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

Mar 10, 2017

Lots of sharp elbows and ill feeling in Rhode Island this week. We'll delve deeper, so thanks for stopping by. As usual your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The bad feelings lingering from the stink bomb of 38 Studios got ratcheted up a few notches. Curt Schilling sparked a reaction by criticizing the State Police investigation into the failed video game company, pointing to the absence of interviews with three key players connected to the deal, Mike Corso and former speakers William Murphy and Gordon Fox. (Unless grand jury materials are made public, it won't be clear if they were subpoenaed to appear.) Yet it's open to question if newish State Police Col. Ann Assumpico made the right call by indirectly criticizing her predecessor, Steven O'Donnell. In the ensuing news cycle, Governor Gina Raimondo called the 38 Studios probe done under O'Donnell "sloppy," O'Donnell defended himself, and Rhode Islanders were left to wonder why the State Police -- an agency traditionally known for a high level of impartiality and professionalism, in a corruption-plagued state -- had become part of the miasma associated with 38 Studios. The broad strokes of the 38 Studios story are known: insider-dealing and secrecy led to taxpayers taking a bath, to the tune of millions of dollars. At the same time, not enough evidence has surfaced to bring criminal charges. Secrecy breeds suspicion, so many people think that political malfeasance associated with the deal has not yet been brought to light. That's why there were more reminders this week of Raimondo's unfulfilled campaign pledge to back an independent investigation of 38 Studios (she now questions whether it's worth the cost and effort). So some measure of bitter feelings will continue to persist -- and flare up -- without a fuller account of precisely what happened.

2. State Rep. Moira Walsh, the freshman Providence Democrat who ousted Tom Palangio last September, caused quite the stir when she used an interview with WPRO's Matt Allen this week to describe "an insane amount of drinking" at the Statehouse and "file cabinets full of booze." Yet when asked about her remarks by the ProJo's Patrick Anderson, Walsh said she was referring to the drinking that takes place at legislative fundraisers away from Smith Hill. But everyone loves a story about boozing lawmakers, so the tale had already taken root far beyond Rhode Island, thanks to the AP and other media: "Animal House, Rhode Island: Providence's hottest drinking spot seems to be the state legislature," reported Salon. "Shots Fired," punned Vice, adding, "Rhode Island's Statehouse is full of drunk legislators doing shots says a newly elected lawmaker." So how much drinking actually takes place at the Statehouse, beyond the occasional pouring of small ceremonial shots to salute various ethnicities and nationalities? The consensus is: a lot less than years ago, when kegs were sometimes found in the marble corridors on St. Patrick's Day. Some lawmakers have been known to keep mini-fridges in their Statehouse offices, and serious sousing has been known to happen on the third floor, particularly late in the legislative session. As a routine matter, though, government watchdog John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, is more concerned by how frequent legislative fundraisers typically offer more access to lobbyists than regular citizens. “We see those fundraisers as an opportunity where those with money, particularly lobbyists, are mingling with legislators, particularly right at the end of the legislative session when they seem to have a second round of these fundraisers at the point that all the decisions are made," Marion tells me.

3. "ANNOUNCING NEW SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM FOR DRINKING MEMBERS OF THE LEGISLATURE." That's the headline for an email sent to lawmakers this week after the boozing lawmakers story blew up; it came from a group of citizens who were sharply opposed to the truck tolls in last year's RhodeWorks law. The email continues with this message: "A small group of retirees have banded together and will be taking to the roads and following those in the legislature and senate, who we've already identified as having abuse issues with alcohol consumption. Our investigators will be armed with hidden cameras and microphones. Their intent is to record their particular legislator's consumption of alcohol at fund raising events and other legislative gatherings.  What we will be looking for is if you drive, if you go back and pass laws after drinking, this will not only be made public, as soon as you step into your car, we will call police and inform them that you are possibly under the influence and behind the wheel. SMILE, YOU ARE ON CANDID SURVEILLANCE AND YOU DON"T KNOW WHO IS RECORDING YOU IT CAN BE ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, WE WILL BE THERE WATCHING AND YOU CAN BE SURE IT WILL BE ON CH 10, 12 & 6 AS WELL AS IT WILL BE RELEASED TO ALL MEDIA OUTLETS. MAKE SURE YOU WEAR THAT FALSE POLITICIAN 'FRIEND' FACE!  AFTER ALL YOU ARE IN THE SPOTLIGHT!!!!"

4. Will former House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison get a far stiffer sentence than the three years meted out to former speaker Gordon Fox? Both men have admitted to committing corrupt acts. But Fox was trying to live above his means, while Gallison's victims included a deceased friend and a disabled person. When prosecutors outlined a plea agreement with Gallison in January, they said he would serve a minimum of two years. But before Gallison entered his guilty plea on Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith told the former Bristol lawmaker he could face a maximum 111-year prison sentence. That suggests that Gallison, 64, could draw a longer sentence than Fox. We'll know for sure when Gallison is sentenced June 16.

5. Peter Neronha's time as Rhode Island's US attorney is ending on Friday, March, 10. In a statement, Neronha said in part, “Whatever we have accomplished, none of it would have been possible without the dedication and outstanding ability of the men and women of the Office I have been so fortunate to lead. Some have been my colleagues for nearly fifteen years, and I will miss them all, very, very much. Given the nature of this job there is never a perfect time to step away. With enormous gratitude toward those who have been so supportive during my tenure, my family and I look forward to the next chapter of our lives.” A spokesman said Neronha is not doing interviews, so it remains unclear for now if he is edging closer to run for attorney general or any other office. The news came after as The New York Times reported the White House "abruptly order[ed] 46 Obama-era prosecutors to resign." Neronha was appointed by President Obama.

6. The news keeps coming fast and furious on a potential recall vote of Providence Ward 3 City Councilor Kevin Jackson. With Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea staging an intervention, the state Board of Elections slated a related meeting on Monday. The Providence City Council also scheduled a meeting for Monday, after Councilors Wilbur Jennings Jr., Nicholas Narducci, David Salvatore, Seth Yurdin and Samuel Zurier filed a petition seeking a special meeting. This being Rhode Island, one of the leaders of the recall effort, Tricia Kammerer, and Jackson were socializing within about 25 feet of each other during the cocktail hour Thursday at the Convention Center, for the annual dinner of the Providence St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee.

7. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin tried to brush off 38 Studios questions by telling WJAR-TV's Bill Rappleye, "You're in my house now." The clash came during an event to make the case against legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island.

8. First, Rep. Walsh says drinking is prevalent at the Statehouse, then, not so much. Then she took to Facebook to question why so much was being made of the whole thing. But the social media commentary probably didn't increase Walsh's likelihood of moving any bills, in part since she brought up a colorful and rather dated bit of local political lore. Added the freshman lawmaker, "I didn't let the cat out of the bag. I pointed at the cat on the ground at my feet and said 'that's a cat.' And somehow I'm responsible?"

9. WPRI.com's Ted Nesi had a smart look at the Trump effect in Rhode Island, noting in his Saturday column last week how Trump won in 18 state rep districts and 10 state Senate districts. "The result: 18 of Rhode Island’s 97 Democratic state lawmakers – nearly one in five – are representing districts Trump won," Ted wrote. At the same time, Republicans lost ground in legislative races last year, so it remains to be seen if a conservative realignment is at hand. For his part, Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the right-leaning RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, isn't sanguine. Asked on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week about the relative health of RI's conservative movement, Stenhouse said the effort is hurt by the absence of high-profile elected officials with that particular political view. "There's nobody of any high profile, and I'm not enough," Stenhouse said. "We need a standard-bearer."

10. Stenhouse is working on a new effort with former Democratic state rep. Ray Rickman, to try to forge common ground across the ideological divide. "Ray and I started talking, and we agreed, 'let's stop yelling at each other, let's sit down and see if we can find issues we agree on,' " Stenhouse said. "We agreed on criminal justice reform, the justice reinvestment act. We just put out a joint statement on eliminating natural hair braiders from these crazy occupational licensing mandates that are out there. We both oppose corporate welfare. So I think when left and right can come together and present a unified front on maybe a narrow band of issues, still, I think that's very impressive to lawmakers."

11. Common Cause's John Marion on his takeaway from the recent release of State Police documents related to 38 Studios: "The State Police documents in the 38 Studios investigation leave a lot of unanswered questions. One thing they do provide us, however, is a glimpse at how Gordon Fox ruled the House of Representatives during his tenure as Speaker. Dissident Democrats, including Robert DaSilva of Pawtucket and Jon Brien of Woonsocket spoke openly about how they were treated as representatives who voted against Fox for Speaker. Brien admitted to voting for Greg Schadone for Speaker, thus putting him in, 'the version of legislative Siberia.' DaSilva admits that he was 'not part of the inner circle,' and therefore, 'I was cut out of my district .…when they were trying to redistrict.' Fox exercised all the levers of power available to him, including withholding opportunities to sponsor important legislation, and using the decennial redistricting process make it harder to win reelection. Some of this is endemic to politics in any legislature. However, there are opportunities for reform, particularly on redistricting, as some states have demonstrated. California successfully removed redistricting from the hands of those who benefit most -- the politicians themselves."

12. Governor Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, paints the jobs glass as more than half-full in his weekly e-newsletter: "For the first time since 2005, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate fell below the national average. Private sector employment in our state is at an all-time high. And Rhode Island has created more than 10,000 jobs since Governor Raimondo took office. No question, there’s still a ton of work to do. While private sector employment is higher than it’s ever been, we’ve still got some work to recover all the jobs that were lost between 2006 and 2009. Construction jobs are up, but we need to stay focused on creating opportunity in manufacturing." At the same time, the high percentage of under-water mortgages in RI is among the factors showing structural weakness in the state's economy. That duality seems typical of the large swaths of the US economy; President Obama closed out his term with a long run of positive jobs numbers, but an underlying sense of economic anxiety still propelled the election of Donald Trump as his successor.

13. Could an obscure 1915 state law enable opponents to stymie Invenergy's controversial Burrillville power plant proposal?

14. The Women's March on Washington -- the force behind #DayWithoutAWoman -- served notice of the latent political power of women. And yes, Rhode Island has made strides on the gender front, with Gina Raimondo serving as the state's first female governor. When women run for office in Rhode Island, they generally do well. Still, it's worth remembering that women make up less than a third of the General Assembly: just 23 of 75 representatives and 12 of 38 senators.

15. The brave new world of the Trump presidency is sparking some different chronicles. One former news man has What the F--- just happened Today?, which has proven really popular. Closer to home, a retired RI reporter is using the thoughts of his pets, Phoebe the dog and Cat, to chronicle the Trump presidency. Excerpt: “FACE FACTS, Liberal Fuzz Brain, you were outmaneuvered,” Cat gloated. “Just like during the campaign. And it scares you.” “You keep thinking that Trump is going to self-destruct. That eventually he’ll say something, do something and there will be that elusive ‘Last Straw Moment’ that will drive him from office, with him being impeached or hauled off to the funny farm.” “Not going to happen,” he said, flashing what passes for a smile on his fickle feline face, which is not unlike the sort of grimace Trump manages occasionally in lieu of a smile. “Trump’s a survivor,” Cat said, going for the kill. “If you want to get rid of him, you’re going to have to work at it.”

16. Congrats to my colleague, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay, on his selection as grand marshal of this year's Providence St. Patrick's Day Parade. Scott drew on his deep knowledge of Rhode Island history to offer a compelling speech during a parade committee dinner Thursday at the Convention Center, likening the discrimination faced by previous generations of Irish immigrants to the hostility sometimes faced by more contemporary newcomers.

17. Two good men, gone too soon: former state Sen. David Bates, a Barrington Republican, is widely remembered as a class act. Victor Cuenca helped document the flowering of Rhode Island's Latino political movement, a story I outlined in the Providence Phoenix in 2003. Rest in Peace.

18. Developer, real estate maven and former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino is doing a transportation/bicycling AMA (ask me anything) on Twitter on Saturday with transit activist James Kennedy at #AskJoePaolino

19. Congratulations to the Isle Brewers Guild on the launch of brewing operations in Pawtucket. We would have liked to have been there for a celebratory event at 4 pm March 10, but someone has to write this column, right?

20. Three on immigration: 1) Good explainer from NPR: "How Did We Get to 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants?" 2) The compelling personal story of Victor Morente, press secretary to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza: “I was born in a hut made out of adobe mud in a country that had seen 30 years of civil war and where genocide was rampant. My mom came over to the United States as an undocumented immigrant to seek a better life." 3) If you missed RIPR's Policy & Pinot discussion on what constitutes a sanctuary city, tune in to RIPR at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14. The panel included Mayor Elorza, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, and RI GOP National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick

21. Good news for Central Falls: Standard & Poor's has raised the community's long-term bond rating three notches, to BBB (investment grade). According to S&P, “Central Falls is operating under a much stronger economic and management environment since emerging from bankruptcy in 2012. The city has had several years of strong budgetary performance, and has fully adhered to the established post-bankruptcy plan.”