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

Oct 6, 2017

The fall campaign announcement season is here, bringing us closer to a new year bursting with political storylines. 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. On Tuesday, during an appearance at Brown University's Watson Institute, Gov. Gina Raimondo lamented the fracturing of the media landscape -- and how that makes it harder to get her message out. She made some critical remarks about The Providence Journal and WJAR-TV, sparking an ensuing wave of excitement and outrage after the video of her appearance made the rounds. The Republican Governors Association quickly chimed in: “Dem Gov Gina Raimondo Attacks Rhode Island Media, Ranting Against Their Reliability,” the RGA said in a statement. But Raimondo did not impugn the media’s reliability. So what was really going on here? As Sam Howard notes, the governor covered a range of topics during her Brown appearance, many of them more weighty than what became defined (by myself and others) as a spat with a few of Rhode Island's top news organizations. Yet Raimondo's observations were less than shocking: 1) the Providence Journal's staffing is far less than in the past; and 2) the media defines stories in confrontational frames. Then again, politicians like nothing more than to control their own message, and Raimondo's administration has suffered from some self-inflicted wounds, ranging from Cooler & Warmer to the UHIP debacle. And there was a certain irony in how the governor, who used her comments at Brown to renew her criticism President Trump, said her team is leaning more on Facebook as a go-around to communicate with Rhode Islanders. As ProJo Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg observed, "If the governor has a hard time getting her point of view across, that's pretty stunning, considering the 73 public-relations staffers on the state and state-college payroll, at a cost of $5.4 million annually (as reported by Kathy Gregg last month)." Let's remember, too, that the fracturing of the media isn't a phenomenon just of the last few years, even if Raimondo described it that way. Then there's how the ProJo was more of an institutional cheerleader for the governor when the paper was still owned by Belo and Howard Sutton was the publisher. Yet if Raimondo needs a master class in how to get her message across, she should revisit her own playbook; the 2011 pension overhaul spearheaded by then-treasurer remains a case study in how to change the political dynamic on an extremely thorny issue.

2. Nick Autiello of Providence, special advisor in the Rhode Island Executive Office of Commerce, has filed to run for the District 5 state Senate held by Paul Jabour (D-Providence). Autiello holds a grad degree from the London School of Economics. According to the Cranston native's bio, he's won plaudits for his acting, has campaign experience in Florida and Montana, and is working on a bio of John O. Pastore, the former governor and U.S. senator.

3. As state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) gears up for an expected primary challenge to Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee next year, the two-term rep will face questions about the extent of his own experience and whether he's seasoned enough to become LG. Asked about this during RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, Regunberg pointed to his background as an organizer -- a founder of the Providence Student Union -- and as someone who has helped pass legislation (like the new paid sick leave law) making a tangible difference for Rhode Islanders. "I think if there's one thing an organizer knows how to do it's use a bullhorn," the Providence Democrat said in pointing to his credentials for LG. Regunberg also has his talking points (sounding a lot like the message used by Seth Magaziner in 2014): "As I talk to Rhode Islanders, the problem that folks seem to see at the Statehouse is not there's too many new faces, too much fresh energy. I think the problem is the opposite. The system is not working for a whole lot of people." Still, Regunberg is not ready to acknowledge that he's off and running. "I've committed to a process" to "see what people are thinking," by speaking with groups around the state, he said. "It's a big decision and there are more conversations to be had."

4. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has donated $4 million "to launch an enhanced initiative to provide on-the-ground customized assistance to economically challenged cities across the United States and fund a competition among states to drive the adoption of State Resource Networks," according to a news release from the National Resource Network. In 2016, the NRN helped Providence with the development of a 10-year financial plan -- and the Arnolds' name may be familiar to Rhode Islanders with a good memory. That's because John Arnold is the billionaire who contributed generously with his wife to EngageRI, the group formed to build support for the pension overhaul spearheaded by then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo in 2011. 

5. Will Peter Neronha be the rare statewide candidate who clears the field of rivals? It's certainly possible. State Rep. Robert Craven (D-North Kingstown) tells me he's still considering a campaign for attorney general, but that appears unlikely. Sen. Across the Statehouse, Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) appears far more inclined to seek re-election than run for AG. Meanwhile, it's anyone's guess who the RI GOP might support against to someone like Neronha, who has cross-partisan appeal with his emphasis on prosecuting corruption, fighting the opioid crisis, and standing up at times to the Trump administration. The former U.S. attorney made his case during his campaign announcement in Jamestown Tuesday, calling the AG's office a logical next step.

6. From The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan: “ 'The real crisis in American journalism is at the local and metro level,' says Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia, founded last year to save local journalism in Philadelphia and spread the cure around the nation. With the death of their old business model — based on once-plentiful print advertising — newsrooms are trying something new, he said. Like never before, they are turning to philanthropic sources and community support for sustenance." Meanwhile, Jim Hummel tells me that national foundations are taking note of his incipient partnership with the ProJo, which he calls one of the first in the country between a nonprofit and a metro daily newspaper.

7. "The media is missing the Republican takeover in New England," according to a headline this week in The New York Post. That might be news to Rhode Islanders, considering how the GOP got shutout of state and national offices in 2014 and lost ground in the General Assembly in 2016. Then again, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung ran a very competitive race against Gov. Raimondo last time around, and Donald Trump proved his drawing power in traditional Democratic bastions like Johnston two years later. Meanwhile, writes the Post's Salena Zito, "Last November, while most of the country was either cheering Donald Trump’s presidential win or making an appointment with their therapist about how to cope with the results, New Englanders in four out of the region’s six 'blue' states — Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine — woke up the next morning with four Republican governors." Zito points to this as evidence that the GOP is the only national party. (Then again, a new Suffolk University-USA Today poll points to plummeting support for Republicans.) So will Rhode Island veer toward the GOP in 2018 or remain more uniformly supportive of Democrats? Stay tuned.

8. On the progressive side of the aisle, Rep. Regunberg maintains "people might not label themselves liberal or progressive or whatever it might be, but I think in Rhode Island, in the Democratic Party, by and large, people support the values and the issues that we're talking about. They support a woman's right to choose, they support standing up for working people, they support bolder climate action and protecting our environment," Regunberg said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. After electoral gains in 2016, he said progressives will continue to try to increase their numbers in the General Assembly next year. While priorities have not yet formally been drawn up for the caucus, Regunberg expects the focus to include funding for improving school buildings, advocating for reproductive rights, stronger increases in the minimum wage and expanding the use of renewable energy.

9. Wedding bells are chiming this weekend for some of our friends and colleagues in Rhode Island’s media-political firmament. Best wishes and many blessings to WPRI's Ted Nesi and Kim Kalunian, and also to Anita Baffoni, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, and her partner, Jacob Taylor.

10. Coming next Thursday, October 12, at the Providence Athenaeum: I'll moderate a timely discussion on the role of Twitter and Facebook in local and national politics. The panel will consist of Luis Vargas, a former RI House candidate and outreach coordinator for the state GOP; Providence Ward 3 City Councilor Nirva LaFortune; and communications strategist Bill Fischer. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

11. Justine Caldwell is one of the Rhode Islanders who wanted the General Assembly to vote this year on the bill sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, both Providence Democrats, to create a law protecting abortion rights in Rhode Island. As noted previously in TGIF, the politics of this are tough for legislative leadership, since the perception is there's little to gain by subjecting lawmakers to a vote on a highly polarizing issue. That explains why the Ajello/Goldin bill never got a floor vote this year. Yet advocates like Caldwell remain alarmed about the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court under President Trump. In a piece for RI Future, she pointed to public pressure as the reason why U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin changed his vote to oppose a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks: "Langevin’s vote set an example for his colleagues in Congress — that they need to listen to, and represent, their constituents," Caldwell wrote. "His official statement, that he came to this decision after speaking with doctors and women in his district, is what we want our legislators to do. We hope that when we attempt to persuade legislators to vote for women’s health and reproductive rights, they will listen to us — and he did." Of course, Langevin also has constituents who oppose abortion. Yet with Caldwell and her colleagues maintaining their focus on abortion rights, it remains to be seen how they will influence the General Assembly in 2018.

12. "Why mass shootings rarely change the paralyzed politics of guns"

13. With Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza heading into 2018 as the odds-on favorite to win re-election -- despite a measure of regular grousing about City Hall around town -- Kobi Dennis has the opportunity to raise issues and bring the debate to the incumbent. Dennis is running a somewhat unconventional campaign: he announced on Facebook Live and has yet to send an email my way. But he appears serious about his run. If you want to learn more, Dan McGowan's introductory piece -- aptly headlined, "Win or Lose, Kobi Dennis see mayoral campaign as 'teachable moment' for Providence" -- is a good place to start. Elorza, meanwhile, used a ProJo op-ed this week to tout his administration's progress, and City Hall is boasting a $10.2 million surplus for fiscal 2017.

14. Former state Rep. Spencer Dickinson joins Paul Roselli as a Democrat challenging Gov. Raimondo with a focus on climate change and the proposed Burrillville power plant. Via Bob Plain: "Dickinson supported Nick Mattiello for House speaker over more progressive challengers. Then, in 2016 he campaigned for Republican Steve Frias who was competing for Mattiello’s House seat. He campaigned for Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, but he also says President Donald Trump makes some good points. 'When he talks about American trade policies going against the interest of the American working people,' Dickinson said. 'I don’t think the Democratic Party is anywhere near that and I think that is the number one reason he is president. I refuse to hate Donald Trump. I can criticize the things he’s said and I may wish he went to charm school but we have a country and I know a lot of people who like Trump.' "

15. Rhode Island is no stranger to redistricting machinations. State lawmakers on the outs, Republicans and Democratic dissidents, have for years found their districts contorted through or toward multiple communities. But the stakes are certainly higher with the U.S. Supreme Court set to consider whether extreme partisan redistricting is undemocratic. The focus is a Wisconsin case in which Republicans used their hold on the legislature and the governor's office to press their advantage. As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, "Working in secret, they drew new district lines that would, for the remainder of the decade, solidify their control. A week after the plan was unveiled, the GOP majority enacted it into law. The plan was amazingly on target. In the next election in 2012, Republicans, carried only a minority of the state vote — 48.6 percent — but, as the GOP map designers had privately predicted, Republicans still won close to two-thirds of the state assembly seats, a 60-39 seat majority."

16. With Facebook facing growing scrutiny over election-related Russian ads, Democrats are pressing the case for new regulations advertising on Facebook.

17. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has reduced the stake of Rhode Island's $8 billion pension fund in hedge funds by more than $500 million, a move he first unveiled in September 2016. As RIPR reported at that time, "Magaziner defended as necessary the 2011 pension overhaul spearheaded by [then-Treasurer] Raimondo -- which earned her the lasting enmity of many public employees and retirees -- as well as her stated intention to reduce risk by using a higher stake of hedge funds. 'We were too risky going into the financial crisis, which hurt us,' he said. Asked if putting a bigger stake of the pension fund in hedge funds was a mistake, Magaziner said, 'Well, some of the funds performed very well. I would say that most of them didn't meet expectations.' " Raimondo has defended the move to raise the state's hedge fund stake, telling me last May, "We made the best decision we could with the information that we had, all with an eye toward protecting people's pensions. You have to remember, at the time we made those decisions, we had just lived through the greatest stock market crash ever; people got really hurt in that. And so what we were trying to say do is say, how do we protect pensions, how do we protect ourselves if the market crashes again. The stuff we invested in was pretty standard; many other pension funds did it."

18. Bob Kerr, who spent time in Vietnam as a Marine combat correspondent, has some reflections on Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's PBS series on the war: "So much of what and who we were came together in Vietnam.  It’s important to remember that only about 10 percent of the Americans who went actually saw combat.  The rest drove trucks and cooked and worked as clerks and got to go to a club at night and drink beer and maybe watch some porn. The PBS film seems to separate the Vietnam War from the Vietnam experience.  It was so much more than combat, so much more than politics.  It was millions of very young people, many of them drafted, bringing their American ways to a place where American ways didn't  play well.  There was arrogance, also ugly disrespect in some bases.  But in others, there was the attempt to reach across the cultural divide and make connections that had nothing to do with B-52s or Richard Nixon.  Some of us fell in love.  Some of us simply took the time to stop and look around and see one of the most beautiful places we would ever see.   Perhaps - perhaps - we sat down for fish heads and rice and knew we were being watched by the Vietnamese to see how we would handle the local fare."

19. Inc. highlights Providence as a city attracting millennials.

20. Are hunter-gatherers the happiest humans on Earth? Via NPR: "The idea is simple: Perhaps the American and European way of living isn't the pinnacle of human existence. Humanity hasn't been marching — in a linear fashion — toward some promised land. Perhaps, Western society isn't some magical state in which technology free us from the shackles of acquiring basic needs and allows us to maximize leisure and pleasure. Instead, maybe, modernization has done just the opposite. Maybe the most leisurely days of humanity are behind us — way, way behind us. 'Did our hunter-gatherers have it better off?' James Lancester asks in a recent issue of The New Yorker. 'We're flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great,' Lancester writes."

21. As we cheer on the Red Sox in the AL Division Series in a slog against the Astros, Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal has some thoughts on the excessive length of baseball games. His advice to pitchers: "Throw that rock. What’s the matter with you? This isn’t that hard. Rear back and chuck it. There are people who play chess faster than this. Let them hit it, put it into play—your teammates behind you are atrophying from lack of physical activity. Your curveball stinks anyway. Don’t worry about the guy on first base—he’s 15 pounds overweight, he’s not going anywhere."