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

Feb 24, 2017

Happy Weekend! 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. Governor Gina Raimondo's proposal for free college tuition faces very uncertain prospects in the House of Representatives. That's the takeaway after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's Twitter unleashed a sharply worded string of tweets, starting at 2:04 pm Friday. Here's the playback on what Mattiello said, in a total of four tweets: "I have heard from the citizens of the state and I understand they want the burdensome car tax eliminated. The Governor is tone deaf on this issue and should start listening to the people of Rhode Island. What is truly unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible is her plan to make us the only state in the nation to give away ‘free’ taxpayer-funded college tuition." House spokesman Larry Berman said Mattiello was responding to how Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz "discredit[ed] the speaker's car tax plan" while speaking with editors and reporters at the Warwick Beacon and Cranston Herald; the Newport Daily News; and the Call of Woonsocket and the Times of Pawtucket. (Raimondo has proposed changing the basis for how the car tax is formulated, while Mattiello said he wants the tax eliminated, with a reduction in the fiscal year starting July 1. Eliminating the tax would wipe out $215 million in state revenue every year.

2. Ortiz said the governor remains committed to cutting the car tax and pursuing her free college tuition plan. Meanwhile, Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, and a senior adviser, David Cruise, took to Twitter to rebut Mattiello. Here's a sample from Cruise: "Governor’s free college proposal costs $30M, <0.5% of state budget and makes college affordable for middle class families .... 70 percent of jobs being created in RI require a degree past HS. Less than 50 percent have a degree. If more RIers don’t get degrees, those jobs will go to people in MA, CT and other states. Governor wants them to go to RIers. Shorter version: We can do both. We can cut the car tax and make college more affordable for middle class families." While some take Mattiello's tweets as a sign that Raimondo's free college tuition plan is DOA, there are four months to go in the legislative session. A lot can happen in that time -- especially if the speaker and governor each make a separate push to galvanize public support.

3. Will a bill to codify abortion rights in Rhode Island come to a vote on the House floor this year? That seems unlikely, given how leadership has little to gain from a pitched debate on a polarizing issue with fiercely held opinions on both sides. Yet Donald Trump's presence in the White House -- and the impact his presidency could have on the judiciary -- has energized supporters of the abortion-right bill. So far, abortion opponents have convinced seven of about 36 cosponsors to withdraw their support. Going forward, the big question is whether progressives, including a bigger House progressive caucus, can mobilize enough support to move the controversial bill to the House floor.

4. Steve Ahlquist's story in Rhode Island's Future on U.S. Senator Jack Reed's constituent meeting this week used illustrations to help tell the story, since photography was not allowed in the federal courthouse. It's a detailed account, so give it a read.

5. How early in the 2018 gubernatorial cycle did EMILY's List makes its endorsement of Governor Raimondo? So early that Raimondo still isn't making a categorical statement about running for re-election. "I plan to run for re-election, but it's a year and a half or more away, so it's not something I'm spending a lot of time thinking about right now," the governor told me after an unrelated news event on Wednesday. Still, even if endorsing more than 20 months ahead of an election leaves some local observers scratching their heads, it signals how we're edging steadily closer to Rhode Island's next statewide campaign season. Raimondo has already banked close to $2 million in her campaign account, meaning she'll have plenty of resources to amplify her preferred narrative. In fact, surrogates like Mike Raia, and her former chief of staff, Stephen Neuman, used separate tweet-storms this week to tout what they see as the governor's accomplishments. (This message is currently pinned at the top of Raia's Twitter: "When took office, RI ranked dead last on Gallup's job growth index. Since then, we've jumped 22 spots.") Yet a chunk of the Ocean State electorate remains frosted at Raimondo, in large part due to the pension overhaul she spearheaded in 2011, and those voters are unlikely to return to her camp. And critics have ammunition to paint a less flattering picture of the Democratic governor, including the UHIP mess and the use of millions of dollars in incentives to attract out-of-town businesses. Supporters tout Raimondo as the can-do governor who's getting Rhode Island back in the game. Critics say the results have been less than impressive. Watch for the these competing narratives to get steadily louder in the run-up to 2018, as the field of candidates begins to gel. (For now, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who lost a somewhat close race to Raimondo in 2014, seems like the only likely GOP challenger.)

6. US Attorney Peter Neronha is non-committal on whether the grand jury documents from the 38 Studios investigation should be released. He said the issue presents a tension between the secrecy usually associated with grand juries, vs. the broad public interest in the case. "That is a case that is almost uniquely situated to go before the court and get a judicial opinion on whether it should be disclosed or not," Neronha said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "I don't envy the judge having to make that decision because of the balancing that we're talking about." (Court spokesman Craig Berke said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and the State Police have 20 calendar days to respond to Governor Raimondo's recent petition for the release of the grand jury materials, before the next move goes to Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney.) Neronha also offered a skeptical note on whether an outside investigation of 38 Studios is needed for the state to move past the boondoggle. "The criminal justice system is not always the best way to get the kinds of answers the public wants," he said, adding that an independent probe could be costly and lack the power to get answers. Ultimately, Neronha said, "I'm not convinced that independent investigators are necessarily value-added when you're trying to get to the bottom of something."

7. Expect the unexpected when it comes to Lincoln Chafee, right? First, the former Warwick mayor, U.S. senator and governor turns up in an interview on state-backed Russian news outlet RT, and then he talks with the AP and Providence Journal after making the rounds with WPRO and GoLocalProv. Chafee criticized the media for being too critical toward President Trump, and he praised Trump for trying to cultivate closer relations with Russia. So what's Chafee up to? That's anyone's guess, although he's said in interviews he's not ruling anything out. The Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat left the governor's office in 2015 with low approval ratings. On the plus side, though, he opposed the state's boondoggle with 38 Studios and launched the lawsuit that recovered a big chunk of taxpayers' losses.

8. US Attorney Peter Neronha, who was appointed by President Obama in 2009, said he knows his time to step down is coming, although he hasn't gotten an indication from Washington of when that will happen. Asked about his level of interest in running for attorney general next year, Neronha said, he initially plans to take some time off to talk with his wife and children. "I will tell you," he said on RIPR's Political Roundtable this week, "I've been in public service since leaving a large Boston law firm 20 years ago, and I have loved every year that I've been in public service. There's something about it that has always been very rewarding to me, and so I hope to serve in some way going forward. But I haven't come to any conclusions yet on what that might be."

9. The Providence City Council scored a coup by landing Jeff Britt (h/t Dan McGowan), who aided Speaker Mattiello with his squeaker of a victory last year, as the council's Statehouse lobbyist.

10. Boston Business Journal has some fresh details on the owner of The Providence Journal: "The parent company of GateHouse Media is once again talking about cutting expenses at the same time as it's talking about buying up more local newspapers across the country. New Media Investment Group (NYSE: NEWM), the acquisitive firm that owns GateHouse, said in a regulatory filing today that the company has plans to cut $27 million in expenses this year. But in the same filing, CEO Mike Reed said that with about $200 million in cash and cash equivalents, 'New Media is well positioned to take advantage of more great acquisition opportunities at attractive valuations in 2017.' The cuts come as the company, which owns more than 100 newspapers in Massachusetts including the Patriot Ledger and Worcester Telegram & Gazette, reports a 50 percent drop in profit for 2016 — to $32 million on $1.3 billion in generally flat revenue. New Media blamed its challenged financial results on the 'further decline in traditional print' as well as a challenging holiday season experienced by its retail advertisers, which caused lower advertising spending. It's not immediately clear if those cuts would come from its workforce itself, but the company did say that the savings would come from 'synergies from out latest acquisitions.' GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis did not immediately return a message seeking comment."

11. Congrats to Anita Baffoni, who's proven a quick study as a reporter covering a range of subjects at WPRO, on her new gig as communications director for US Representative Jim Langevin.

12. How researchers at Brown have helped advance an interface that allows people to use a computer with nothing other than brain power.

13. Brett Broesder, who helped pilot Peter Kilmartin's winning campaign for attorney general in 2010, has left his communications gig with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin. Broesder is co-founder and vice president of Tomorrow's Jobs, which bills itself as an effort to "grow Connecticut's economy for present and future generations." Connecticut has wrestled with tax hikes and the exit of General Electric. As Hartford Business reported, "Once an economic powerhouse, the state is experiencing the slowest recovery of any state in New England from job losses during the recession, and is well behind the national average, the co-founders [of Tomorrow's Jobs] say.

14. "What Facebook Owes Journalism" and "How Mark Zuckerberg could really fix journalism"

15. Scott MacKay commentary on the debate around immigration and involving local police departments in deportations. Excerpt: "[Providence Public Safety Commission Steven] Pare has wisely decided that this extra burden is not something Providence police should take on. City residents should applaud this stance for many reasons. The capital city’s police department is stretched thin already – the number of cops is down by 100 or so from several years back. Citizens on the leafy East Side complain about burglary and property crimes. Neighborhoods on the South Side are wracked by gangs and gun violence. It seems foolish to add immigration to the long list of priorities already faced by police. Do stressed city taxpayers want their cops to focus on combating crime or wasting time wading into the complicated and murky area of prosecuting undocumented immigrants? Under Col. Hugh Clements, the city police department has done a better job building bridges to minority communities. Turning cops into immigration enforcers can only fray those fragile relationships."

16. Governor Raimondo celebrated the one-year anniversary of RhodeWorks this week.

17. Although he writes now for the First Amendment Blog at Roger Williams University, rather than the ProJo, Ed Fitzpatrick is keeping a close eye on the intersection of the press and politics. Here's an excerpt from a timely piece: "While he clearly sees political gain in denouncing the press and while his critique ignores the vast segments of the media that are content to be lapdogs rather than watchdogs, Trump debases his high office by using the bully pulpit to bully a free press. Enemies of the American People? Lies and propaganda, perhaps. Ignorance and corruption. Hatred and violence. But not a free press. That’s democracy’s greatest ally -- not its enemy. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, 'President Trump's continued attacks on the media undermine the value of journalism in our country. A reporter's job isn't to pat the president on the back, but to instead pursue the truth, regardless of how it reflects on an administration. As the saying goes, democracy dies in darkness. Trump seems intent on discrediting the very people we rely on to shine light in those dark corners of government.' Silverman said, 'Once the public has lost faith in the Fourth Estate, there is nothing to separate fact from fiction, truth from propaganda. Yes, we need to demand high standards and integrity from our press corps. But at the same time, we need to discard hollow accusations of ‘fake news’ and petty grievances with coverage. There's too much at stake to consider every critical news story as the work of dishonest politically driven reporters.'

18. Then again, Trump has become such a focus of media attention that he's detracting from coverage of other subjects. As Farhad Manjoo writes, in a must-read essay, "The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow."

19. Here's a fascinating interview with Robert Caro, via The Paris Review about his writing process and how he came to write The Power Broker, about Robert Moses -- "the single most powerful man of our time in the City and in the State of New York" -- and his multi-volume biography of LBJ.

20. Major League Baseball appears poised to speed-up the process for intentional walks, although some players and fans have been sharply critical of the move. Tom Verducci makes a compelling case that the issue isn't game times, but pace of action.

21. The Providence Newspaper Guild Follies seems like a vestige of a pre-digital time -- and that's a big part of the appeal. The event began as a way to end the rifts of a bitter strike at the Providence Journal back in the 1970s, and the proceeds still go to support college costs for the children of Guild members. Of course, it's also an opportunity to chat with friends and acquaintances, to howl at the scathing edge of the humor, and to sample the cholesterol-bomb buffet at the Venus de Milo. See you at the bar.