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

Jan 19, 2018

It was a busy week in Rhode Island politics, so let's take some time to look back and ahead. 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. Gov. Gina Raimondo set the stage for the election year by using her State of the State address to say that Rhode Island is on the upswing, and to then unveil a $9.37 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year starting June 30. During the SOTS, Raimondo pointed to the state's shrinking unemployment rate and other signs of economic progress while avoiding nettlesome issues like UHIP and the PawSox debate. "Let's keep going," the governor said repeatedly, in an effort to spark a campaign-season mantra. Meanwhile, the stylistic points of the speech were as important as the substance. Raimondo seemed more comfortable addressing the camera than in the past -- no small thing considering how her approval rating hasn't hit 50 percent in recent history. And the governor told her narrative through the lives of everyday Rhode Islanders, concluding with the emotional story of how the state's close-knit fabric is helping Lisa Tortolani cope after the unexpected loss of her husband. As with the budget, reaction broke largely along partisan lines. Raimondo supporters applaud the governor for gradually boosting the state's investment in education and job-attraction efforts. Critics, including the candidates seeking to challenge Raimondo in November, pan her term as a failure and say the state needs different leadership. On the budget, the Democratic governor's plan seems designed to raise relatively few hackles in an election year, although it also relies on two big assumptions, about uncertain outcomes in the U.S. Supreme Court and federal spending.

2. How's this for an irony? The Supreme Court is pondering a broad expansion of sports betting due to a case brought by Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey. In 2014, Christie came to Johnston to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung, in his fight with Gov. Raimondo. And now, if the Supreme Court legalizes sports betting in more than the four current states, the Democratic governor will have plugged part of a yawning budget hole with help from a Republican counterpart.

3. Democratic state reps sent a clear message after emerging from a closed House caucus Thursday. By ruling out the possibility of a November referendum on the proposed PawSox deal, the lawmakers indicated they don't want the issue to linger through campaign season. As a result, we can expect the PawSox legislation to either come to a vote on the House floor or to die on the way there. So two key questions remain: 1) Will Worcester beat Rhode Island to the punch with a better offer that wins the favor of PawSox ownership? (While no details on financial terms have emerged, Worcester Mag reports, "In Worcester, city officials remain optimistic. City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. told Worcester Magazine Worcester is still actively courting the team." But even if Worcester makes a better offer, the PawSox may still want to stay in Rhode Island, due to a larger market base and other factors.) 2) Are the PawSox willing to change the terms of the deal in a way that will sufficiently increase the comfort level of state reps? "Risks have to be mitigated," is how one lawmaker puts it. Meanwhile, Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D-Jamestown) released an op-ed Friday that could signal growing House support for a new Pawtucket stadium. "I’m confident we can continue to improve the proposal and make it a better deal for taxpayers ...." Ruggiero writes. "[L]ooking to the future, I wondered if the state were to not authorize this public/private partnership with PawSox and the city of Pawtucket, would Pawtucket suffer extensive blight and an economic downturn in 4 or 5 years? Pawtucket has already lost Memorial Hospital and the Gamm Theatre, and Hasbro is considering a move. On the other side, there are some pretty cool local breweries in Pawtucket attracting a young, professional clientele. When you come into Rhode Island from Boston, the gateway to our state is Pawtucket and that old Apex building! Would Rhode Islanders regret and become resentful if the PawSox became the WorSox? Has Brooklyn ever gotten over losing the Dodgers?"

4. Kristen Dart, who joined Speaker Mattiello's team in the run-up to the 2016 election season, is leaving at the end of this month to become political director for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts in Albany, New York, directing legislative, lobbying, and electoral efforts. In many ways, this is a return to Dart's roots, since she hails from Saratoga Springs and came to Rhode Island in 2012 to be a community organizer for Planned Parenthood. "This a return to to be closer to my family and focusing [on] issues I am passionate about," she told me, adding that she's grateful for her time at the Statehouse. Dart offered these reflections on her time on Smith Hill: "The speaker made a priority to have staff that reflected different view points. I really enjoyed expanding my knowledge of a variety of issues. I think my time at the Statehouse will be very helpful going back to the world of lobbying, because I have now seen the governing side of things. Often lobbyists and activists can only see their side of an issue and don't always see or want to accept the challenges that can occur once a policy is actually enacted. RI is a great place to be an activist -- the public and legislators really get to know an issue and because of its size you can build deep and meaningful relationships." Asked about Mattiello's razor-thin victory over GOP state rep challenger Steve Frias in 2016, Dart said, "Being on a close campaign was exciting and challenging. I think it is reminder to all politicians that hard work in elections matter -- no one is just guaranteed a seat. We had a plan that that we followed and worked at really hard and in the end it paid off."

5. The top feel-good item in the budget is the November ballot question asking voters to approve $250 million in borrowing for an initial push to overhaul Rhode Island's crumbling schools. Labor loves this since it represents construction jobs. Politicians love it since it's a way of modernizing schools while adding jobs. Parents and students will probably like it, too, since so many schools around the state are in rough shape -- a situation made clear by bursting pipes during an intense cold snap earlier this month.

6. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is starting to emerge from hibernation in the early stage of the race for governor. The GOP mayor was at Gov. Raimondo's State of the State as part of the usual delegation of mayors, although he also used the occasion to give the governor poor marks for her SOTS (as did fellow rivals, Republicans Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce and independent Joe Trillo) and to release a related video. With the GOP side of the race for governor set to heat up, Morgan's deputy, House Minority Whip Blake Filippi of Block Island, offered this response when asked on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable how she will overcome the perception (of some) as Fung as the front-runner in the Republican race: "Patricia Morgan is Rhode Island's Iron Lady. I've known her for 15 years. I think she's wonderful. I unequivocally support her for governor. Allan Fung is also my friend. I think we have two qualified candidates. How does she get by? How does she win? I think she takes her message of reform and that she's a fighter and she brings that to the people. I think that's what we need in the state, is someone with Patricia's mindset, limited government, free markets, and someone who's not afraid, who's tenacious." Meanwhile, with President Trump facing historically low approval ratings, softening support for the president could discourage the Republican Governors Association from making a bigger investment in Rhode Island's 2018 race for governor.

7. Even in Rhode Island, it's not every day that a lawyer for a state lawmaker says the senator is going to resign amid a law enforcement probe (for somewhat murky reasons), and then walk back that assertion. Still, the thinking on Smith Hill is that Sen. Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry), who first won election at age 20 in 2010 -- may not serve out his current term. Meanwhile, Democrat Margaux Morisseau, who challenged Kettle in 2014 and 2016, said she and former Rep. Michael Marcello are both considering running for the Senate District 21 seat. "We are buddies and will work together on it," Morisseau said. "It depends on who has a better chance of winning. We need someone good in that seat! We have been underrepresented too long and disgraced too many times. Time for change!" (Kettle did not respond to a request for comment.)

8. Over in Pawtucket, the Senate seat vacated by Jamie Doyle is attracting a broad field. Democrats Sandra Cano, David Norton, Matthew Fecteau are in the hunt, along with Republicans Nathan Luciano and Richard Karsulavitch, and independent Pamela Braman. (Former state Democratic chairman Bill Lynch decided against running.) The primary is February 27.

9. Short Takes: Lawyer Jose Batista has decided against making a Democratic run for AG (meaning that Peter Neronha still has the field all to himself). In a statement, Batista said he believes he can best contribute at this time by continuing to develop his service-oriented legal practice in South Providence .... Rebecca Kislak, a Democrat running for the House seat being vacated by LG candidate Aaron Regunberg, reports that she's raised more than $26,000 since launching her campaign. “My campaign is responding to what the people in our district are looking for - a strong advocate who'll help make government work for all the residents in every neighborhood in the district,” Kislak said in a statement. “My experience makes me ready to fight to improve our schools, strengthen healthcare, ensure all Rhode Islanders have affordable and safe housing, and protect the rights of women to access reproductive healthcare and be free from sexual harassment.” .... Rose Jackson, who managed the late Joseph Fernandez's 2010 AG campaign, reports via FB that she's moving from DC to SF to become the CEO of a nascent start-up .... Barrington resident John Chung, a lawyer and RWU law school professor, has announced for the seat being vacated next year by Rep. Joy Hearn (D-Barrington). He calls himself a pragmatic progressive who supports increased gun control, "reproductive justice" and increased government transparency.

10. Now that Rhode Island didn't make Amazon's short list of potential destinations for its second headquarters, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor isn't foreclosing other benefits from the process. "We are in dialogue with them about a variety of possibilities," Pryor told me after this week's budget briefing. "Could there be an interface with the ultimate HQ2 location? To be determined, but keep in mind that Pinnacle [Logistics] recently made an announcement that they will be doing logistics work on behalf of Amazon, among other major clients, at two nodes in Rhode Island, the airport and Quonset. That's hundreds of jobs for Rhode Islanders. In addition, there are other such projects that are possible. So one of the very positive outcomes of this process with Amazon is that we are higher-profile within the company and it elevates our ability do future deals with them."

11. Providence lost one of its colorful characters when Philip "Sharkey" Almagno died earlier this month at age 90. Mike Stanton quoted Almagno in writing about the Irish-Italian split in city politics at the time of Buddy Cianci's initial 1974 race for mayor: "You stay on your side of the fence and I'll stay on mine .... You can't spite yourself, lose a pair of shoes, because you don't want to vote for the Irish. You gotta go with the Irish to get your shoes." In Politics and Pasta, Cianci also mentioned Almagno's role in his 1974 Republican campaign. As Cianci tells the tale, Almagno was frosted at Joe Doorley, so he listened to an overture from Cianci, even though Buddy was running as a Republican. Still, when Cianci asked for support, Almagno told him, "How can I do that? I'm a Democrat. I'd get killed." But Sharkey eventually agreed to arrange a meeting between Cianci and some other Democrats, helping to foster a Democrats for Cianci group.

12. From American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, a new survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation: "Long-term Gallup trend data document a decline in Americans’ trust in the news media, with 41% in 2017 saying they trust the media, down from 54% in 2003. Consistent with the relative lack of trust in the media, Americans’ overall opinion of the news media is more negative than positive — 43% say they have a 'very unfavorable' or 'somewhat unfavorable' opinion of the news media, while 33% have a 'very favorable' or 'somewhat favorable' opinion. Twenty-three percent are neutral."

13. Politicians constantly tinker with taxes, even while trying to avoid broad increases during election years. Gov. Raimondo is no exception. Her latest spending proposal hike the cigarette tax by a quarter (among some other tobacco/vaping changes) and expands the sales tax to include two items, including cloud-based services (but not streaming services). In Rhode Island, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee faced a backlash in 2010 when he proposed broadening and flattening the sales tax. And back in 1968, John Chafee lost the race for governor after telling Rhode Islanders that an income tax was necessary. Frank Licht won the election and promptly raised taxes. But raising taxes isn't always politically fatal. Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, who recently died at age 93, saw his approval rating sink to 17 percent after leading the charge on a tax increase. As The New York Times reported, "[I]n June 1974, he called on the Legislature to pass a $1 billion tax package that included a state income tax. He argued that the levies were necessary; the State Supreme Court, finding wide disparities between rich school districts and poor ones, had ruled that New Jersey could no longer rely on local property taxes to finance education." Byrne fought his way back and won a convincing re-election victory.

14. Good government short takes: 1) Common Cause of Rhode Island is staging a discussion on the legislative process, at the RISD Museum at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, January 20, featuring John Marion, Reps. Shelby Maldonado (D-Centrla Falls) and Mike Chippendale (R-Foster), Eugenia Marks and yours truly .... 2) House Minority Whip Blake Filippi of Block Island says his proposal requiring the five statewide general officers and state lawmakers to get at least 50 percent of the vote (or else face a runoff) will become law "once a Republican becomes governor with 40 percent" of the vote .... 4) Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) unveiled a proposal this week that would, among other things, reserve 100 free Statehouse parking spots for visiting citizens, and a new bus stop; establish a child-care center at the Statehouse for the public when committees are holding long meetings; reserve the first 10 speaking spots during committee meetings for citizens who are not lobbyists; and cap annual contributions by lobbyists to individual elected officials at $100, rather than $1,000.

15. House Minority Whip Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham) on what Republicans need to do to elect more lawmakers in Rhode Island. "We have to continue to promote our message that we're not the Donald Trump party, we're not southern Republicans. We're more of the John Chafee/libertarians. We don't really care about social issues. We care about economics. We want people to have jobs and keep government out of your bedroom, wallets and homes." Speaking on RIPR's Bonus Q&A, Filippi deferred when asked if he'd like to succeed Patricia Morgan as the GOP leader in the House (she'll be giving up her seat since she's running for governor); he said the leadership of the caucus will be up to its members.

16. "The History of Government Shutdowns in The U.S."

17. Business Insider has crowned the Apex Building in Pawtucket -- the envisioned site for a new PawSox ballpark -- as the ugliest structure in Rhode Island. Yet as Tim Lehnert revealed in a 2004 story for the Providence Phoenix, there's more to the Apex Building than meets the eye, including "how it was devised by Andrew Geller, a key associate of Raymond Loewy, the man considered the father of American industrial design .... In addition to his work for Apex, Geller was responsible for designing department stores on behalf of clients including Macy’s and Lord & Taylor (whose logo was taken from Geller’s scribbling of the retailer’s name on a design rendering). Jack Gorst, an unofficial Geller biographer, notes that his grandfather was one of the few Loewy designers allowed to freelance while in the employ of the master. The Apex store was one of these side projects."

18. From media critic Jack Shafer's column on one-time ProJo reporter A.G. Sulzberger's rise to lead The New York Times: "Short of encouraging A.G. to invent the next Facebook or load up on the digital currency of the week, what sort of advice can we honestly advance? Formerly, the paper had to satisfy two constituencies, readers and advertisers. But now that subscribers and not advertisers provide the most revenue for the Times, the paper’s primary customers are readers. It can better insulate itself from periodic economic downturns, which caused advertisers to flee newspapers. A.G. has obviously thought deeply about this, seeing as he steered the paper’s big “innovation“ report in 2014 that charted both industry trends and the paper’s organizational deficiencies. But diagnosis doesn’t always provide the cure."

19. A piece of legislation -- dubbed "the seaweed for everyone" bill -- caught my attention this week. So what's the back-story on this? Honorary Rhode Islander Liz Boardman offered a plausible theory -- an effort to create a level playing field for farmers who use the stuff as fertilizer.

20. News release: "CVS Pharmacy Makes Commitment to Create New Standards for Post-Production Alterations of Beauty Imagery" Huh, what?