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

Feb 3, 2017

After a quick jaunt out of town, your humble correspondent is back in the Biggest Little. So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your comments and tips are welcome and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Rhode Islanders have demonstrated a preference for Republican governors over recent decades. The general thinking is that voters see a GOP chief executive as something of a counter-balance to the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. Yet will President Donald Trump's bombastic approach make it more difficult for Republicans to retake the governor's office? Cranston Mayor Allan Fung didn't directly answer question during an appearance on this week's RI Public Political Roundtable, although he did try to distance himself from Trump: "My policy positions, how I act in office, how I govern, is certainly my own style, and it's different from the president," Fung said. The mayor's response illustrates the challenge facing blue state Republicans in the Age of Trump: they need to maintain their GOP allegiance, while also parting company or showing discomfort with elements of the president's program. So that's exactly what Fung did during his interviews with us this week. The Cranston Mayor said Trump's executive order on immigration sends the wrong signal to US allies and adversaries, and he said the placement of top Trump aide Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council "presents a little consternation in me as to how much input an outside civilian might have in the military." Asked about how some supporters believe Trump should not be taken literally, Fung responded by saying, "It's for us -- all of us -- to discern what he's saying ...  and it's up to us to kind of decide what the true facts are." Ultimately, the mayor said he "doesn't have too much of an opinion" on Trump's most controversial nominees "since I'm focused more on Cranston than listening to the nomination hearings." Looking ahead, Fung has to be considered a likely candidate for 2018, since Democrat Gina Raimondo beat him by just about four points in 2014 (although he's still dodging questions about his level of interest for 2018). For Republicans concerned about fallout from their national counterparts, just consider how Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse vaulted into the US Senate in 2006, defeating then-Republican Lincoln Chafee. Chafee had an enviable 51 percent approval rating at the time, but he lost -- because the race became a referendum on President George W. Bush.

2. Then again, supporters of President Trump seem pleased with his job performance so far, judging by what NPR's Steve Inskeep found in this report from Pennsylvania. Closer to home, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's decision not to comment about Trump's immigration order for this ProJo story suggests how the POTUS may retain considerable support in certain parts of Rhode Island.

3. So how does a strongly Democratic town like Johnston winding up voting for President Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton there by 14 points? I went looking for answers as part of RI Public Radio's latest One Square Mile close-up on a particular Rhode Island community. (You can listen to my story here.) Democratic Town Chair Richard Delfino Jr. offered a telling nugget: most people in Johnston rely on Fox News as an information source, and in the overwhelmingly white, Catholic town take a dim view of issues like undocumented immigrants: "They don’t want to hear about the racial divide, they don’t want to hear about illegal immigration," Delfino said. "You talk about the issue of abortion, I mean, Italian families in Johnston go to church on Sunday and they hear from their parish priest, someone they trust and somebody they rely on." And while the town Democratic chair considered Clinton good on the issues, and a warm presence in person, Delfino said she failed to get her message across, particularly when compared with Trump's simple mantra -- "Make America Great Again."

4. Related: "With Conflict and Drama, Trump Hooks You Like A Reality TV Show" NPR talks with a reality TV producer. Excerpt: "He uses tools we use every day to tell and shape a story. [Like] conflict and drama — that's still the engine that powers all reality television. I guess I would note that, candidly, reality television does not typically address giant, macro-issues particularly well, right? It's not a genre of big ideas. And that's OK. What it does do really well is interpersonal relationships — is taking big themes like love and jealousy and revenge, and boiling them down to conversations between two people. I think Trump clearly knows that those small interactions that speak to larger themes are what connects with us as humans. And I think it's probably something that we should know too as we consume his tweets, as we watch White House press conferences or prayer breakfasts. That this is a guy who understands how to make us feel a certain way."

5. Well, that certainly jumped up a few notches this Friday afternoon, in keeping with the best/worst aspects of a weekend news dump. Attorney General Peter Kilmatin puts the onus on State Police Col. Ann Assumpico for the end of the criminal investigation into 38 Studios; Assumpico said the evidence simply isn't there to continue the investigation. Meanwhile, Assumpico sounds far more supportive than Kilmartin when it comes to supporting releasing thousands of pages in related investigative documents. The process for that remains to be determined following a petition to Alice Gibney, presiding justice of Superior Court. Governor Raimondo is expected to make the petition following approval of the First Southwest settlement (which could happen as soon as next Thursday).

6. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse exemplifies some of the cross-winds faced by Democrats regarding the Trump administration. Last weekend, Whitehouse faced a sharp response (video) during a town hall meeting over his support for Mike Pompeo as CIA director. According to Working Families, Whitehouse committed to voting "no" for the following nominees: Betsy DeVos for secretary of education; Rex Tillerson for secretary of state; Jeff Sessions for attorney general; Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency administrator; Rick Perry for secretary of energy; Tom Price for secretary of health and human Services; Mick Mulvaney for director of the Office of Management and Budget; Ryan Zinke for secretary of the interior;  and Linda McMahon for administrator of the Small Business Administration. Meanwhile, Whitehouse is set to investigate with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Russian efforts to influence US elections. He excoriated the Trump administration before voting against Sessions -- and got a lot of attention with this response on the Tillerson vote: “I checked with the Parliamentarian and they don't allow 'Hell No', so I'll be voting, 'No.' ” On Monday, at 12:45 p.m., at Roger Williams University's Providence campus (Room 429), Whitehouse is slated to speak on Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee to the US Supreme Court.

7. Writing in The New Republic, Graham Vyse says Democrats are getting motivated by a populist backlash against Trump. Here's a noteworthy excerpt featuring Providence native Tad Devine: “ 'I think the calculus is changing almost by the minute,' said Devine, a Democratic consultant who was Bernie Sanders’s senior strategist during last year’s campaign. 'The public reaction to Trump’s presidency is boiling over.' Devine predicted opposition to Trump will become a political movement unlike any in the U.S. since the Vietnam War. 'I think we’re going to see a genuine insurgency in this country,' "

8. For one example of how some other Rhode Island Democrats are responding to President Trump, consider a fundraising pitch this week from General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, subject-lined, "Call to Action." Magaziner begins by saying he's been troubled by the new administration's actions, and how Rhode Island -- founded by a refugee -- must stay true to its values. Later comes the pivot: "As I gear up for re-election, I need your help more than ever. Pleas contribute today so we can continue to fight for what is right."

9. When longtime Providence Journal Statehouse bureau chief Katherine Gregg was abruptly reassigned away from Smith Hill last summer, there was a backlash on social media and legislative leaders lamented the move. Critics perceived this as a setback for the ProJo's institutional memory, particularly on one of the newspaper's most important areas of coverage. Yet as fate would have it, Donald Trump won the presidential race, and Gregg's new role -- reporting on Rhode Island's federal delegation -- quickly turned into one of the best, most important beats in the state. The universe works in interesting ways.

10. ICYMI: Stephen Neuman, formerly chief of staff for Governor Raimondo, is now the DC-based managing director of government affairs for American Airlines .... Elsewhere in Gina World: the governor is setting on a cool $1.8 million in her campaign account .... New in the governor's communications shop: Allison Bernstein is deputy communications director, taking on part of the role formerly held by Marie Aberger; she comes from Hilltop Public Solutions in Boston and volunteered on Hillary Clinton's campaign. Audrey Lucas has also joined the governor's office as communication assistant, filling the post held by Angelika Pellegrino. Lucas, a UConn grad, was previously a field organizer for US Representative David Ciclline. Pellegrino returned to Suffolk University for her final semester of her undergraduate work .... finally, Raimondo's deputy counsel, Amy Moses, is taking over the leadership of the Conservation Law Foundation's RI office -- a noteworthy destination, since CLF is among the groups fighting Invenergy's Burrillville power plant proposal.

11. Governor Raimondo, meanwhile, has kept up her free college tuition road show, touting the plan during stops this week at high schools in Johnston and Central Falls, and making appearances in The Boston Globe and on WGBH's Greater Boston. Yet with many needs chasing relatively few dollars, the outlook for the proposal -- as well as Speaker Mattiello's priority of phasing out the car tax -- is bound to remain on hold until after the May revenue-estimating conference.

12. Rhode Island has gone two weeks without a former lawmaker getting jammed up, so will attention fade from the frustration expressed by US Attorney Peter Neronha and others? During last week's RIPR Political Roundtable, Governor Raimondo said she wants to make a legislative proposal to try to address the issue. Instituting audits of lawmakers' campaign finance accounts would send a distinct message to Smith Hill, yet it would likely be a tough sell for lawmakers.

13. The campaign for earned sick days in Rhode Island is set to formally launch with a Statehouse news conference at 3 pm Tuesday. The concept is a priority for the progressive group RI Working Families, and Governor Raimondo expressed her support for it during her State of the State address.

14. State Rep. Jared Nunes (D-West Warwick) attracted praise from groups including Common Cause of Rhode Island and the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity for some of his proposed changes to House rules. Those include requiring a House vote for removing a member from a committee; banning the indefinite use of "held for further study"; requiring that legislative debate end at midnight; creating a searchable database of votes; and extending the timeline before committee consideration of the state budget.

15. If you listen to just one episode of the Crimetown podcast, don't miss the one involving Buddy Cianci's assault in his former home on Power Street. While the story has been told many times, the producers got their hands on original grand jury recordings, lending the segment a visceral sense of being there.

16. The New York Times profiles White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a Barrington native : "A stocky Navy reservist who grew up in middle-class Rhode Island, Mr. Spicer prides himself on persistence. He attended a prestigious Catholic high school on a scholarship, sending away for brochures for the school without his parents’ knowledge. After graduating from Connecticut College, he bounced around working on campaigns, briefly living in an R.V. without heat or hot water. Years ago, a line drive at a softball game smacked into Mr. Spicer’s jaw, leaving his mouth wired shut for weeks. 'Be careful,' his teammate told doctors on the way to the hospital. 'He talks for a living.' He climbed his way up the Washington ladder, representing Republicans in Congress before landing in the office of the United States trade representative in the George W. Bush administration. His jaw has since recovered: The Washington Post reported that Mr. Spicer chews, and swallows whole, more than 20 pieces of Orbitz cinnamon gum a day."

17. Man, the story about state Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence) losing her waitressing job blew up big time, landing, via the AP, in Talking Points Memo and scores of out of town newspapers. The story played on A1 in the print verison of Thursday's ProJo, while coverage of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza's State of the City address was relegated to A2.

18. State Rep. Robert Phillips (D-Woonsocket) on his proposal for four-year terms for state lawmakers, via news release: “Originally, members of the General Assembly were elected to one-year terms. But as the duties of the legislature started to grow and the scope of state government started to evolve, it was determined that one year just wasn’t enough to accomplish a legislative agenda. Now, two years are no longer enough. When you have to reconcile the interests of 113 different lawmakers, the deliberations can take time. Four-year terms would not only provide legislative stability in policymaking, it would also take away the temptation of rushing things through because of the pressure of a looming election cycle.” Phillips, who proposes using a staggered schedule to introduce the longer terms, said 38 states have four-year terms in at least one legislative chamber.

19. Via RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison: students at Johnston High School share their views on President Trump.

20. The City of Woonsocket is opening a "swap shed" at its recycling facility on River Street. The idea is that residents will be able to exchange small household objects, tools, plastic goods and the like. “Recycling reduces the costs of waste disposal, is great for the environment, and reduces the burden upon the Central Landfill," said Public Works Superintendent Michael Debroisse. According to the city, the Woonsocket Swap Shed will be open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 3:15 pm and on Saturdays from 8:00 am to 11:45 am. It will be monitored by an attendant and available to Woonsocket residents.

21. Whose meatballs reign supreme? A 92-year-old grandma who has made well more than 100,000 meatballs, or Johnston firefighters? Give a listen to this fun story from RIPR's Kristin Gourlay, part of our One Square Mile series on the town.

22. With a few inches of snow falling on Tuesday, State Police responded to 55 accidents (none with major injuries) around the state, from just 1 to 7 p.m. -- 55! Get it together, people. We are hardy New Englanders, right?