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

Dec 9, 2016

It's starting to feel like winter, but the political beat continues to run hot. 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. Watch for the Fight for 15 -- a $15 minimum wage -- to emerge as an issue in the General Assembly's 2017 session. "I can't speak for every progressive in the House, but I know there's a large number of representatives who care passionately about increasing the minimum wage to a living wage -- including some new reps who ran and won after campaigning heavily on the Fight for $15, as well as folks like David Bennett and others who have been fighting this fight for years," said state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence). Regunberg points to Seattle -- where the wage is slated to increase to $15 in 2017 -- in contending that better wages are consistent with economic growth. For now, Rhode Island's $9.60 minimum wage trails the amount paid in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and a minimum wage increase proposed this year by Governor Gina Raimondo didn't make its way through the General Assembly. Rep-elect Marcia Ranglin-Vassell plans to introduce a bill emulating a proposal in Massachusetts; the bill there would raise the Bay State's $11 minimum wage (which begins next month) by a dollar a year for four years and then index it to inflation. "I am very optimistic that we can align ourselves with community partners and other stakeholders who will fight to make this a reality for Rhode Island families," Ranglin-Vassell said. Business groups and other opponents can be expected to argue that higher wages will cut hiring, reduce workers' hours and have other adverse impacts. Supporters of the $15 wage, like Chas Walker of SEIU1199NE, counter by saying no one should have to work full-time without earning a living wage. "We have seen victories on $15 minimum wage in New York and California and cities across the country," added Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the progressive group RI Working Families. "This issue is clearly part of the economic justice agenda that will help Democrats build power at every level of government." (Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz said the governor will continue supporting a minimum wage hike in 2017, although she hasn't yet taken a stance on the $15 an hour proposal. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's spokesman said he's open to raising the minimum wage in 2017.)

2. It's not every day that a news release for a recently unveiled development includes a line like this: "We think Providence has a unique opportunity to create the residential infrastructure needed to support growth, but we will move on if there isn’t support for this vision.” That was New York developer Jason Fane's message, through the local PR outfit RDW Group, when he scaled back the plan for Hope Point Towers this week. Fane said he's ready to "proceed immediately" with phase I of the project, a 43-story tower on part of the former I-195 land, with development of additional towers subject to market demand. As Fane notes, the development could add vitality to Providence and spur further growth. Yet the developer has remained silent on key questions, particularly the size of the subsidy he's seeking to pursue the project, offering conceptual drawings instead. (Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor puts the potential subsidy number at tens of millions of dollars). Also unclear is how long Fane and his allies have been shopping the Hope Towers project with state officials behind the scenes. By all accounts, demand for downtown Providence apartments is strong, and adding more residents will make for a livelier city. Yet subsidies are a sensitive topic in Rhode Island, even if tax deals remain a standard part of anything that gets built in Providence. Fane sent mixed messages with his news release this week: on one hand, he was responding to critics alarmed by the scale of what City Council President Luis Aponte dubbed the "Three Towers of Evil." Yet the New York developer also made an explicit vow to pick up and leave unless he gets what he wants. With 2018 drawing ever closer and a lack of palpable progress on other developments in the I-195 District -- particularly Wexford Science & Technology's proposed life-sciences park -- how will Team Gina respond? (Update: the 1-195 Commission is scheduled Monday evening to hear from Wexford.)

3. The compromise solution on the 6/10 Connector may not be the best of all outcomes, but it may be in the range of the best available given the decades-long neglect of RI's infrastructure. "The new plan features improved connections between neighborhoods, particularly at Tobey Street and around Olneyville Square, expanded access for people walking and biking in the City, creates the much needed connection between 10N and 6W, and opens up new land for development and green space," Seth Zeren of the Fix the 6/10 Connector said in an open letter thanking Governor Raimondo, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and DOT Director Peter Alviti. "With fewer overall bridges we also expect that the project will be less expensive the maintain in the long-run. We look forward to working with the City and the State in a collaborative, open, and transparent public engagement process this winter to further refine it and we will remain vigilant to ensure that the principles that have animated our movement continue to be reflected in the final plan through completion of construction."

4. State Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick), the incoming House minority leader, on House Republicans' plans for the 2017 legislative session: "We're going to use the Republican Policy Group, again, to take on issues that we think are important to Rhode Islanders," Morgan said during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "We haven't firmed up our legislative agenda for this coming year, but I know one of the things that I want to look at is child care. I think it's getting very, very expensive, and there seems to be a nexus there between over-regulation and the cost."

5. "Barely Half of 30-Year-Olds Earn More Than Their Parents," The Wall Street Journal reported this week. The greatest decline is in the Midwest, underscoring the sense of economic anxiety that fueled President-elect Donald Trump's campaign. In The New York Times, David Leonhardt looks at the same data. Interestingly, as he notes, the phrase "American Dream" was conceived during the Depression. Pointing to education as a powerful factor, Leonhardt is slightly optimistic on the outlook. Yet he also puts a big part of the blame on growing income inequality -- and finding common ground on steps to reduce it seems very elusive.

6. Rhode Island's congressional delegation has warmed to the role of playing opposition to the incoming Trump administration. US Representative David Cicilline this week landed a role as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, and then filed a bill calling for the president to make public his or her tax returns. "As Donald Trump prepares to enter office," Cicilline said, "it’s more important than ever that we clearly and forcefully develop and articulate our strategies to create good-paying jobs, make college more affordable, end gun violence, ensure retirement security, and at the same time defend our American values." .... Senator Jack Reed dander was raised when Trump signaled a stance against organized labor with his intended pick of fast food executive Andrew Puzder as Labor secretary. “This nomination would be a blow for working men and women and strong signal that the Trump Administration plans to favor management over workers," Reed said in a statement. "As CEO of a fast food conglomerate, Mr. Puzder stated a preference for automation over human employees. He has criticized worker protections and objected to things like raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and fair overtime pay rules. It is hard to understand how a Labor Secretary could be effective if they don’t respect labor laws.” .... US Representative Jim Langevin was among those who panned Steve Bannon's selection as the top White House strategist .... Meanwhile, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has continued his longtime environmental advocacy, with his sharp opposition to Scott Pruitt, Trump's intended pick to lead the EPA.

7. Governor Gina Raimondo has appointed one of her staunch supporters, Kate Coyne-McCoy, to the board of the Beacon Mutual Insurance Co., which was chartered by the state in 1990 to deal with a crisis in workers' compensation insurance. CEO and General Counsel Brian J. Spero said board members receive compensation of about $20,000 a year -- $4,000 a quarter, plus $500 a meeting for attending a typical schedule of eight meetings a year. Spero said Coyne-McCoy takes the place of Jerauld C. Adams, who had been appointed by former Governor Lincoln Chafee. "We've got a good board and they work very hard," Spero said in describing Coyne-McCoy's new role, adding that there's risk in performing due diligence for a company that does $130 million a year in business. Coyne-McCoy is a longtime Democratic consultant in Rhode Island. She ran for Congress in 2000. In 2013, Coyne-McCoy created a super PAC to back Raimondo's 2014 campaign for governor. She did not respond to a request for comment.

8. From Harvard's Shorenstein Center On Media, Politics and Public Policy: "News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters"

9. Best wishes to Governor Gina Raimondo's senior communications adviser, Marie Aberger, who is leaving the state since her husband is taking a job in Denver. “Marie moved back home to Rhode Island on a Saturday and the next day moved in with me to the emergency operations center to tackle our first blizzard," Raimondo said in a statement. "In the two years since, Marie has become one of my closest and most trusted advisers. I will miss her expertise, intellect and energy, but I am thrilled for her family’s opportunity and wish them the best on their next adventure. I am forever thankful to Marie for all of the contributions she’s made to her home state. Even as she moves to Colorado, Marie will always be a close advisor and a friend. She will always have a place in Rhode Island.” Aberger, a Cranston native, worked in Washington, D.C., before returning to RI to take the role as Raimondo's press secretary in January 2015.

10. Governor Raimondo this week made her most contrite statements about the ongoing problems with the state's $364 million United Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP. With the state moving to hire more people to deal with the fallout, Raimondo conceded that earlier layoffs of 45 workers should not have taken place. "We underestimated how much people power we would need with the new technology," Raimondo said after an unrelated news conference this week, "and I think it also shows that the team probably made a mistake in not doing this sooner." The governor said contractor Deloitte, while being responsive,  knows "that they're on a very thin ice on this one and they need to continue to deliver." Raimondo repeated her refrain that UHIP will ultimately be a big win for the state -- something that will provide better service and save millions of dollars. If she's right, UHIP may one day be remembered as a blip in the rearview mirror. For now, though, it remains a practical and perceptual problem, even if most of those who rely on state services are getting them without a problem.

11. A tough year continues for outgoing state Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Scituate), who has lost his post as Woonsocket city solicitor due to skirmishing between the City Council and Mayor Lisa Baldelli Hunt. This comes after Rep-elect Robert Quattrocchi (R-Scituate) defeated Marcello in November. Sandy Seoane has the details on the latest development, in The Valley Breeze: "In a change to how Woonsocket handles legal issues that was unanticipated by some members of the City Council, Solicitor Michael Marcello did not receive the needed votes to secure another term in his position. The appointment is the first indication of the changing political dynamic in the city following a November election that saw four new members seated on the seven-member City Council board. The new board took up Marcello’s appointment along with other key positions just after taking the oath of office Tuesday night. An initial agenda for the brief reorganizational meeting listing support for varying resolutions sent out Sunday, Dec. 4 stated 'all councilors' by Marcello’s name. But on Monday, that agenda item was amended, listing only incumbent Councilors Melissa Murray and Christopher Beauchamp."

12. Far fewer abortions are performed in the US than in the past, as Scott MacKay notes, although reproductive rights are under the spotlight due to the looming change in Washington. Here's Sam Bell of the RI Progressive Democrats with his take on what the Trump administration means for the abortion issue in Rhode Island: "Trump's election throws reproductive rights into serious jeopardy. Rhode Island has a number of anti-choice laws on the books that are unenforceable because of Roe v. Wade. Trump has vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who are opposed to Roe v. Wade, so if any of the Court's pro-choice justices pass away, Roe v. Wade will likely die unless Democrats block Trump's pick. That's why it's so critical that Rhode Island remove the anti-choice legislation currently on the books and protect reproductive rights in our Constitution. Moreover, we must ensure that Obama's contraception coverage program, which will probably be repealed very quickly, gets passed into law early in the 2017 legislative session. Sadly, the current Speaker opposes a woman's right to choose. [House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has characterized his stance as pro-life.] However, most Rhode Islanders voted for Hillary. The speaker must not block legislation resisting Trump's dangerous agenda on reproductive rights. If he does, Democrats must be ready to fight. We cannot abandon our commitment to one of our party's core values."

13. Former state health insurance commissioner Chris Koller writes in Politico on "Why Republican health reform ideas are likely to fail" Excerpt: "The big lesson here is quite simple: Voluntary insurance is hard to do. There is a reason banks compel mortgage holders to buy homeowners insurance and states compel car owners to purchase liability insurance. Insurance pools cannot be comprised solely of those who think they will need to use coverage. As many individual insurance markets experience large rate hikes and insurer exits, criticism of Obamacare may be right — partially. The problem may indeed be the individual mandate — not its existence, however, but low penalties that encourage healthy people to pay the resulting fine and go without insurance."

14. Incoming House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan is respected within GOP circles for her steady efforts to boost the party and its candidates. Here are some tidbits from her appearance this week on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A. Morgan blamed increased voting in this presidential year for hurting GOP legislative candidates (even though Donald Trump got almost 40 percent of the vote) .... Asked how the RI GOP can ramp up its financial support, Morgan said, "We have to ask. I think the party hasn't been asking." .... She believes truck tolls resonated as an issue with voters, even though Republicans lost legislative seats .... Morgan declined to rule out a run for higher office in 2018, while laughing, "I just made leader, c'mon, give me a break!" .... And with RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell possibly considering a run for AG in 2018, Morgan offered this when asked who she'd like to see take on the post if Bell doesn't return as chairman: "You know, I haven't thought about it .... I'm busy. I'm trying to get ready for the legislative session."

15. In counter-example to House District 41, where a Republican (who ran as an I in 2014) replaced a Democrat in November, Scituate voters ended more than a century of GOP control on the Town Council by electing a slate of independents, as Jim Hummel reports: "Over the summer the four launched a door-to-door campaign - with the goal of personally knocking on every one of the 4,600 households spread across 55 acres, in a town where the houses are often few and far between. It took more time, but they campaigned as a team. And, in a town where regular news coverage is virtually non-existent, they took to social media, creating a Facebook page that provided a constant drumbeat against the current administration and its leader, Council President Charles Collins. They also published their own newspaper - paying for it to be delivered to every mailbox in town leading up to Election Day. [John] Mahoney: 'The oversight of our department heads, it doesn’t exist. Those are the things that forced me to take a hard look of how exactly this administration functions. That’s the beauty of our democracy.' That democracy resulted in the Independent Men taking four of the top five spots in a seven-person race."

16. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has been among the RI Democrats standing in contrast to Donald Trump. And by helping to craft a compromise with Governor Raimondo on the 6/10 Connector, Elorza added another accomplishment.

17. The Twitter handle for Rhode Island Public Radio is now @RIPR. We're having a year-end fund drive, btw, and listener contributions (which provide most of our support) are always welcome.

18. Via NPR's Asma Khalid: "What It Was Like For A Muslim To Cover The Election"

19. "The Economy's Hidden Problem: We're Out Of Big Ideas"

20. Looking for holiday gift ideas? Via NPR, the Best Books of 2016 & the Best Music of 2016.

21. These out of town surveys and findings tend to be dubious -- RI has the best drivers in the country?!? -- even if they offer a bit of entertainment: "QuoteWizard.com even dished out a zinger about Rhode Island: 'Of course, their excellent driving records might be due to the fact that a 20-minute drive is considered a road trip. By the time the damage is done, they’re probably past the state line and it’s Connecticut's problem.' "

22. Are we sorry to see the exit of Yoan Moncada -- considered one of the best prospects in baseball -- to the White Sox? Of course. But he was the key to the Red Sox landing Chris Sale, a top-flight pitcher, and that's a deal most MLB execs would take in a heartbeat. Baseball gets played in the new season, not a few years out. That's why it made sense for the Red Sox to deal Hanley Ramirez when he was the stud prospect of his time. That trade brought back Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, paving the way for the Red Sox to win the World Series in 2007. Meanwhile, if you want to ponder the long-term implications of trading Moncada, Over the Monster has you covered.