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

Oct 20, 2017

It's not every week when a big national story has dramatic consequences in Rhode Island, but that's precisely what happened this time around with the Weinstein Effect. 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. The male-dominated culture of the Statehouse is under the microscope after State Rep. Teresa Tanzi told the ProJo she experienced sexual harassment from a higher-ranking lawmaker: “I have been told sexual favors would allow my bills to go further.” Tanzi has declined to identify the other legislator, or to provide details on the context; she said that is beside the point. "If I talk about one person, people will think it is about one person," the four-term South Kingstown Democrat told me. "If I talk about one time, people will think it was an isolated incident. And neither was the case for women everywhere. When we have 1 million people using #MeToo in 48 hours, it about a pervasive culture that has to change." Tanzi believes the best way to deliver change is through a commission examining laws on sexual harassment in Rhode Island. "There is nothing unique about the Rhode Island Statehouse," Tanzi said. "What will make us unique is how we respond to this moment."

2. The ensuing controversy has parked a perceptual cloud above Smith Hill, one that went wider after Tanzi told a Boston TV station that she was also harassed by a federally elected official. (She later clarified her statement to say it was "objectification," not harassment, and did not involve anyone from Rhode Island.) Two GOP House members posted detailed reactions on Facebook, Brian Newberry of North Smithfield and Michael Chippendale of Foster. Both said they were surprised by Tanzi's allegation and both consider it important to identify the source of the harassment. Meanwhile, in an unusual pairing, state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell and liberal firebrand Kate Coyne-McCoy occupied similar terrain in calling for a more aggressive response. "This is now an issue of corruption at the State House," Bell argued in a statement. "There is no difference between a legislator asking for sex to support a bill than a legislator asking for a bag of cash to vote for a bill." Sexual harassment, Coyne-McCoy said in a tweet, "will continue until men are caught, investigated and punished." It's worth remembering, too, that women still represent less than a third of the 113 seats in the General Assembly. Generally speaking, when women run for office in Rhode Island, they win. Electing more female legislators could change the culture in and around the General Assembly.

3. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello responded late Friday to the controversy involving Joe DeLorenzo, 2nd vice chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, after DeLorenzo groused about "left-wing whack jobs" and used a radio interview to question Tanzi's account of being sexually harassed. "The comments made by Joe DeLorenzo were insensitive and out of place with societal values," Mattiello said in a statement. "I will speak with Joe and suggest and expect that he will apologize for his comments. Regretfully, his remarks began as part of the local and national trend where the left and the right within our party are attacking one another, which is completely inappropriate.These ideological attacks must stop and we must respect every viewpoint within the party. I will work with the progressives, moderates and conservatives to make sure that the Democratic Party is inclusive of everyone.” Meanwhile, Mattiello faces other thorny issues ahead of the new (election year) legislative session. Some legislators are calling for the speaker to lead an effort to identify the harasser cited by Rep. Tanzi. "Rep. Tanzi has declined to identify the individual," responded Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman. "Speaker Mattiello respects her request for privacy." As TGIF noted last week, the PawSox stadium controversy is a looming campaign issue in Mattiello's House district. (Steven Frias, who almost ousted Mattiello in 2016, returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday to testify on the stadium before the House Finance Committee.) Looking ahead, there's an added wrinkle for Mr. Speaker: how Mattiello's signature accomplishment from 2017, the intended multi-year phaseout of Rhode Island's hated car tax, could be impacted by a projected $237 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

4. "After 84 years, female legislators of the House get their own restroom." Can you guess the year when that headline was published in the ProJo's Political Scene column? Would you be shocked if it was 2007? In the time since, the number of female reps in the 75-member has climbed from 15 to 23 in the 75-member House, so that's some level of progress. There are now 11 females in the 38-member Senate, where Teresa Paiva Weed led the chamber before stepping down earlier this year. A scan of the ProJo archives yields little in terms of past instances of sexual harassment at the legislature (most of the coverage involves unproven allegations against a former speaker). Mea culpa: those of us in media should have been asking more questions all along about what it's like to be a woman at the Statehouse.

5. The firestorm created by Joe DeLorenzo's remarks about progressives and Rep. Tanzi was not his first brush with controversy. In 1994, a rental company owned by DeLorenzo offered to pay back URI for the approximately $2,500 cost of cleaning dirty folding chairs provided for a commencement exercise. "You couldn't pick up one of these chairs without getting dirty. I consider it a disaster," a URI official told The Providence Journal's John Hill. DeLorenzo's company, Ocean State Rental, provided 500 fewer chairs than ordered and 500 were unusable due to their condition. DeLorenzo blamed the problem on an Ohio chair distributor that he subcontracted to supply the chairs, which came from a Pink Floyd concert in Nashville .... In 2002, DeLorenzo was fired from his role as chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Ed Inman, according to DeLorenzo's lawyer. Inman told the ProJo's Katherine Gregg that DeLorenzo had become a public-relations problem after trying to act as a middleman in a failed effort to create a casino deal between the Narragansett Indians and Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment. "It's inappropriate what he did and the distraction that ensued has been very, very difficult for this office," Inman said at the time, reversing course from an earlier stance. DeLorenzo said he expected no compensation for his role and was involved due to his previous work as a consultant for the Narragansetts.

6. The news about big changes at Memorial Hospital broke Tuesday, just hours before the Pawtucket City Council voted, 6-2, to support the envisioned PawSox stadium near Slater Mill. The juxtaposition illustrates the tensions between that city's past and future -- the running down of old institutions and the yearning for a brighter future. So which will way it go? The outlook remains less than clear on the PawSox, despite a coalescing of establishment support. At the same time, the news involving Memorial is hardly a suprise. As Scott MacKay observes in his weekly column, "Back in 2013, the General  Assembly commissioned a report by the Health Care Planning and Accountability Council that said the state was on track to have an excess of 200 hospital beds by 2017. The report documented a drop in inpatient hospital stays by 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, compared to a national decline of less than 5 percent. At the time, the Rhode Island Business Group on Health, a group of small business professionals concerned about rising health insurance costs, wanted the Assembly to create a commission to make binding recommendations on hospital closings and mergers. As is too often the case at the Statehouse, this effort appears to have gathered dust on a shelf."

7. RIPR staged a recent panel at the Providence Athenaeum on Political Narrative in the Facebook/Twitter era, moderated by yours truly and featuring GOP activist Luis Vargas, Providence Ward 3 Councilor Nirva LaFortune, and communications consultant Bill Fischer. You can listen to it here. We covered many of the topics that will remain with us for years to come, including things like whether Silicon Valley is our friend, Russian hacking, and the role of social media in Rhode Island's 2018 campaign season.

8. Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee is among those calling out Joe DeLorenzo for his remarks on progressives and Rep. Tanzi. Yet McKee -- in the face of an incipient challenge from progressive state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), who is set to announce his campaign Tuesday -- thinks the Democratic Party needs to move closer to the center of American politics. "If we're not bringing back in people that have been disenfranchised by the Democratic Party both nationally and locally, I think that is going to impact elections," in 2018, McKee said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable. "There's been a front-row seat given to a number of constituents and you can list them." McKee points to how RI's coastal communities last year voted for Hillary Clinton last year, and inland communities for Donald Trump, in calling for a renewed focus on "traditional Democrats." "The small-business community is saying, 'what is the Democratic Party doing for us,' " he said, "and employees of those small businesses, which employ the majority of the people in the state of Rhode Island, they're saying, 'What is the Democratic Party doing for us, where is our front-row seat?' " (For more on McKee's future, see #9.)

9. The worst-kept secret in Rhode Island politics: Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is making another Republican run for governor -- and though the word got out early, he appears set to make his formal announcement on Tuesday.

10. Less clear is what Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee has up his sleeve with plans for an announcement on his future set for November 7 (although if TGIF was a betting column, we'd say he's going to seek re-election as LG). During his Political Roundtable appearance, McKee declined to reveal his plans, whether there's any chance he might seek the governor's office, or to elaborate much on why he's delaying in unveiling his plans. "We want people to come," to an undisclosed Warwick business location on November 7, "and we want to generate interest," he said.

11. Give a listen to my RIPR story on the Wexford Innovation Complex -- and whether it's the economic game-changer touted by Governor Gina Raimondo.

12. From the Pew Research Center's latest findings about gender equality: "Roughly six-in-ten Democrats (58%) say that changing gender roles have made it easier for women to lead satisfying lives; about a third of Republicans (36%) say the same. And while about half of Democrats (48%) say these changes have made it easier for men to lead satisfying lives, only 30% of Republicans share this view. In addition, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say changing gender roles have made it easier for parents to raise children, for marriages to be successful and for families to earn enough money to live comfortably. To be sure, men and women have different perspectives on how far the country has come in achieving gender equality, but these differences are relatively narrow when partisanship is considered. More than half of women (57%) say the country hasn’t done enough to give women equal rights with men, while 33% say things are about right. For their part, men are equally split between saying there is more work to be done (42%) and things are about right (44%). And women are much more likely than men to say that men have it easier these days (41% vs. 28%). Among Democrats, a majority of women (74%) and men (64%) say the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to achieving gender equality. And while Republican women are more likely than their male counterparts to share this view (33% vs. 20%), relatively small shares of each group do so."

13. Could Amazon possibly choose Rhode Island for HQ2? Dare to dream. Meanwhile, it's worth pondering whether this kind of mega-deal is practical and more of a potential distraction.

14. Black Monday -- when the Dow Jones lost about 23 percent of its value in less than a day -- happened 30 years ago this week. As Marketplace reports, the precise cause of the crash remains unclear, although a computer algorithm is believed to be part of the culprit: "Although the algorithm fell out of favor after the crash, it took almost two years for the market to make up its losses. Karen Shaw Petrou, a co-founder of the consulting firm Federal Financial Analytics, believes there’s a lesson to be learned, 'When you have new technology that is ill understood, both by traders and regulators, it’s dangerous. It’s like giving a six-year-old boy a Ferrari. It’s really not a good idea.' Yet, even now, we may not recognize the next fast cars of finance unless they are revealed in a market crash."

15. TGIF noted last week how The Providence Journal, under GateHouse Media's ownership, has published an occasional series of magazine-style supplements, most recently one about classic vinyl albums. The catch is how there's a cost to creating these editions -- money that might find a good use in the newsroom. Journal management declined to comment last week on the questions raised by these supplements. But an alert TGIF reader offered a reminder of how page A2 of the ProJo carries this notice: "Due the the added value of premium editions, there will be an additional charge for each premium edition of $5.00, which will accelerate the expiration of your subscription. There will be no more than 20 premium editions in any calendar year."

16. While the question of whether Rhode Island's economy is **wowzers** or meh meh meh will play out through the 2018 campaign season, T.F. Green Airport remains an undeniable asset for the state. Now, Conde Nast Traveler calls it one of the 10-best airports in the U.S.

17. The U.S. has a long history of resisting the metric system, as we know. But are we kidding ourselves? Via the design podcast 99% Invisible (and yes, the audio version features a clip of Rhode Island's leading metric advocate, Lincoln Chafee): "Resistance to change is a massive obstacle to overcome. Yet what resistors don’t realize is that all U.S. customary units these days are defined relative to the metric system. The system that makes sure a gallon of gas in Oakland is the same as a gallon of gas in Omaha is calibrated relative to metric standards. So a gallon is officially defined as 3.78541 liters. That means it’s all metric under the surface."

18. Some commentary on the proposed PawSox stadium from ormer Red Sox Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity: “As a player and a fan of baseball, having a professional minor league franchise is a badge of honor for our state. Personally, I’d love to see the team stay. I think it’s good for our state, and I’m not even talking about economic development.” Yet at the same time, Stenhouse tells the Heartland Institute that the stadium deal has created an unusual political alliance: The progressive Left is fighting this as wasteful spending and corporate cronyism. Republicans see it as an incredible political opportunity, because we have a gubernatorial election next year. They are ready to skewer Democratic leadership and the governor, who is likely running for re-election, if they support this deal. The Left and the far Right are together on this, but for different reasons.”

19. The fight to impose more regulation on Equifax (the subject of the breach that led to the exposure of the personal financial information of 143 million Americans) could be fought in part in state legislatures. So I asked House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio if they would support bills requiring the company to eliminate fees for Americans who want to freeze or unfreeze their credit. Ruggerio (via spokesman Greg Pare): "Any legislation would have to be reviewed through the normal committee process, of course, but in concept: yes. The Senate president has always supported consumer protection legislation." Mattiello (via spokesman Larry Berman): "There is no legislation that has been introduced, so it would be premature to offer an opinion until the new session begins and legislation is possibly introduced."

20. The progressive group Daily Action is joining forces with MoveOn.org -- led by Brown alum Anna Galland -- as the groups try to counter a host of efforts by the Trump administration.

21. Eat Drink RI has launched a kickstarter campaign to fuel a food hall in Providence. Meanwhile, local faves Grey Sail and Revival Brewing get some attention in this story on how New England became a leader in the craft beer boom. Excerpt: "New Englanders’ taste for beer goes back to the Pilgrims. They each drank a gallon a day aboard the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock not just because they were off course, but because they were running out of beer, which they considered safer to drink than water. By the mid-twentieth century, most New England towns and cities had local breweries just down the block. But these gradually folded in the face of competition from the major, national brands. These days, the region is still playing catch up to the west coast and Colorado, where the craft beer craze began back in the 1980s. Yet in some corners of New England, where other iconic industries once ruled, craft beer is doing just fine."