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

Dec 8, 2017

More proof positive this week that Rhode Island politics *is* the gift that keeps on giving. So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Without further ado, here we go.

1. For months, campaign-watchers have been pondering who might play the role of the late Robert "Cool Moose" Healey in Rhode Island's 2018 gubernatorial election. It's an impactful question, since Gov. Gina Raimondo won with 40.7 percent of the vote in 2014 (with Healey drawing almost 22 percent), and her electoral prospects appear considerably brighter in a three-way race than a two-way. Now, former state Rep. Joe Trillo, who served last year as honorary chair of President Trump's RI campaign, has stepped into the role of independent candidate/potential spoiler for GOP hopes of regaining the governor's office. To most observers, that looks like a benefit for Raimondo, in part since Trillo's appeal is mostly to Trump-style independents and Republicans. Trillo, 74, maintains that running as an independent gives him his best hope of winning. And despite a level of upset among some Trump fans and top RI Republicans like Chairman Brandon Bell, the former Warwick rep thinks his message will resonate. Trump ran the table in Rhode Island's GOP presidential primary last year, winning traditionally Democratic bastions like Johnston, so maybe there's an undercurrent of support, a la Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority," for Trillo's emphasis on law and order and "radical change." (Not for nothing, Trillo is close to John DeSimone, the former House majority leader whose profile aligns with the kind of Democrats who might back the Republican-turned-independent; Trillo said some prominent Democrats are supporting him, but he declined to identify any.) Then again, the idea of an independent once again winning the governor's office strikes some observers as absurd. If that's the case, why is Trillo running? The former lawmaker is known as a deal-maker (his late father once sold a part of what is now Scarborough State Beach, at a slight discount to the state, for close to $2 million). Trillo maintains his independent bid is legit and that barring an unforeseen event, he'll be in it until the end. "There's no deal in the works to get me out of the race," Trillo tells me.

2. During a WPRI-TV debate in 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung endorsed the idea of making Rhode Island a right to work state -- a move that hurt the Republican gubernatorial candidate with organized labor. So might Fung be trying to finesse the issue this time around? The mayor's campaign manager, Andrew Vargas Vila, did not respond to an inquiry about whether Fung still supports right to work. (In a 2014 interview at RIPR, Fung downplayed his earlier statement in support of right to work, saying in part, "There's a difference between philosophy, because I've always been a management-rights person, and also reality and pragmatic realism of what's going on ... It's not a priority that's on my agenda. It was in the context of answering that question. I believe it, but whether it's going to be a reality in Rhode Island, I'm realistic about that, too.") Nonetheless, the issue remains a thorny one for Fung; disavowing his past support for right to work could broaden his support, but doing that could also disappoint the Republicans and conservative-leaning independents whose votes Fung needs in the September 2018 primary. For the record, GOP rival Patricia Morgan tells me she doesn't support making Rhode Island a work state, because, "I just don't think that it would work here." Joe Trillo also opposes making Rhode Island a right to work state. "I just don't think it's a possibility," he said, and it's not worth talking about things that aren't going to happen.

3. For now at least, the move by CVS Health to acquire Aetna is quite the unicorn -- a colossal transaction in the world of U.S. business with big impacts and, seemingly, positive consequences for Rhode Island. As Jon Chesto wrote in The Boston Globe, "When it comes to the Aetna Headquarters Sweepstakes, you can forget about Boston vs. New York. The real winner? Perhaps the darkest of horses: Woonsocket." That's pretty good for a city that more frequently becomes the focus of hard-luck news. Meanwhile, RIPR's Lynn Arditi has a rundown on how the deal may affect jobs, primary care, drug prices, and privacy, and John Bender talks about the impact with PC professor of healthcare policy Bob Hackey.

4. Beyond Gov. Raimondo, Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan could be one of the big beneficiaries of Joe Trillo's decision to run as an independent. Trillo's decision will focus the GOP primary battle between Morgan and Fung, lending her a bigger platform and gaining her more attention. To some, Morgan is the sleeper candidate in the gubernatorial race -- and potentially the sharpest general election opponent for Raimondo. Cloaked by a grandmotherly persona, Morgan has a facility for sharply articulating the concerns of dissatisfied Rhode Islanders. In keeping with that modest approach, she calls Trillo's decision to run as an independent something over which she has no control. "Whatever happens, I'm just going to continue to run my campaign," she tells me. "All I can do is get out there and work hard."

5. When Robert G. Flanders Jr. announced his GOP run last month for the US Senate seat held by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, Flanders argued he'd do a better job than Whitehouse in advocating "for middle-class working families here in Rhode Island and small businesses in the state.” Asked about key things he would have done differently than Whitehouse over the Democrat's last 10 years in the Senate, Flanders responded by saying he'd be more bipartisan. Pressed for a specific on RIPR's Political Roundtable, Flanders pointed to how Whitehouse "sponsored legislation that effective took away from the Drug Enforcement agency's authority to regulate opioids and particularly pill mill distributors." (Whitehouse has defended his sponsorship of that law.) Meanwhile, although many Americans would like to see more bipartisanship in Washington, that's likely to remain elusive based on recent trends.

6. Trump's election and continuing fallout from the Harvey Weinstein story have focused attention on a surge of growing participation by women in politics. But some big changes have already taken place at Providence College, which happens to be the alma mater of a large number of Rhode Islander lawmakers past and present. Women are running the table with the leadership of each of the four big student-led organizations at PC: Phionna-Cayola Claude ('18), directs the Student Congress; Simran Madhani ('18) heads the Friars Club; Elizabeth Jancsy ('18) runs the Board of Programmers; and Marcie Mai ('18) runs the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs. From a diversity standpoint, it's worth noting that three of these young leaders are women of color and two are non-Christians. (Madhani is Muslim and Mai is Buddhist). Claude, whose parents are from Haiti, is the first person of color to lead Student Congress in its 68-year history. Madhani, whose parents are from Pakistan, is the first person of color to lead the Friars Club in its 90-year history, and the first woman to do so in a decade. Mai's parents are from Vietnam. Jancsy is also an Arts & Entertainment writer for The Cowl, the PC student newspaper, and a frequent cast member in Providence College theatrical productions. (PC recently profiled three of the women.)

7. Rhode Island's 2018 primary has been quietly moved back a day, from September 11 to September 12, by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. That means campaigns will have an extra coveted day for last-minute get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. The explanation? A law calling for the change if the primary lands on the date of a religious holiday, in this case Rosh Hashanah. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has yet to settle on a definitive primary date for 2018.

8. Jim Bennett, the former economic development chief in Providence, is likely to be front and center in Brown University and Prospect Medical Holdings' bid to create a "Rhode Island option" for Care New England if CNE's merger with Boston-based Partners HealthCare falls through. The concept would be for an academic giant like Brown to partner with a cash-flush and experienced hospital management company like Prospect to keep medical research, patients and health care jobs in Rhode Island. Bennett, who lost the 2002 GOP primary for governor, left his Providence economic development post in 2015 to become a vice president at Prospect. During his time in Providence, he played a pivotal role in the South Street Landing project that brought together the URI and RIC nursing schools, and also the massive deployment of administrative offices by Brown University. During the recent ribbon-cutting at South Street Landing, Bennett was among those publicly thanked for their efforts on the project.

8. One clear contrast between Robert Flanders and Sheldon Whitehouse is the GOP tax plan in Congress. Like other Democrats, Whitehouse is sharply critical of the plan, calling it "a giveaway to Republican donors." But Flanders rejects views of the tax plan as disproportionately beneficial for the rich. "The Tax Foundation has said that the economy, the GDP, will grow by 4 percent if this is passed, wages will tend to grow, income will go up by 3 percent," Flanders said on Roundtable. "And Rhode Islanders' job creation will grow. We'll have almost 3,000 more jobs created as a result of this. I think that, yes, the deficit is a concern, but the benefits of doing this and hopefully the increased tax collections that will result will be more than compensating."

9. Scott MacKay: "New Englanders in particular ought to view with skepticism any celebration of Christmas that heightens religious division."

10. Longtime former ProJo reporter Brian C. Jones offers this appreciation: "Kerry Kohring, a copy and section editor at the Providence Journal for three decades and a longtime union activist, died December 3. His death, at 73, shocked those close to him, since he’d long outfoxed cancer and heart disease with steady optimism and humor. The grim fact that no human  body can sustain unlimited insults was compounded by the realization that a man, who treated adversaries and colleagues alike with kindness and dignity, suddenly was missing. Kohring had cheerfully pursued difficult and demanding crusades. He was devoted to newspapers’ core functions: informing democracy and fostering a civil society. He saw unions – in his case, the Providence Newspaper Guild– as providing workers not only with family-sustaining wages, but workplace dignity and fairness. Like democracy, unions demand much from their stewards – the courage to confront powerful forces and determination to endure protracted battles.  After the Providence Journal was purchased by the Texas-based Belo Corporation, Kohring was one of two union members dispatched to a 2001 shareholders’ meeting in Dallas, nominally to vote their own and the Guild’s meager stock holdings, but really to call out the Journal’s managers for stalled contract negotiations. Kohring urged an audience of 400 'to address the threat to the value of my shares, and to those of everyone else in this room, by the actions of the Providence Journal Company.' Afterwards, he buttonholed Belo chairman Robert Decherd at the podium; Kohring’s manner, as always, was equally firm and cordial. 'Message received,' Decherd answered.  After two more years of protest and negotiation, the Guild won a new contract. Kohring retired several years later, organizing a 'retirees chapter' to bolster the ever-embattled Guild, posting often to a Facebook page connecting 'Journal News Expats' and editing his Providence neighborhood association’s newsletter.  As the fortunes of newspapers and unions continue to decline, and with the emergence of a decidedly uncivil and unequal society nationally, it’s useful to consider Kerry Kohring’s legacy:  that no challenge is intractable and every problem is susceptible to people who are as tenacious as they are kind." (The Summit Neighborhood Association offers this remembrance of Kohring.)

11. Will the Rhode Island House pass the revised PawSox stadium bill in the election year of 2018, when a lot of Rhode Islanders are less than enthused about the concept, and opponents may continue raising the issue in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's home district? Plans for a November vote in the state Senate came and went, so nothing seems likely to happen unless the Senate takes the first step. If the Senate moves ahead in January, will the House act early in the year, to create more distance from the campaign trail? These questions remain very much in play, even as Worcester is reportedly finalizing its own pitch for the PawSox.

12A. General Assembly races: State Sen. James Doyle (D-Pawtucket), first elected in 2004, tells Ethan Shorey of The Valley Breeze he's leaning against seeking re-election. (From Shorey's story: "Rumors have swirled for much of the past year that this seventh term will be Doyle’s last, especially as the senator’s absences piled up on multiple Senate committees he serves on. Doyle has also taken some criticism behind the scenes for his lack of involvement in the hearing process for a new downtown baseball stadium; the Senate Finance Committee member has missed all of the finance hearings on the proposal. He has dozens of combined absences on the labor and finance subcommittees, according to General Assembly records.") Doyle's primary rival from 2016, Matthew Fecteau, is gearing up for another run. (He also ran against U.S. Rep David Cicilline in 2014.) In a news release, Fecteau said in part, "I seek to be a catalyst for change as your State Senator. Growing up in Pawtucket, my father, Ray Fecteau, worked long hours to put food on our table. Now, the deck is increasingly stacked against regular families like ours. The members of our General Assembly have demonstrated that they don’t have the answers, but we do. Lately, it seems our representation is more focused on their latest scandal than on doing the people’s work. Pawtucket needs new leadership. We need a sincere voice that is willing to take on the establishment and represent working families instead of lobbyists and special interests. I have fought for our country, and now, back home, I will fight for our state, city, community, and people. We have numerous obstacles to overcome, but with hard work and a commitment to progress, we can make Rhode Island a better place for everyone.”

12B. More GA races: Jackie Tempera reports in the ProJo on plans by a young transgender woman, Nika Lomazzo, to run a primary challenge against Rep. John Lombardi (D-Providence) .... Meanwhile, after some earlier mixed signals from other sources, David Caldwell writes that his wife, Justine Caldwell, plans a Democratic run against Rep. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich).

13. The Map Center, an institution on North Main Street is getting ready to close its doors. Thanks to Mary Grady for sharing this info: "After 27 years at its North Main Street location, The Map Center will close on December 22. The store has been operating in Providence, at various locations, since the 1950s. It's been owned and operated by Andrew Nosal since 1981. A sale of the store's collection will run from December 4 to 22.  Hours are 10 to 5:30 weekdays, and Saturdays 11 to 4. The store is at 671 North Main Street, just past the Whole Foods/Staples shopping center. Free parking is available on the street. Some of the best bargains will be large map murals and board-mounted wall maps. For the first time, shoppers will be allowed to browse through dozens of flat file drawers containing 30 years worth of unusual maps. The broad collection of paper maps, atlases, globes, framed maps, and accessories, all will be sold off. 'Come early for the best selection, come late for the best prices,' Nosal advises. Most of The Map Center's sales now are online, Nosal says, but he has kept the store open 'as a kind of public-spirited performance art, for the pleasure of meeting interesting customers, and from sheer inertia.' He now is ready to focus on the web-store and new products, and decided it's time for the real store to close down. Nosal is keeping open the possibility of re-opening the store at a new location after his new website is up and running smoothly. Anyone interested in updates is invited to sign up for his email list."

14. Flanders short takes, from Roundtable and Bonus Q&A: The Republican U.S. Senate candidate draws a distinction between Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump. Speaking of the latter, Flanders said, "The allegations against him were out there in the electorate when people voted, or didn't vote for him. If there was something new and credible and substantial, I might think differently. But at this point, I think the electorate knows what they got when they elected President Trump." ..... Flanders calls the idea that he'd back Mitch McConnell as Senate GOP leader "an unwarranted assumption." .... On Trump: "I like his goals. I think that's why many people voted for him ... It's an adventure with him and it's hard to predict how this is all going to end up ... It's certainly worth it to have a quality Supreme Court, and I'm strongly supportive of appointing people to the court of the caliber of Neil Gorsuch." .... Flanders said he opposes privatizing Medicare and Social Security. "I think that those are programs that have worked, and I would be in favor of keeping them just the way they are." .... Flanders supports the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, calling it a free speech matter. He also believes donors should be disclosed and faults Democrats like Sheldon Whitehouse for not requiring that during the two years when Ds controlled Congress during President Obama's time in office. (Whitehouse introduced legislation requiring that disclosure; Democrats blame Republicans for blocking the measure.) 

15. Via the Twitter of Chris Callahan, adjutant general and commanding general of the RI National Guard: "@ArmyNavyGame .If Army wins then @RIVetsDirector will visit with @RINationalGuard tactical refuelers for hands on training! If Navy wins then @ChrisCallahanRI will hand wash/ wax the @BlueAngels boss F-18 during the air show in June 2018.Go Army,Beat Navy!"

16. The hidden nature of sexual assaults on college campuses has gotten a lot more recognition since the 90s, even before the the explosion of more recent revelations about the prevalence of sexual harassment. Yet research shows that campus assaults remain common. Now, a victim of assault, Jessica Ladd, has created a software platform for secure online reporting of such crimes. As NPR reports, "It's designed to increase the rate of reporting, the accuracy of reports, and give clearer, more actionable information both to survivors and to institutions. And it has one more special feature: It has the potential to help identify the repeat offenders who are thought to commit most sexual assaults. Most research indicates that sexual crimes are underreported. One issue is that survivors may feel uncomfortable with something that has happened, but are unready or unwilling to make a formal accusation with their names attached. Using Callisto, students can log on 24/7 to write a secure online account of their experience. The questions are based on best practices for investigating victims of traumatic events. The written account is encrypted and time-stamped. That feature is important, Ladd says, becasue when people report soon after an incident, recall is stronger and the details can be more clear. Ladd points to research that the time lag between sexual assaults and complaints on campuses averages 11 months."

17. Rest in peace, John Anderson, who -- with his independent run for the White House -- "reintroduced himself as an independent, honest-dealing alternative to the rancorous business-as-usual politics of the major parties."

18. John Marion of Common Cause of RI on why you should be concerned about the Census, via a ProJo op-ed:  "Rhode Island is of particular importance to ensuring a fair and accurate Census count; as the Bureau’s one and only 'dress rehearsal,' the 2018 end-to-end field test is already underway in Providence County (Providence, East Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket, North Providence, Johnston, Smithfield, Cumberland, Woonsocket, Lincoln, Central Falls, North Smithfield, Scituate, Burrillville, Foster and Glocester). The Bureau has started hiring, but because of budget shortfalls, has scaled back advertising and communications activities, pivotal to achieving an accurate count. These challenges have particularly ominous implications for historically 'hard-to-count' communities. But there are steps we can take. LUCA, the Local Update of Census Addresses Operation, is a voluntary program that allows state and local governments to submit updated address lists to the bureau so that low-visibility and nontraditional residences aren’t overlooked in the count. Though the Census is two years away, the deadline for joining LUCA is this Dec. 15. LUCA is voluntary: states and cities must decide to participate. Rhode Island has not announced plans to participate. Across the state, only a handful of cities and towns have indicated that they plan to provide updated data."

19. Fun Fact: Fox host Sean Hannity had a short stint operating a wallpaper and design business in Rhode Island before making his ascent in media, according to this New York Times Magazine profile. The story says Hannity works without a contract at Fox, sparking some concern there about a possible fast break to Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns WJAR-TV, Channel 10.

20. Remember about 15 years ago when Steve Laffey told the ProJo: "It just became very clear to me 'God, you sent me home to run for mayor' " of Cranston? VP Mike Pence has a somewhat similar take on his political destiny, according to McKay Coppins' piece in The Atlantic: "Pence has so far showed absolute deference to the president—and as a result he has become one of the most influential figures in the White House, with a broad portfolio of responsibilities and an unprecedented level of autonomy. But for all his aw-shucks modesty, Pence is a man who believes heaven and Earth have conspired to place him a heartbeat—or an impeachment vote—away from the presidency. At some crucial juncture in the not-too-distant future, that could make him a threat to Trump."