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

Mar 9, 2018

This week offered further proof that Rhode Island politics is the gift that keeps giving, right? 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. Two surprises have punctuated Rhode Island's 2018 gubernatorial race so far -- Joe Trillo's decision to run as an independent rather than a Republican, and now, Matt Brown's plan to run as an independent after a long absence from the state's Democratic politics. Brown's emergence is a bookend to Trillo's move, since each candidate threatens to siphon votes from a different side of the political spectrum, potentially having an outsized influence on the final vote in November. That's even more so due to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo's soft numbers in a WPRI-TV poll out this week. Raimondo's 37 percent approval rating reflect how she hasn't connected with Rhode Islanders after more than three years in office. The poll shows Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, in a competitive position, and suggests that rival Republican Patricia Morgan, since she's widely unknown, has room to grow in the GOP primary. There is a host of other candidates -- ranging from Republican Giovanni Feroce and independent Luis-Daniel Munoz to a Moderate to be named later, and Democratic outsiders Spencer Dickinson and Paul Roselli. (Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who remains on the sidelines, tells me he plans to make a decision by late May, and reiterated that he plans to run as a Democrat if he pursues a campaign.) Seen one way, this proliferation of candidates offers Rhode Islanders a variety of choices on the future leadership of the state. Then again, the wide-open field virtually guarantees that the state's next governor will again be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote (as happened in 2010 and 2014). The question now is whether the shrinking slice of pie needed to win the race leads other candidates to join the fray.

2. While it would be nice to think that the array of gubernatorial candidates will make for a spirited gubernatorial debate, the 2018 campaign will likely be, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. For now, there's a lot of waiting going on. With just six months until the September primary, Gov. Raimondo has yet to announce her re-election campaign -- in part because she doesn't want to be outflanked on the left by Lincoln Chafee. Mayor Fung's campaign has declined interview requests for months from outlets like Rhode Island Public Radio, because he 1) wants to be the GOP nominee without acknowledging there's a primary; 2) doesn't want to be outflanked on the right by Patricia Morgan; and 3) seemingly wants to avoid addressing how he'd solve some of the issues for which he criticizes the incumbent. Raimondo is sitting on a campaign fund of more than $3.3 million, and the Republican Governors Association is keeping a close eye on the Rhode Island race. Most voters won't tune in until far later in the year. By then, negative commercials will be in constant rotation on TV, and the 2018 race will feature heightened efforts to persuade voters via Facebook and other online sources. 

3. Management at WPRI-TV deserves a tip of the cap for its singular and ongoing commitment to commissioning polls by respected pollster Joseph Fleming, and for releasing the full product, questions and all. A few highlights from the latest poll, conducted this time around in cooperation with Roger Williams University: 1) Just 40 percent of respondents think Rhode Island is moving in the right direction, but that's a big improvement from 11.5 percent in 2010. Interestingly, independent voters favor wrong track over right track by a 2-to-1 margin, while 60 percent of Democrats said the state is on the right track. For messaging purposes, that suggests Democrats can be reached with a "let's continue the momentum" message, while independents, especially men, want to hear about how "Rhode Island is still broken and we need to fix it"; 2) Fung has a 12-point lead among independent voters (the biggest slice of the electorate) in a hypothetical matchup with Raimondo. Meanwhile, Fleming used bold print to highlight this message: "It should be noted that one out of five independent voters are not sure on who they would support"; 3) 69 percent of respondents were not familiar enough with Morgan, and 67 percent with Joe Trillo, to say if they would support them; 4) Raimondo is viewed favorably by 50 percent of respondents, 13 points better than her job approval rating. Her 26.7 percent "very unfavorable" rating is 11 points higher than her very favorable number.

4. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is likely digesting with interest U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's numbers in the WPRI poll. His positive ranking (46.1 percent) was slightly below his negative ranking (48.4 percent), and 58 percent of independents view the two-term Democrat negatively. For now, Republicans Robert Flanders and Robert "Bobby" Nardolillo are competing in the GOP primary. While defeating incumbents is usually a challenge, some of the deep-pocketed interests who dislike Whitehouse and his politics may welcome the chance to give him a serious challenge -- and send a message to other Democratic senators with an outspoken partisan profile.

5. Matt Brown says he began thinking about running for governor a few weeks ago and he explains his thought-process this way: "I have felt for a while that we have big problems -- economic, environmental, social -- that go deep and that run back for decades. And I have some bold big ideas for how to solve those problems and so I want to put these forward to Rhode Islanders and begin talking to them." By messaging about solutions and eschewing political labels, he's courting the big slice of independent voters in the state and others dissatisfied with the status quo. Brown, 48, said he will utilize the state's matching fund program for raising money, adding, "My goal is to raise the money we need to raise, get the public match, and then spend all the time I possibly can out around the state talking to people in person." Brown appeared headed for a bright political future when he defeated Secretary of State Edward Inman, the establishment choice, in a 2002 Democratic primary. But he faded from view and moved to DC after a campaign finance issue snarled his 2006 U.S. Senate run (when Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, running against the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, went on to oust then-Republican Lincoln Chafee.) Brown has been back in Rhode Island for five years, and he's kept a low profile on local politics during that time, so there's an opportunistic element to his emergence this week. But Brown, who can tout a lifelong commitment to civic causes, senses an opportunity worth pursuing.

6. President Trump showed impressive strength in some traditionally Democratic strongholds, like Johnston, in 2016. But the WPRI poll indicates just a 29.6 percent approval rating for Trump in Rhode Island, while an overwhelming 81 percent of women give him a negative job rating. Seventy-five percent of respondents under 40 disapprove of Trump's job performance.

7. State Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), who is running a primary challenge to Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, has emerged as public enemy no. 1 for some critics on the conservative side of Rhode Island's political spectrum. In a recent email, for example, Clay Johnson, chairman of The Gaspee Project, accused Regunberg of being out of step with mainstream values: "I know Democrats. There are many Democrats that I respect. And prince Regunberg is no Democrat. The Democrats that I know respect the law, revere the US Constitution, and show steadfast support for private property. They respect American values." But Regunberg rejects the view that he's trying to impose unreasonable government mandates on citizens. "Paid sick time, for example, that’s not my idea," Regunberg said on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. "That’s coming from talking to constituents who are saying it’s not fair or healthy that I have to make these choices between sending my kid to school sick and my job or my paycheck. You know, universal healthcare. That’s not my idea. That’s been something the Democratic Party has been fighting for for over 100 years. Climate action -- that's not coming from me, that's the scientists that say that we need to step up if we're going to have a hope of protecting our bay, protecting our coastal communities. So for me this is about our core Democratic values. Are we standing up for the little guy, are we standing up for working people? Are we going to do the right thing when it comes to protecting our kids from gun violence?" 

8. Given concerns about how Rhode Islanders elected governors in 2010 and 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote, an eclectic mix of lawmakers -- ranging from Republican House Whip Blake Filippi to progressive Democrats like Regunberg -- would like to see the state adopt a form of instant runoff voting. (Ex-Rep David Segal is the OG of IRV.) But even though Maine voters approved runoff voting in 2016, incumbents have been fighting the effort. As Vox reports, Mainers will once again have their say in June: "In the initial campaign, Maine residents responded to the straightforward 'more choices, more voices' appeal of ranked-choice voting. While ranked-choice voting stands strongly on its merits (more shortly), the fact that Maine’s elected leaders have defied the will of the public adds an extra dimension to the issue. This is now the reform that politicians tried to stop. Like trying to ban a book, it only gives it more appeal .... The most obvious benefit of ranked-choice voting is that voters can choose the candidate they most want to elect without having to worry so much about the 'spoiler effect.' Were Maine to move to a ranked-choice voting system, independents and third-party candidates could run without being spoilers, giving voters more choices and making for a more vibrant political debate."

9, Wired gives Rhode Island a shout-out on the cause of net neutrality.

10. More than 2,000 people, by some estimates, filed into the Statehouse Tuesday to share their views about guns. Gun rights supporters significantly outnumbered those who favor more restrictions. Some called it the biggest turnout of public input they'd seen at the Statehouse, and the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up its business at about 2:20 a.m. Wednesday. (Yet almost 60 percent of Rhode Islanders favor making it illegal to sell or possess weapons like the AR-15, according to the WPRI poll.) The General Assembly is expected to pass a modified version of the 'red flag' bill, along with a ban on bump stocks and perhaps heightened age restrictions. More extensive moves -- like outlawing semiautomatic rifles -- seem unlikely. For now, though, no one can predict the longer-term impact of the movement sparked by the shooting in Parkland, Florida -- which plans a brief walkout from schools on March 14 -- and the extent to which it will wield an influence through the November elections.

11. There are six months until Rhode Island's September 12 primary, so watch for things to heat up in the primary between Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and challenger Aaron Regunberg. It won't be a surprise if McKee focuses attention on Regunberg's youthful age (28) and how'd he be a scant distance from the governor's office if elected. Asked how he would respond to such concerns, Regunberg said: "I challenge you to find anyone who doesn't think we need some new ideas and new energy in the Statehouse. I've experienced firsthand how lobbyists for the most wealthy and well-connected -- the Wal-Marts, the payday lenders, the NRA -- they're always up there, while folks who can't afford a corporate lobbyist sometimes get ignored." Speaking on RIPR's Political Roundtable this week, Regunberg added, "I think we need a statewide elected official whose focus is really on that work of leveling the playing field, being a voice for people who can't afford a well-connected Statehouse lobbyist." ... Meanwhile, Regunberg has hired pollster Dan Cohen for his campaign.

12. Via Reporter Today: Chrissy Rossi, a former City Councilor and School Committee member. has joined the East Providence mayoral campaign, while Nicholas Oliver has suspended his run. Two other candidates are running: ex-Rep Roberto DaSilva and James Russo.

13. Edward Siedle laments how other state attorneys general have not emulated Eliot Spitzer's example in taking on Wall Street: "Remarkably, despite the clear road map Spitzer left to national prominence, not 1 in 50 state Attorneys General over the past 12 years has elected to go the extra mile to protect citizens of his or her state as vigorously as Spitzer did. That’s pathetic," Siedle writes in Forbes. ".... Now, if I were considering running for Attorney General of a state (which I am) I'd aim to achieve previously unimagined levels of protection of citizens of that state, as I held my family close to me. A state Attorney General so motivated could literally change the world."

14. Meet the guy who inspired RI's much-publicized porn-fee bill. Via a 2017 story in The Daily Beast: "Chris Sevier, 40, who sometimes goes by Mark Sevier in court and Chris Severe in communications with state legislators, has a contentious and often intentionally provocative relationship with the American court system that is news to at least some of the bill’s co-sponsors. He once famously tried to legally marry his computer to protest same-sex marriage, and was charged with stalking and harassing both country star John Rich and a 17-year-old girl. Sevier has helped push and draft the bill in 13 states and says he’s trying to introduce it at the federal level during meetings in Washington, D.C., next week. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he readily acknowledged each case in his personal history, and sometimes jokingly referred to himself as 'the mentally ill stalker who wants to marry his computer,' in reference to the national news coverage his exploits often invite."

15. Another week, and there's no more clarity on the PawSox issue, even after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello met with a delegation of members of the team's ownership. For now, two opposing views continue to smash into each other. Supporters of the deal tout it as favorable by terms of minor league baseball. Skeptics point to too much potential exposure for taxpayers. Meanwhile, time keeps moving on, and there's still no public financial offer from Worcester or anywhere else.

16. An excerpt from Scott MacKay's take on the WPRI poll: "Fung’s tightrope is the usual GOP front-runner stance. He’s trying not to swerve too far right in a September primary dominated by conservatives that he can’t move to the center for the November final. Such calculations have forever dominated electoral politics. As far back as 1960, Richard Nixon summed it up: 'The far right kooks are just like the nuts on the left,' said Nixon. 'They’re door-bell ringers and balloon blowers and they turn out to vote.' "

17. Former U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider is among 200 current and past elected officials joining the ReFormers Caucus -- "a bipartisan effort to fix our broken political system."

18. Sinclair, which owns WJAR-TV, Channel 10, is under fire for "a promotional campaign that sounds like pro-Trump propaganda," according to CNN's Brian Stelter. "Internal documents call the new initiative an 'anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message.' But the staffers who shared the documents with CNN say the promos are inappropriate -- yet another corporate infringement on local journalism. 'At my station, everyone was uncomfortable doing it,' a local anchor said. The person insisted on anonymity because they believed they would be fired for speaking out. Other local anchors also said the promos were a source of dismay in their newsrooms. As scripted, the promos decry 'fake stories' from national news outlets -- echoing President Trump's inflammatory rhetoric about 'fake news.' The promos are supposed to start airing on local stations later this month. The instructions sent to station news directors say that the 60- and 75-second spots should run frequently 'to create maximum reach and frequency.' "

19. Interactive presentation via The New York Times on the overlooked obituaries of 15 women.

20. The Providence speeding ticket story has it all: cars, speeding tickets, technology, a cash-starved city, Republicans who saw it all coming, and Democrats who say it's about protecting the children -- Full Rhode Island.