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

Mar 17, 2017

Winter will fade away one of these days, right? In the meanwhile, we can celebrate St. Patrick's Day and St. Joseph's Day while continuing to plumb the depths of Rhode Island politics. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The debate sparked by a largely favorable New York Times' story this week on Governor Gina Raimondo's jobs records offers an early preview of the 2018 gubernatorial race. The print headline on Katharine Q. Seelye's article -- "Hiring 'Hit Parade' Comes to Rhode Island After Years of Decline" -- is the kind of credential campaigns yearn for. The story served up these kinds of details: "At a time when states are fiercely competing to lure businesses, Ms. Raimondo, a Democrat, is scoring a string of successes. Over the past 15 months, 15 companies, including Fortune 500 firms, have announced plans to locate or expand in Rhode Island, and 19 real estate projects, including hotels and apartments, have been approved." Critics howled, because the piece didn't mention a string of bad business climate rankings for the state, or how overall RI's overall labor participation remains down from 2005. But Seelye did talk with Raimondo's GOP rival from 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who obliged by bringing up the UHIP debacle and more broadly criticizing the governor. Looking ahead, Rhode Islanders will keep debating the health of the state's economy. Chatter about the state's attributes and its quality of life probably seems pretty hollow to those who lack a decent job or a solid income. The fact that these problems have been decades in the making doesn't offer much solace. Yet Raimondo has raised the state's profile (and her own) while attracting out of town businesses since taking office in January 2015. So watch for the 2018 gubernatorial race, in large part, to be a referendum on Raimondo's stewardship of Rhode Island's economy.

2. The National Education Association Rhode Island, a influential force in state politics, is likely to support Governor Raimondo for re-election next year. NEARI Executive Director Robert A. Walsh Jr. acknowledges that retired teachers are among those still fuming about the pension overhaul spearheaded by then-Treasurer Raimondo in 2011. Yet Walsh, speaking on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, offered this explanation for why the incumbent Democrat is likely to get NEARI's support in 2018: "I think that the election of Donald Trump significantly changed the game in this state. It is imperative that the Democrats retain control of the governorship .... My approach to this is a very pragmatic one. You've heard me advertise for alternative candidates to the lieutenant governor -- 'come on down, we'll help you run against Dan McKee [see #4].' I am not advertising for alternative candidates to Gina Raimondo. We must retain the governorship and we must retain our Democrats elected in the Senate and in the United States Congress. And the Republicans are going to drop money in this state and go after us as a package, so it's imperative that the team stays in place."

3. Central Falls is the second RI city to join the legal fight against President Trump's travel order.

4. Governor Raimondo's team checked the boxes with a presentation on her college tuition plan to the House Finance Committee Wednesday: some impressive youths from Central High School testified, part of a large number of students who showed their support; Raimondo herself was solicitous to lawmakers; she framed her Rhode Island's Promise proposal as an economic initiative, and sought to dispel the idea that it represents a giveaway. "This proposal isn’t about giving something away for free," Raimondo said. "It’s about guaranteeing access to opportunity and job training for every Rhode Islander." Yet lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, indicated skepticism through their questioning. In particular, they expressed doubt that most the beneficiaries of a college tuition program will remain in the state. Rep. Evan Shanley (D-Warwick) has introduced a bill for a loan forgiveness initiative -- a concept that may wind up addressing some of his colleagues' concerns.

5. The Providence Journal has quietly folded its PolitiFact operation, one of seven papers across the US to drop the feature started by the Tampa Bay Times. "Seemed like it had run its course, we had lost the person who did it best locally and the commitment of time for another reporter didn't seem worth it," the ProJo's editor, Dave Butler, told the Poynter Institute. "Not a lot of traffic and on the national level we are getting fine fact-checking by the Washington Post and The AP. So that ground is covered .... And as it turns out we're now devoting the time we were devoting to PolitiFact to having a reporter concentrate on the impact President Trump and the GOP Congress will have on Rhode Island. So far it seems like a good move — we still get plenty of national fact-checking and we have an experienced reporter really focused on Trump." (That experienced reporter is Katherine Gregg, who as we noted in #9 last month, has benefited from the unexpected emergence of Trump's presidency as a vital and ongoing story.) Butler told Poynter the end of the ProJo's PolitiFact chapter "was done as a part of us reviewing all local beats to maximize our resources." PolitiFact attracted the wrath of some local conservatives, although it also further heightened elected officials' awareness that their public statements may come back to haunt them.

6. With the White House doubling-down on President Donald Trump's unproven claim of wiretapping by his predecessor, debate continues about the motivation behind some of the president's claims. Various observers consider Trump's messaging a way to distract from other issues or possibly a sign of someone who can't tell fact from fantasy. U.S. Senator Jack Reed recently sat down with me to discuss Russia, the GOP healthcare plan, and other pertinent topics. Reed sided with the view that Trump practices a form of distraction: "I think he has consistently tried to disrupt the discussion if it wasn't something favorable to him and tries to reinforce discussion when it is favorable to him. I think there's a tactic there; some of it is personality, temperament, of kind of being short-fused, might be one way to describe it, in terms of taking slights and retaliating. But I think there's more deliberation to it than simply reaction."

7. The NEARI's Robert Walsh thinks Democrats need to take a page from Bernie Sanders' playbook to regain some of the ground they've lost in Congress, state legislatures and governor's offices around the country. Democrats "need to rebuild from the ground up and get away from the corporate mentality that seems to be infecting some of the party nationally," he said on Bonus Q&A. "It's really a hybrid of the Bernie Sanders message and the good old-fashioned FDR Democratic message, reminding people that there is a difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in overall philosophy .... We can no longer brand ourselves as 'we're 10 percent less corporate than the Republican Party.' And that means standing up to some of the Wall Street money that's coming in to the party and impacting decisions. It breaks my heart that a Democrat like [U.S. Senator] Cory Booker is one of the highest recipients of money from the pharmaceutical industry, because they're such a heavy presence in New Jersey. How does someone like that -- as much as we respect him in other areas -- have a credible role in a national healthcare debate when you worry about him holding back on something as important as pharmaceutical reform? So we've got to do a critical self-analysis." Asked if Democrats should limit campaign contributions by amount, Walsh said the party should shun donations from "folks who no longer share our values, and that's going to be difficult."

8. Less than a week after stepping down as US attorney, Peter Neronha established a Twitter presence, suggesting he's edging closer to a Democratic run for attorney general in 2018. Neronha's prosecutions of the likes of Gordon Fox and Ray Gallison offer a strong message for a political campaign -- a message amplified in a ProJo editorial this week. So don't be surprised if some (or all) of the lawmakers considering a run for AG next year decide not to pursue it. As one observer puts it, speaking of Neronha, "He's the big dog in the room right now that everyone's fearing."

9. Rhode Island Public Radio gets 93 percent of its funding from people and organizations in Rhode Island. So you don't need to worry about us going anywhere if President Trump is successful in eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Here's part of a comment on the subject by our esteemed general manager, Torey Malatia: "Were it to suddenly disappear, the $200,000 CPB grant to RIPR would need to be replaced.  We would do this by encouraging our community to help support us. We would hope that more listeners would become donors and sustainers, or would increase their gifts. We have a broad base of community support, and if every listener helped a little more, we could offset the grant. It will be work, but it can be done. In our view, though, the loss of CPB funding hurts our culture overall. Many local radio stations in very small markets rely of the annual CPB grant heavily, representing in some cases 25%-35% of their annual budgets. Losing this funding may severely damage these smaller stations. And since local public television stations receive three-quarters of the targeted congressional funds, small public television stations may become insolvent."

10. The public profile of Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy III is on the rise. He got emotional while talking on Morning Joe about the GOP healthcare plan, and took a jab at House Speaker Paul Ryan. Kennedy also touched on his family's roots in speaking about immigration. Via Boston.com: "Describing himself as, 'the proud son of Irish immigrants and the humble beneficiary of our country’s golden doors' the day before St. Patrick’s Day, Kennedy said he and other leaders in the nation’s capital stand in opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies." Meanwhile, back in RI, Smart Approaches to Marijuana -- an anti-legalization effort co-founded by former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy -- maintains a lobbying presence in the form of former state Sen. John Tassoni.

11. The recall election of Providence Ward 3 City Councilor Kevin Jackson is on for May 2. While the 11th hour nature of the council vote raised questions, Council President Luis Aponte attributed the timing to a clash between the pertinent state and city rules. Jackson, meanwhile, continues to challenge some of the signatures used to set the recall in motion.

12. Commerce RI spent $50 to promote on Facebook the New York Times' story mentioned in item #1. Is that an abuse of tax dollars or a token amount of money well spent to promote positive news about Rhode Island?

13. One more from the NEARI's Robert Walsh: he agrees with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's observation in the Times story about a disconnect between how the national media and Rhode Islanders perceive Governor Raimondo -- but he offers a different explanation than the mayor: "Rhode Islanders are very cynical," Walsh said on RIPR's Political Roundtable. "A lot of things have happened here that have made us cynical, some before the current governor came into office -- the 38 Studios saga hangs over us; having an empty building right here in downtown Providence ... hangs over us .... We've been cynical in this state since the banking crisis. My members, especially my retirees, are cynical since the changes that occurred in the pension plan." Walsh also believes the local media has fostered cynicism. Paraphrasing the late Buddy Cianci, he said that if "most politicians in this state were walking on water, the headline would be, 'They can't swim.' "

14. Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a Brown University alum, has been in the frontline of where politics intersects with education policy. Via Brown's alumni mag: "Although Common Core has wound up polarizing the politics of education, it began in 2009 with little controversy when a group of governors and state education officials, with strong backing from big employers, joined to develop voluntary standards designed to teach critical thinking skills and to measure state-to-state results using standardized tests. The underlying thinking was that American students needed better preparation for college and work, and that they should develop the tools they need to compete globally regardless of where they live. Common Core isn’t a curriculum, but it does spell out skills that students should master at each level. In language arts, there’s a heavy emphasis on writing and citing evidence from readings. In math, students are asked not just to solve a problem but to diagram how they figured it out and to come up with alternate methods. The idea is not only to teach students how to follow rules but to help them understand why those rules work. The whole thing began as a bipartisan initiative; Markell, a Democrat, was the group’s original cochair along with Republican Sonny Perdue, who was then governor of Georgia. More than forty states around the country joined the initiative. As Common Core rolled out, though, opposition bubbled up. Some teachers believed the standards weren’t always developmentally appropriate, while some parents cringed at unfamiliar teaching methods and a runaway testing culture in schools. Even as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups held firm in their support, opposition mounted among conservatives leery of what they believed was federal government overreach, especially after the Obama administration linked funding through its Race to the Top initiative. That caused critics to charge that Common Core would lead to a top-down curriculum, and even to compare it to the Affordable Care Act ('ObamaCore,' some called it). Several nationally ambitious Republican politicians who’d once wholeheartedly backed Common Core—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal ’92 among them—felt the backlash among their core backers and retreated."

15. State Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry) appears to be edging closer to a GOP challenge to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse since, as the ProJo's Kathy Gregg reported this week, Nardolillo has filed the necessary paperwork for federal fundraising. Whitehouse, meanwhile, has remained in the national news, helping to lead an inquiry with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham into Russian interference in western elections.

16. Downtown Boys, the Providence punk band, is a kind of a big deal.

17. The Providence campus of Roger Williams University will be the scene of a March 29 discussion (7 pm) on "The Press and The President." Former ProJo columnist Ed Fitzpatrick will moderate a panel consisting of Tim White, Brandon Bell, Omar Bah, Paola Prado and David Logan. The topics will include tweets and leaks, and President Trump's relationship with the media.

18. Here's the short version of Scott MacKay's commentary on the politics of perception & 38 Studios: Attorney General Peter Kilmartin should have removed himself from the investigation into the failed video-game company, and Governor Gina Raimondo should have followed up on her campaign commitment to back an outside probe.

19. Molly Ball: "Kellyanne's Alternative Universe"

20. "States Tell 'Slowpoke' Drivers to Get Over -- Or Else"

21. "A Finder's Guide to Facts," courtesy of NPR's excellent Steve Inskeep.

22. This recent Huffington Post story on the Velvet Underground's musical masterpiece, The Velvet Underground and Nico, has a fun Rhode Island anecdote, based on what band member John Cale told Rolling Stone in 1971: “We needed someone like Andy [Warhol] He was a genius for getting publicity. Once we were in Providence to play at the Rhode Island School of Design and they sent a TV newsman to talk to us. Andy did the interview lying on the ground with his head propped up on one arm. There were some studded balls with lights shining on them and when the interviewer asked him why he was on the ground, Andy said, ‘So I can see the stars better.’ The interview ended with the TV guy lying flat on his back saying, ‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ ”