TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Mar 18, 2016

Happy March Madness, and 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. After more than four years of battling the federal government over access to records from a 2011 drug trial in Ohio, Phil Eil is his own best spokesman on the broader significance of this fight. That's reason enough to listen to the audio of the Q&A Phil and I recorded to mark Sunshine Week, an annual event to highlight the importance of government transparency and access to information. Yet Eil's case has added resonance because of the ongoing First Amendment case involving Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and a sex tape. Is it really surprising, I asked, a that case involving a celebrity and salacious elements has gotten far more media attention than his? Phil's answer: "It's not that surprising, but it's a little disappointing .... Earlier, there was a question as to whether that case was going to be open to the public and the press. And at that point, it was directly analogous to my case -- it was a courtroom transparency case. And at that point, The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald's news outlet, teamed up with a number of different major news organizations, the AP, CNN, and others, and filed a motion, saying let's keep this trial public. So here I was with a very similar case feeling pretty left out and seeing all of these major news organizations team up to fight for courtroom transparency. So I'm kind of saying, 'what's going on over here?' We've got a drug-dealing case that I would argue is much more serious than a sex tape case, and yet the interest and the resources is going toward this more tawdry sex-related, celebrity-related case."     

2. On Tuesday, Governor Gina Raimondo held her second in a series of casual lunches with political reporters in the basement cafeteria of the Department of Administration building on Smith Hill. The first came shortly after General Electric chose Boston over Rhode Island as its new corporate home. So I asked the governor -- who is known for her energy and the depth of her Rolodex -- why her job recruitment efforts haven't yielded more dividends. Raimondo pointed to plans by Trade Area Systems to relocate from Attleboro to Rhode Island as proof of progress, as well as the earlier move by Lighting Science Group from Florida. Yet in a sign of the challenge facing Raimondo, she acknowledged the state can't be expected to become an economic hotspot overnight. (Then again, in a demonstration of the governor's contacts, Goldman Sachs President and COO Gary Cohn is coming to Providence Tuesday to announce the launch of "10,000 Small Businesses .... an initiative that helps small businesses grow and create jobs by providing them with a practical business education, access to capital and business support services.")

3. Other highlights from lunch with the gov: 1) Raimondo said she was open to a referendum on marijuana legalization; 2) She agrees with Angus Davis that Rhode Island needs to cut the friction in traveling to Boston. "I'm aggressively pitching Cambridge-based companies," she said; 3) Raimondo said a soon-to-be introduced school choice program will cause less of a migration from poor to affluent communities than many suspect; 4) While cuts at Pawtucket's Memorial Hospital are unfortunate, she said, they reflect a changing marketplace in which the state has "about 200 more hospital beds than we need"; 5) Raimondo attributes Donald Trump's success to his ability to appeal to Americans' economic frustrations. "I think he would be awful," she added, "[but] I see it. People are fed up." 

3. In 2002, when Juan Pichardo (D-Providence) won election as Rhode Island's first Latino senator, it came at the expense of Charles Walton, the only black member of the chamber, and taxpayers spent more than $1 million defending a flawed redistricting plan that influenced the outcome. Yet that year also marked a watershed for Latino political influence in Rhode Island, and the number of Latinos on the Providence City Council and in the General Assembly has multiplied since then. As Providence NAACP President Jim Vincent notes, the far greater number of Latinos than blacks makes it difficult for African-Americans to emulate that political success. Yet Vincent said many blacks are also frustrated by their absence in professions like teaching and the upper ranks of law enforcement. "Far too many, they just want to throw their hands up and give up – which I say you can’t do that," Vincent said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "That’s a reason to double down more on that in terms of getting involved in elective politics." Vincent also joined RIPR's Political Roundtable to talk the presidential race and other issues.

4. It's not every day when Governor Raimondo, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin and State Police Colonel Steven O'Donnell are on one side of an issue, and the Providence Journal editorial page and conservatives are on an another. Yet that's the case with the proposal to offer driving privileges to undocumented immigrants. Raimondo this week pointed to the clashing views on the issue in explaining this week why she thinks it should be settled by the General Assembly, rather than through an executive order. "It’s an important issue and an issue that deserves a public airing," the governor told me after her lunch with reporters Tuesday. "We want to try to develop some consensus, so I think it is important to let the legislative process happen and see if we can come up with a consensus." Twelve states and the District of Columbia currently offer alternative driver's licenses (for more details, check this background from Pew). So will the General Assembly approve this concept in an election year? The outlook remains less than certain for now.

5. The influx of NCAA fans this week clearly offers a big boost to Providence's hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses -- not to mention an injection of sporting excitement. Still, the NCAA has its critics -- at least one of whom uses sharp wit in scoring some points. As NPR's Only A Game reported last year, "The NCAA is a nearly $1-billion a year business, but athletes are prohibited from profiting off their own likenesses. Caleb Pressley has noticed. He’s the 22 year old former backup quarterback for the University of North Carolina, and he’s now got his own line of 16 football-related t-shirts. One features NCAA president Mark Emmert standing in front of two tall piles of money — which is what Pressley hopes to earn, $12.50 at a time, selling that shirt. Caleb joined Bill to discuss the the inspiration behind his 'Likeness' line of t-shirts."

6. Bonus NCAA item: Two years ago, when Providence College last played UNC in the NCAA tournament, a fierce fight was flaring for control of the RI House of Representatives. In the time since, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has long since solidified his support with most of the room, attracting a unanimous budget vote last year and bringing Rep. Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence), a foe in the 2014 speakership fight, back into the fold as deputy majority whip. Mattiello even turned out Wednesday night for Minority Leader Brian Newberry's fundraiser at Gator's Pub in North Smithfield.

7. Critics maintain that Deepwater Wind's Block Island five-turbine wind farm poses an unacceptable risk for rate-payers, as I recently reported, and a filing last year with the state Public Utilities Commission suggests the added cost could top $500 million over the next 20 years. Yet there's also more evidence to support Deepwater CEO Jeff Grybowksi's view that predicting future costs is a dodgy business. Bloomberg reported this week (as Grybowski tweeted) that building offshore wind farms could become dramatically cheaper within 13 years, lowering the cost impact for consumers.

8. As it tries to up its General Assembly presence from 16 of 113 lawmakers, the Rhode Island Republican Party is running an ongoing candidate training program. On March 21, state Sen. John Pagliarini (R-Tiverton), who scored a special election victory earlier this year, will talk on getting out the vote, and Paul Caranci will discuss campaign organization. On March 28, Gary Sasse will talk on public policy, state Rep. Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham) on talking points, and Dee DeQuattro on media relations. According to the GOP, anyone who signs up will get free classes, volunteer phone banking, walking and get out the vote apps, and "training on all aspects of campaigning."

9. Let's say Donald Trump is a gray swan -- a more predictable phenomenon than widely recognized. Could his political success have ripple effects here in Rhode Island if, for example, a number of Democrats disaffiliated to support his campaign? FWIW, as many as 20,000 people in have left the Massachusetts Democratic Party this year.

10. There was a bit of unintended irony when the Senate Finance Committee got a presentation Tuesday on the Brookings Institution's recommendations for improving Rhode Island's long-suffering economy. "We think this state is a bit adrift right now," Brookings' Mark Muro said at one point, referring to how decades of inaction have led Rhode Island to its current predicament. Yet conservative critics of Governor Raimondo could also seize on the statement in expressing their continued displeasure with the Brookings plan. Sen. Pagliarini led the opposition in suggesting cutting taxes and regulation would be a more effective approach. On the other side, Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) praised the General Assembly. "I think we've made leaps and bounds from 2013 to today in how we approach economic development in the state," Pearson said, citing the reconfiguration of the state's economic development agency, higher education spending, and cuts in the estate tax and corporate tax, among other changes. "Certainly, the legislature has not been shy in tackling many of the issues that have plagued RI for very, very long," Pearson added. Yet the state still hasn't regained its pre-recession level of employment, and see item #15 for another less-than-stellar indicator.

11. (UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to snow on Monday.) Former speech writers for President Obama, Sarah Palin, Howard Dean and Martin O'Malley will be part of a panel discussion at Rhode Island College at 2 pm on Monday, March 21 (Alger Hall.) WJAR-TV I-Team reporter Katie Davis will moderate the discussion among Lindsay Hayes (who has worked for Palin, Mitt Romney, and US Sen. Ted Stevens); Parag Mehta (chief of staff for the US surgeon general and ex of Dean); and Steve Rabin (senior adviser for NASA's Office of Communications, a former speech writer for O'Malley, and former press secretary for Anthony Weiner). RIC Associate Professor of Communication Valerie Endress, who helped organize the event said in a statement, “We have the unique opportunity to bring to RIC some of the most respected political speech writers in the nation in order to explore the unique and intimate relationship between speech writer and speaker, and to understand how political speeches are constructed and negotiated among a team of writers. These behind-the-scenes strategists influence public dialogue far more than the average citizen realizes, and this forum is designed to shed light on the process."

12. Speaking of the presidential race, yours truly will moderate a panel discussion on that topic at the Providence Athenaeum on the evening of Tuesday, March 22 reception at 5:30, program at 6 pm). The panel includes Brown political science professor Wendy Schiller, RI Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell, and RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay. The event is free, but an RSVP is required.

13. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik profiles "the BuzzFeed buzz saw" -- the mix of old and new media represented by BuzzFeed's "K-File" political research unit, run by 26-year-old Andrew Kaczynski. Excerpt: "BuzzFeed has grown past its roots as a viral site focused on lists and GIFs, and has earned credibility among more traditional journalists with some strong reporting from the campaign trail. Now BuzzFeed is offering a new multimedia form of accountability journalism: repeatedly revealing the candidates' contradictions, hypocrisies, misstatements — and, at times, flat-out weirdness. 'To, like, truly understand who these people are, you have to, like, absorb all of their information from their life,' Kaczynski says."

14. Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin may have a challenger, Smith Hill resident Brandon A. Robinson, as Bob Plain pointed out this week. Robinson has not made any campaign filings with the state Board of Elections, although his Twitter said he's running in District 1, "dedicated to restoring the voice of the people!"

15. URI economics professor Leonard Lardaro notes how Rhode Island's labor participation rate (the percentage of Rhode Islanders who are working) keeps trending down.

16. While a big crowd of business and political leaders turned out last week to hail the news about Citizens Bank's future home in Johnston, ecoRI news editor Frank Carini has a contrary take. Excerpt: "Apparently, there wasn’t a suitable place in Rhode Island’s urban core — one that already had existing highway access, sewer service and transportation choices. Bank officials have said building new was cheaper than renovating the company’s existing office space in Cranston. Cheaper for whom? Public funding doesn’t end with highway ramps, though. The Narragansett Bay Commission is expected to pay for the extension of its sewer line into the woods. Ratepayers will ultimately pay the cost, despite what many will say."

17. A Ferris wheel is among the ideas being floated for enlivening the Brutalist ambience of City Hall Plaza in Boston. So is it time to rejuvenate Ray Rickman's call for a Ferris wheel on the Providence waterfront? (For a great read in which the creation of the Ferris wheel is a minor story, check Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.)

18. Fun Fact: The first racetrack referenced in The Sting, the classic 1973 grifter film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, is none other than Narragansett Park, which used to be in Pawtucket.

19. RIPR's Ambar Espinoza reports on the threat posed by climate change to historic properties in Newport: "[W]ith the country’s largest collection of colonial-era homes on the line, Newport will need to do something. A city planner estimates nearly a thousand historic structures, worth some $560 million, sit on floodplains."

20. Quonset Point gets some positive press in The New York Times. Excerpt: "More than 1,000 acres at the business park have been leased or sold, and 38 parcels totaling 275 acres remain available. The remaining land at the site has been set aside for open space and recreation, including a golf course, and for infrastructure. A recent report by the Brookings Institution about Rhode Island’s underperforming economy recommends that the state try to replicate Quonset’s success now that the park is nearing capacity. Rhode Island, the smallest state by land area, lacks sufficient developable land to attract medium-size and large companies, and should strive to assemble large parcels for development, the report said."

21. Your faithful correspondent has always had a soft spot for roundabouts, since he used to occasionally do an impetuous extra circle around the Concord rotary during a long-ago Massachusetts commute. The Bay State moved to phase out rotaries in the mid-'90s (" 'About 95 percent of the people in the state don't know how to go around one,' " said Bill Nixon, highway superintendent in the Cape Cod town of Yarmouth, where the nation's first traffic rotary was built in 1939," the AP reported at the time.) To bring the story into the present, roundabouts are coming to Cumberland's Diamond Hill intersection (cue the Dead or Alive and travel back in time to the 1980s), although the US lags behind other nations in this category. Meanwhile, if you need instructions on how use to a roundabout, RIDOT has the answers