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

May 18, 2018

Campaign season continues to heat up, with the end-of-June filing deadline drawing ever closer. So 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. "Once you go down the casino path, there is no turning back," former Gov. Lincoln Almond warned prophetically ahead of a 1994 vote on a proposed Narragansett Indian casino in West Warwick. The amount of state-sanctioned gambling in Rhode Island has only grown since then (even if the Narragansetts were steadily stymied), to the point where it has long been the state's third-largest revenue source. Now, with a decision released Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court has paved the way for RI and other states to cash in on sports betting. as NPR reports, "The American Gaming Association estimates that illegal sports betting has grown to $150-billion-a-year market. Expectations are that legal sports betting could significantly outstrip that number." Gov. Gina Raimondo already included $23.5 million in anticipated sports betting revenue in her budget proposal -- a number that Senate President Dominick Ruggerio considers on the conservative end of potential revenue. Ruggerio -- a leading legislative supporter of sports betting -- opposes giving a cut of the revenue to professional sports leagues (at least for now), although he'd like to see the betting offered online. “I think that’s very important," Ruggerio said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "I think all the other states are going to be offering that, because that’s the trend nowadays.” The Senate president said it remains unclear if voter approval is necessary to offer online sports betting (DraftKings says "no"), and he favors seeking an advisory opinion on that question from the RI Supreme Court. Allowing people to use a credit card to gamble online would mark something of a culture shift in the US -- many states prohibit buying lottery tickets with a credit card -- even if things have been steadily moving in that direction. Politicians like gaming since it's a way of gaining more revenue without raising taxes. Yet will a big national expansion of betting bring unanticipated consequences?

2. A poll commissioned by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse shows him with a staggering 58-point lead over potential Democratic rival Lincoln Chafee. Whitehouse's campaign wouldn't release the full poll, so the findings should be viewed with a certain context. Then again, (1) Chafee -- who is awaiting his own polling results, to inform a decision on whether to challenge Whitehouse -- didn't dispute the findings; (2) He left office as governor in 2015 with a less-than-sterling approval rating; (3) Pollster John Anzalone is no stranger to RI; And (4) no less an authority than Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native who tracks U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races at the Cook Political Report, pointed to the key finding as "a stunning deficit for a former statewide elected official."

3. Heading into this week a big question on the Democratic side of the gubernatorial primary involved Matt Brown and what level of intensity he would bring in unleashing criticism against Gov. Raimondo. Brown offered an answer through his comments during a campaign event Tuesday at the Southside Cultural Center in Providence: "The current governor has defined the job of governor as selling the state to businesses to get them to come here. That is not how I define the job of governor. I define the job of governor as looking out for the people of this state. All of the people of this state.” Brown was more cutting in responding to Raimondo on Twitter, after the governor's Twitter questioned where Brown had been for the last decade: "Where was I? Fighting to make the world safer for our children. Where were you? Gutting seniors' pensions, slashing Medicaid, collecting any and every Wall Street donation, bungling UHIP and hurting thousands." While Raimondo's has certain advantages in the primary, any number of other factors could influence the race and the turnout, including the progressive push to gain General Assembly seats, a backlash against President Trump, and the primary fight between Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and challenger Aaron Regunberg.

4. Gov. Raimondo offered a campaign briefing Friday morning, at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, for more than 100 Rhode Islanders who are in leaders in various fields, including business and labor. According to a 10-slide PowerPoint obtained by RIPR, Raimondo pointed to how Rhode Island was marked by high unemployment four years ago, had among the worst roads and bridges in America, a freeze on school construction, and was considered the 36th worst economy in the U.S. Now, Raimondo told her audience, the state has more people working at any time in the last 10 years, it's considered one of the 10 best economies in the U.S., it's number one in the nation for rising wages, thousands of Rhode Islanders are at work fixing roads and bridges, and more than 1,500 students are going to CCRI tuition-free. The governor, apparently referring to a polling memo released by her campaign earlier this week, said that 70 percent of liberals/progressives support her leadership, and that 80 percent of liberals/progressives (and 62 percent of Rhode Islanders) think she's working hard to improve the economy and create jobs. "When presented with the contrast of Gov. Raimondo’s approachto economic development vs. other candidates," according to the presentation, "voters have more confidence in Governor Raimondo to improve Rhode Island’s economy and create jobs by a margin of nearly 30% (58% to 31%)." Finally, the PowerPoint highlighted a series of positive press clips about jobs and the RI economy, concluding with Raimondo's current motto, "Let's Keep Going."

5. The GOP side of the U.S. Senate primary isn't getting much attention -- and Robert G. Flanders Jr. might want to keep it that way, judging by how he's using a presumptive candidate strategy. Flanders has focused almost exclusively on the opioid issue in attacking Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. But state Rep. Robert "Bobby" Nardolillo (R-Coventry) is working aggressively on his outreach to voters, and his profile aligns more closely with Trump supporters in Rhode Island, indicating that this primary could be a tight race. 

6. Is New York developer Jason Fane's proposed highrise a blight on the Providence landscape or a sign of a city moving forward? Opponents were pleased when the City Plan Commission voted this week against supporting the concept. But Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remains hopeful that the Providence City Council will back the envisioned tower. "If we're going to attract business to this state, if we're going to attract the Johnson & Johnsons and all those upscale type companies to this state, I think we have to have a place for these people to live," Ruggerio said on Political Roundtable. ".... A tower such as Fane's would probably accomodate a lot of those people that are looking to locate and stay in Rhode Island, the people that might be working at Wexford and all the other developments we have going in the city." (The project also requires legislative approval, posing a potentially controversial end-of-session issue.) On the other side of the issue, architectural critic David Brussat called for opponents to make their voices heard to the City Council, and he also took issue with a ProJo editorial lambasting the opponents: "There is nobody among the public who, as the Journal feigns to imagine, does not want a robust economic future. The comprehensive plan places gradually rising height limits between the riverside park in the I-195 district and the string of parcels along I-95. Such urbanistic gradualism would create a more people-friendly district. Nobody opposes the Fane tower’s height in and of itself, but only because its height in the front rank next to the park turns the tables on the public’s vision of the district’s future. The Fane tower would also make it harder for the state to develop the parcels behind it."

7. Predicting whether the House of Representatives will approve a PawSox stadium deal this session remains a fool's gambit. While talks continue amid some incremental progress, the outlook for an agreement continues to rise and fall on practically a daily basis, according to Statehouse sources. It doesn't help, of course, that the potential end of session is expected around June 22 -- almost a week before the final candidate filing deadline on June 27. (Although Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has rejected the idea that his state rep rival from 2016, Republican Steven Frias, is influencing the process, Frias has made no secret of his concerns about the PawSox stadium deal. Frias remains publicly undecided on his political plans for 2018; he unveiled his last campaign in June 2016.)

8. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the supply-siders say, so will a $32 million surplus help legislative leaders to avoid the kind of end-of-session snarl that flared last June, leaving the state without a new budget for months? Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a supporter of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza's proposal to monetize the city's water supply, said he doesn't expect that to be a stumbling block. "I don't see that as the case only because we really have to look at this particular issue," Ruggerio said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. There's a question -- who owns the water supply board? Does the City of Providence own the water supply board or is it the ratepayers, so we're going to look into that issue." As far as Gov. Raimondo's appointment of his son, Charles, to the Narragansett Bay Commission, Ruggerio said Raimondo approached him more than a year ago after meeting Charles and expressed interest in appointing him to a board. "First of all this board does not pay anything, so there's no monetary remuneration involved," Ruggerio said. "Secondly, should my son be precluded from public service because I am a senator or the Senate president? I mean, I don't see that as the case. I try to involve my children to get involved in community aspects."

9. Kudos to the ProJo's ace court reporter Katie Mulvaney for reporting on Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel's effort to restrict media access to jurors in a Pawtucket murder case. Kudos also to the Journal for standing up for the public's right to know in the case. (Vogel, in a statement this week, maintained she was not attempting to infringe on the press.)

10. Warning of a threat from progressive candidates, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is suggesting conservatives disaffiliate ahead of an upcoming deadline: "The greatest threat facing our state is more progressive lawmakers elected this  fall who will advance more anti-family and anti-business progressive policies," RICFP CEO Mike Stenhouse wrote in an email blast. "RI is one election away from far-left progressives gaining control  of the General Assembly and a more firm hold in the executive branch. By joining thousands of voters from other conservative organizations who are likewise being asked to consider voting in September primary races that include progressive candidates, you can help put Rhode Island on a better path. But you must take action to ensure you are registered as 'Unaffiliated' by June 12. If you are currently registered with a party affiliation, by dis-affiliating you might be able to cast two votes in progressive races this fall! While our Center cannot advise you 'who' to vote for, we can advise you how to increase your voting options.While you may usually vote in your preferred party primary, please consider giving yourself the option to vote in either primary this year. But you must officially disaffiliate by June 12. Here's why. The best-chance to defeat a progressive candidate may be in the low-turnout House and Senate district, statewide, and federal primaries, where just a few votes can swing the election. But until the late June filing deadline, we won't know which races will involve a progressive candidate. By then, the June 12 disaffiliation deadline will have passed. That's why it's important to disaffiliate today!

11. General Assembly: Republicans are backing a challenge by Mike Underwood to state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Warwick) .... Back in 2016, state Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassel staged an upset of House Majority Leader John DeSimone. This time around, Ranglin-Vassell (D-Providence) is being challenged in the primary by Holly Taylor Coolman, a professor of theology at Providence College (h/t Dan McGowan).

12. Almost 30 elected and public safety officials from the Blackstone Valley have signed a letter urging two top execs at Care New England, President/CEO Dr. James Fanale and Board Chairman Charles Reppucci, to support CharterCARE's offer to buy Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. "We are asking that this issue move along expeditiously," reads the letter sent by Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, with signatures from Mayor James Diossa, state senators, state reps, city councilors, and public safety officials representing Pawtucket, Central Falls and Cumberland. "We are well aware that Saint Joseph's Hospital sat on the market for over 5 years until it was purchased for $100,000. If the offer submitted to Care New England by CharterCARE is analogous to the eventual purchase price of St. Joseph's -- we would ask you to give it serious consideration."

13. With all the cuts at the Denver Post, is it the death knell of local news or just a reflection of the unsparing nature of capitalism? Writing in the Atlantic, John Wenzel points to a particularly brutal managment style: "Cuts at newspapers are common these days. The owner and publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune, a former Digital First property, this week announced that it is laying off staff and considering shrinking its print edition, to address a 40 percent decline in ad revenue. But Alden’s cuts are happening at twice the industry rate. Furthermore, leaked financial information last week confirmed what had been rumored of the privately held company for years: Digital First Media reported a 17 percent operating margin, the highest in the industry, in its 2017 fiscal year. Its profit totaled nearly $160 million, $28 million of which came from The Denver Post. As the Nieman Lab analyst Ken Doctor wrote, 'Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.' " Meanwhile, media critic Jack Shafer looks at the same scenario through a different prism: "[Owner Randall] Smith may be a rapacious fellow, but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing more deeply or selling."

14. How will Matt Brown's proposal to raise taxes on affluent Rhode Islanders, back to a top rate of 9.9 percent, fare if he were to win election as governor? "I think that would be reversing some of the things we've done in the past," Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said on Bonus Q&A. "I don't want to go backwards. I think we should go forward. I think good things are happening in the state of Rhode Island. I think outsiders are starting to recognize some of the good things that are happening here as far as us cutting taxes."

15. While some of the recent Census coverage has focused on the possibility of Rhode Island losing a congressional seat, two RI mayors have been all over the national news in recent weeks regarding other aspects of the Census. On Thursday, Providene Mayor Jorge Elorza appeared in an HBO Vice News story on the Census Bureau's "test run" of the census in Providence County. This followed other coverage by NPR, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Intercept and a ProJo op-ed by the mayors. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa joined Elorza in suing the Census Bureau in a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York regarding the federal government's attempt to add the citizenship question. The lawsuit alleges that the Constitution requires the government to count every person -- not every citizen -- and that the question will drive down responses in immigrant communities, creating an undercount and depriving cities of political representation and money for education, health care and housing. (An undercount in Rhode Island would also almost guarantee that the state loses one of its two congressional seats. Central Falls became the only municipality in Rhode Island to update its residential address records for the 2020 Census through a canvassing program funded by the Rhode Island Foundation. Finally, Central Falls has partnered with Common Cause of RI on a cheeky idea: a one-mile "Test Run" on June 2 to raise awareness about the Census test run and the 2020 Census.

16. With another school shooting, this time in Texas, give a listen to this interview with RI State Police Capt. Derek Borek, who is responsible for reviewing school safety plans in the state. Meanwhile, with a ban on bump stocks and a "red flag" bill ticketed for passage, will General Assembly leaders back measures to prohibit large-capacity magazines and new sales of semi-automatic rifles?

17. Scott MacKay looks back on Scott Avedisian's almost 20 years as mayor of Warwick: "Bipartisanship, once a hallmark of pragmatic politics, has become a dirty word in today’s divisive and fractious politics. About the only thing worse than being termed bipartisian nowadays is to be labeled a compromiser. Avedisian came of age in a different era and in a Republican Party where moderation was seen as more virtue than vice. At age 14, he became a Senate page in Washington, where he learned from Sen. John Chafee, the quintessential New England moderate. After returning to Warwick, he came under the influence of Lila Sapinsley of Providence, another Republican who was state Senate minority leader. What he learned from them and other moderate Republican mentors, including Gov. Lincoln Almond, was simple. 'When you’re in the minority, you’ve got a choice,' says Avedisian. 'You can object to everything and be partisan and get nothing accomplished. Or you can work across the aisle and get something done.' ”

18. Can polls be trusted? Pew calls it a matter of expectations: "Those who felt led astray by surveys conducted during the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be surprised to learn that national polling was generally quite accurate. National pre-election polls in 2016 indicated that Hillary Clinton would win the national popular vote by a 3-point margin, and in fact she won by 2 points. The major problem was with state-level polls, many of which missed a late swing to Trump among undecided voters and did not correct for the fact that their responding samples contained proportionally too many college-educated voters (who were more likely to favor Clinton). A silver lining is that both of these problems can be overcome, to some extent, by more rigorous survey weighting and heightened attention to the possibility of late shifts in voter preferences."

19. Related: The Associated Press is unveiling a new service based on explaning why voters make certain choices: "AP VoteCast revolutionizes the concept of exit polls and will debut this November. VoteCast is based on a decade of research and experimentation that moves away from traditional, in-person exit polling to a new, more accurate approach that reflects how Americans vote today: not only in person, but also increasingly early, absentee and by mail.Together with the AP Vote Count and AP’s race calls, AP VoteCast provides newsrooms with all the data they need to tell the comprehensive story of Election Day. It also captures both the voices of those who choose to vote, and registered voters who decide not to cast ballots. For the first time on an election night, there will be results beyond the battlegrounds and more than just speculation about the millions of Americans who may swing elections by simply staying home. AP VoteCast is a probability-based, state-by-state survey of registered voters that is combined with a massive opt-in poll of Americans conducted online. Working in close collaboration with Fox News Network, AP successfully tested this approach in the 2017 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and in the Alabama special election for U.S. Senate. At poll close, the surveys accurately forecast the winner and the winner’s final vote share."

20. Rest in Peace, Tom Wolfe, who brought his reporter's eye to the new journalism and such bracing works of fiction as Bonfire of the Vanities. Via The NYT: "His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation. 'As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,' Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. 'His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.' William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: 'He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.' "