November 2018.

7. One woman's view: "Why politicians got away with sexual misconduct for so long"

8. Robert Flanders represented the late former Democratic Governor Bruce Sundlun in two high-profile cases in the bygone 1990s -- the governor's celebrated raccoon-shooting episode, and the emergence of his newfound daughter, Kara. ProJo columnist M. Charles Bakst offered this description in 1996, when Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed Flanders to the Rhode Island Supreme Court: "Flanders, a business litigator who does not usually practice family law, says of Sundlun, 'It would be hard to imagine a more potentially embarrassing situation for any public official to be in.' At the same time, he says, the potential was there for a happy ending, and, indeed, Kara became a lively addition to the Sundlun family. Look around Flanders's law office and you'll see a toy raccoon, a fake raccoon hat and a Sundlun-inscribed raccoon cartoon. You'll recall Sundlun shot three raccoons and rushed into court to plead guilty. (The judge entered a no-contest plea.) Then Sundlun turned to Flanders for help. Flanders, breaking into laughter, says, 'It's not often that you get a client come in and say, in substance, 'I've just pled guilty to a charge. I stormed into court and filed my guilty plea.' Normally one hopes one's clients come to one before taking such steps.' Flanders adds, 'Then, to try and unwind that by looking at the law and talking with the folks from the DEM about that whole situation and going back to court and having to file a motion to withdraw the governor's guilty plea - again, not an area that I normally practice in]' The case ended with the charges being dismissed."

9. In an era of mass shootings, is there common ground to be found between a gun-rights supporter like state Rep. Mike Chippendale (R-Foster) and former Democratic rep Linda Finn of Middletown, president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence? Give a listen to our recent conversation on RIPR.

10. Via Elizabeth McNamara: "Once upon a time, there was a quiet little town called East Greenwich, with a popular Main Street, good schools, lots of nice houses, and town governance that was so boring most people paid it little heed. Today, Main Street is still popular, the schools are still good, there are still lots of nice houses, but EG’s Town Council meetings have become the hottest ticket in town. So much so that dozens of people were left outside in the cold Tuesday after the meeting site reached its 253-person limit, looking like a line outside a popular nightclub on a Saturday night. So, what gives, East Greenwich? Why all the excitement?"

11. Ken Block got a win earlier this week when the state Board of Elections voted to begin the process of overhauling a 2008 regulation. The move was prompted by Block's complaint to the US Justice Department that the state was neglecting to collect Social Security or driver's license numbers, as required, from new voters. Yet the pitched battle continues between Elections Board member Stephen Erickson, who called the issue trivial, and Block, who said on Facebook that it's a big problem when elections are conducted outside of federal law.

12. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat, continue to enjoy strong support among Bay State voters.

13. While sparking development remains a slog, Providence city councilors unveiled an effort this week to standardize tax stabilization agreements in the capital city. “For decades, prudent fiscal controls have been lacking, while the procedure for granting and approving tax stabilization agreements has been an insider’s game,” one sponsor, Ward 14 Councilman David Salvatore, said in a statement. “This act embraces new economic development initiatives that are predictable and beneficial to our local economy while protecting taxpayers. The more we continue to grow our city in an ethical manner, the more we all thrive as a community. I deeply appreciate the mayor and his team’s commitment to creating a prosperous local economy, and I look forward to welcoming new businesses."

14. It's not much of a revelation to know that Facebook became one of the dominant mediums of our time due to the innate narcissism of Americans. (Author Christopher Lasch published "The Culture of Narcissism" way back in 1979)). Still, when Sean Parker, Facebook's founding president,  offers an inside look at the company's approach, it's worth considering the information. Via Axios: "When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, 'I'm not on social media.' And I would say, 'OK. You know, you will be.' And then they would say, 'No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.' And I would say, ... 'We'll get you eventually.' "

15. Guy Dufault, a former chairman of the RI Democratic Party, on why Hillary Clinton struggled last year to connect with working class voters: "They needed to address to address the issue of inequality, and I think the progressive branch, Bernie Sanders, really jumped on that. And I one of the reasons he moved so rapidly to the top of the food chain was because he captured that inequality and Clinton glossed over it, and she didn't go into the hotbeds. She should have been spending [more] time in Michigan, she should have been spending time in Pennsylvania, Ohio -- places where that middle class inequality was really jumping off the page .... One thing I always admire the Republicans about is they're pretty disciplined when it comes to their messaging, you know, we're going to cut taxes and we're going to make sure the economy grows through dynamic scoring. I mean, they really know how to stay on message and do a really good job with that. We on the other hand, our tent is so big it really is difficult to get all those messages in, and sometimes what gets lost is the basic fundamental message, which is fairness to the American middle class." 

16. For Rhode Island political junkies it doesn't get much better than being able to watch the General Assembly, via Capitol TV, from the comfort of your home or office. Cap TV has further strengthened its use as a resource by archiving a host of previous footage. That's why it's troubling to see what's happening across the border in Connecticut, where that state's counterpart to Cap TV faces an uncertain future. Via the Hartford Courant: "Paul Giguere, president and CEO of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, which operates CT-N, wrote in a letter to the head of the Office of Legislative Management Thursday that legislators’ increasing efforts to dictate the network’s coverage and a 'drastic reduction' in funding 'transformed CT-N into a project no longer consistent with our organization's fiduciary obligations in either the financial or mission sense.' ”

17. Steve Brosnihan helps run Good Night Lights, "the project that involves lights being flashed at Hasbro Children's Hospital to say good night to patients at 8:30 every night ... I'm trying to get more of a residential involvement in the signal, especially from downtown Providence and the East Side. There are people living in condos, apartments and houses that could become part of the signal from their own living rooms. I believe that many of these people are [RIPR] listeners who may simply be unaware of how easy it is to participate in Good Night Lights."

18. On Point, the NPR-syndicated program produced at WBUR in Boston, does a great job of examining complex issues in a thoughtful way. (RIPR broadcasts On Point each day from 10 a.m. to noon and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.) So if you want to get up to speed on, say, the significance of the purge in Saudi Arabia and the power struggle in Lebanon, give a listen here.

19. Congratulations to our friends at Rhode Island PBS on the 30th anniversary of the station's signature public-affairs show, A Lively Experiment.

20. As noted in the intro, TGIF will be off next week. Meanwhile, don't miss the Thanksgiving-edition on Political Roundtable on Friday, November 24. Scott MacKay, Maureen Moakley, guest panelist Ted Nesi and yours truly share the stories for which we were thankful in 2017 and our top turkeys of the year.