TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Sep 30, 2016

October beckons, with playoff baseball, autumnal beauty, and the run-up to the deciding of legislative races. 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. (A quick program note: I'm taking most of next week off, so TGIF will probably not return until October 14.) Here we go.

1. When it came to reducing the state pension fund's stake in hedge funds, the question was always more "when" than "if." Hedge funds have steadily fallen out of favor in recent years due to flagging performance; a series of companies liquidated their hedge funds last year. But pensions are closely linked with politics -- particularly in Rhode Island, where Gina Raimondo's spearheading of a 2011 pension overhaul earned her both national attention and lasting scorn from some public employees. That could help explain why General Treasurer Seth Magaziner's move away from hedge funds is dubbed "Back to Basics." At the same time, Magaziner chose his words carefully when asked during a briefing if Raimondo's expansion of the hedge stake in 2011 was a mistake. "Well, some of the funds performed very well," he responded. "I would say that most of them didn't meet expectations." Meanwhile, Magaziner's change of course doubled as an opportunity for him to make the media rounds, as he got out-of-town attention from CNBC, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Pensions & Investments, and the like. Yet further pension challenges loom on the horizon. In a reflection of lagging performance on Wall Street, Magaziner signaled a likely reduction next spring in the 7.5 percent expected rate of return for the state's $7.65 billion pension fund. Meanwhile, Providence's pension fund is less than 30 percent funded, and cities and towns owe billions in unfunded pension and healthcare benefits.

2. Providence City Council President Luis Aponte this week became the second council member to have a campaign finance issue referred by the state Board of Elections to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin's office. As WPRI.com's Dan McGowan reports, "Aponte borrowed thousands of dollars from his city retirement account and his ex-wife in order to reimburse his campaign fund for more than $15,000 in personal or unexplained expenditures over the last six years." (This comes after Kevin Jackson, formerly the council's majority leader, was accused of campaign finance violations and misappropriating more than $127,000 from a youth sports organization.)

3. Ward 14 Providence Councilor David Salvatore is expressing frustration after Council Majority Whip Jo-Ann Ryan rejected his request to publish on the council web site his statement expressing disappointment about Aponte's campaign finance issue. "I find it shameful for the city council to go radio silent whenever one of these issues is brought to public light,"  Salvatore writes in an email to RIPR. "During the past year, certain council members have worked hard to provide the city with reform tools to ensure that inappropriate campaign finance uses are not part of our future. Unfortunately, these reform measures remain unheard, sitting in committee without public vetting. Each time a member of the council is tainted by scandal, it negatively impacts the council and the city as a whole. In times like these, the council needs to stand up and reassure the people of Providence that the actions of one do not represent us as a whole. The people of Providence deserve better than the 'business as usual' mentality that prevents our city from making progress." Ryan responds via statement: "I recommended that the councilor’s unrestrained and untempered statement regarding another councilor’s campaign finance matter should not be posted on the City Council website because it is an inappropriate use of city resources. The official City Council website is a taxpayer resource that states its purpose is to provide the public with information about the activities and initiatives of the legislative branch of Providence’s government. Political attacks on members of the council body do not align with the council’s mission, rules of decorum, or communication standards and it is inappropriate for city councilors to abuse our taxpayer resources to promote their own personal or political agendas. I had encouraged the councilor to contact me about this matter -- that has not happened as of yet."

4. Governor Raimondo has written to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, expressing support for Providence's bid to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship next year. "Rhode Island shares a storied history with the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the evolution of college basketball, beginning with the establishment of the Big East Conference and carrying on through last March, when our capital city was home to the first portion of the men's 2016 championship tournament. Unquestioningly, Providence demonstrated itself to be the perfect backdrop to exciting, memorable games that evoke the kind of sportsmanship the NCAA celebrates. As Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski -- Coach K -- observed, "This is a great site. We were treated unbelievably well." Coach K's experience is owed to something even more enduring than Rhode Island's relationship with the NCAA -- our State's history of being inclusive and welcoming. Rhode Island was famously founded in 1636 on the principle of personal and religious freedom. Today, that tradition of acceptance persists and we count the diversity it invites as one of our deepest strengths." In signing off, Raimondo pledged to work, if the NCAA returns to Providence, "to ensure that every person who comes to enjoy the games is not only welcomed, but is, in the words of Coach K, treated unbelievably well."

5. Rumors have been flying about a possible write-in campaign by John DeSimone, following his primary defeat in House District 5 by Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. Let's start by noting that DeSimone did not respond to a request for comment -- and write-in campaigns generally come off as somewhere between quixotic and desperate. One recent high water mark came in 2002, when write-in candidate Bruce Bayuk came somewhat close to knocking off John Harwood. (Update: as a reader reminds me, write-in candidate Marcus Mitchell lost to Providence Councilor Kevin Jackson by less than 100 votes in 2014 -- a contest that looms larger due to the pending charges against Jackson.) More often than not, though, write-ins have faired about as well as former rep. Jon Brien when he staged a last-chance write-in campaign in 2012. Even Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee came up short when he staged a write-in race in 2004, after not taking seriously enough a challenge by Cumberland mayoral candidate David Iwuc.

6. The NRA's Political Victory Fund showed a strong inclination to back incumbents in its endorsements for November General Assembly races. The group signaled support for only one challenger, Republican Robert Quattrocchi, who's taking on Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Scituate). NRA RI lobbyist Darin Goens offered this explanation of the endorsement process: "Our process starts by looking at whether or not the candidate has a voting record that includes Second Amendment issues, and we examine that. We also consider public statements by the candidates, campaign material, and their responses to our candidate questionnaire. We do tend to put more weight on a voting record, hence the friendly incumbent policy."

7. Ward 15 Providence Councilor Sabina Matos (Olneyville, Valley) gives Jorge Elorza an incomplete when asked to give the mayor a letter grade for his performance at City Hall. "There are so many decisions that have to be made, so I cannot make a final assessment," Matos said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. (Matos backed Michael Solomon for mayor in 2014.) She credits Elorza with having the strength to have tough decisions, and says that like other new officials, he's faced a sharp learning curve. As far as Elorza's vow that the city will save $15 million over five years from a tentative agreement with firefighters, Matos said it's too early to know. But she agrees with the mayor's assertion that city officials will have the political will to face Providence's financial challenges and avoid receivership.

8. Best wishes to Liz Boardman, managing editor of The Independent, who is returning to her native Iowa to become assistant city editor of the Quad City Times. "I have loved telling your stories and advocating for truth, justice and transparency," Boardman writes in a farewell note. "I believe journalism is essential to democracy. Being a journalist in a community like this, for a paper that is recognized as one of the best in New England, has been an honor and a privilege."

9. Facebook has become a mega-source for media traffic (not without a big down side), so can the social network also increase voting participation? It turns out that voter registration soared nationally in late September, and FB (which recently began prompting people to register) is getting part of the credit. As it happens, 2,699 Rhode Islanders registered to vote between Friday, September 23 and Monday, September 26 -- the period coinciding with the start of Facebook's registration push. That amount is more than half of the 5,993 voters who signed up over a longer, earlier period, all the way from August 1 to September 23, according to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office. In sum, 10,514 voters have signed on since the launch of the state's new online registration system on 8/1.

10. Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, a Providence firm, argues that I-195 District redevelopment is unfolding super-slowly because of overly large lots: "Large urban lots are expensive to buy and expensive to build on, so the list of potential buyers is pretty short. It includes mostly multinational real estate development companies looking to construct the one type of building they’ve perfected, make a quick profit for their shareholders, and get out of dodge. This development model extracts value from the city, rather than cultivating it – not ideal if you’re hoping for sustained economic growth. Big building projects also bring with them big risk, and the government will be more inclined to throw bailout-level incentives at a large-scale project that is threatening to fail or walk away (38 Studios, anyone?). The city can maybe handle two or three of these projects, but definitely not 33 of them all at once." So what's the solution? "If the I-195 commission were to simply subdivide each lot into 20 - 30 foot widths and half the depth of the block – you know, the way American cities have developed since the days of westward expansion – they could lower the barriers to entry, encourage local investment, add more properties to the city’s tax rolls, give away smaller incentives, enable better architecture, and create a more interesting cityscape."

11. How the creators of Curious George escaped the Nazis.

12. Congrats to the ProJo's G. Wayne Miller, whose book Toy Wars has gotten picked up as a limited dramatic series by Amazon. As Deadline reports, "Journalist and novelist Miller wrote the book after five years of unprecedented access to Hasbro, sitting in on meetings and interviewing employees. It follows Alan Hassenfeld, a free spirit who never intended to be an executive. He was thrust into the spotlight, taking the reins of Hasbro when his older brother Stephen, the marketing genius who had built up the family toy company into a powerhouse, died of AIDS.  The book features a number of real-life characters, like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. One of them is Stephen Schwartz, Josh Schwartz’s father. He was one of late visionary CEO Steven Hassenfeld’s 'Three Musketeers,' who helped turn Hasbro into the number one toy company in the world."

13. Phil Eil's "Six lessons from A five-year FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] battle," ranging from "know your rights," and "the media's FOIA blind spot," to -- what else? -- "final words of inspiration."

14. The Rhode Island Coalition for Ethics Reform formally launched this week, as part of the effort to pass ballot Question 2, restoring state Ethics Commission conflict oversight over the General Assembly. Meanwhile, the RI ACLU and AFL-CIO separately expressed their opposition. In a statement, the AFL-CIO said it endorsed each of the other ballot questions: Question 1 - Approve Casino Gaming in Tiverton; Question 3 - Rhode Island Veteran’s Home; Question 4 - University of Rhode Island Engineering College & Business Innovation Center; Question 5 - Quonset & ProvPort Infrastructure Projects; Question 6 - Environmental Projects; Question 7 - Affordable Housing.

15. RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison breaks down the differences between PARCC scores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Check her story for detailed comparisons. Overview: "Here are the biggest takeaways from these comparisons: Rhode Island’s urban and middle-income communities may want to visit Massachusetts to find out why more of their students are scoring at a level that meets or exceeds expectations. But no one has solved the problem of achievement gaps, and wealthier districts in Rhode Island compare well to similar districts in Massachusetts."

16. Ward 15 Providence Councilor Sabina Matos says that when she first ran for office, "a political expert" questioned her intention to send her son to a charter school. "Let me tell you," Matos said on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, "Every time I go the hair salon in my neighborhood, every time I go to the grocery store, the bodegas, people are approaching me, asking me for options for their kids to go to school. So I understand we need to support the public school system .... but at the same time we need options, and I think every other parent deserves the right to have options like I did." When it comes to Achievement First's plan to expand in Providence, Matos said she backs expansion, but remains undecided on the degree. "We can not deny the success they're having so far," she said. 

17. Thomas Verdi has been an amateur scout for the Cincinnati Reds since 2015.. Now he's deputy police chief in Providence.

18. Iftikhar Ahmad has been hired as the new president and CEO of the RI Airport Corporation. He's coming to Rhode Island after six years leading airport operations Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. According to a news release, "Mr. Ahmad spearheaded an unprecedented period of growth in New Orleans. Under Mr. Ahmad’s leadership annual passenger traffic grew from 7.8 million passengers in 2009 to 10.7 million in 2015, representing an increase of more than 36%. These numbers are projected to surpass 11 million in 2016, which would mark a 42% increase over 2009. During that same timeframe, passenger travel at peer airports declined by 6.6% while New Orleans broke all its previous records."

19. " 'Cup Noodles' Turns 45: A Closer Look at the Revolutionary Ramen Creation."

20. If you want a tough look at both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, check out "The Choice 2016," compelling work by Frontline PBS.

21. Rhode Island native Nate Dimeo, now an artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has crafted a successful podcast, The Memory Palace, based in part on his memories of the Ocean State. Nate once worked at WRNI, as RI Public Radio was formerly known, so it's only fair that Chuck Hinman profiled him for our airwaves.

22. NPR recently reported on the latest Ig Nobel Prizes, "given for achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK .... The honorees included a man who lived as a goat, a man who lived as a badger, a man who put tiny pants on rats and tracked their sex lives, a team who investigated the personalities of rocks, and Volkswagen." As fate would have it, I penned a profile of Ig Nobel maestro Marc Abrahams in 1999, shortly before landing in the Biggest Little.