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

May 12, 2017

Stormy times in DC, and no shortage of news at home, a.k.a. Crimetown. 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. When Luis Aponte won a Providence City Council seat on his second run, in 1998, it foreshadowed the emergence of a much broader Latino political movement in Rhode Island. By 2014, the sense that he had made it could be seen in how Aponte (and his friend Kevin Jackson) clambered onstage, standing behind Gina Raimondo, when she formally announced her gubernatorial run at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. Yet few close political observers were surprised when Aponte was led into court in handcuffs on Wednesday. The four charges, including two felonies, grew out of the damning report on the council president's campaign finances filed by the state Board of Elections with the AG's office last October. Yet even before that, Aponte had become known for a careless approach to his campaign finances, racking up nearly $50,000 in fines by not filing required BOE reports. As is often the case in Rhode Island, the money involved in the underlying charges is hardly a king's ransom. But the hit on public perception is severe: another RI pol, the second-ranking official in the capital city, may be facing a lengthy prison sentence. Are charges against public officials a sign that the system is working? Perhaps. But the prelude was Aponte and Jackson's presence on the City Council for a combined 40 years.

2. Follow the money, as the saying goes. Yes, campaign finance violations are the common thread in the string of problems we've seen with elected officials in recent years (with the exception of former state Rep. John Carnevale). "For too long some politicians have been treating their campaign accounts as piggy banks, or not keeping their accounts in order," John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, tells TGIF. "I think the tide is turning because we're seeing voters (in the case of Kevin Jackson) and politicians (in the case of Luis Aponte) say that enough is enough. The legislature made some modest changes two years ago, requiring that bank statements be submitted to the Board of Elections. But even more could be done by adopting Governor Raimondo's proposal including random audits, among other reforms. The more auditing that is done, the sooner these problems can be rooted out. People often propose a full-time legislature as a solution to many of the conflicts of interest we see in Rhode Island. But if you look no further than New York, where there are scores of legislators who have been indicted and convicted, you'll see that paying a living wage does not prevent people from abusing the public trust. None of the people indicted or convicted for campaign finance issues have been skimming enough to make a living off of their accounts."

3. PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino said the team hopes to release next week its financial proposal for building a new stadium on the Apex site in Pawtucket. He declined to specify details while at RIPR to tape an interview for the 99% Invisible podcast, but said, "People will be, I think, pleasantly surprised at the level of commitment made by the PawSox to this publicly owned facility .... I'm reasonably optimistic that we have a framework that will and should work, but the citizenry of Rhode Island and Pawtucket and the elected officials of course will have to conclude that for themselves as they digest the various elements of the financing plan."

4. Now comes the hard part: state lawmakers have $100 million less than expected last November to assemble the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The word from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's office is that the new spending plan will nonetheless include the first, slightly smaller installment of a cut in the car tax, as well as an effort to bring more uniformity to how the car tax is applied. As Governor Raimondo's office notes, Rhode Island is hardly alone among New England states in facing shrinking revenue. Mattiello puts part of the blame on a failure by the administration to achieve budget savings.

5. A series of changes in the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services: Governor Gina Raimondo has nominated Eric J. Beane, mostly recently detailed to the UHIP situation, as HHS secretary. He would succeed Elizabeth Roberts, who stepped down in February. Acting HHS Secretary Anya Rader Wallack is returning to Brown's School of Public Health. HealthSourceRI director Zach Sherman is taking over day-to-day management of UHIP, although Beane will remain involved there. Courtney Hawkins, policy director for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, is being brought on as the new head of the state Department of Human Services, taking on Melba Depena's former role. Elorza, meanwhile, named Assistant City Solicitor/Municipal Integrity Officer Kate Sabatini as his chief of policy/senior adviser.

6. The Pawtucket/Central Falls train station could boost nearby housing development. But that's nothing compared to the impact of a proposal to link Providence and Boston via a 20-minute train trip. And even Somerset, Massachusetts, the youthful home of Jerry Remy, would get a chunk of the action from the envisioned Hyperloop. As BostInno reports, Somerset is "the cornerstone of the Hyperloop Boston-Providence proposal that is competing with 34 other projects across the world for a chance to get built. They were chosen out of a pool of 2,600 teams from across the world, and Hyperloop One, the company running the Global Challenge competition, is expected to announce three winning proposals by the end of the summer. For Holly McNamara, who's leading the Hyperloop Massachusetts project, the 64-mile proposal is about putting Somerset on the map and giving her hometown — and the surrounding area, which includes Fall River — an economic boost that it's very much in need of. For decades, she said, Somerset hasn't had a direct transit line to Boston. And the closure of two local power plants over the past several years have created a massive drain on jobs and tax revenue for the town. Hyperloop Massachusetts could also boost an offshore wind farm development that has been proposed off the coast of Somerset. 'We figured it would be a perfect opportunity to put the South Coast back on the map,' she said."

7. Give a listen via these audio links for a range of views on one of the big topics of the week, President Trump's dismissal of FBI Director James Comey: U.S. Sen. Jack Reed tells me he thinks Trump sacked Comey because the FBI director was too independent. "It sends sort of ominous signals about the independence and the professionalism of the FBI, in terms of having them now look over their shoulder at political actors rather than looking at the law and the facts," Reed said .... U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said the timing of Comey's dismissal is suspicious: "I think you could take the position that given the mistakes that were made during the campaign, during that time period that the FBI ought to go into a different direction. And it's certainly in the president's prerogative to take that action. But when that action is taken while an active investigation is going on and reasons are given that may not hold up to scrutiny, then I think it's our responsibility as members of Congress to question that." .... Meawhile, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), like Flake, isn't on board with an independent probe at this point. But Sasse said it's unclear if there's legitimate reason to fear Trump is compromised or has some inappropriate connection with Russa: "We don't know enough, yet. We do know this for certain - Russia tries to infiltrate elections. They've done it in, obviously - they've got influence in Ukraine. They do things in Estonia. They do things in the former Soviet Georgia. They've tried to be involved in the French elections, recently. We know that they wanted to influence the 2016 election. We know that they had all sorts of operations relative to certain people in and around the Trump organization and campaign."

8. "Pollsters Find 'At Best Mixed Evidence' Comey Letter Swayed Election"

9. Lincoln Chafee plans to take another run at convincing the Warwick City Council to pass a resolution opposing the Burrillville power plant project. The council voted down the resolution, 5-4, but Chafee said he met with his friend and successor, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, about seeking a different outcome. Working with the opposition group Keep RI Beautiful, Chafee said he may seek support for a similar resolution from the Newport City Council. While Chafee raps the state's $100 million revenue shortfall as a black mark against Governor Raimondo's leadership, he remains undecided on a possible campaign plan for next year. "I hadn't thought of that," he said when asked if he would run if the mayor's office was open in Warwick. Chafee said he expects Avedisian to seek another term (Avedisian said he has not made any decisions about next year). Based on his past experience, Chafee said, it makes more sense to mull over different options before actually spending any money on a campaign.

10. U.S. Rep. James Langevin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has received more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from the defense industry during his lengthy political career. By contrast, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who is not a member of Armed Services, has gotten relatively little in contributions from the defense industry. So do those kinds of contributions encourage bloat in the military budget or unnecessary weapons systems? (You don't have to look far to find news reports about billions in wasted military spending.) Langevin maintains his votes for military spending are based on the merits. "I always look at the defense budget as what is absolutely essential," Langevin said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "And no contribution that I receive ever comes with any strings attached." Yet Langevin didn't dispute supporting Boeing's SBInet virtual border fence, which has been panned as a costly clunker for taxpayers. "If it was in the overall defense bill then I guess you'd say that I did vote for it," he said, "but I believe in use of technology. I think we can leverage that capability, and I'd have to look back at the reason for the failure, as you describe it." 

11. Robert Weygand was a little known state rep from East Providence when he wore a wire for the FBI in 1991, recording then-Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault's attempt to solicit a bribe for a landscaping contract. The publicity from that helped Weygand win campaigns for lieutenant governor and the U.S. House. Speaking last week on RI-PBS' A Lively Experiment last week, Weygand pointed to what he called the politicization of the FBI in questioning whether he would wear the wire in the same circumstance.

12. As a lawmaker with a pro-life profile, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin declines to offer a view on whether the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v Wade and also whether he supports or opposes the decision. "I'm a proponent of trying to reduce unwanted, unintended pregnancies," he said on Bonus Q&A. "I believe that we need to have more sex education, especially among young people." While Langevin counts himself as a supporter of funding for Planned Parenthood, he declined to offer a stance on the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court that legalized abortion. "My position on abortion comes from a very personal one, in that when I was 16, I almost lost my life," Langevin said, referring to the accidental shooting that left him paralyzed. "My life hung by a thread, and for whatever reason I got my second chance. I would feel like a hypocrite if I were to take away someone else's chance at life. That's where I primarily come from that perspective. I respect women's choices and others who view the choice issue differently. But that's why I want to focus as a policy maker -- where is the broadest base of support, what can we work on together. And clearly, I think reducing unwanted, unintended pregnancies is a real common ground area, and promoting sex education and family planning. Those are things that I think pretty much all of us can agree on."

13. Sinclair, the parent of WJAR-TV, is poised to become the nation's largest provider of local TV news. as CNN's Dylan Byers reports, the company's growth has been meteoric -- and controversial: "When [David] Smith and his brothers took over their father's television company, in the early 1990s, it consisted of three local stations in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbus. With David as president and CEO, the Sinclair Broadcast Group blossomed to 59 stations in less than a decade. By 2014, that number had nearly tripled to 162. (Smith stepped down earlier this year and became executive chairman.) As Sinclair expanded across the country, so too did its conservative programming. Its ideological bent first came under scrutiny in 2004, when it sent a reporting crew to Iraq with the expressed intention of finding more positive stories about the war there. During the presidential election that year, it announced plans to air an hour-long special attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry. Sinclair's Washington bureau chief protested the special, telling NPR it was 'biased political propaganda.' He was subsequently fired. Today, local television stations owned by Sinclair that were once apolitical have grown more conservative. From KOMO 4 News in Seattle, Washington, to WJLA 7 in Washington, D.C., there has been an increase in political news and programming, including the addition of shows like 'Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson' to 'The Right Side with Armstrong Williams.' Sinclair has also added reliably conservative political analysts like Mark Hyman, a former Sinclair executive, and Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump spokesperson. Many nightly news broadcasts have taken a more conservative tone, as well."

14. During an interview with a Harvard radio station back in February, Congressman Langevin said he might run for governor at some point beyond 2018. But Langevin was back on-message when he stopped in at RIPR this week, insisting that he hasn't given much thought to a potential clash with U.S. Representative David Cicilline in 2022, after Rhode Island is expected to lose a congressional seat. "We'll cross that bridge when it comes," Langevin said. "I'm right now focused on doing my job as the congressman from the Second District."

15. Karen Lee Ziner spent almost 40 years as a reporter at The Providence Journal, focusing on immigration for much of that time. Give a listen to her exit interview with RIPR.

16. The Employees Retirement System of RI is due to receive Monday state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner's recommendation that the expected rate of return for the state pension system be dropped from 7.5 percent to 7 percent. Treasury spokesman Evan England said the move would not have a budgetary impact until 2020, although projections show it would cut by about 2.5 percent the pension funding levels for state workers (now 56 percent) and teachers (58.3 percent).

17. Republicans on the move: 1) Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is widely expected to make another run for governor, is set to hold his closed breakfast with friends and advisers this weekend; and 2) state Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry) plans to formally launch his challenge to U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse at 6 p.m. Monday at the Coventry VFW.

18. Congrats to WPRI-TV's Tim White and his two co-authors on The Last Good Heist, which has won a silver medal in the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best nonfiction in the Northeast.

19. The House of Representatives this week passed a bill that would allow high school students to possess sunscreen -- just about 20 years after a related topic was taken up in a classic Chicago Tribune column.

20. Many, if not all, roads in finance seem to lead to Goldman Sachs. Hence this report from Chief Investment Officer: "Alec Stais has been named Rhode Island’s chief investment officer, tasked with overseeing the day-to-day administration of the treasury’s investment office, including the state’s $7.9 billion employee retirement system. Stais joins the Rhode Island Treasury from Goldman Sachs Asset Management, where he worked for more than 20 years, most recently as a managing director. Prior to Goldman Sachs, Stais was a vice president at MetLife, where he worked for 10 years. He earned his MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business. Stais replaces Tim Nguyen, who had been the state’s interim CIO since June 2016 when former CIO Anne Marie Fink stepped down."

21. Did you hear about how the FCC's web site crashed after John Oliver asked viewers to post comments there about the importance of net neutrality?

22. Via WHSU: "The iconic cover art of Radiohead’s album OK Computer shows a heavily distorted picture of an anonymous highway interchange. The band’s never said where the picture came from. Some internet sleuths think they’ve found it -- in Hartford, Connecticut."