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

Oct 28, 2016

We're heading into the home stretch ahead of Rhode Island's November 8th election. 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. How pissed off are Rhode Islanders at the status quo? We'll get some insight into that question after voters decide legislative races on November 8. A few cycles ago, Republicans were unable to build their ranks on Smith Hill despite the seemingly fertile opportunity offered by the Great Recession, so it's fair to wonder if much will change. Plus, the GOP is starting out by losing four members in the House (Doreen Costa, Joe Trillo, Daniel Reilly, and Karen MacBeth). Yet various interest groups, including The Gaspee Project and the RI branch of The Roosevelt Society, are trying to change the dynamic. Gaspee has sent two waves of mailers opposing some incumbents while supporting others. The groups made enough of an impact that they emerged as targets for RI Democratic Party adviser Bill Lynch. “Nearly $100k has been spent this year in an attempt to influence this election for Trump Republicans looking to take over the General Assembly,” Lynch said in a statement this week. “I challenge all of these organizations to immediately disclose how much of their expenditures originated in donations from the Trucking Industry -- who are clearly angry that they have to pay for road repairs instead of RI taxpayers.” The Roosevelt Society's Dan Harrop declined to disclose whether truckers have contributed to his group, although he noted that all contributors of more than $1,000 have been listed. Meanwhile, Mike Stenhouse said all of The Gaspee Project's contributions have come from in-state, and none from the trucking industry. Stenhouse also used a statement to hit back at Lynch for criticizing businessman Warren Galkin. (Justin Katz notes how the article from a liberal source referenced by Lynch calls the same line of attack "nasty.") Said Stenhouse, "The potentially slanderous statements by Democrats, via their high paid advisor, Bill Lynch, are further examples of the Left’s ongoing effort to shut down free-speech. The Gaspee Project believes that every American has the right to support the causes they believe in, without fear of recrimination from the government or the entrenched powers that be. The Gaspee Project and its supporters will not be bullied into silence and re-assert their constitutional right to disagree with their government." So it goes, with less than two weeks until Election Day.

2. What prompted Shawna Lawton's endorsement of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello via a mailer this week? To some, the move seemed highly suspect. (House Minority Leader Brian Newberry on FB: "For the record I know nothing about Ms. Lawton aside from her Twitter postings and I am not involved at all in the House 15 race, either the primary or general. But I know how things work in this state and my crystal ball says that there will be legislation next year on her anti-vaccine issue that will magically turn into a Study Commission pumpkin on June 23, 2017, proving that naivete thy name is rookie candidates.") Then again, the RI GOP has long been marked by internal divisions. Lawton didn't respond to a request for comment. Via Twitter, she said, "I was a candidate. I am a constituent. I have expressed concerns for both. I did my research. I voiced my opinion." Asked for comment, Mattiello's Republican rival, Steven Frias, said, "This is obviously a case of sour grapes or shilling for Mattiello. I do not think Ms. Lawton's endorsement will sway voters my race. However, Ms. Lawton's refusal to disclose the cost of the mailer, who paid for the mailer and with whom she discussed her  decision to send out this mailer makes one wonder if the Mattiello campaign or persons allied with his campaign may have played a role in her endorsement mailer.  If there was any coordination, it could become legally problematic for Speaker Mattiello." (Mattiello's campaign denied any connection to Lawton's endorsement.) 

3. Three takes on whether your ballot is secure in Rhode Island and elsewhere: 1) Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says Rhode Islanders should feel confident; 2) The New York Times calls Donald Trump's emphasis on rigged elections "the culmination of roughly two decades of alarms, investigations and political gamesmanship in which remarkably little voter fraud has been documented, but the conviction that it is widespread has gone from a fringe notion to an article of faith for many Republicans;" 3) John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island: "In 2016 the presidential campaign has shone a bright light on how we run our elections, both here in Rhode Island and around the country. The results of that extra scrutiny are mixed. On the one hand, we’re all getting a great civics lesson. I was listening to Boston sports talk radio yesterday when the host mentioned he just voted using Massachusetts’s new early voting law despite being on the inactive voter list. That’s a big leap from the Ideal Gas Law. On the other hand, some of the challenges election administrators face, or poor decisions they make, are being highlighted in a very unflattering, and possibly inaccurate, way. What is certain is the suggestion that the system is “rigged” is both uninformed and dangerous. Our elections are a function of municipal, county (in most places), and state governments. They’re subject to federal and local laws. In other words, they’re both highly complex and very decentralized. While we have documented that some things can go wrong, the sheer complexity makes the idea that the system can be “rigged” laughable. Rhode Island has made tremendous progress toward improving our elections, from new voting equipment to online registration, and we continue to push for additional improvements. There may even be a silver lining, with trust in the electoral process rising under the bright lights of 2016."

4. Related: Christopher Del Sesto's granddaughter writes in The Washington Post about Rhode Island's disputed 1956 gubernatorial election, when Del Sesto (a Republican) won by 427 votes, but didn't challenge a successful court appeal by Democrat Dennis J. Roberts. "My grandfather saw the election of 1956 as a harbinger not for himself or his party but for us all and our system of government," writes Cristina Del Sesto. "His post decision comment to Time was only this: 'Democracy suffered another setback in Rhode Island today.' ”

5. Providence Ward 14 Councilman David Salvatore has been an increasingly outspoken critic of the majority headed by City Council President Luis Aponte. So give a listen to his appearance this week on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A, for Salvatore's take on a range of issues. (Thanks to WPRI.com's Dan McGowan for making a guest appearance on our panel.) Most significantly, Salvatore agrees that the dispute over the council's infrastructure bond (for more on this, see item #5) raises serious questions about the city's ability to face its financial challenges.

6. Providence Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier used his weekly ward letter to contend that the city's proposed $40 million infrastructure bond -- which fell apart due to a dispute between Mayor Jorge Elorza and the council majority -- "is an electoral zombie. Even if voters approve it unanimously, we will not have an infrastructure bond thanks to the wisdom of the City Council leadership. Continuing on the ghoulish theme, the zombie bond is the product of a Frankenstein monster of a bond ordinance created by the same majority, who created the dual-vote procedure after the mayor refused to agree to the 'slush fund' proposal made by the Finance Committee in July. The City Council majority’s arbitrary and capricious political games have insulted the city’s voters by placing on the ballot a bond proposal that they have made impossible to fund. As part of a post hoc effort to justify their political gamesmanship, the City Council majority organized a press conference on Tuesday evening at which they excluded the five City Council members who sought an infrastructure bond that was free of “slush funds.” At that press conference, they offered a fictional pretext for their decision, saying the City could not afford to issue a bond to repair its streets and infrastructure." (Council spokeswoman Michaela Antunes responds, "We recommend voting no on Question 8 because it is not financially prudent and it is not attached to a responsible spending commitment. From the beginning, Council leadership was not convinced that this bond was the best choice for Providence taxpayers. However, we were willing to accommodate the mayor's request on this and allow him to add a significant debt to the City's balance sheets if he could prove to the public that the money was going to be spent on projects with real merit; these projects would have to be  outlined in advance to ensure an open and transparent process, and half of the funds would have to be distributed equitably among all of Providence's neighborhoods – not just concentrated in a handful of politically powerful wards. The mayor attempted to wriggle out of this agreement at the last minute – hoping the timing would put political pressure on the Council to hand him a blank check. The 'slush fund' claim, which has been so irresponsibly argued by both the mayor and some within the Council, is a falsehood that is being used to distract from the real question about this bond: why should the taxpayers of Providence provide the Mayor with $40 million to use as he pleases, free of oversight and public input?") Meanwhile, Mayor Elorza offers this comment:  "No one is buying the Council's excuse that investing in our city is 'not financially prudent.' Council leadership is clearly upset that they didn't get their individual ward accounts. It's disappointing to see them play politics on this issue but we will nonetheless find a way to invest in our infrastructure."

7. State Rep. Patricia Morgan's connection with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has emerged as a campaign issue, as Bob Plain reported. (Bob's initial link is no longer working and we couldn't find one that was.)

8. Members of Providence's legislative delegation plan to stage an event next week -- possibly Wednesday -- in support of the city's proposal for remaking the 6/10 Connector. State Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence) said the gathering will include lawmakers and community activists. The intent, he said, is to encourage Governor Gina Raimondo to encourage RI DOT Director Peter Alviti to give more of an ear to community support for the Providence proposal. (DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said, via email, "RIDOT continues to work with the City of Providence and is evaluating its proposal. As the governor has stated, RIDOT will consider modifications to the plan for replacing the Route 6-10 bridges providing it does not slow down the process. The bridges must be replaced to ensure the safety of the motoring public."

9. With State Rep. John Carnevale not seeking re-election, and John DeSimone facing an uphill battle in staging a write-in campaign, the city's influence on Smith Hill could take a sharp hit in the next legislative session. Yet Councilman Salvatore is optimistic on the outlook. "I think there's an opportunity for the administration and the City Council to connect with legislators who make decisions at the Statehouse," Salvatore said on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A, "and just have conversations with them about what the needs of the city are, and what they can do to assist us. Look, we're going to be asking reps and senators moving forward to have a bigger voice on what our needs are. And I understand that a lot of the decisions that are made impact the entire state. However, there is a delegation in Providence who we will be asking to help us out moving forward." 

10. Will conservative-leaning Burrillville voters be receptive to a "gun safety" message? That's the question raised by RI For Gun Safety's spending of more than $23,000 in an effort to oust House Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable, a Democrat. As RI Public Radio reported in September, Alan Hassenfeld contributed $87,500 to fund the group. It went on to bat four for four in the primary, opposing John DeSimone and Jan Malik, and supporting Teresa Tanzi and Linda Finn. Keable, who faces a challenge this year from Republican David Place, has demonstrated staying power with Burrillville voters; in 2012, he easily repulsed a challenge by Republican Don Fox. "I opposed out of town special interests trying to build a monstrous power plant in our beautiful town of Burrillville," Keable said in a statement. "Now, out of town money is flooding District 47 with attack mailers and advertising. I believe that the people of Burrillville and Glocester know me, know that I stand for them, and will reject the out of town campaign to oust me."

11. RIPR's Ambar Espinoza reports on how progress on Deepwater Wind's Block Island wind farm is solidifying Rhode Island's status as a wind power pioneer in the US: "This week, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut approved bidders for 460 megawatts of renewable energy projects that include solar and wind to help meet the region’s needs. Offshore wind now has a promising spot in the country’s renewable energy portfolio. From Massachusetts to Virginia, the federal government has issued 11 leases, and it will auction off more than 79,000 acres offshore New York in December." Deepwater CEO Jeff Grybowski predicts, meanwhile, that growing competition will benefit rate payers. Given time, that could shed light on whether Deepwater's project is worth the public cost.

12. Alex + Ani has launched a jewelry line using copper that was once part of the Statue of Liberty, thanks to Rick Stocks, the caretaker for discarded parts of the venerable icon. As The New York Times reports, "Mr. Stocks learned of Carolyn Rafaelian, the owner of Alex and Ani, from a friend in 2013. Ms. Rafaelian’s paternal grandfather, Melkon Rafaelian, had arrived at Ellis Island from Armenia in 1913, settled in Providence, R.I., and started a family. His son, Ms. Rafaelian’s father, Ralph, started a company, Cinerama Jewelry, which became known for its American flag pins. In 2004, Ms. Rafaelian started her own jewelry company, which has grown to 80 stores worldwide. Mr. Stocks contacted Ms. Rafaelian and they were soon sharing their visions for the Statue of Liberty’s copper. Mr. Stocks eventually sold the bulk of the copper in his warehouses to Ms. Rafaelian. Both have declined to give details of their financial arrangement, citing a confidential agreement. 'We connected on a soul level,' Ms. Rafaelian recalled. 'I was going to take on his mission with him.' "

13. Curt Schilling's new online radio broadcast with Breitbart is up and running. Meanwhile, a new poll shows Senator Elizabeth Warren with a 58 percent-24 percent advantage over Schilling (16 percent undecided) in a potential matchup.

14. RI native Jennifer Duffy (writing before more recent news about Hillary Clinton) predicts Democrats will gain five to seven seats in the US Senate, a gain that would elevate Jack Reed to chair the Armed Services Committee. Excerpt: "Assuming that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the White House, the party needs four seats to tie the chamber, leaving the Vice President as the tie breaking vote. For much of the cycle, we have expected Democrats to score a net gain of between four and six seats. Since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, Senate Republicans have seen their fortunes dip, particularly in states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania where Clinton has established a lead. In fact, of the Senate seats in the Toss Up column, Trump only leads in Indiana and Missouri where both Republicans are running a few points behind him."

15. Providence native Tom Donilon is getting attention as possibly the lead contender to lead the State Department, if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president. Meanwhile, the FBI is reopening an investigation related to Clinton's email.

16. Media critic Dan Kennedy believes the proposed $85 billion merger of AT&T and Time Warner would be bad for the public interest. Excerpt:  "What’s sad is that the internet did much to break up the media monopolies of years past—and now those monopolies may be reconstituting themselves in new ways. When I was covering the media for the Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and early 2000s, I wrote a number of articles about the dangers posed by our news organizations being controlled by a handful of corporate titans. The internet, though, fostered the rise of a new breed of independent journalism—from commercial sites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to nonprofits such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity to thousands of smaller projects. What will happen, though, in a media environment in which telecoms like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon use their stranglehold on internet access to control what we read, see, and hear? It is of some comfort that the media and technology behemoths of our age—Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft—often find themselves on the opposite side of the telecoms. But in the struggle to maintain independent media, we shouldn’t have to rely on one group of corporations fighting another."

17. We're sending our thoughts and prayers to Bruce McCrae, aka Rudy Cheeks -- Jorge of Phillipe & Jorge -- who suffered a stroke earlier this week. A family member has more here.

18. Good point by the Libertarian Party of RI, via statement: "Among the choices voters have to make in November, five questions on the Rhode Island ballot come with a price tag. Voters will have to decide whether to authorize the government to spend another $364 million. The total face value of the bond questions is $225 million, but interest over the life of the bonds – which create a general obligation to repay, like any loan or mortgage - adds another $139 million - almost 62% more debt to be paid." .... Meanwhile, on Wednesday, November 2, ex-ProJo political columnist Edward Fitzpatrick will moderate a forum at Roger Williams University's School of Law, Room 283 (6-8 pm) on the economic impact of the seven ballot questions facing voters. Registration is encouraged at NewportChamber.com.

19. Rick Reamer, who curates RI Public Radio's This I Believe essay series, has written a book based on his lengthy experience as a member of the state Parole Board. Coverage via The Guardian: "The hardest cases, by far, were always those where the victim was adamant about not paroling this inmate because of the horror. 'And then on the other side of the coin an inmate demonstrates genuine, profound, impressive insight, they’ve worked very hard at their issues,' Reamer said. 'When you try to boil down justice, what’s the right thing to do in those instances?' Reamer’s new book, On The Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment and Redemption and Justice, which is out next month on Columbia University Press, goes through dozens of cases where this tension plays out. His aim is to 'lift back the curtain' on the parole process, which allows a group of unelected officials to have enormous influence on the criminal justice system."

20. "What a reporter learned when he infiltrated an Arizona militia group."

21. This is very anecdotal information, based on what I've observed while knocking doors with candidates this campaign season. But some of the Rhode Islanders frustrated with the status quo on Smith Hill also remain quite upset about the 2011 pension overhaul spearheaded by then-treasurer Gina Raimondo, due to the impact on longtime employees.

22. Meet 108-year-old Hazel Nilson, who was born before the Chicago Cubs' last World Series victory in 1908 .... Meanwhile, the PawSox/Skeffington Charitable Foundation say they're sending two kids from the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club to see part of the World Series -- part of a 27-year tradition for the team. "The children, Jack Marsella, 13, of Providence and Brian Vanasse, Jr., 10, of Pawtucket, will be accompanied by Jack’s father, Paul, and Brian’s father, Brian," the team said in a news release. "The Rhode Island ambassadors will attend Games 3 and 4 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field."