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

Dec 2, 2016

Just a few weeks remain until 2017, a year bound to be filled with political drama. 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 gloves came off this week in a dispute between Providence Journal editorial page editor Edward Achorn and RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell. The ball got rolling with a sharply worded editorial in Monday's ProJo -- headlined, "RI's Pathetic Republican Party" -- that faulted Bell for not running challengers in more legislative races and doing "a miserable job of creating a bench of talented officials who could be propelled into higher office." The editorial also rapped Bell for emphasizing Steven Frias' challenge to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Bell responded with an op-ed in the Journal on Thursday. He said he was proud of the GOP's performance and accused the ProJo's editorial board of being pathetic "in its efforts to kowtow to Rhode Island's political establishment." Bell, in part, questioned why Journal editorials criticized Mattiello in particular and the Statehouse in general, before turning around and endorsing the speaker. The Achorn-Bell feud continued elsewhere. Bell sent an email blast (complete with a photo of a dinosaur) calling for people to cancel their Journal subscriptions and instead donate the money to the GOP. Achorn used tweets to defend his points. Meanwhile, Rhode Island is no closer to a real two-party system. In fact, when the new General Assembly is seated in January, the GOP will hold one less seat (16) than in 2007 (17). Certainly, Bell doesn't bear blame for this lack of progress over 10 years, considering how he's held his voluntary post for less than two years. It's also true that recruiting good candidates is difficult, and Frias' run against Mattiello will have lasting impacts (see #1, from two weeks ago) Yet local Republicans tend to react defensively when the party is criticized, rather than examining the GOP's persistent shortcomings or building a more effective strategy. Bell holds out hope that having Donald Trump in the White House will help the RI GOP to get some of the money needed to succeed. "Paid staff from Chair to fundraising staff is the only way to move the party to the next level in RI," he adds. Meanwhile, Achorn has sounded a persistent call for reform, going back to the time when he was the ProJo's editorial columnist. But given his biting criticism of Bell, it's worth noting the gloomy tone Achorn used in 2007 to write about the outlook for increasing Republican legislative ranks: "It is notoriously difficult, of course, to change any state’s political culture. Old habits and voting patterns are almost impossible to break."

2. Speaking of Republicans, could Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian emerge as the great GOP gubernatorial hope in 2018? Avedisian is not ruling out such a run, although he calls talk of it premature and said he hasn't thought about it. Avedisian was in his mid-30s when he first won election in a five-way special election in 2000, becoming the youngest mayor in Warwick history. Now, at age 51, if often seems as if he might serve as mayor in perpetuity. Yet Avedisian has assets that could translate well statewide: he's well-liked and has good name recognition; he projects a sense of competence and humility; his tenure in Warwick has been free from controversy; and Avedisian is the kind of moderate Republican that has been able to get elected in Rhode Island. Back in 2012, John Loughlin said RI Republicans needed to be moderate to be more successful -- although he also questioned whether Avedisian could survive a primary against a conservative challenger. Avedisian dismisses such thinking, saying, "It wouldn't affect my decision-making." And maybe it shouldn't. Avedisian's good friend Lincoln Chafee won election as a Republican-turned-independent back in 2010, after all. Chafee's successor at Warwick City Hall is arguably more grounded. But will he ever pull the trigger on a statewide run?

3. While New York developer Jason Fane has been silent on the size of the subsidy he might seek for Hope Point Towers, state Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said the request could be for tens of millions of dollars. During an appearance on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, Pryor said he's aware of the potential for a sharp public backlash against a big subsidy. "We're taking this process very seriously, out in the open," he said. "We're going through the steps and we are going to scrutinize the project to ensure that it can soundly be invested in, that it would be a responsible investment." Pryor contends that Hope Point could help make Providence more vibrant. And he characterized the $10,000 study approved this week by the I-195 Commission as a small price worth taxpayer support.

4. Michigan was the scene of Hillary Clinton's closest loss to Donald Trump. She lost the state by roughly 10,000 votes (out of nearly 4.8 million ballots). So what went wrong? “You know, I think the president-elect tapped into something there about the anxiety and nervousness that many Americans are feeling about the economy, and was able to capitalize on it,” said Stephen Neuman, who ran Clinton's Michigan campaign and was formerly Governor Gina Raimondo's chief of staff. Neuman's comments came during an interview set to air Monday morning on Rhode Island Public Radio. He said Trump's upset win came as a surprise on Election Day, even as Clinton's support showed signs of softening: “I think throughout the day we thought at that point thought the race was going to be closer than we would have liked, and I think we still held out hope that we would prevail and if you may recall, the Detroit Free Press even projected a Clinton victory after the polls closed.” Neuman said he keeps thinking about what could have been differently in the race, although he defends the efforts made by Clinton's Michigan campaign. In terms of the future, Neuman said he doesn't have a job lined up, although he and his wife are planning a move to Washington, D.C.

5. While the idea of politicians keeping promises might strain public credulity a bit, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and other legislative leaders were essentially talking a mix of common sense and inside baseball when they advised 16 incoming lawmakers this week. Some of Mattiello's pointers: "Your word is your bond; don't give your word too freely"; "develop a thick skin; you're never going to please everybody ... This is not a popularity contest." (In-house credibility is indeed an important quality among lawmakers.) And in a place where Gordon Fox and some other lawmakers have run afoul of the law due to their own financial problems, this point from the speaker to the newbies seemed both fundamental and all-important: "Make sure you keep your life in order."

6. Ted Nesi last week highlighted the challenges facing new housing construction in Rhode Island (#1). This is a longstanding problem, although it gains more attention when housing sales are hot. As the Rhode Island Association of REALTORS said in a statement this week, "The diminishing supply of inventory has started to restrain sales. Though there were more October sales this year than last, Realtor statistics show that sales under contract have remained relatively flat for the past four months, rising just 1.4 percent in October. The leveling off of pending sales offers evidence that sales may begin to slow toward the end of the year." Yet it's unclear if state officials have a strategy for helping the state to strike a better balance between zoning restrictions and new construction. Asked about this on Bonus Q&A, Commerce Secretary Pryor praised Rhode Island Housing, and said the agency has been giving out the right kind of incentives. Yet that doesn't seem to be getting at the underlying problem.

7. The hard-fought race between Republican Steven Frias and Speaker Mattiello finally came to an end when Frias conceded Tuesday and the state Board of Elections certified the results. While Frias highlighted the strength of his challenge to the speaker, Mattiello took public satisfaction in his victory, even with a modest 85-vote margin of success. With an absence of other prominent legislative races around the state, the Frias-Mattiello contest emerged as a referendum on the status quo and the Statehouse; Recent controversies involving Ray Gallison and John Carnevale lingered in the air; Media coverage raised Frias' profile; and House district 15 voters showed a strong preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, pointed to the conservative leanings of the district. Sure, Mattiello had certain advantages, like a big campaign war chest and a smart campaign team. Yet he was also riding against the tide in a race that offered a solid toehold to the outsider.

8. US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ranks in the top-10 of senators who have passed the most laws, placing in a tie for eighth, in a study by Northwestern University journalism students. The finding suggests that Whitehouse -- who continues to pursue his relentless focus on climate change -- has had success in working across the aisle. Meanwhile, speaking of the US Senate, Erza Klein suggests that Republican skepticism may be one of the most effective checks against President-elect Trump: "This, then, is where Trump’s presidency begins: with a closely divided Senate, a supermajority of senators who refused to back his candidacy, and a super-super-majority who harbor grave doubts about his fitness to serve. Assuming Democratic unity, it will only take three Republican defections on any given issue or nomination to create an anti-Trump majority in the chamber. Republicans would be wise to use the narrowness of their majority to curb the incoming president’s worst instincts."

9. Congrats to Brian M. Daniels, who will succeed Daniel Beardsley in early January as the new executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. Daniels is the deputy budget officer in the state Office of Management and Budget, and he previously as director of policy during Lincoln Chafee's time as governor. “Our search committee considered many strong candidates, but Brian Daniels is exceptionally well suited to serve our member cities and towns in this position that is so important to our state,” Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, president of the RI League, said in a statement. “Effective legislative representation of our cities and towns will always be the League’s first priority, but we also want to put Brian’s experience with Lean Government principles, performance management and strategic planning to good use in expanding service offerings to our cities and towns, and enhancing training opportunities for elected officials and city and town staff members, working with other partners.” Beardsley, meanwhile, is retiring at the end of December after 42 years with the League, 27 as executive director. The nonprofit group lobbies for RI municipalities.

10. Jamia McDonald was feted by a veritable who's who of folks from the Raimondo administration and elsewhere in state government during a going-away party Wednesday evening at the Iron Works Tavern in Warwick. Word of McDonald's departure from DCYF, for a job with Deloitte, emerged in September, yet it remains unclear when she'll work her last day for the state.

11. Rhode Island's battle over charter schools is heating up anew. Providence Councilor Sam Zurier contends that expanding the Achievement First charter school would cripple the city's conventional public schools. “Weighing fiscal impact is not a simple math calculation," responded Bill Fischer, spokesman for the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now. "How do you put a cost on a majority of kids who aren’t reading at grade level? How do you put a cost on the community benefit of having 3,000 kids prepped and ready for college and what that means for their earning potential?” Looking ahead, the state Department of Education is expected to vote December 20 on a series of new charters and charter expansions. (State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is backing the Achievement First expansion, but recommending denial for several others.)

12. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is spending the second half of this week in Washington, D.C., at a conference of the New DEAL Leaders, a group of up-and-coming progressives in state government (Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a Brown University grad, is honorary co-chairman). The three-day conference includes appearances by former AG Eric Holder, Senator Mark Warner, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, among others, as well as breakout sessions on digital government, the opioid crisis, women's empowerment and other subjects.

13. The great media critic Jack Shafer offers "The New Rules For Covering Trump." .... Meanwhile, Resist Hate RI plans to gather at noon Monday in Burnside Park before marching to the Providence offices of US Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. They plan to present a petition with this message: “Be fierce in your opposition to any and all proposals that will divide, attack, or endanger our communities and our most vulnerable.”

14. Four more tidbits from Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor via his appearances on Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A: 1) Pryor is hopeful that RI might have an in with billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, President-elect Trump's choice to be Commerce secretary, since he's on the board of the Brookings Institution; The state leaned on Brookings for ideas on economic development. .... 2) Pryor remains mum on the timing for forward motion, but he asserts the state has made "really good progress" on Wexford Science & Technology's proposed life-sciences park in the I-195 District. "It is behind the scenes, because this is how these things work. There's a lot of moving parts in putting together a several hundred-thousand-square-foot incubator space, and business complex, which is what this Wexford complex will be, but I can tell you as a participant in that process, a lot of progress." .... 3) Pryor acknowledges there might be a need to split some lots in the I-195 District to expedite development, as some local observers have suggested (see #10); 4) The Commerce secretary said the state continues to direct "a small pipeline of possibilities" to the ownership of the vacant Superman Building. At the same time, in terms of bringing a new use to the building, Pryor said, "I think that the developer, the ownership and development tean, they're going to have look very hard at the numbers. and they're going to have to contribute to any new life to that building ... They're going to have to contribute to the project in order to get it done."

15. Have you heard of 24-year-old conservative pundit Tomi Lahren? I hadn't, until this week, when I saw a tweet about her long-form appearance on The Daily Show. That reinforces an earlier point made by Daily Host Trevor Noah: that even though some of Lahren's commentaries have gone viral on the Internet, she's not more widely known since Facebook segregates content based on what it thinks users want to see.

16. The late US Senator Claiborne Pell was an early advocate of normalizing relations with Cuba, a concept bound to be debated more following the death of Fidel Castro. Here's a great anecdote involving the two men, courtesy of The New York Times: "After he met President Fidel Castro of Cuba in Havana in 1974, Mr. Castro lit up a large cigar and used it to wave farewell. Senator Pell apparently thought the lighted cigar was a parting gift and took it from Mr. Castro’s hand, leaving his host flabbergasted."

17. Here's RIPR healthcare reporter Kristin Gourlay's report on Governor Raimondo's latest Medicaid initiative. Meanwhile, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity questioned whether the state should pursue a big new Medicaid effort with the all the uncertainty represented by the incoming Trump administration.

18. How's this for competing reactions to the November jobs report? First up, the Republican National Committee: “ 'The 4,000 manufacturing jobs that disappeared last month come on top of the over 300,000 that have been lost under President Obama, more proof that President-elect Donald Trump’s efforts to stand up for the American worker is the commitment our country needs right now,' said RNC Co-Chair Sharon Day. 'This election showed that millions of Americans don’t trust Democrats to create good jobs and opportunity, and President-elect Trump’s determination to save 1,000 jobs in Indiana is just a preview of his agenda of prosperity for all. Even before taking office, President-elect Trump has proven that protecting and creating jobs will be among his highest priorities as president, and Americans who have spent years struggling under President Obama can look forward to a brighter future for themselves and their families.' ” Next up, this from Jason Furman, chairman of The Council of Economic Advisers: "The economy added a solid 178,000 jobs in November as the longest streak of total job growth on record continued. U.S. businesses have now added 15.6 million jobs since early 2010. The unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent in November, its lowest level since August 2007, and the broadest measure of underemployment fell for the second month in a row. Average hourly earnings for private employees have increased at an annual rate of 2.7 percent so far in 2016, faster than the pace of inflation. Nevertheless, more work remains to ensure that the benefits of the recovery are broadly shared, including opening new markets to U.S. exports; taking steps to spur competition to benefit consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs; and raising the minimum wage."

19. "Re-imagining the Urban Freeway Holding Back Providence"

20. The Southern New England Association of Black Journalists has a timely forum on race and the media, this Saturday, December 3, at 4 p.m., the Churchill House, 155 Angell Street on the Brown University Campus in Providence. The panel includes Hugo Balta, director of Multicultural Affairs, ESPN; Raina Kelly, Managing Editor, ESPN's The Undefeated; Steven M. Pare, public safety commissioner in Providence; and Jordan Seaberry, policy director for the Institute for the Practice and Study of Nonviolence. MLB veteran Doug Glanville, an ESPN analyst, will offer a keynote address.

21. Old friend David Scharfenberg writes in The Boston Globe about the rise of "alt-labor," a story with relevance for states like Rhode Island. Excerpt: "The emerging face of worker advocacy is 'alt-labor,' a broad suite of creative workarounds that includes Raise Up-style coalitions and nonprofit “worker centers” pressing for legislation, filing lawsuits, and launching media campaigns on behalf of the hard-to-organize. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has helped push a “domestic bill of rights” through a series of state legislatures, earning director Ai-jen Poo a MacArthur “genius” award a couple of years ago. And the Fight for $15, which began as a far-fetched bid to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers in New York City, has become a national phenomenon — catching fire with graduate assistants and airport workers, and winning tangible victories in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and California. Now, with an incoming Republican president widely expected to make traditional unionization even more difficult, alt-labor faces its biggest test: Can the fledgling movement provide a new template for pro-worker activism and, more broadly, for a beleaguered American liberalism in the age of Donald Trump?"

22. Rest in Peace, Chef Peng Chang-kuei, the creator of General Tso's Chicken. More here on the hunt for General Tso.