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

May 5, 2017

May is here, bringing sunshine (in theory) and a sharper read on state revenue. 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. If you hold a recall, they will come. That was part of the takeaway from Tuesday's vote to recall Providence Ward 3 Councilor Kevin Jackson. The number of votes in the recall (1,930) was fewer than the amount of signatures required to set the process in motion. Yet the sentiment of Ward 3 voters was clear: more than 90 percent voted to oust Jackson from a council slot he has held since 1995. “If officials can’t keep themselves straight, it’s bad for our reputation as a state, and it’s bad for our ability to get useful things done,” one Ward 3 voter, Robert Howe, told RIPR's John Bender. The recall was set in motion when Jackson was charged last year in a still-pending criminal case; he suggested the recall process is unfair, since he'll still be out of office if acquitted of the charges. Yet even if Jackson leaves a complicated history as a public official, it was clear he had worn out his welcome with Ward 3 voters. Some said he had long been unresponsive. Jackson irked many others by backing Buddy Cianci's 2014 comeback attempt. And then Jackson fought the recall every step of the way, a move reminiscent of the strong-offense-is-the-best defense strategy used by some other RI pols. It didn't work, and the voters had their say. That helps explain why Jackson said he won't seek re-election, even though there's some ambiguity in the law about whether he'd be able to do so even after he loses his seat.

2. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has showed no sign of supporting Governor Gina Raimondo's signature proposal for 2017 -- offering Rhode Islanders two years of free college tuition at CCRI, RIC or URI. So is there anything to keep Mattiello from scaling back the plan -- or not even including it -- in the House version of the budget? "You know, I think that we just have to stay at it," Raimondo said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "My position is, this is about jobs, this is good for the economy, this is about making sure every Rhode Islander has the education and training they need to get a good job. I think it's a smart investment, and I'm hoping he'll be open-minded and we can find a solution that's good for everybody." Raimondo has been making that argument for months, with help from a DGA-affiliated group spending a considerable sum on TV ads, seemingly to no discernible effect on Mattiello. (And let's remember how the speaker unleashed a tweet-storm of disapproval when the governor's team started making the case for RI Promise with local editorial boards, including one for a paper covering his hometown of Cranston.) The question now is whether the findings of the state revenue-estimating conference next Wednesday will spark a revaluation. Worsening budget math could theoretically increase Mattiello's willingness to expand the number of years for his top priority, a phaseout of the car tax. (In that scenario of diminished revenue, the speaker would also have cover for modifying his original plan). Meanwhile, the Senate remains the king-maker. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has cited concern about moving ahead with an unsustainable initiative, regardless of whether it involves tuition or car taxes. So is there room for a compromise? There's always a deal in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, note some of Raimondo's comments about the speaker: "Since the speaker has been speaker, I think he's been very responsible fiscally. He is strong on jobs and the economy. I don't want to speak for him, but he doesn't want to do something that is fiscally irresponsible, and I don't think he will propose that. So elongating [a car tax phaseout] over a much longer period of time could actually be a decent thing to do."

3. With General Treasurer Seth Magaziner this week continuing his move to cut the hedge fund allotment in the $8 billion state pension fund, Governor Raimondo stands by her decision to raise the hedge stake when she was treasurer. "We made the best decision we could with the information that we had, all with an eye toward protecting people's pensions," Raimondo said during RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "You have to remember, at the time we made those decisions, we had just lived through the greatest stock market crash ever; people got really hurt in that. And so what we were trying to say do is say, how do we protect pensions, how do we protect ourselves if the market crashes again. The stuff we invested in was pretty standard; many other pension funds did it. The Rhode Island Foundation invests in them, Brown does. So we made the best decisions at the time to protect people's pensions for a downside. And you know, he's [Magaziner's] made a different decision. I'm not sure I would have done that. I think you have to let these things ride out over a long period of time. But what I do know is today the system is healthier than its been in a long time. This year we paid a COLA for the first time in a long time. So I'm happy with that."    

4. The governor said she hasn't reached out to erstwhile Democratic rivals Angel Taveras and Clay Pell for their support in 2018. "I am focused on fixing UHIP and fixing roads and bridges and getting people back to work," Raimondo said. "I don't anticipate any [campaign] announcements this year. I got a job to do, it's a full-time job. When we announce, we'll run a big campaign, and I'd love to have everyone's support." Of course, it's easier for Raimondo to hold off on an official announcement considering how her campaign finance account has surpassed $2.2 million (and a DGA-affiliated group has been running a TV ad in support of Raimondo and her college tuition proposal).

5. Meanwhile, with 2018 creeping steadily closer, it's never too soon to start thinking about Rhode Island's 2022 gubernatorial race. For now, two of the state's general officers, Treasurer Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea bear watching. The secretary of state's web site is already quite effusive, pointing to how Gorbea "has rapidly emerged on the national scene as a leader who is taking on some of the toughest issues and getting results, leading the way for other states across the country." It goes on to list how "just two years into her first term, she has" pursued five different initiatives. Magaziner, meanwhile, has been busily building his own portfolio, voting against the Wells Fargo board, delivering a detailed review of public debt in RI, and offering a plan to bolster municipal pensions.

6. The progressive push to mandate seven paid sick days a year is shaping as one of the big fights in the final stretch of the legislative session. Supporters say they've knocked on thousands of doors across the state and sent 5,000 post cards to state lawmakers. A new mailer was set to go out this week, with another canvass planned for this weekend. Advocates, like state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) and RI Working Families, contend that paid sick days are good for the economy. Yet the business community is staunchly opposing the idea, with some prominent business leaders calling House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Last year, Mattiello backed Regunberg's key priority -- a hike in the sub-minimum wage -- while pointing to how that wage had gone unchanged for many years. For now, via a statement, the speaker remains oblique on the outlook on paid sick days: “We have met with passionate advocates in favor of the bill and business leaders who have expressed concerns. We are working our way through the issues and listening to all interested parties. There is a lot to consider moving forward.”  

7. Sweeping changes at The Providence Journal: less than a year after abruptly being pulled from the Statehouse, Katherine Gregg is back in her natural habitat on Smith Hill; The ProJo's reporters are being reassigned, with an eye to 1) boosting coverage outside Providence; and 2) more seamlessly integrating digital coverage of the news. And management and labor have sharply different perspectives on these changes. Executive Editor Dave Butler, who is set to retire next month, said the ProJo is trying to figure out how to best use its talent. Yet reporter John Hill, head of the Providence Newspaper Guild, remembers how a job on Fountain Street was once the apex of job security in Rhode Island. Like many insiders, he remains troubled by GateHouse Media's ongoing cost-cutting, calling the company's view of the paper as being like "just another sponge to squeeze dry."

8. RIPR wasn't the only stop on Governor Raimondo's media offensive this week. She was on her way to recording 14 broadcast interviews: Thursday: WHJJ Radio with Ron St Pierre; 93.3 Coast FM with Doug and Jen; WHJY-FM morning show; Latina Radio; Connect to the Capitol with Dan Jaehnig (WJAR). Friday: WPRI 8 am morning news show w Danielle North (WPRI); Political Roundtable/Bonus Q&A (RIPR); The Dan Yorke Show (WPRO); Live: ABC 6 News at 5pm (WLNE); A Lively Experiment (RI-PBS); WGBH All Things Considered. Saturday: Latino Public Radio; 10 News Conference (WJAR). Monday: GoLocal Live.

9. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will held lead an inquiry on Russian interference in last year's presidential election, in his role as the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Subcommittee on Crime & Terrorism. Former Director of National Security James R. Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates are slated to testify. But Susan Rice, national security adviser under President Obama, has declined a request to appear. That sparked this criticism of Whitehouse from state Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry), who is gearing up for a run against the junior senator: "Whitehouse is the ranking member and his refusal to endorse his Sub-Committee's efforts to pursue its mandate is a departure from the norm, even in a polarized US Senate." (Whitehouse told CNN, "I don't believe that Dr. Rice's participation is germane to the topic of this hearing, and I believe her presence would be a distraction from the critical issues at hand. I fully support her decision not to testify.") .... Meanwhile, another potential GOP challenger, former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders tells me he's still mulling a run and doesn't have a particular timetable for making a decision.

10. Dr. Charles Steinberg, president of the PawSox, touts the team's envisioned stadium at the Apex site as a way to spark a swath of economic development and public benefits (although the team's still not talking details on the financing; stay tuned on that). Meanwhile, Governor Raimondo remains very wary of committing public dollars to the project. "Here's what I do know: they're a very wealthy ownership group and we are not a very wealthy state," she said during Bonus Q&A. But considering the cost of renovating McCoy Stadium, "arguably it's better to get a new stadium than to fix up an old one, so I'm open to it, but I am really, really mindful of the fact that we're making tough budget decisions right now. We've got schools that are falling apart, social services that are fraying, every dollar matters for us."

11. State Rep. Aaron Regunberg is sitting on a cool $128,000, according to his Q1 filing (and he had a packed time Thursday night) as he mulls a possible run for lieutenant governor next year. Incumbent Democrat LG Dan McKee reported a balance of about $68,000 in his campaign account. McKee has been keeping a focus on small business issues, while Regunberg has remained active with the ResistHateRI reponse to President Trump.

12. Moody's this week upgraded Central Falls "one notch from Ba2 to Ba1 and assigned a positive outlook. Ba1 is Moody’s highest non-investment grade rating and is six notches higher than the Caa1 rating Central Falls had during its Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings. The positive outlook indicates an upward trajectory in the city’s credit profile and the possibility of another upgrade in the next 12-24 months. If that happens, Central Falls would be an investment-grade credit .... The upgrade reflects a multi-year trend of stable operating results and continued positive performance relative to the post-bankruptcy plan since the city's emergence from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012. The rating also takes into account our expectation that the city’s financial flexibility will increase following the end of the post-bankruptcy plan period (ending June 30, 2017) with the implementation of a fund balance policy requiring maintenance of unassigned General Fund reserves of at least 10% of prior year expenditures."

13. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has faced a hat trick of recent political setbacks. First, in a surprise vote, the City Council tabled the Community Safety Act. Then, the mayor's seemingly top legislative priority, for a regional water board, was unceremoniously declared DOA by Speaker Mattiello. Finally, over Elorza's objection, the City Council approved a plan to ban smoking around Kennedy Plaza.

14. As a candidate in 2014, Governor Raimondo said she would support an independent probe of 38 Studios. More recently, she questioned whether an outside investigation would be worth the cost. So now with Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney set to decide whether to release related grand jury records, is there a point at which Raimondo would definitively support an outside look at Rhode Island's most recent signal failure of state government? "It's a tough call," the governor said during Bonus Q&A. "On one hand, I hear from a lot of Rhode Islanders who say it's time to move on .... On the other hand, if those documents aren't released, then there's always that question in the public's mind of what wasn't there? So I'm going to wait and see what the judge does. I really hope that the judge agrees with our position, which is that this case is special and everything should be let out to the public. After that decision, I'll see where we go."

15. Liz Anderson, a former Statehouse staffer for the ProJo, has been laid off from her job as an editor at Gannett's Journal News, in New York's suburban Westchester County. In a post on FB, Anderson expressed gratitude for her opportunities and said she is at peace with what has happened: "I went to the office every day and worked my ass off, despite the ever-mounting challenges in the industry, because I loved the process of chasing after, getting, writing and delivering the best news report we could. I don't have any regrets. Well, one. I regret that colleagues in the newsroom that I cherish will probably have to take pieces of my job onto their already-too-full plates, and everybody already is paddling so hard against the tide."

16. This list talks up U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton among a lengthy number of prospective Democratic presidential candidates in 2020, but not anyone from RI.

17. Providence is represented this weekend in Jane's Walk, "a global festival on the first weekend in May .... Inspired by urban activist Jane Jacobs. Jane’s Walk promotes urban literacy by encouraging people to get out and explore their neighborhoods. Unlike typical guided tours, these free walks are led by volunteer citizen guides who share knowledge of their own communities while inspiring participants to think, talk, and connect. Providence is now one of 209 participating cities in 41 countries across 6 continents." Details here.

18. Last year, a move backed by Speaker Mattiello to make it easier to get a concealed carry permit didn't get through the Senate. Governor Raimondo declined to say if she would veto the measure if it lands on her desk this year.

19. Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters plan to canvass in Mattiello's district from noon-4 p.m. this Sunday, May 7, (starting at 430 Hope Road) to rally backing for a measure to enshrine abortion rights in state law. According to an advisory for the push, "Did you know that, according to PolitiFact, Rhode Island’s general assembly rules make our Speaker of the House the most powerful in the country? This means the 14,000 residents of House District 15 may be the most powerful constituents in the country. Canvassers will start with a kick-off and training session, before knocking on doors to speak with Speaker Mattiello’s constituents. The goal of this event is to inform constituents about the bill, which has been held for further study, and ask them to contact Speaker Mattiello to urge him to bring this bill up for a vote!"

20. Check out this semi-vintage video on Johnston politics.

21. French voters pick their next president on Sunday. Here's a revealing look at front-runner Emmanuel Macron. Meta-question: are polls -- which show Macron with a double-digit lead over rival Marie Le Pen -- still valid in the Age of Trump?

22. One of Rhode Island's small charms is the typical lack of Boston-style traffic snarls. So it still sticks in our craw when a few intersections around downtown Providence get unnecessarily choked with traffic during the morning or evening commute. The situation is exacerbated when some motorists feel compelled to enter an intersection even after a traffic light has changed against them. The Providence City Council pass an anti-block the box ordinance Thursday. We'll be watching with curiosity to see the implementation of this measure.