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

Jan 26, 2018

Chapel Grille is the place to be, right? The Cranston restaurant has emerged as a hot spot for political parlays, with uncertain fallout moving forward. 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. U.S. Representative David Cicilline was the odd man out among Rhode Island's four-person congressional delegation when he voted against the deal to end the federal government shutdown earlier this week. "Well, I wouldn't say my three colleagues were wrong," Cicilline said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, adding that his opposition was based on what was left out of a continuing resolution, including parity between defense and non-defense spending and more money for fighting the opioid crisis. The four-term congressman also dismissed the question of whether Republicans outsmarted Democrats. "I don't know if it's a question of getting outmaneuvered, but what we need this sort of limping along, continuing resolution to continuing resolution. This is the fourth continuing resolution we've had. This is a $4.1 trillion government. We need to have a permanent budget." Debate continues about whether Democrats made the right call by supporting the end to the shutdown. This analysis includes congressional Republicans in the winners of the dispute. Yet Ezra Klein contends that Dems kept their shutdown leverage while winning a six-year reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

2. Meanwhile, Cicilline was loath to acknowledge that the GOP tax cut plan may grow in popularity since more Americans may find more money in their pockets. "The idea that some of these corporations are sharing 0.1 percent of what they got [with employees] and we're all supposed to thank them profusely is absurd," Cicilline said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. Looking ahead, Cicilline expects Democrats to regain the House in November, predicting a gain of 40 seats, although he offered a somewhat tepid endorsement when asked if Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are the right people to lead congressional Democrats: "Look, they were the two people elected by their caucuses to do that," Cicilline said. "When we take the House back we'll have another election and we'll have an opportunity -- I think there will be a lot of candidates and we'll have an opportunity to select leaders both in the House and Senate." Finally, since Rhode Island might lose one of its two congressional seats in 2022, the question lingers about whether Cicilline would vie for a single seat with Second District U.S. Representative Jim Langevin. But Cicilline (like Langevin) declines to engage on that question, continally characterizing 2022 as far off in the distant future.

3. The turbulence in the relationship between House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remains a significant wild card for the remainder of the legislative year. Ups and downs are common, House-Senate rivalries are nothing new, and the presence of an election year means that lawmakers want to avoid conflict and get out early. Meanwhile, relations are reportedly smoother after Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) helped broker a conversation this week. Yet House-Senate disputes have thrown the budget process off the rails as recently as last year, so anything can happen.

4. ProJo reporter Kate Bramson's move to become policy director for the Rhode Island Senate is a telling indicator of a significant change in the national media/political landscape. It used to be that Journal reporters would stay or go -- they'd remain in Rhode Island to ply the journalistic goldmine of various beats, or leave for opportunities at The Boston Globe, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other larger, more prestigious newspapers. Now, though, due to the broader struggles of the newspaper industry, ProJo reporters tend to depart for state government or university jobs when they depart. As Journal Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg notes, Bramson's exit won't reduce the ProJo's number of reporters; Paul Edward Parker will take up her beat after having recently been assigned to a producer-editor position. Yet Bramson's move from a journalism to a government job nonetheless symbolizes a broader loss in reporting capacity, with adverse effects for the public interest, as evidenced by how fewer reporters now cover city and town meetings around Rhode Island. Phil Eil (who began freelancing for The Providence Phoenix when I was news editor there and later took on that job) makes a similar point in mourning the demise of alt-weeklies like the Phoenix: They were "an extra set of eyes on legislators, local officials, and law enforcement. They’re often the ombudsman for the local media, monitoring daily newspapers and airwaves the same way government environmental agencies track water and air quality."

5. Matt Jerzyk, well known for his political savvy, is set to leave his position as legal counsel to House leadership by the end of next month. (Jerzyk's eventual exit from the Statehouse was first reported last year by the ProJo's Kathy Gregg.) Jerzyk plans to retain his role as city solicitor for Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and to expand his law practice, after seeking an opinion from the Ethics Commission. The Brown alum cites a desire to have a more flexible schedule to be more active with his four young children. Progressives scratched their heads when this founder of RIFuture.org, trial lawyer, and former union and community organizer went to work for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello three years ago. But Jerzyk went on to win praise for his behind-the-scenes role in crafting compromises on various legislative issues, including Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly, earned sick time, the justice reinvestment package, the domestic violence-gun bill and a range of elections reform bills. Considered a talented vote-counter in both government and on the campaign trail, Jerzyk has helped engineer campaign wins for Angel Taveras, Diossa and Mattiello. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

6. In defending her plan to plug part of a budget hole with $23.5 million in sports betting revenue (depending on whether the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes that in RI), Gov. Gina Raimondo noted how that represents just a tiny part of her proposed $9.4 billion budget. But does that show that Rhode Island is flying by the seat of its pants when it comes to the search for revenue? "There is no sure thing," Raimondo told me during a budget-oriented interview in her Statehouse office earlier this week. "Since I've been governor, we've never seen an environment as uncertain as it is today, because of the way things are going in Washington. Perfect example: our economy is strong, by any measure. You pick whichever measure you prefer. Rhode Island's economy is stronger than its been in a long time, same with Massachusetts. But yet our revenue is depressed. Twenty-plus states are seeing their revenue depressed, because of this uncertainty coming out of Washington." Raimondo calls her budget an effort to manage through a time of uncertainty, while strengthening the state's resilience in education, infrastructure and other areas. Critics see it very differently. The conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity offers this critique of Raimondo's budget proposal: "The Governor's budget seeks to extract significant new revenues from the public via a bevy of narrow tax and fee increases, such state sponsored sports gambling, increased marijuana usage, and 'scoops' from other agencies."

7. Any measure of RI's economy? URI economics professor Len Lardaro says the state's growth, as a percentage of real GDP, has lagged the U.S. since the fourth quarter of 2015.

8. The singular event known as the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, held for more than 40 years on the last Friday in February at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts, is ending after a final show on February 23. That's sad, but not surprising, considering how the economic foundation for the event -- like the newspaper business itself -- is trending down. (Guild President John Hill says the union may create a scaled-back Follies in the future.) For now, it's better for the signature event to go out with a bang rather than petering out over time. The Follies could be an acquired taste for some. But the key components (a cocktail hour with just about everyone in local politics & media; the cholesterol-bomb buffet; and a scathing send-up of the year in RI news) made for a very distinctive Ocean State tradition. Here are a few of my favorite Follies memories: the late, great Jack White getting the John Kiffney Award for keeping in his back pocket, while out on strike at the ProJo in '73, a Nixon story that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize; David Cicilline's turn as an extra-fabulous mystery guest, complete with bare-chested houseboys and immaculately groomed poodles, after he won election as Providence's first openly gay mayor in 2002; ProJo alum Dan Barry riffing on the poignant quality of Rhode Islanders trying to laugh at the Follies, after the devastation of the Station nightclub fire in 2003; and of course, "Lincoln Chafee" doing a zany song and dance routine to the music of "Gangnam Style." (Bruce Sundlun tribute "Gov Child," set to a Supremes' tune in honor of his "love child," was before my time.)

9. At-large Pawtucket City Councilwoman Sandra Cano's support among local politicos can be seen in the host committee for her upcoming fundraiser for her bid for Senate District 8. Committee members include Bill Lynch, Bill Fischer, former candidate Mark Theroux, Bob Coderre, most of the Pawtucket City Council, and members of the Pawtucket House and Senate delegations. Cano, whose family fled political violence in Colombia and settled in Pawtucket, is facing former Senate candidate Matt Fecteau and former House candidate David Norton.  Fecteau and Norton, former allies, recently parted ways over Twitter regarding the PawSox. The primary is February 27.

10. With the Raimondo administration trying to close out a $60 million deficit in the current budget year, 286 state employees have signed up so far to take a buyout offer. New to the list is former Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, who is getting set to retire as head of the Department of Elderly Affairs. Asked whether the state is hitting its projected savings with the buyouts, Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna McCabe offered this information: "Achieving the savings will really depend up on how many vacancies we retain in the wake of the retirements, how many replacement hires are hired at lower salaries and/or steps, and other factors. Estimated savings is based on the assumption that about 425 eligible employees would opt into the program and that about 50 percent of the vacated positions will be kept vacant (on average) .... Believe it or not, we are still early in this process. This is the first of three deadlines we set," with the last coming up on or before April 15.

11. General Assembly candidates, Part I: Mark Tracy, one of the Democrats running for the RI House seat being vacated next year by LG candidate Aaron Regunberg, reports a campaign balance just shy of $21,000, up from zero, for Q4 of 2017. "I’m pleased by the enthusiastic response to our campaign," Tracy said in a statement. "Voters are hungry for a Rhode Island where we can access quality education regardless of where we live, where universal healthcare is a right, and where diversity and inclusion is a core principle of our government. They also know we face serious fiscal issues at both the city and state level which threaten the social safety net. My personal experience as a beneficiary of those same social programs, combined with two decades of professional experience in finance, business, innovation and budgeting make me uniquely qualified to help us grow, rather than cut our way our of our budgetary challenges.” Tracy's background includes creating a diversity/inclusion event, Ocean State Innovate, collecting a master's from Harvard's Kennedy School, and serving on a number of boards and committees with groups including Save The Bay and the Summit Neighborhood Association.

12. General Assembly candidates, Part II: Liana Cassar has joined the Democratic race for the seat being vacated next year by Rep. Joy Hearn (D-Barrington). “I am running for state representative of District 66 because I believe that Barrington and East Providence will benefit from electing a woman dedicated to protecting health care, education and the environment – areas that are a vital to the success of our communities," she said in a statement. "I will bring a strong background in political activism and extensive experience in public health to the State House. I look forward to talking with members of the community to discuss the critical issues impacting District 66 over the next few months.” Cassar said she and her husband, Larson Gunness, have lived in Barrington for the past 19 years with their teenagers, Jamie and Maria. Cassar said she's a Connecticut native who served with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. She's a grad of the University of Connecticut, has a master's in public health from Boston University, and an MBA from Simmons College School of Management. Cassar said her professional experience includes working in health care and public health in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

13. An exclusive via RIPR health reporter Lynn Arditi: should so-called safe-injection sites be part of Rhode Island's response to the opioid crisis?

14. Top lawmakers like House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) have characterized the possibility of Roe v. Wade being struck down as unlikely in the short term. That view influences the path for abortion-rights bills in General Assembly, where legislative leaders have seen little to gain from a polarizing debate among their members. Yet President Trump's evolution on abortion gives little reassurance to progressives. As The New York Times reports, "For someone who once described himself as 'very pro-choice,' Mr. Trump’s transformation into a champion of the anti-abortion cause is a remarkable political evolution. Anti-abortion activists and Christian conservative leaders have remained one of his most loyal and deferential constituencies, even as he faced accusations that would have been the undoing of other politicians. This week, as the president brushed off allegations that his personal lawyer paid a pornographic-film actress with whom he was said to be involved with $130,000 in hush money, the religious right was full of praise for the president. 'President Trump has never pretended to be a Bible-banging evangelical,' said Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative organization. 'He is who he is. His policies speak for themselves.' Besides his executive orders, conservatives are celebrating one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken by a White House to reshape the federal judiciary."

15. With an election looming in November, Gov. Raimondo has raised her focus on small business. Nine large local employers committed to buy more products and services from smaller businesses, as part of the $475,000 SupplyRI initiative. The governor is steering a similar amount to double small business loans, and she also unveiled a package of reforms meant to make the state more friendly to small business. While measuring the impact of these efforts will take time, the ability to roll them out points to one advantage of incumbency.

16. Anti-LNG activists in Providence say U.S. Representative David Cicilline has been silent about National Grid's proposal to build an LNG facility, after he helped lead opposition to another LNG proposal during his time as mayor. Here's the gist of Cicilline's response, via RIPR's Bonus Q&A: "I don't remain silent. I'm awaiting an environmental assessment, which will be done in March .... I think we have to be very focused on what this environmental assessment says. After I have an opportunity to see that and study it, I'll take a position. I'm monitoring this very closely and think we all should be concerned about the growth of that facility in Providence."

17. Did Gov. Raimondo miss an opportunity during her State of the State address to comment on the bleak outlook facing Latino children in Rhode Island? Here's what she told me: "It is something we need to do better on, absolutely, and that's why in the speech I said, 'We're going to keep going until everyone is included.' It was a clear recognition that, yes, we've made some progress and we ought to be happy about that. But not everyone is feeling our recovery, as you point out, particularly many folks in the Latino population , and so we have to absolutely keep going until we reach them." Raimondo also pointed to increased funding, and academic programs, for English-language learners. "That was a big initiative of mine for the past two years; it's there again in this budget." The governor said heightened investment in efforts like all-day kindergarten and pre-K help everybody, but especially Latinos, and that Latinos are the biggest beneficiaries of her Rhode Island Promise tuition program at CCRI.  

18. The liberal Rhode Island Working Families Party, which fueled support last year for the paid sick-leave law, is holding a Statehouse presser at 3 pm Tuesday to kick off its big campaign for 2018 -- "the Fight for $15 and Fair Pay Campaign."

19. Courtesy of PR man and former Bruce Sundlun lieutenant David Preston, we're informed that Sundlun wrote a book about his own life while running for governor in 1990. Preston adds this commentary, via a recent newsletter from his PR shop: "The book recounts Sundlun’s epic life and looks back at a Rhode Island that is now largely gone. It’s also a timeless window into how the sacrifices, energy and 'can do' attitude of millions of individual Americans survived the Depression, beat the Nazis, won the Cold War and built the Great American 20th Century. They worked to build a prosperous, tolerant country before passing it on to their children and grandchildren for safe-keeping. Their example is a daily inspiration to me. Sundlun’s book also lays out the then candidate’s detailed vision for a better Rhode Island, and the policy positions he believed would make it so. It’s a remarkable reminder of a time when we picked our leaders based on something other than coverage of polls and attacks, gratuitous analysis of the 'horse race' or an overreliance on labels, ideology and 'teams.' A quarter century after his election, and several years after his death, the Governor’s legacy and historic record of accomplishment can be traced back directly to these pages. Governor Sundlun’s book is a reminder of what is possible, and still achievable, today. In the context of our current challenges, I thought Bruce Sundlun’s life of service, and his vision for the future, just might offer a little 'Hope.' "

20. For aficionados of Rhode Island-sized measuring units, check this link: "This crowd takes up an area the size of Rhode Island. But there’s no reason to use the vague phrase 'an area the size of Rhode Island.' This is our scenario; we can be specific. They’re actually in Rhode Island."

21. "The Loneliness Epidemic"

22. For fellow barbecue enthusiasts: how cool is this -- Pig Trip, reviews of BBQ in Boston, New York and places in between.