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

Feb 10, 2017

The Patriots won a Super Bowl for the ages, the Red Sox are starting to stir in Florida, and the political beat continues to run hot here in the Ocean State. So thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce's legislative luncheon on Wednesday offered a sneak peek at the forthcoming showdown over Governor Gina Raimondo's free college tuition initiative. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has grown increasingly critical of the plan, while Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is embracing it. "We'll figure it out as we go forward," Paiva Weed laughed, after the two legislative leaders sketched out their opposing views for almost 15 minutes. Yet Mattiello's skepticism raises questions about what will become of the free college tuition proposal, and whether it will get stopped cold in the House. Supporters see the plan as something of a no-brainer: investing in higher education is likely to yield dividends, particularly in a state with an under-educated workforce. Besides, they say, it's a bold initiative -- an opportunity for Rhode Island to lead. But critics like Mattiello point to questions about fairness, scope, how the program would work, and even the underlying philosophy ("Sometimes, when you give stuff for free, or you call it free -- someone else is paying for it -- you devalue it," he said). In warning about Rhode Island being an outlier, the speaker pointed to how new budget initiatives can have a disproportionate impact in such a small state (although the same caveat applies to Mattiello's car tax elimination objective -- something he invoked against as a top priority, at the Providence chamber lunch). Interestingly, Mattiello and Paiva Weed were joined by Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) in applauding Raimondo's initiative to train workers in a collaboration with Electric Boat. Yet critics of the free college tuition plan would likely call a comparison to the more tightly focused skill program apples and oranges. Moving forward, "The governor's going to continue to encourage parents and students and businesses to rally support for this [free college tuition] proposal," said Raimondo's communications director, Michael Raia. "It's designed to make the state and Rhode Islanders more competitive."

2. Governor Raimondo is headed to Facebook's California HQ next Friday, February 17, to serve as a featured panelist on FB's Girls Who Code conference. The governor will talk up RI's CS4RI computer science initiative and how the state recruit GE Digital.

3. Another week, another 38 Studios development: Now that the final settlement has been approved, Governor Raimondo plans to make a court filing early next week seeking the release of materials from the related grand jury investigation. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin remains opposed to the release of those materials. "We will wait to see what Governor Raimondo files with the court before commenting further," spokeswoman Amy Kempe responded via email when asked if the AG's office will make a counter-argument or objection in court.

4. Don't be surprised if a Democratic primary challenge to Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee emerges as one of liveliest political races of 2018. The National Education Association Rhode Island has had differences in the past with McKee, a strong advocate for mayoral academies, and the teachers' union still isn't a big McKee fan. NEARI Executive Director Robert Walsh confirmed he's talked with Clay Pell and state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) about the prospect of running for LG in 2018 (and Walsh said he plans to talk with one or two other prospective candidates -- whom he declined to identify. Walsh said the NEARI will likely support Pell if he decides to get in the hunt.) Meanwhile, a source close to Pell said the former gubernatorial candidate (who has started lecturing at Bryant on law and public policy) remains "interested in how he can best serve the state" -- a stance that leaves the door open in a lot of directions. For his part, Regunberg said he remains focused on his legislative duties, although he sees the LG's office as one "that could be used as a real watchdog on the issues that matter to Rhode Islanders and working families." Still, even with prospects kicking the tires, McKee shouldn't be taken lightly. His education views align with a big slice of the Rhode Island electorate -- and he creamed moderate Republican Catherine Taylor by almost 20 points in 2014, after dispatching Ralph Mollis in a primary. More recently, McKee used year-end email to tout his record, pointing to his launch of a monthly TV show, Advance RI; his role in creating Empower RI, "a website to help Rhode Islanders shop for the best electricity prices for their homes and businesses"; and he vows to engage small businesses this year through the Small Business Advisory Council.

5. Meg Geoghegan, communications director for US Representative Jim Langevin, is poised to move to a new role as comms head for the state Department of Education, effective February 20. She succeeds the recently retired Elliot Krieger. (The job pays well; Krieger earned about $107,000 as of 2014). After being with Langevin's office for almost four years, Geoghegan offered this comment on her departure: “It has been an honor to work for someone who is as thoughtful, hardworking, and compassionate as Jim Langevin, and I really mean that. He’s just a genuinely good person, and that has made the job so much easier and more enjoyable. It’s bittersweet to move on to a new challenge, but I’m a constituent and a proud supporter, first and foremost, so I’ll always consider myself a part of Team Langevin.”

6. With a bigger caucus after elections last year, progressive state lawmakers have started flexing their muscle, sometimes by signing on like-minded allies. They're pushing for the "Fair Shot" agenda, with elements like paid sick leave. They're hoping to bring an abortion bill to a vote. So what's the larger impact on Smith Hill? "If progressives spoke out more forcefully and voted no more often, the mantle of reform could belong to the left, not a branch of the right even more conservative than many Democrats," Sam Bell, chair emeritus of the RI Progressive Democrats, wrote Friday in a ProJo op-ed. Meanwhile, John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, noted how the progressive caucus has waxed and waned, before recently regaining strength, in his eight years of watching the General Assembly: "Regardless of whether or not you support their positions on paid sick leave and other issues," Marion said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, "it's good to see competition. In a state where the Democratic primary is often the election, it's good to see people being faced with a real election, because that holds them accountable -- whether they're conservative, Democrat or progressive Democrat." 

7. John Marion was kind enough to step in on short notice when we bumped up the taping of Roundtable/Bonus Q&A this week due to snow storm Niko. Here's a rundown on some of his takes on a handful of good government issues: 1) Marion said President Donald Trump has deflected attention from some terrible things taking place in Congress -- like a House Committee vote this week to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, "the only body that sets standards for voting equipment." 2) "Overall," at the state Board of Elections, "there's something changing there, with Mr. [Robert] Kando gone. The meetings are no longer shouting matches. There just seems to be a spirit of people all rowing in the same direction, and that's what we need, because that was quite a dysfunctional body for a long while." Marion also offered a shout-out to Richard Thornton for his ongoing work on the BOE's campaign finance side; 3) Common Cause continues to believe the state's Voter ID law isn't necessary; Marion pointed to this ACLU report in saying that most problems are due to mistakes by poll workers who work long hours and administered complex laws; 4) Marion said it will take years to assess the impact of the vote last November to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly. "To the best of my knowledge, nobody has filed a complaint since that jurisdiction was restored on November 8th," he said. Marion also defended the exemption on ethics complaints in the run-up to elections, saying that a lot of the complaints previously made in the run-up have come across as "purely politically motivated and groundless."

8. On a related note, former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Block continues to push to create a line-item veto in Rhode Island, with a web site touting 2017 as "the year of the line-item veto." While the issue couldn't go on the statewide ballot until 2018, Block notes there's nothing stopping the General Assembly from moving ahead this year. What's more, Block said he's received confirmation of support from 17 state senators -- three short of a majority of the 38-member chamber. He said the three who have not yet responded to his request for backing, Sens. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland), Susan Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown), and President Paiva Weed (D-Newport), each expressed support for the issue during the 2016 campaign season. (Update: Pearson said he doesn't recall being contacted by Block on this issue.)

9. Via The New York Times: "How Attorneys General Became Democrats' Bulwark Against Trump" Excerpt: "Even before Mr. Trump’s directive, Democratic attorneys general were gearing up to play a larger role in national politics. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, Democrats have increasingly looked to the states both to challenge Mr. Trump’s policies and to enforce federal regulations, including on business and the environment, that his administration may ignore. Several state attorneys general have cited as an inspiration the long-running legal war waged against the Obama administration by Republican attorneys general, who derailed key White House policies on immigration and nearly voided the Affordable Care Act. While Mr. Trump was being sworn in last month, three up-and-coming Democratic attorneys general — Mr. [Hector] Balderas, Mr. [Eric] Schneiderman and Maura Healey of Massachusetts — joined a conference of wealthy political donors in South Florida to deliberate over the party’s future. Ms. Healey said there appeared to be an “awakening” among Democratic leaders about the significance of party leaders in the states." (Peter Kilmartin joined 16 other AGs in filing an amicus brief in support of Virginia's suit against the Trump administration's executive order on immigration.)

10. Kilmartin seems to have taken steps in recent months to raise his profile, and speculation continues about whether the two-term AG may seek another office in 2018. Spokeswoman Amy Kempe offered this comment: "As the attorney general has said before: In 2008, he knew it was going to be his last time running for state representative, and at that time, he never gave any consideration to running for attorney general two years later. Fast forward to today, and here we are in his second term as attorney general. Right now, Peter's focus is on being attorney general and serving the people of Rhode Island in that capacity."

11. Rhode Island's congressional delegation, lawmakers, and Governor Raimondo have been leading the rhetorical response in the early weeks of President Trump's administration. (Senator Jack Reed, normally soft-spoken, was quite sharp with this tweet on Thursday: "You know what really emboldens the enemy? An uninformed & inexperienced leader who tries to bully Americans while cozying up to Putin.") By contrast, state Democratic Chairman Joseph McNamara, the Warwick state rep, has been considerably more low-profile, (although he did issue a statement applauding the appeals court ruling against Trump's immigration ban). Meanwhile, Speaker Mattiello has shown a reticence to comment on or criticize the president. That might be a politic reaction, given how Trump was the preference of the speaker's conservative-leaning Cranston district, where he scored a narrow win over Republican Steven Frias. But it could also lead to renewed questions about whether RI Dems are facing a void in their messaging capacity (see #3 from October 2015)

12. Yet RI Democrats have been active in trying to build political participation by women. On Tuesday, close to 100 women came to the party's Warwick HQ for an event meant to grow the Democratic Women's Caucus. According to a news release, "The role of the emerging Caucus will be to educate women on how to get active in politics, support candidates and run for office, and was spurred by the significant interest expressed by Rhode Island women following the November election. It was the first of a series of regional meetings that will be hosted by the Women’s Caucus and the State Party, to engage people in the political process. [Joe] McNamara noted that 'there’s been a tremendous outpouring of interest in the Democratic Party since Trump’s election: our phones have been ringing off the hook and we are getting a lot of emails about how folks can get involved.' Some of those who attended last night indicated they’d not been actively engaged in politics before but felt an urgency to do so since the election. Secretary [Nelli] Gorbea noted, “I was just like many of you, a few years ago… I wanted to get involved in politics but didn’t know if I had the time or experience to run for office.” She assured the audience they did." The party plans to stage another meeting in Warwick on March 6, with other events planned for Woonsocket, Central Falls/Providence, the East Bay, and South County/Westerly. 

13. True story: an old pal of state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell wanted to take him to go see Super Bowl 51 in Houston. But Bell's wife, Lisa, objected, in part because the couple had spent the past week in DC and they were busy with their children. "As the fourth quarter comeback started, my wife disappeared from the room and was in hiding," Bell said. "I looked at her when it was 28-20 and said, "You are never going to live this down!" (Bell said he swears by the mantra "happy wife, happy life," and all is forgiven.)

14. The Providence Police Department has come a long way from the waning years of Buddy Cianci's time in office. Yet as Matt O'Brien's story points out, persistent concerns remain about how some residents are treated on the South Side of Providence.

15. Writing in The Boston Globe, old friend David Scharfenberg said there are some key false assumptions about the prison-industrial complex: "Violent crime is a much more important driver, with almost half of prisoners doing time for offenses like murder and robbery. To make a real dent in mass incarceration, experts say, the country will have to do the difficult work of freeing more of these criminals sooner. 'We put all of our attention — almost all of our attention — on things that aren’t nearly as important as the things we ignore,' says Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff, author of the forthcoming book 'Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.' Pfaff says the criminal justice reform movement had to start with talk of greater leniency for nonviolent offenders. It couldn’t leap right to a discussion of, say, cutting murderers’ sentences down to a European-style 10 years. But now, he says, it’s time for something more. Not all 'violent crime' is as serious as the phrase would imply. In some states, burglarizing a house when no one is home is considered a violent offense. And what about the 18-year-old robber who was carrying a gun but didn’t actually use it? As for long sentences, it’s true that they play a role in driving prison growth. “Three strikes” laws, mandatory minimums, and other tough-on-crime measures have increased time served for all kinds of offenders — pot dealers and violent criminals alike. A Pew analysis of state prison data showed that prisoners released in 2009 served 36 percent longer than those who were released in 1990. But at three years, the average prison term is shorter than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Pfaff argues that the real concern is not sentence length, but serving any time in prison at all. Whether you serve 12 or 16 months, he says, the impact is the same. Upon release, convicted felons have a hard time getting decent jobs or good housing. And with the odds heavily stacked against them, they’re more likely to re-offend. The criminal justice reform movement, Pfaff argues, needs a reorientation — and a willingness to show mercy for prisoners beyond the proverbial nonviolent drug offender. That means diverting more people — whatever their offenses — away from the system, thereby sparing them from a criminal record. And there’s only one way to do that, he says: Change the behavior of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor."

16. Judge Caprio made Inside Edition: "Judge Can't Stop Laughing After Woman Was Fined for Parking 2 Seconds Early"

17. U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on whether he expects Trump appointees to eventually overturn Roe v. Wade: "If President Trump gets two appointments, and we have [Neil] Gorsuch on the court -- if he succeeds, and then we lose [Anthony] Kennedy or one of the Democratic appointees then I think there's a risk of that. The problem is, I think then women across the country rise up in righteous anger and there'll be a big blowback from it, so I'm not sure how much they want to have the dog catch that particular bus." For more on Whitehouse's views on the Supreme Court and Trump, check my story from earlier this week.

18. Supporters of marijuana legalization continue to argue that most Rhode Islanders support legalization. But legislative leaders remain cool to the concept, as Speaker Mattiello, President Paiva Weed and others made clear during the chamber luncheon earlier this week.

19. Rep. Regunberg talks with RIPR's Kristin Gourlay about solitary confinement -- and why it should be a broader concern.

20. For a poignant story of the difficulties faced by some refugees in coming to the US, consider the plight of Iraqi translators who put their lives on the line to aid the US military. Compelling reporting from This American Life.

21. Related: "A spicy red sauce and how immigrants generate jobs and growth in the US"

22. ICYMI: More barbecue is coming to Thayer Street: Wow Chinese barbecue is on its way.