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

Jun 9, 2017

Rhode Island's next big election season is slowly emerging even as summer beckons. 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. The imminent arrival of summer-like weather will usher in a season of cookouts, beach outings and other light-hearted pursuits. But make no mistake: the early phase of next year's race for governor is underway: the TV spots run in support of Governor Gina Raimondo's college tuition plan, by an affiliate of the Democratic Governors Association, increasingly look like campaign commercials. (The Republican Governors Association responds by using local media reports to tweak Raimondo at every opportunity.) Then there's former Governor Lincoln Chafee, who is considering running as a Democrat or independent, although he rules out a return to the Republican Party. There's little love lost between Chafee and Raimondo, and he has the kind of money that would enable him to enter the governor's race relatively late in the game. So when will the Republican-turned-Independent-turned Democrat make a decision? "The filing deadline is in June of 2018, and that's the deadline, the final deadline -- some time before then," Chafee said, sounding not unlike Buddy Cianci, on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. (a top wild card is the level of support for a Chafee campaign by the former governor's wife, Stephanie, who made a big bundle when local owners sold the Providence Journal to Belo in the 90s.) On the Republican side, former Warwick state Rep. Joe Trillo also has the ability to self-fund a large part of a run, and he signaled this week his ongoing interest. That could pose a headache for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, an expected candidate, since Trillo can conceivably draw from a base of fellow Donald Trump supporters. Meanwhile, other potential candidates include two-time gubernatorial hopeful Ken Block; House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan; and entrepreneur Giovanni Feroce.

2. The House version of Governor Raimondo's budget proposal is expected to emerge in the latter part of the coming week. How will lawmakers wipe out a $134 million deficit while delivering $26 million in car tax relief? "They're just looking for places to cut wherever they can," said one source familiar with the process.

3. Lincoln Chafee left the governor's office in 2015 with his approval rating in the mid-20s, and his presidential race garnered little support last year. So why is he contemplating another run for governor? "Well, I think as Rhode Islanders look back on my four years as governor, they're going to reflect positively," Chafee said, "and certainly the unemployment rate was the biggest drop over my four budgets of any state except Nevada, so the best of any state but one. And got gay marriage, marriage equality, though. All my departments were functioning well, I had surpluses in four years. We had money to the cities and towns, the distressed communities. We helped with the state institutions of higher education, University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, CCRI. So we had the trains running on time .... and accomplished things. And now as you look [at] what's happening, between the rollout of the tourism campaign, Cooler & Warmer, the UHIP debacle, and now the fact that there's a hundred-and-some million dollar budget deficit -- and $60 million in the current year -- the governor's just not getting the trains to run on time .... I think there's opportunity for Rhode Islanders to have the discussions that need to be had as we look at who's going to lead our state."

4. More than five years after the demise of 38 Studios, the debacle maintains its currency as a fraught political issue. That could be seen in a statement this week from Governor Raimondo's office, calling her "the state's leading proponent for the release of all documents related to disastrous deal with Curt Schilling's failed company. Starting in 2015, Governor Raimondo oversaw the release of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from the civil case and earlier this year, after the criminal case was closed, she urged the Rhode Island State Police and the Attorney General's Office to release non-grand jury documents in their possession. State Police released the majority of those documents in March and continue to make additional documents available as they are reviewed." (Raimondo said she will ask the state Supreme Court to release the grand jury records related to 38 Studios. Of course, the governor said as a candidate in 2014 that she would back an independent probe of 38 Studios, but has since backed away from that. Lincoln Chafee, meanwhile, initiated the lawsuit that has clawed back most of the money owed by taxpayers over 38 Studios, although he didn't initiate an outside probe, either. (In Scott MacKay's view, the failure of RI elected officials to support an independent investigation explains why 38 Studios lingers as an issue.)

5. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's car tax phaseout remains on a glide path, with broad support in the House and the backing of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Yet hearings this week in the House and Senate Finance committees offered a reminder of a few important points. To some, the lack of specifics of how the car tax elimination will be paid for is cause for concern. And since it will eventually cost $220 million each year to compensate cities and towns for lost car tax revenue, that money could go toward a range of other, perhaps more effective uses. "I'm sure that there's lots of folks around this room who could think of much more effective ways to stimulate the Rhode Island economy, or better ways to provide more targeted tax relief, with that kind of money," Doug Hall, an economist with the Economic Progress Institute, told House Finance.

6. On a September day in 1965, a young M. Charles Bakst was accosted by a female college student offended by something he'd written in the Brown Daily Herald: "I'm Liz Feroe, and if you're going to write about Pembroke, you better know who I am." Bakst had been up most of the preceding night, overseeing publication of a BDH issue that attracted national media attention for a story about the Brown Health Center providing birth control pills to female students. It was a heady time for the young student journalist, as Bakst recalled in an essay for The Brown Reader: "No topic was too large for our stories and editorials. We chronicled the national civil rights movement and the dawning opposition to the Vietnam War. And no topic was too small, not even the cranberry sauce in the Sharpe Refectory's Ivy Room. They served the whole-berried variety; we preferred jellied." It's no surprise that Bakst became a newsman; the storied columnist Walter Winchell was his father's first cousin, and Bakst's childhood home in Fall River was full of newspapers. "When I got to Brown in September 1962, I immediately glommed onto the Brown Daily Herald and felt right at home," he told me. "The writing came pretty easily and I loved the variety of assignments and opportunities -- several times interviewing visiting celebrities -- and plunging into political coverage by profiling John Chafee and going to the governor's press conferences. I liked having my name in the paper and in fact marveled at the miracle of writing something and then seeing the paper appear in the morning, a sensation I continued to appreciate the whole time I was at the Journal." Bakst took a 2008 buyout, but his ProJo columns remain compelling reads, with a granular view of politics and strong opinions on a range of issues. Back in 1965, Bakst wound up having a class ("Social and Intellectual History of the United States") with the young woman who had accosted him after his mostly-sleepless night. They began sitting together, chatting, and dating. On Tuesday, Charlie and his better half, Elizabeth, celebrated their 50th anniversary. Congratulations!

7. Could a bill ostensibly meant to help with a takeover of Memorial Hospital have broader implications for future changes in Rhode Island's healthcare landscape? The fast-tracking of the legislation, which seemingly emerged from left field this week, raises that question.

8. Lincoln Chafee seems more than ready to bring the game to Governor Raimondo, criticizing her on everything from her backing as state treasurer of a higher stake in hedge funds ("These ended up being high-fee, low performing investments of our pension fund dollars"), to the governor's posture toward the PawSox' latest stadium quest ("I don't think Governor Raimondo took a position"). He offered the comments during RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A. Yet with his characteristically idiosyncratic persona, Chafee's own views may become fodder if he pursues another campaign. "I think Russia did not interfere with our elections," Chafee said, in one example, on Roundtable, the contrary view from James Comey notwithstanding. The former governor also faults what he called the media's "sledgehammer" approach on potential links between President Trump and Russia, in contrast to a lack of comparable coverage on the events leading to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (the worst mistake in U.S. history, Chafee said). "It just perplexes me," he said. "Why are we so obsessed with this Russian issue? I call it a non-issue."

9. Almost three months have passed since U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha (widely expected to pursue a Democratic run for AG next year) stepped down, and it remains unclear when the Trump administration will fill vacant appointed posts in Rhode Island.

10. With the Comey testimony riveting Americans this week, one of the big questions is how this will affect President Trump's brand. In Virginia, a GOP gubernatorial primary next Tuesday -- which pits an anti-establishment insurgent against an establishment Republican -- is seen as a key indicator for that question. Closer to home, potential GOP gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo could offer a test case on the Ocean State appeal of Trump-aligned Republicans.

11. Don't miss former ProJo reporter Dan Barry's lengthy read on Ralph DeMasi, a once-feared member of organized crime, and the cost of his behavior for other people.

12. Two noteworthy excerpts from Boston Globe contributor Jack Thomas' review of "The Golden Age of Boston Television": 1) "As the principal owner of Channel 7, David Mugar made some unfortunate choices for his management team, but he cared about quality because he didn’t want to run into his neighbors and be challenged as to why Channel 7 wasn’t doing a better job. By comparison, today, how many of us can name the owners of local television stations?"; 2) "Having worked at newspapers for four decades, I can attest that [author Terry Ann] Knopf has missed the boat about sex in the city room. At the Globe, the honorable and straitlaced publisher William Davis Taylor was so aghast at sexual shenanigans among reporters and editors that he once referred to his city room as 'The Love Boat.' "

13. A snapshot of America in 2017: As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, authorities in at least 19 states are bracing for conflict during a series of anti-Sharia marches this weekend. One of the organizers, a gay Republican, said he was motivated to take a stand against Islamic extremism due to the shootings in Orlando last year. Yet the protests are also attracting far-right sympathizers, and counter-protesters, making for a potentially volatile mix.

14. As we look ahead to the 2018 gubernatorial race, we can only mull the absence of the Healey effect. Back in 2014, Bob "Cool Moose" Healey grabbed a remarkable 22 points of the vote while barely spending any money, offering a decisive choice for voters upset with their other choices and the status quo. Healey died in 2016, but his spirit lives on, including at the Square Peg in Warren, with a drink dubbed "The Cool Moose" (dark rum, light rum, pineapple juice & coconut puree). You can read up here on the history of the Cool Moose Party.

15. The U.S. House this week passed a bill meant to reverse Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Part of the measure would free payday lenders from federal oversight. "According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the typical payday loan borrower is in debt for five months of the year, paying an average $520 in fees to service a $375 loan," reported LA Times financial columnist David Lazarus. "More than $7 billion in total fees are shelled out annually. The average borrower’s income is about $30,000. Let’s call this what it is: Loan sharking." For his part, Jamie Fulmer, an executive with payday lender Advance America (and no stranger to the Statehouse), takes issue with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "This overly politicized agency seeks to lessen consumers’ access to credit through misinformed restrictions on short-term, small-dollar loans, and fails to understand a key fact: consumers benefit from having a wide variety of financial choices, not fewer," Fulmer wrote in a recent email. "Recently, industry representatives, faith leaders and legislators alike have expressed their concerns about the unintended consequences of burdensome financial regulations, which force hardworking Americans to turn to more costly and less regulated forms of short-term credit."

16. The latest installment in our *Connecticut is the new Rhode Island* series: The regular session of the CT legislature ended this week without agreement on how to close a projected $5 billion deficit over the next two fiscal years. Lawmakers may return for a special session to deal with that.

17. Back in 2001, conservative provocateur David Horowitz caused a stir with an ad in the Brown Daily Herald (and other college newspapers) condemning calls for slavery-related reparations for black Americans. Students wound up removing stacks of the BDH to keep the message from circulating. More recently, as the Washington Post reported, Horowitz became part of the conservative infrastructure that helped fuel Trump's rise. Exerpt: "Long before Trump promised to build a wall, ban Muslims and abandon the Paris climate accord, Horowitz used his tax-exempt group to rail against illegal immigrants, the spread of Islam and global warming. Center officials described Hillary Clinton as evil, President Barack Obama as a secret communist and the Democratic Party as a front for enemies of the United States. The Freedom Center has declared itself a “School for Political Warfare,” and it is part of a loose nationwide network of like-minded charities linked together by ideology, personalities, conservative funders and websites, including the for-profit Breitbart News. Horowitz’s story shows how charities have become essential to modern political campaigns, amid lax enforcement of the federal limits on their involvement in politics, while taking advantage of millions of dollars in what amount to taxpayer subsidies."

18. "Kansas lawmakers have voted to roll back a series of major tax cuts that became an example for conservative lawmakers around the country but didn't deliver the growth and prosperity promised by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican." (via NPR) "A coalition of conservative Republicans, some of whom voted for sweeping tax cuts in 2012 or defended them in the years since, sided with moderates and Democrats to override Brownback's veto of a $1.2 billion tax increase. The law to increase taxes over the next two years comes as legislators seek to close a projected $900 million budget gap for that same period and bolster funding for K-12 schools under a Kansas Supreme Court order."

19. Sign up now to attend a free July 10 Newport forum for the state Senate special election race, from 5:30 pm to 7:30 p,m, at the Jane Pickens Theater. The event is being sponsored by WhatsUpNewp, and I'll be asking questions, along with Ted Nesi and Frank Prosnitz. (WhatsUpNewp's Ryan Belmore shares word that another candidate has joined the race, independent Kim Ripoli. The field includes Democrats David Allard, Dawn Euer, John Florez, David Hanos Jr. and Republican Michael Smith and Green Gregory Larson.)

20. The big question on self-driving cars is when they will become commonplace. Not wanting to be late to the party, the state Department of Transportation has issued a Request For Information (RFI) for companies "with expertise in connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) and other technologies. The intent of the RFI is to start a process that puts the Ocean State in a position to be a leader in developing the transportation system of the future .... The RFI will start the process for RIDOT to identify and meet the substantial technical, regulatory and practical challenges associated with the implementation of CAV technologies. Companies submitting proposals also will be asked to share other innovative next-generation ideas such as on-demand ride sharing, high speed intercity and inter-suburb transporter technology, among others."

21. A Yale researcher's view on how political ideology influences views of science.

22. Via Sports Illustrated: "Could a 45-year-old writer with no baseball experience beyond seventh grade, armed with only desire and an obsessive work ethic, go deep in a major league park? It would take a helluva lot of swings to find out"