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

Apr 20, 2018

Only about two months remain until the filing deadline to run for public office in Rhode Island this year, so a more active phase of campaign season is approaching. With that in mind, 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. One need not be a clairvoyant to see that UHIP, the state's problem-plagued IT system for administering human service benefits, would be a favored pinata for rival candidates seeking to oust Gov. Gina Raimondo this year. There's been a steady and long-running cascade of news reports about the troubles, so UHIP has become a bad word even for citizens who don't pay much attention to politics. There's the added stink of how difficulties with the costly IT system have affected vulnerable populations. And even if UHIP was initiated by the administration of former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the problems on Raimondo's watch contrast with the governor's self-description as someone who brings competence to government. (“I’m proud to say I believe in government . . . but I believe in good government, effective government,” the Democrat said while addressing an AFL-CIO endorsement convention during her 2010 run for general treasurer.) Then again, while Raimondo's rivals are ratcheting up their UHIP-related criticism, it remains unclear if they'd be any more effective in resolving the situation. It's a lot easier, after all, to win a campaign than to run a government. For her part, Raimondo maintains the state is making progress, and she has said the state would lose leverage over contractor Deloitte (which has extended the state tens of millions in credits) by severing ties with the company. Would any of the Democratic governor's would-be successors fare any better in improving the situation? Here's a rundown on what they're saying.

2. Speaking on WPRI-TV's Newsmakers, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung focused his remarks on calling UHIP a big mess, and classifying it as a firing offense for Raimondo. Asked how he would respond to the situation if he wins election in November, the GOP candidate said, "On day one, when I get into office, we will take a very deep-dive look, we will [bring in] outside experts. Deloitte, you know, we've got to stop digging. They should be gone, but I'm going to rely upon these outside experts to tell me exactly whether or not we can even accomplish this system as it was built, because if it can't, then we will scrap it. Because I'm not going to keep throwing our hard-earned taxpayer dollars back into a black hole and keep digging ...."

2A. Republican Giovanni Feroce, speaking on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, said: "I believe strongly in what's called 'an operational pause.' You hear all the dialogue from people who say, 'Just go back to the pen and paper' to whatever else, right? Well, listen, I'm combat veteran, someone who's seen things happen. I understand that for a period time in Iraq, we were getting demolished, we were losing people just on the way to the green zone .... so my answer is very simple: you stop what you're doing, you bring in the professionals to make sure the architecture is right, the business rules are right."

2B. Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo: "I would find out what successful program other states are using and what companies done .... and hire them to fix the problem."

2C. In a statement to Rhode Island Public Radio, Republican Patricia Morgan said: "The information I have about UHIP is what I have been able to gather from being a legislator. Unfortunately, part of the problem is caused by the governor’s lack of transparency. Taking that into account, if UHIP is still not working in 9 months when I take office, I will break it into three parts: 1) HealthSourceRI, 20 medical/healthcare programs and 3) the food stamp, cash assistance and similar programs that use EBT cards. These larger categories require different forms of documentation. By separating them, the state can simplify the application/eligibility process. Eligibility technicians can specialize and develop proficiency that will speed the process. Customers will have the opportunity to submit a more manageable number of documents ...."

2D. Democrat-turned-independent Matt Brown, speaking last month on RIPR's Bonus Q&A: "I'd have to as governor get in there and look at it and get into the details. Obviously, it's a big problem that needs to be solved."

3. Rhode Island lawmakers will return to the Statehouse Tuesday from their spring vacation, marking a more intense period of legislative activity and the start of the push to a finalized budget (barring another standoff between the House and Senate) for the fiscal year starting July 1. Many questions remain on the spending plan, even with an uptick in state revenue this week, including how the state will pay for employee raises. The budget will come into sharper focus after the latest version of the twice-annual revenue and estimating conference, set to take place from April 23 to May 10.

4. Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee has significantly ramped up his rhetoric against the Gaspee Project, the conservative group that has adopted McKee's Democratic primary challenger, Aaron Regunberg, as public enemy number one. McKee offered this response when asked on RIPR last month if he supported or opposed the Gaspee Project's criticism of Regunberg: "Well, they can take whatever tack they want. That's not the tack that I'll be taking. I'll be comparing what I stand for against whoever runs [against] me .... I'm not running against an agenda that's coming from the far right. I'm not going to carry the water for that place." Yet in a Friday afternoon campaign statement, McKee said, "I have a simple message for any  D.C. or out-of-state SuperPAC, which has attacked or intends to attack my opponent or my own campaign – stay the hell out of Rhode Island. We don’t want your distorted, unfair campaign tactics. This mudslinging is exactly what’s wrong with national politics and it has no place here. Extremist groups that don’t support a woman’s right to choose their own healthcare, oppose gun safety, and pursue an anti-LGBT agenda are the last thing Rhode Islanders want meddling in our elections. If this outside group thinks they’re helping me, let me be clear, I don’t want their help and I certainly don’t need it. You don’t speak for me, I do my best to speak for the interest of all Rhode Islanders, which is clearly not your agenda." .... (In a subsequent mass email, Gaspee Chairman Clay Johnson said the Gaspee Project is funded only with in-state contributions. "Despite the chattering of professional politicians and henchmen for the candidates for Lt. Governor of Rhode Island, The Gaspee Project is proud to have thousands of RHODE ISLAND supporters," Johnson wrote. ".... We have no coordination, ZERO, with either candidate for Lt. Governor. When Regunberg alleges that we are somehow connected to out-of-state interests, it is straight out of the land of make believe. When McKee repeats the charges, it makes it no less untrue."

5. CharterCARE Health Partners is taking part in a heavy PR blitz, via a big spend on televised commercials touting the company's impact on healthcare and the Rhode Island economy. "CharterCARE’s ad campaign is part of a planned marketing effort to increase awareness of the linkage of our two heritage hospitals," spokesman Bill Fischer said, "as well as continue to promote our quality performance and the specialty programs and services we offer." The promotional pitch comes as CharterCARE hopes to buy and reopen Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket.

6. Kudos and congrats to Eli Sherman, who is leaving his reporting gig at Providence Business News for a newly created regional investigative reporting position, based in the Boston area, with GateHouse Media, GateHouse owns more than 100 weekly and daily newspapers, including the Providence Journal and Newport Daily News, as well as 160 hyper-local wickedlocal.com web sites in eastern Massachusetts. Sherman joined PBN in 2014 and distinguished himself through a series of in-depth enterprise stories on a range of topics. “I’d like to thank PBN for affording me the opportunity to tell some incredible stories," he told me. "Rhode Island has no shortage of them and how they emerge from unexpected places is a testament to its uniqueness. Journalism today feels more important than ever and I applaud my fellow journos who continue to do extraordinary work in what can feel like trying times. Challenges are but opportunities and I’m looking forward to my next one. Many thanks to all my sources, colleagues and friends who helped me accomplish some of my finest work.” PBN, whose alums include WPRI-TV's Ted Nesi and the ProJo's Patrick Anderson, is now looking to fill the vacancy created by Sherman's exit.

7. One of the top questions facing Republican Giovanni Feroce's campaign is how his run will be affected by ProJo reporter Amanda Milkovits' detailed coverage of his business setbacks. During an appearance on RIPR's Political Roundtable this week, Feroce likened himself to some higher profile captains of industry in downplaying the issues: "Let's say a Jamie Dimon decided to run for president," Feroce said, referring to the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. "Would you then say to him, 'there's 12,800 customers that sued you for x, y, z.' Or maybe Brian Moynihan from Bank of America decides to run for office some day. Are they going to say, 'Oh, there's 32,600 mortgage customers that say you messed up their house -- you!' It's not him. He's the CEO of organizations. And so as the CEO, I take responsibility and I fight hard and I work through it. Frankly, I'll be victorious -- it's a matter of time -- and there will be a lot of apologizing." Feroce said he's motivated by a desire to create jobs in Rhode Island. For more of his views, including why Feroce backs legalizing marijuana and opposes the PawSox deal, listen to our Bonus Q&A.

8. Amid all the discussion about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, you might not know that anyone looking to enter a federal building or travel via plane will need a new credential -- known as Real ID -- starting in 2020. RIPR's John Bender explains: "Real ID is actually a federal law that sets national security standards for ID cards. The law was passed in 2005 as part of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission. As of right now, no one with Rhode Island credentials meets this new standard. Starting this year, the State Department of Motor Vehicles  hope to begin issuing these new licenses in December. 'It’s a federal mandate that all states have to have certain security features in their credentials to make sure that we are identifying all people appropriately,' says Bud Craddock, head of the Rhode Island DMV."

9. Steve Ahlquist has a revealing story on the 'fake quorums' that take place at the Statehouse. Excerpt: "There were no cameras in the room except for mine. The meeting was being audio recorded. The official record shows that 10 representatives were at the meeting. In fact, there were seven, then less than seven. According to the official record, Edwards, and other legislators were at the meeting. In reality, they were not. I reached out to many reps for this story but only Daniel McKiernan would go on record, responding, 'Sometimes we do have conflicts. I went to Labor to help establish a quorum and make a procedural vote to hold all of the bills for further consideration. At the time any vote is taken, there must be a quorum. I then went to an Oversight hearing regarding UHIP. It is my practice to stay in hearings unless I have a conflict. I am supporting the Equal Pay and $15 minimum wage bills. I went to the UHIP hearing because I had prepared a number of questions, and felt my attendance there better served the public interest.' Larry Berman, House communications director, replied that, 'House members do their best to attend committee hearings, but some are members of multiple committees and they may have to run between two or three hearings in one evening.' "

10. State Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), who just underwent his latest shoulder surgery, is understandably focused on recovering from that. But Lancia isn't entirely ruling out a possible run for lieutenant governor this year. The two-term GOP lawmaker said he's focused on healing and plans to seek re-election. He noted how there's already a Republican candidate for LG  -- Paul Pence -- and noted the effort needed to raise money for a statewide run. Lancia said he'll revisit his options in the months to come, adding, "I'm going to do what's best for me and my family."

11. East Providence is a gold mine of political stories. The latest evidence comes from Jim Hummel: "Brian J. Faria squeaked out a victory for the Ward 4 seat in 2016 after his opponent chose not to make his criminal record an issue in the race. But it surfaced on social-media sites when Faria — and two other council members — started pushing earlier this year for the council to recognize approval of a 2012 city referendum to extend council terms from two to four years. If that happens, the 2016 election would be recognized as carrying a four-year term and no one on the council would have to stand for re-election until 2020, even though the 2016 ballot stated explicitly that voters were choosing council members for two-year terms. One of Faria’s potential opponents says the move to extend the current term is a direct response by the candidate to avoid having to face voters this year."

12. "Men Arrested At Philadelphia Starbucks Speak Out: Police Commissioner Apologizes"

13. A T-shirt made by Bristol artist Tom Deininger -- which shows the word "Love" spelled out with guns, a knife and a hand grenade -- is the subject of a lawsuit in Wisconsin. Via the Journal Sentinel Online: "Markesan High School Principal John Koopman deemed it "inappropriate" and warned freshman Matthew Schoenecker and his parents that if the boy continued to wear it to school, he would be asked to change, cover it up or spend the day in an isolated cubicle near the office. After Schoenecker sued Koopman last week in federal court, it made national news. That's how Tom Deininger, who designed the logo about 11 years ago, came to see the story and scratched his head.
'The whole thing is perfect for our time, in a sense,' he said in a phone interview. 'It's how people are not understanding each other, and arguing about how to argue.' He called the Journal Sentinel to point out that the design is most definitely not a pro-gun message. 'Guns are stupid. They're for cowards. Express yourself other ways than shooting stuff,' he said. 'They're not all bad, but society's not better for them.' He said his intention with the design was to turn something that plagues society into a positive. 'That's the artist's role, to take what hurts us and turn it into something beautiful.' "

14. Short takes on guns: 1) Via Pew, a majority of US teens fear a shooting could happen at their school; 2) With another big House Judiciary hearing on guns set for Tuesday, following House passage of a 'red flag' policy and a ban on bump stocks, it would be a surprise at this point if Rhode Island joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in banning semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15; 3) Is the gun control losing steam as an issue heading into November? 4) Related: The Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence is set to do a door-to-door canvas in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's Cranston district on Saturday, April 21.

15. Scott MacKay analyzes the Raimondo Paradox -- how the governor gets positive press out of state and a more mixed reception at home: "Raimondo has raised expectations, perhaps too high. There was no way she was going to transform the state’s sluggish economy in one term. And the contrast with a robust Boston-area job market isn’t helping here, even if it provides jobs to thousands of Ocean State residents. Then there is the challenge of economic inequality, which fueled the rise of Trump and isn’t going away."

16. Cyd McKenna, who ran Buddy Cianci's 2014 campaign, worked for Buddy at City Hall, and later served as chief of staff for the Providence City Council during the presidency of Luis Aponte, has launched a run for the Ward 13 council seat being vacated by Bryan Principe. "We are constantly told to do more with less," McKenna said in her campaign announcement. "But that doesn't mean that we need to compromise our standards for what we expect in return for our taxpayer dollars."

17. Can Sports Illustrated survive in the digital age?

18. Politicians sometimes mean it when they decide not to seek re-election so they can spend more time with their family. A case in point: state Rep. Jay O'Grady (D-Lincoln), whose outlook changed due to a health emergency last year.

19. Rest in Peace, Barbara Bush.

20. Meet White House social media director Dan Scavino, who helps President Trump to craft perhaps half of his tweets. Meanwhile, an NPR/NewsHour/Marist poll out this week finds that pushing impeachment of the president would backfire on Democrats. Meanwhile II: "Democrats don't have a huge edge in polling either when it comes to November's midterm election, but they still have a consistent advantage."

21. The Democratic National Committee plans to hold an executive committee meeting in Providence June 8-9.

22. Benny's -- gone, but not forgotten: "Providence's longest running sketch and variety show, The Empire Revue, is remounting its new original musical honoring the beloved and now-defunct Benny's stores, 'Benny's: The Musical.' The show will be presented upstairs at Providence's historic Columbus Theatre, on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26 at 8 p.m. The original musical, which was written and produced from scratch over the course of just a few weeks in early 2018 at AS220, follows the experience of the staff and customers of a Benny's branch as they deal with the news of the chain's closing and its aftermath. Written and performed by the Empire Revue's sketch comedy troupe The Sparkling Beatniks, and backed by the show's house band, The Superchief Trio, the initial run of the show sold out almost immediately upon its announcement. 'We had a feeling that there was going to be a high amount of interest in this production,' says creator, producer, and director of the Empire Revue, Keith Munslow. 'But even we were surprised by the level of enthusiasm we received. We sold out our first performance before we had even written a word of the show. One of the biggest themes we talk about in this show is that Benny's was more than 'just a store' -- it holds memories and values that are meaningful to people for all kinds of reasons. It feels like we are really filling a need for closure for people who loved this store.' "