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

Jan 5, 2018

Rhode Island emerged largely unscathed from the initial phase of our first big weather-related test of the new year, so bully for us, hardy New Englanders and cringing weather weenies alike. Thanks for stopping by for my column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters.

1. The PawSox outlook remains as cloudy as ever, even with the Senate expected to move quickly after a Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, January 9. During the opening day of the legislature, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he's looking for a palpable sense of a public shift in support of the project, as signified by the opinions of his barber and constituents sharing their views with reps during impromptu encounters at diners and supermarkets. A contrary view is held by elected officials such as Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who believes the state would be making a mistake if the PawSox leave for Worcester. "What I hear most often is, people want to do what needs to be done to keep them in Rhode Island," Avedisian said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "I think it's important for our overall fabric of a state to keep the PawSox in Rhode Island." There's been relatively little polling on the PawSox, so it's hard to know whether the anecdotal grousing reaching lawmakers' ears obscures a hidden current of support. A related question is whether this issue should be settled by perceived public sentiment or elected officials' determination of what's better for the state. Yet with Gov. Gina Raimondo reluctant to campaign more forcefully for the PawSox deal, the outcome may hinge on two wild cards: the size of a financial offer from Worcester, and whether the split between the House and Senate fosters inaction or ultimately leaves Rhode Island with a winning hand. 

2. Tesla has received the state and municipal licensing to open a store in Warwick -- the first in Rhode Island for the forward-looking company known for its premium electric sedans and SUVs. A formal announcement is expected later this year. (Update: A Tesla spokeswoman said there at no plans at this time for Elon Musk to make the scene, although it would add to the interest if he returned to Rhode Island.) Musk made a splash when he raised concerns the spread of artificial intelligence, speaking during the National Governors Association meeting in Providence in 2017. As it stands, Tesla has one store in Connecticut and four outlets in Massachusetts.

3. What did Speaker Mattiello and Republican-turned-independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo discuss when they ran into each other at Chapel Grille in Cranston in mid-December? One question hovering over the encounter is whether Mattiello suggested that Trillo drop out of the race for governor. Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said the conversation did not touch on politics even briefly, let alone an overture for Trillo to change direction. Mattiello "went over and greeted Joe," who was dining with former House majority leader John DeSimone, "exchanged pleasantries and that was the extent of it," Berman said. Yet Trillo declined to comment on the details of his conversation with Mattiello. "My conversations with him are going to remain between him and I," Trillo said. "People wouldn't have conversations with me," the longtime former Warwick rep added, if he shared the details afterward. Trillo said "several people" have tried to get him out of the race for governor, but he declined to identify them. (The subtext for all this is the perception that Mattiello would prefer for Republican Allan Fung to be governor. Asked last month if any part of him would prefer for Fung to be governor, Mattiello told me, "Allan Fung is a friend and he's done a good job in administering and running the city of Cranston. However, Gina Raimondo is a colleague and she's the incumbent governor of the state of Rhode Island, and she's a friend, and she's done a good job running the state of Rhode Island. So she's a Democrat. I support Governor Raimondo in her re-election.")

4. Although rumors have swirled for months that he might be headed to another post, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian said he's leaning toward seeking re-election later this year. He pointed to the need to develop nearby parcels, following completion of the airport runway project, as part of the reason. Avedisian didn't close the door on a future run for governor -- and he called that the only elective office he'd seek if he left City Hall. "[But] there are three Republican candidates for governor already," he said. "I don’t think being a fourth – and technically there’s four already, with Joe Trillo. I don’t think being the fifth Republican in that race is helpful to anybody and certainly not helpful to me, since I like what I’m doing and we’re starting to see some payoff on investments being made.”

5. Speaking of GOP gubernatorial candidates, former Alex + Ani CEO Giovanni Feroce made his entry in the race official this week, although he's yet to revive his dormant campaign account. Some might question how much support Feroce can attract, given attention in the ProJo about his financial woes. Yet in the small voting pool of a GOP primary, even small factors can have a big impact.

6. Mayor Avedisian has a front-row view on all the good news coming out of T.F. Green Airport, particularly the string of new airlines and flights attracted with the help of Iftikhar Ahmad, president/CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. Yet Avedisian believes the hangover from 38 Studios remains so forceful that it would be impossible in the current environment to now make the major airport expansion championed in the 1990s by then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun. "I think the 38 Studios has been a real cloud that has come over everything, and if you were looking for that kind of money right now to expand an airport, when you didn't have any of those airlines on the hook already, I'm not sure it would have passed ....," he said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "Part of it is there still has been no report, no formalized document," explaining what went wrong with 38 Studios. "At least with RISDIC [the Rhode Island Share and Debit Indemnity Corporation, more widely known as the state banking crisis of 1990], there was a report, and you could say whether the state report was right, wrong or indifferent, you felt like there was disclosure. [But 38 Studios is] still out there and it still rears its ugly head in virtually every discussion." 

7. On a related note, state Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) penned a piece on Facebook, pointing to 38 Studios as a key stumbling block on the PawSox. Excerpt: "For the past 5 years I have been outspoken on 38 Studios - so much so that even I am sick of hearing myself. However - and keep in mind that I sat on the House Oversight Committee for 5 years and was the Vice-Chairman during the entirety of the 38 Studios hearings - there is plenty of video of those committee hearings where I, and some of my colleagues held the position that 'If we don't expose this scandal, and clear up the cloud over this fraudulent theft of taxpayer monies, then the public will never trust us in the future.' That was - and still is what I hope happens. However, we've seen everyone at every level of governmental leadership in all three branches of govt run interference to protect the criminals in this scandal. Why would those people (the Governor, the AG, Speaker, Senate Prez, State Police Colonel et al) ever expect the citizens of Rhode Island to trust anything that they propose which requires taxpayer funding? The truth is that they cannot - and I made this abundantly clear in all of my public 'rants' about 38S. Yes - I wanted those responsible to be held criminally accountable (and still do.) But moreover, I truly believe that the massive loss of taxpayer monies with 38S pales in comparison to the loss of faith in state government that now exists in RI. THIS is why not one single constituent of mine has reached out and asked me to support the PawSox bill. In fact, more people have contacted me urging to vote against it than almost any other issue that's been before the Assembly."

8. Why Thursday's winter storm wasn't a blizzard (plus you can rewind RIPR's one-stop coverage how we tracked developments throughout the day.)

9. Perhaps due to the mistrust of government referenced in the previous two items, both Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio highlighted some noteworthy priorities during their opening day remarks earlier this week. Mattiello said the House Oversight Committee will take the lead in examining state regulations and whether they are too burdensome for business. "Our state can and must be more friendly to businesses," he said. Ruggerio, meanwhile, pledged to support legislation that closes a gap in the wages earned by men and women. To be sure, this kind of stuff is good election-year politics. But with a cranky electorate, such initiatives could also mark an occasion where good politics is consistent with good policy.

10. Nicholas Autiello, a primary challenger to Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence), has gotten off to a fast start with his campaign, raising more than $50,000 in Q4. Less well know is how Autiello used to be a Republican -- a stance he attributed to his father and an early belief that tax cuts and trickle-down economics would grow jobs. "It was an easy answer to the difficult situation we found ourselves in - we had lost my dad's store, lost most of what we had, and moved to Florida to start over," Autiello tells me. "But I was young and didn't really know what I believed yet." He said a key turning point came with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010: "I saw how empty the 'freedom and liberty' slogan was when it was paired policy positions that were, to me, extremely anti-American - closing borders, focusing only on some amorphous notion of freedom, but disdaining true equality, the racial tension stoked by the birthers, and the total dismissal of President Obama's work to save the economy from a depression, save the auto industry, and extend health coverage to millions of people." Autiello, who is the senior economic analyst for RI Executive Office of Commerce, said he came to believe his liberal social views were consistent with such Democratic values as public investment in education and infrastructure, and protecting a safety net for the vulnerable. "So I became a Democrat," he said, "and have been supporting Democratic candidates for years because I believe my party is in a better position to appeal to the better angels in our nature, to talk about the things that unite us all as Rhode Islanders and as Americans, and to rekindle what it means to be a citizen, both rights and responsibilities, in the 21st century."

11. Don't count A.T. Wall, set to retire next month after running the Rhode Island Department of Corrections for 17 years, among those who enjoy yarns about the New England Mob's heyday in Providence. "When the Crimetown podcast was introduced, I for one declined to listen," Wall told me during an exit interview this week. "I came into the department toward the end of that era," when organized crime controlled part of the state prison into the 1980s, "and really had no desire to relive it and to celebrate it." Asked how Mafiosi could exert so much sway at the ACI back in the day, Wall said, "Inadequate training of staff, poor controls, less monitoring than was necessary, too much idleness. Because of the culture of Rhode Island -- I'm a native Rhode Island -- a certain coziness can sometimes develop between the keepers and the kept. People forget about the boundaries. It all comes together in that way. And as a Rhode Islander, to my dismay, there is a certain tendency on the part of some people to glorify that lifestyle."

12. Somewhere, Buddy Cianci is smiling. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who spent seven years in prison on a corruption conviction, is running for governor in Connecticut. As fate would have it Cianci and Ganim spent time together as guests of the federal government. (Cianci lost his own run for governor, in 1980.)

13. Steve Bannon has been all over the news this week, due to Michael Wolff's new book about President Trump, and it turns out that Bannon (like Mike Flynn, Sean Spicer, and Paul Manafort) has a Rhode Island connection. "The life than he imagined for himself as a junior naval officer -- one that revolved around duty, honor and patriotism -- was nothing like what he encountered when he showed up at the Navy's training center in Rhode Island in 1977," writes Joshua Green in Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency. "Bannon, not one given to modest ambitions, had visions of one day becoming secretary of defense .... Bannon expected his naval career to roughly resemble Richard Gere's in An Officer and A Gentleman -- a series of character-building trials and affirmations that would instill strength and valor, and reward him with the full measure of military prestige that he assumed he would merit. What he got instead more closely resembled Bill Murray's experience in Stripes."

14. The Center for Public Integrity has a new app that can be used to review the financial interests of lawmakers in various states, including Rhode Island.

15. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is speaking in D.C. next Wednesday, January 10, on a panel on election security. Meanwhile, Gorbea offered this comment, via statement, on President Trump ending his advisory panel on election integrity -- a move he blamed on states failing to provide data: "I was not surprised to learn that President Trump has dissolved his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. It was clear from the start that this commission was an attempt to distract voters from the real dangers in our election systems - lack of funding for modernization and security, including cyber threats from foreign actors. The commission was plagued with open meeting violations and transparency issues. From the beginning, it faced multiple legal challenges, including one from a member of the commission. I refused to release voters' private information and did not comply with the commission's overly broad request for data. Rhode Islanders can be assured that as their Secretary of State, I will continue to protect their right to privacy, protect the integrity of elections in our state, and most importantly, protect their sacred right to vote.”

16. "Does the White Working Class Really Vote Against Its Own Interests?"

17. Tom Morgan, the longtime former ProJo reporter who died last week at age 75, was known in part for an impish sense of humor. Hence his inclusion in the Order of the Occult Hand, "a whimsical secret society of American journalists who have been able to slip the meaningless and telltale phrase "It was as if an occult hand had…" in print as a sort of a game and inside joke." According to Wikipedia, "The phrase was introduced by Joseph Flanders, then a police reporter of The Charlotte News, in the fall of 1965, when he reported on a millworker who was shot by his own family when he came back home late at night. He wrote: 'It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.' " Morgan's inclusion in this rarefied society came for a 2013, headlined, "Two guys in R.I. growing fungi for profit" -- an appropriate topic given Morgan's fondness for foraging mushrooms.

18. Welcome back, Tom Coderre. The former state senator an ex-chief of staff for Teresa Paiva Weed is returning to Rhode Island from a DC job, joining Gov. Raimondo's team to "oversee addiction/opioid coordination and provide general Senior Advisor work, especially legislative strategy and relationships."

19. Steven Brown, head of the RI ACLU, writes that censorship remains a serious problem in local schools: "Imagine a school administrator telling a high school political science teacher that a whole range of timely topics — for example, medical marijuana, terrorism in the Middle East, gun control, or even politics in general — was off-limits for class discussion. The pedagogical absurdity of it, not to mention the upending of academic freedom it embodies, would seem obvious to most. In school districts across the country, however, a similar type of censorship takes place in the classroom every day, with little dissent. The censorship takes place invisibly, through the use of internet filtering programs that block certain categories of websites — or even websites that mention specific words — when students use school computers to access the internet. Although primarily designed to prevent access to pornography, the deeply flawed software, and school districts’ widespread embrace of it, has a significant impact on classroom teaching."

20. Rest in Peace, Sylvia Brooklyn Denhoff. A smiling picture of Sylvia -- and her recipe for almond cookies -- accompanied her obit in Friday's ProJo, after she died Jan. 2 at 99.8. It sounds like she was an extraordinary lady. And by offering this distinctive tribute, Sylvia's family shared with the rest of us the virtues of a life well-lived.