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

Oct 16, 2015

Happy mid-October and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome via email, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go

1. If Lincoln Chafee wanted to bring attention to himself, he certainly succeeded this week. The problem for the former governor, of course, is how the attention turned out to be an acidic stew of negativity, incredulity and ridicule. Chafee's entry in the presidential race seemed quixotic from the start; many Rhode Islanders thought it was a delinquent April Fool's joke. Then, Bernie Sanders quickly took over the role to which Chafee aspired -- serving as a populist counterpoint to Hillary Clinton -- and the Vermont senator emerged as a phenomenal grassroots fundraiser. By the time when Chafee appeared Tuesday in a nationally televised Democratic debate on CNN, he outlined his core values ("a block of granite when it comes to the issues") and then contradicted that in responding to a question on the Glass-Steagall Act, going so far to ask Anderson Cooper for a do-over. (Chafee called it "a take-over.") The national and local media reaction was withering: "Who had the worst week in Washington? Lincoln Chafee" (Washington Post); "Chafee's awkwardness at debate leaves many questioning former Rhode Island governor's 2016 bid" (AP); "Wolf Blitzer asks Chafee when he will end 'futile' bid" (The Hill). Yet Chafee shows no sign of relenting, even with dismal poll ratings and very little in fundraising. "Gov. Chafee plans to continue in the race," spokeswoman Debbie Rich said by email Friday. "He has not considered getting out. The debate confirmed his belief that the establishment wants to stifle an anti-war voice. At the conclusion of the debate Sect'y Clinton named 'Iranians' as one of her enemies. Gov. Chafee believes this is more of the 'axis of evil' rhetoric that has so harmed our interests in the world. Gov. Chafee is even more motivated after the debate to speak and campaign for a fresh more peaceful approach to our foreign challenges."

2. Democratic First District Congressman David Cicilline believes nothing positive will come from the extended search by US House Republicans for a new speaker. "There is no upside. This is not good for the American people," Cicilline said during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "It's not good for our country. It will make it more difficult to get things done. It's empowering this group of 40 or 50 members of the so-called Freedom Caucus who drove John Boehner from office because of his effort to try to get things done and work with Democrats. I think it's going to bring even greater dysfunction .... The problem is, in order to get the votes of this Freedom Caucus, this new speaker will have to create a set of conditions that doom that speaker to failure. Because they're conditions which mean they'll shut down the government, they won't raise the debt ceiling, they won't pass the budget. So it's a challenging time in terms of that."   

3. Welcome and good luck to the ProJo's new executive editor, David J. Butler. One thing that jumped out in an initial Google search is how Butler was 65 when he announced plans to retire in August from his post as the top editor at Digital First Media in California. Yet Butler has not been shy when it comes to asking some of the hard questions that need to be asked about the future of newspapers, as this memo makes clear. Nor did he seem change-averse when he became editor of the San Jose Mercury News in 2008. “Would you like to have more [resources]?” Butler told Columbia Journalism Review. “Yes. But you play the cards you got. You can either be a wimp, and bitch and moan. Or you can go after the story.” (The CJR story -- "The Newspaper That Almost Seized the Future" -- offers a fascinating look at how ingrained habits blocked the Mercury News, and most newspapers by extension, from better adapting to the changes wrought by the Internet.) More than 40 years have passed since the ProJo last hired an outsider, Chuck Hauser, to become the paper's executive editor; Hauser wound up having a big impact on Fountain Street. Butler doesn't seem to be a stand-pat kind of guy, so his tenure on Fountain Street bears watching.

4. Rhode Island's unemployment rate dipped again in September, even as the state continued shedding jobs. Meanwhile, the ProJo's Kate Bramson took note this week of a worrisome trend: "While population has been stagnant, there is evidence that qualified individuals are leaving the state, which reduces the pool of qualified labor."

5. Governor Gina Raimondo has her work cut out just in trying to improve Rhode Island's under-performing economy (see preceding item). So it doesn't help when the state has to spend $112 million to get properly functioning highway drainage systems. (How many other needs could be addressed with that kind of money?) While the Carcieri and Chafee years overlapped the Great Recession, some observers see a big opportunity cost from past paralysis and the previously submerged dysfunction emerging at agencies like DOT and DCYF. So some might say it's not such a bad thing if Fortune has a serious crush on Raimondo (see here and here and here). Attracting out-of-town media attention is part of the strategy in the governor's office, after all, with the thinking that it could help attract new businesses to Rhode Island.

6. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello says the House Finance Committee may meet ahead of the new legislative session in January to begin vetting the looming toll/infrastructure issue. “We are carefully reviewing the economic impact study and other outstanding issues related to this proposal," Mattiello tells RIPR via a statement. "It is possible the House Finance Committee may begin to consider this issue as part of its pre-session work. No specific schedule has been established yet.” For those keeping score at home, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is out with a "pay as you go" infrastructure proposal. That follows a different pitch by GOP lawmakers, as well as Governor Raimondo's re-calibrated RhodeWorks initiative.

7. With state Senator Christopher Ottiano (R-Portsmouth) stepping down this week to take a new job, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has slated the special election to pick his successor for January 5. If necessary, a primary election will be held December 1. The declaration of candidacy period is October 22-23. The prospective candidates could include former rep. Amy Rice. Meanwhile, at least one constituent expressed disappointment about Ottiano's decision to step down, via this message, considering how his resignation was not legally required: "The irony here is that because Senator Ottiano is an ethical person, we lose a thoughtful and progressive legislator concerned about human service issues"

8. "Just 158 families have provided nearly half of the early money for efforts to capture the White House."

9. Congressman Cicilline, a former state rep, said he believes it's critical that Rhode Islanders get all the information they need to understand how 38 Studios happened, although he's unwilling to call for an independent outside investigation. "I think the attorney general takes his responsibility seriously and I don't have any reason to believe he won't conduct this review in a completely professional way," Cicilline said this week during RI Public Radio's Bonus Q+A. "I think it's a function of the attorney general, and it probably makes sense that he do it." On a related note, Cicilline was a close ally and friend of one of the central figures in 38 Studios, former House speaker Gordon Fox; Fox was onstage with Cicilline at Roger Williams Park when Cicilline won a watershed Providence mayoral primary in 2002, and the two remained close for years after that. Asked when he last spoke with Fox, Cicilline said, "Quite a long time ago, before his case was filed. I haven't talked to him since then. He was a friend of mine for a very long time, but obviously I expressed my shock and disappointment at what happened."

10. The Billy Mal 5K -- a road race to benefit ProJo reporter Bill Malinowski in his fight with ALS -- is on for 6 pm Wednesday, October 21, starting at the top of Blackstone Boulevard (at Hope Street). Details here, if you'd like to run or make a contribution.

11. We compiled Common Cause of Rhode Island's John Marion's tweets following a recent meeting of the Judicial Nominating Commission: "They voted to interview 31 people for 4 vacancies. A shift away from winnowing the list prior to the interview portion .... In June the Commission interviewed six people for a list that can contain three to five names. Not a great way to do it .... Hopefully we see more of this, where the decisions are made after the public gets to learn more about applicants, not just the JNC .... And the kicker in the story is that no longer can the governor pick off old lists. What the JNC sends her is what she needs to pick from .... It’s more important than ever that we have a good look at the pool of applicants for every vacancy. Give the best and brightest a shot."

12. Coming and Going: Christine Heenan, the Rhody native and longtime former local PR/government relations exec, is joining the US Creative Council of the global PR/communications outfit Burson-Marsteller .... Kevin Tente, a 2014 PC grad and former policy researcher in the general treasurer's office, is a new hire at David Preston's New Harbor Group.

13. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza this week outlined his plan to bring back into productive use more than 500 vacant or abandoned properties across the city. The concept was one of Elorza's main policy initiatives during his campaign last year. "EveryHome" relies on a combination of receivership, tax sale foreclosure, and federal funds. The mayor touts the approach as a double-win that will rehabilitate housing while boosting employment. Yet vacant and abandoned properties are a longstanding problem in cities like Providence, so the effectiveness of the program remains to be assessed. For now, Elorza remains embroiled in a high-stakes clash with the Providence firefighters' union, and the ProJo editorial board didn't exactly give him a vote of confidence on that front this week.

14. Mayor Elorza, an inveterate traveler, keeps punching his passport. He's among a group of US mayors headed to London this weekend for "CityLab 2015: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," an event sponsored by the Atlantic, the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies. No word on whether Hizzoner will visit the London Eye to suss out the worthiness of Ray Rickman's Providence Ferris wheel proposal.

15. Watch for a forthcoming look at General Treasurer Seth Magaziner in The Wall Street Journal.

16. On a related note, count former treasurer Nancy Mayer among those who think the state pension fund's expected 7.5 percent rate of return is unrealistic. "Fifteen years ago (my last year in office), I tried to get retirement board assumptions for the pension fund lowered to 7 1/2 %," Mayer said in an email to RIPR. "I was the only vote in favor. State and municipal employee unions did not want the public to know how much it would cost to truly fund pensions. It was only a matter of time until 'the rubber hit the road.' In a low growth environment our unfunded liability continues to grow, notwithstanding the enacted [2011] pension reform. Any realistic investment professional would say that 7 1/2% is still too high for a blended fund."

17. Two Takes on the Interwebz: 1) Berke Breathed, the creator of the wonderful Bloom County comic strip, gave up doing it because of his frustration with censorious newspaper editors. Now, as he explains in this interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Facebook has made it possible for him to have both creative control and a far-flung audience. 2) Although Congress gets about half as much snail mail as it did five years ago, it only takes about 30 constituents on social media to draw the attention of congressional staffers, reports Marketplace.

18. NPR's esteemed legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, is coming to Brown University on Tuesday, October 27 (6 pm), for a talk on "The Supreme Court -- a look back, and forward. The lecture is free; registration is required.

19. Why do Americans pay an average of $231 each year to rent their cable boxes -- adding up to a reported $19 billion+ for the cable industry -- when it would be much cheaper to buy them?

20. Think Providence is for the birds? Listen to this charming story by RIPR's Ambar Espinoza about Peter Green, aka Downcity Hawk, the must-follow chronicler of downtown raptors.

This post has been updated.