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

Apr 13, 2018

One need not suffer from triskaidekaphobia to question Rhode Island's budget outlook. But lawmakers are heading off on their spring break, and the weather shows some (brief) signs of improvement, so it will have to wait. Thanks, regardless, 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. We're still in an early phase of the legislative campaign season, but there are clear signs of what some consider a fight for the soul of Rhode Island's Democratic Party. Building on the efforts of progressive gains in previous cycles, women candidates inspired by the #MeToo movement and opposition to President Trump (like Justine Caldwell and Bridget Valverde) hope to storm Smith Hill. The battle between Democrats' establishment and progressive wings can be seen in Warwick, where Jennifer Rourke unveiled a challenge this week to Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey. (Rourke's three-page platform includes backing single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and "a 30-day waiting period with extensive background checks for the purchase of certain types of weaponry.") Meanwhile, Mark McKenney's primary challenge to Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick) reflects how progressives will also need to play defense in some cases this election year. Yet progs' aspirations for a robust offense can be seen in the subject line -- "Let's mold the Democratic Party" -- on the email invitation for the RI Progressive Democrats' April 30 fundraiser at Riffraff Bookstore and Bar in Providence. At the other end of the political spectrum, conservative groups like The Gaspee Project are sending mailers criticizing liberal lawmakers such as Aaron Regunberg, with the hashtag, "Progressives Are Not Real Democrats." Yet the revised platform taken up by RI Democrats in 2016 includes a clear stance in support of a woman's right to an abortion -- a position at odds with the personal views of more than a few General Assembly Democrats. So is "conservative Democrat" a more accurate modifier than "progressive Democrat" when parsing the classification of Rhode Island lawmakers?

2. Newport may become home to a quantum computing center -- part of what is described as an international competition for "quantum supremacy."

3. Rhode Island's 2018 race for governor is heating up -- slowly, but surely. Republican Giovanni Feroce this week delivered his first in-depth presentation, vowing to cut taxes and embrace blockchain technology, while also downplaying his much-publicized financial setbacks. Not wanting to cede the stage, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung offered his own GOP proposal the next day for slashing fees and taxes. Fellow GOP candidate Patricia Morgan responded by criticizing Fung and his lack of interaction with reporters. Meanwhile, there was another blend of mixed news for Gov. Gina Raimondo. The Democratic governor hailed Amgen's plan to open its first "next-generation biotechnology plant" in Rhode Island, and a ProJo editorial said she "deserves credit for changing the national conversation about Rhode Island, and working hard on a plan to bring back middle-class jobs." Yet the latest Morning Consult survey reaffirmed Raimondo's low ranking among US governors, and the drip-drop of unflattering UHIP news continues.

4. ''Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that man behind the tree.'' That aphorism from the late Louisiana Senator Russell B. Long is an apt reflection of how Americans don't like paying taxes (even if they like tax-funded government services). And vows to slash taxes are a hardy perennial in campaign years, so it's no surprise that we've seen this kind of proposal from Allan Fung and Giovanni Feroce. The rub, of course, is how to pay for tax cuts -- and whether this is pie in the sky or something with even a slim possibility of happening. The months ahead will offer plenty of time for debating tax cuts, reducing government spending and the like. But for now, there are reasons to probe deeper on Fung's "Low Fee Guarantee." In a news release, Fung vowed, "In the first six months we are going to comb through every single occupational licensing, permitting, and business incorporation fee we charge, and make them the lowest in New England! And in order to make it easier for startups, we will waive all fees for their first year in business." But Fung told WPRO's Matt Allen this week that he doesn't know the cost of his pledge to reduce fees to the lowest rate in New England, and would not know that figure until months after his administration takes office.

5. There are about 20 seats left for the "Ask A Reporter" panel discussion taking place at the RI Foundation, from 6-7:30 pm, on Monday, April 16, with Ethan Shorey, Michelle Smith, Will Richmond, Dan McGowan and myself. RSVP if you'd like to attend.

6. With the US and Russia on a possible collision course over Syria, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, is joining fellow Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Bob Menendez of New Jersey in calling on President Trump to articulate a legal basis for military action: “The use of U.S. military capabilities to conduct offensive action against another nation is a momentous decision that poses serious risks to the lives of U.S. military personnel involved and the possibility of escalation into a broader conflict,” the senators wrote.  “This issue is of critical importance and the American people should be fully informed about your rationale for deploying American military power and the objectives of any U.S. military action in Syria.  As previous Commanders-in-Chief have done in similar situations, we believe you should present a clear public articulation of these matters to the American people at the earliest appropriate time. Additionally, given your public statements and those of other members of the administration related to potential military action in Syria, we ask that you promptly provide the legal basis for any potential or anticipated military action in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in Douma on April 7th.  As part of your response, we also ask that you fully explain any limiting principles on the use of the U.S. military to conduct military action absent a specific authorization for the use of military force by the Congress.”

7. The revival of Mary McElroy's federal judicial nomination could set the stage for the end of a logjam on federal appointments in RI, including U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal.

8. Here are some more details on Jennifer Rourke, the Democrat staging a primary challenge to Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey: A 36-year-old homemaker, Rourke grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and later moved to Warwick with her husband. In a brief bio, she said, "We are at a turning point in politics in this country. Politics as usual, including the 'Good Ol’ Boys Club,' has not worked for the average family like myself and many of my neighbors in District 29. In 2018, it is long overdue that women make up at least half of the legislative seats in the government. In order to move forward, we need to change not just the narrative but those writing the script." McCaffrey, a lawyer, has served in the Senate since first winning election in 1994 and he rose to the post of majority leader as part of a leadership change last year. He recently burnished his profile with progressives by signing on as the lead Senate sponsor of the effort by Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls) to aid DACA recipients in RI. In 2012, he faced a primary challenge from Laura Pisaturo, a gay woman, that foreshadowed the legalization the next year of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.

9. Speaking of Rep. Maldonado, she represents the flip side of the immigration issue from someone like independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo, who believes that too many people are illegally entering the U.S. “I don’t think we need to feel angry or disappointed that individuals want to come to America – which is a great country," she said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. "These individuals are seeking to better their opportunities, of which we should try to attempt to grant them the ability to strengthen their work skills so that they can be put to work and contribute to the economy.” Maldonado's DACA bill cleared the House this week and is expected to have smooth sailing in the Senate. While it would not protect Dreamers from possible deportation, “The legislation would allow present and former DACA recipients to renew their driver license," Maldonado said. "And if unable to drive for medical reasons or just not able to pass the driving test they could apply for Rhode Island state ID.”

10. The campaign of Mayor Fung -- who still needs to win a GOP primary in September -- indicates the Republican Governors Association has reserved $1.5 million to spend on the fall campaign. "With the governor’s disapproval now climbing to 50 percent, it is obvious that Rhode Islanders are soundly rejecting this administration’s continued managerial incompetence," Fung campaign spokesman Andrew Augustus said in a statement. "They are starving for the type of results driven leadership we’ve had in Cranston, and what a Fung administration will bring statewide. It's clear to everyone that Governor Raimondo is in trouble." .... Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association had its own message: "Note to Mayor Fung: #GinaDidThat," the DGA said, pointing to Raimondo's support for the car tax cut, reductions in small business regulations, and the creation of a business navigation center. “Alan Fung got caught copying Gina Raimondo’s homework,” DGA Communications Director Jared Leopold said in a statement. “Governor Raimondo’s focus on growing Rhode Island’s economy has paid off for the businesses and workers of the state, so it’s no wonder that Mayor Fung wants to copy her work."

11. Supporters and opponents of abortion rights turned out to the Statehouse this week to make their voices heard on a series of related bills. Given the sharp splits in views, it remains very uncertain if any of these measures will make it to a floor vote this year.

12. "No one wants to risk the lifeline of a paycheck for what may be futile protest," notes Ken Doctor, even as the editorial page editor of the Denver Post led an "extraordinary display of defiance," urging the newspaper's owner to sell it to someone more committed to journalism. Doctor's conclusion is that the Post insurrection should launch a new era of "calling B.S." That's a pertinent theme, with heightened attention on Sinclair Broadcast Group and its must-run content. Then again, it can be very tough to speak out when one's livelihood is on the line.

13. Some observations from Scott MacKay about political candidates promising tax cuts: "If you believe that state taxes can be slashed without pain to average citizens then you believe that a Rhode Island Red rooster can be taught to play the cello. About 70 percent of state spending is in two major areas – education aid to cities and towns and state social and medical programs, notably Medicaid. Any candidate who claims he or she can substantially reduce taxes without touching any of those initiatives isn’t telling voters the truth. The usual dodge for tax-cutting candidates is to say they plan to get tough on waste, fraud and abuse, as if that’s as easy as holding a news conference and voicing platitudes to a bank of cameras. Or they say they can’t talk about specific programs until they get into office and study the budget. Guess what: There is plenty of time to study Raimondo’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July. The House Finance Committee holds budget hearings almost every day. You, the voter, might ask tax-cutting candidates why they don’t have time to give the proposed budget scrutiny and come up with some suggestions to save money. Don’t let them say they don’t have time; candidates always seem to find the time to raise campaign money and attend endless meet-and-greets."

14. The profile of U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III remains on the rise, as the Boston Globe reports: "Even as he repeatedly denies any interest in running for president in 2020, US Representative Joe Kennedy III will head to New Hampshire, a state that kicks off the presidential primary season, to deliver a keynote speech at a major Democratic Party dinner this fall." Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy is taking part in an April 20 (get it -- 4/20?) press event staged by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-marijuana group, in Washington, D.C.

15. Rep. Maldonado, chairwoman of a special legislative commission studying the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, said the commission hopes to produce a report in the coming months. As is stands, she said, only five of Rhode Island's 39 cities and towns have met recommendations for affordable housing. In related news, Providence ranks high for the proportion of residents evicted each day.

16. Via Phil Eil: "5 ways journalists can regain trust from readers"

17. CharterCare wants to buy Memorial Hospital and reopen the ER -- a concept strongly supported by elected officials in Pawtucket and Central Falls. But UNAP’s called CharterCare’s plan “farcical” and “short on details.” And Care New England called the proposal unfeasible.

18. GOP candidate Giovanni Feroce's emphasis this week on blockchain -- a digital ledger used to record transactions -- seemed fitting given the somewhat unconventional quality of his campaign. The former Alex + Ani exec said blockchain could be used to bring more efficiency to government, and that Rhode Island would benefit from being an early adopter. Estonia has gone in big on blockchain, and there's a considerable buzz about the technology. Still, there are a lot of questions about how this would work, particularly in a state with some less than successful tech rollouts.

19. Did fake news on Facebook help elect President Trump?

20. The Red Sox and Yankees -- a rivalry reborn.