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

Apr 27, 2018

Just another ho-hum week in Rhode Island politics, right? The news emerged fast and furious Wednesday, in a likely harbinger of a lot more drama in the months to come. 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. How could a savvy politician like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello exceed by a factor of 72 the $1,000 limit on spending from his own PAC during his 2016 state rep race? "This cannot be explained away as a series of honest errors," charged RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell. "Mattiello would not be in office today but for this illegal activity. When an elected official breaks the law in order to get re-elected, he needs to leave office.” Yet the speaker was cool and collected when he spoke with reporters about the issue on Wednesday. “It was a mistake," Mattiello said, noting how he had more than enough in his personal campaign account in 2016 to cover the over-spend from his PAC. "The wrong account was used .... Some folks are trying to make it into something it’s not. The wrong account was used, the expenditures were appropriate -- we always had enough money, there was no tactical advantage." Never mind that elected officials' campaign finance violations (here and here) -- and the state Board of Elections' heightened role in policing them -- were increasingly evident ahead of the November 2016 election. Republican Steven Frias gave Mattiello the fight of his political life that year. So Mattiello's forces used everything they could -- mail ballots, a far greater amount of campaign spending, and a mailer featuring an endorsement of the speaker by Frias' vanquished primary rival, Shawna Lawton. (Remember that mysterious independent candidate Patrick Vallier got 202 votes -- more than enough to swing the outcome.) In the end, Mattiello squeaked by on a 85-vote margin -- a disproportionately narrow plebiscite for the most powerful post in state government, due to the speaker's influence over spending and hiring. So what's the upshot of this week's findings by the state Board of Elections? Mattiello vowed that his campaign will now be more diligent, and there's no palpable talk of an uprising in what former speaker-turned-lobbyist William Murphy dubbed "the House of Ambition." House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan stood out among GOP gubernatorial candidates in calling for Mattiello to resign, while Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is known to have friendly ties with the speaker, struck a more subdued tone: "It is important that all campaigns play by the rules. I am glad the Board of Elections took the GOP’s allegations against Speaker Mattiello and his campaign staff seriously." As Fung noted, the real test will come in November. That's when Frias (who has said he remains undecided about a possible rematch vs Mattiello) or some other challenger may point to the campaign finance issue as evidence for why District 15 needs a different state rep.

2. The Board of Elections gave Speaker Mattiello a warning and ordered him to pay back the $72,000 in overspending to his PAC. Is that a sufficient punishment? "I’m left to wonder how a PAC can exceed the contribution limit by 72 times (a PAC whose agent is lawyer/Speaker and treasurer was now a magistrate on the bench) and not be subject to any punitive fine," tweeted John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. "He simply has to pay the $72,000 back to the PAC from his campaign account, for which he can easily raise that in a single night from a room full of lobbyists." Gov. Gina Raimondo declined to say whether Mattiello deserved a stiffer sanction. "What the campaign did wasn't right," Raimondo said during Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "It was a serious and troubling mistake and the Board of Elections ran a process, and he has acknowledged his mistake. I think the important here is, people need to have confidence in their public leaders. We all need to follow the rules. There's rules, we all need to follow the rules. If you break the rules, then there are consequences. I will say every year since I've been governor I have been working to tighten campaign finance laws and ethics laws. I have a bill before the legislature right now to tighten campaign finance laws and to call for random audits [of campaign finance accounts]. And I hope that they pass it, because again people deserve to have confidence in public leaders." So was Mattiello's punishment appropriate? "I'll leave that to the Board of Elections, but as I said, it's a serious mistake."

3. Matt Brown's decision to run for governor as a Democrat puts him on a collision course with Gov. Raimondo in the September 12 primary. That means Brown has only slightly more than four months to build a campaign and raise money while making his case to voters. Brown's decision may work to Raimondo's advantage; if she wins the primary, it's one less opponent siphoning votes in the November election (with Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo potentially drawing from Allan Fung's support if Fung emerges as the winning of the GOP primary in September.)

4. Give Lincoln Chafee credit for being unpredictable. After a long flirtation with a possible attempt to regain the governor's office, Chafee poured cold water on that this week. Then, rather than riding off into the sunset, he told WPRO's Tara Granahan that he was leaning toward a Democratic primary challenge against Sheldon Whitehouse -- the same guy who beat Chafee in 2006. While the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat's quixotic 2016 presidential run may have inspired a measure of Chafee fatigue, the candidate in waiting insists he's a contender. "I've won 10 races in Rhode Island, and they'll all been competitive and I believe I've been outspent in all of them," he told me. "So I know how to win elections and I have a record of winning elections and I think I'm going to win this one." Chafee still has a following among progressives, funding his campaign won't be a problem, and he's been on record for some time against the Burrillville power plant proposal (while Whitehouse, an outspoken environmentalist, has not taken a stance on that). Yet the Democratic establishment will remain aligned behind Whitehouse (his campaign manager from 2006, Mindy Myers, now leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), and the coordinated campaign boosting Whitehouse and Gov. Raimondo is already underway. Meanwhile, some people who might otherwise like Chafee may be put off by his statements in support of Russia.

5. Asked on Political Roundtable why she's a better choice for Democratic primary voters than Matt Brown, Raimondo didn't even mention her opponent. Instead, the governor offered the two components of her message: 1) "I'll just look at where we started and where we are now. When I took the job we had just about the highest unemployment rate in the country, and now we have more people working than we have at any time in the past 10 years. Step out of your studio here, you see cranes in the sky, development, we're fixing roads and bridges, people are back to work ..." 2) "and all the while we've done that by being true to progressive values. Over 1500 kids are going to CCRI tuition-free this year. We've raised the minimum wage three times, provided paid sick leave. So we'll leave it to the people to decide. But I know I don't want to go back to the days of the highest unemployment rate in the country. We're on a good path. We have an awful lot more work to do. As we've said, I think we're in the 3rd or 4th inning of our economic comeback."  

6. On the other side of the race for governor, Republicans describe Raimondo as a failure. Yet they're also increasingly training their fire on one another. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who has tried to remain above the fray, is coming under increasing attacks from House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan and Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo .... Trillo appalled some observers with his recent remarks about the Starbucks controversy, but his defense of Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) endeared him to the politically active 2A supporters who have become a presence at the Statehouse. Trillo also announced he will fund his own campaign, saying, “I am not actively out in the community raising money because, unlike all of my opponents, I have no intention of being beholden to any special interest groups or individuals who offer me large contributions." .... Morgan spokesman Bryan Piligra took aim at how Fung didn't call for Speaker Mattiello to resign: “Allan Fung won’t call on his Cranston buddy to be punished when there have been serious election laws broken. How can Rhode Islanders trust him to stand up for them when he remains silent in the face of such public corruption?" ... Fung, meanwhile, touted a haul of almost $200,000 during Q1: "I am very pleased to have another solid quarter in fundraising," Fung said. "With the majority of my donations coming from Rhode Islanders, it is clear my message to fix our state's economy is resonating. People are ready for new leadership."

7. For years, Scott Avedisian appeared to be Warwick's mayor in perpetuity. He was popular, well-respected, and showed no interest in diving into a run for higher office. Of course, Avedisian's moderate brand of Republicanism was seen as a potential barrier to winning a statewide primary. As former state Rep. John Loughlin said in 2012, "Scott Avedisian can’t win a Rhode Island Republican primary, because of the ring-wing elements that have kind of co-opted the party. So I think the party really needs to reassess who it is, where it’s going, and include more moderate voices, frankly.” Meanwhile, although Avedisian would never say it, one suspects he may have grown a bit tired of the routine after almost 20 years as mayor. The presence of the Trump administration likely blocked any opportunities in DC. Now, by taking over as RIPTA's CEO in mid-May, Avedisian has a new challenge that aligns with his interests. It also has the side benefit for Democrats of putting Warwick City Hall in Democratic control for the 2018 election.

8. One noteworthy facet of RI's 2018 election season is how progressives are running for lieutenant governor (Aaron Regunburg), governor (Matt Brown) and U.S. Senate (Lincoln Chafee). The precise effect on the electorate remains to be seen, but it could boost voting by Democrats and liberal-leaning independents. Combine that with the progressive push to gain more seats in the General Assembly -- a move seen, as we've said, as a fight for the soul of Rhode Island's Democratic Party -- and there will be lots of cross-currents in the run up to the November vote.

9. Kudos & congrats to Nora Crowley, who is signing on as the new chief public affairs officer for the state Department of Labor and Training, effective May 7. Crowley is well-known for her work at City Year, which she joined as an AmeriCorps member 10 years ago, serving at Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence. She went on to study education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and joined the City Year staff in 2010. "City Year is an extraordinary organization," Crowley, the better half of WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan, tells me. "Most recently, I've been the managing director of impact, and I am most proud of the strategic partnerships we have developed with the school district, school administrators and teachers. There is amazing work happening in classrooms all over the city, and it's been a privilege to be a part of it. After eight years on the City Year staff, it's the right time to take on a new adventure and opportunity to grow. Even with the change, staying in public service was a priority for me, and I'm thrilled to join the team at the Department. of Labor and Training." (Former DLT spokesman Mike Healey, a veteran of Patrick Lynch's tenure as attorney general, recently moved to a comms job with the state Department of Environmental Management.)

10. Don't look now, but Boston Blockchain Week took place over the last few days. For a deeper dive on how the emerging technology championed by GOP gubernatorial candidate Giovanni Feroce can be integrated into government, read this New Yorker story on the embrace of blockchain by Estonia, aka the digital republic.

11. Lawmakers leaving: state Sen. Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket), who was first elected in 1994, is not seeking re-election. “I would just like to make my life a little less complicated,” he told the Valley Breeze. “Having the opportunity to be in public service has been frustrating at times and gratifying at other times. It’s time to move on.” ... Across the Statehouse, Rep. Jared Nunes (D-Coventry), who was first elected in 2010, revealed on FB that he'll be leaving: "Spending the last last eight years representing district 25 has been a great honor. Having the support and encouragement of the good people of Coventry and west Warwick has always guided my decision making in my time in the legislature. There comes a point in ones life when you look around and assess where you are and where you are going. Having a beautiful wife, two small children that are getting older by the day, and a flourishing small business, I have realized that the amount of time required to appropriately represent the people in this district is no longer available. I will be retiring at the conclusion of this term. I want to thank all of you for placing your trust in me over the last 8 years. I hope that I have brought a common-sense voice to the legislature that accurately represented the thoughts and wishes of this district. It has truly been an honor to serve you all." ... As previously reported in TGIF (#7), other departing lawmakers include Reps. Patricia Morgan, Joy Hearn, Aaron Regunberg, Bobby Nardolillo, Jay O'Grady, Helder Cunha, and Joe Almeida.

12. As a candidate in 2014, Gina Raimondo supported an independent probe of 38 Studios. Later, while the state's lawsuit against a string of defendants was proceeding, she said it was not the time to pursue an outside investigation. Now, the governor said during RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week, "I don't think it's necessary. At the time I said that, things were different than they are now. Since then, the State Police have done a full investigation. We released thousands and thousands of pages from the lawsuit. We have settled the lawsuit and received back millions of dollars for taxpayers, so things have changed. And frankly, independent investigation cost a million, $2 million, and I wasn't convinced it was a good use of taxpayer money."

13. Another loss that cuts at the soul of Providence: the Cable Car Cinema is not long for this world. This follows the loss in recent years of such institutions as the Providence Phoenix, Benny's, and the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies.

14. Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group, tells Institutional Investor that newspapers can thrive in the future. His views matter to news consumers in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, since New Media -- considered the largest owner of U.S. newspaper titles -- owns the Providence Journal, Newport Daily News, Fall River Herald News, and New Bedford Standard-Times. Reed doesn't like it when New Media, which is managed by an affiliate of the global investment firm Fortress Management Group, is compared to Alden, the hedge fund that has famously slashed staffing at the Denver Post. Yet New Media/GateHouse Media have cut reporting and other positions since acquiring the Journal in 2014. "To be sure, New Media hasn’t seen the scale of layoffs that Alden’s newspapers have," notes the story in II. "And New Media’s total shareholder returns, according to Reed, have outpaced those of the S&P 500 over the past four years. As of April 17, New Media’s total returns were 74.7 percent, as compared with the S&P 500’s total returns of 60.4 percent. However, its stock price over roughly the same time period has not. Over the past five years, New Media’s stock price has increased roughly 11 percent, from $15.62 per share to $17.70 per share on April 18. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 has risen nearly 71 percent, from $158.24 per share to $270.39 per share, during the same time period. 'So much of the ad dollar goes to Facebook and Google and leaves everybody else to fight for what’s left,' [longtime media observer Jim] Casella said."

15. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza struck an upbeat note while delivering his $745 million budget proposal earlier this week. Elorza touted more technology for Providence students, another contribution to the city's rainy day fund, a pilot effort providing tampons for middle and high school students. Yet the big question remains the fate of Providence's severely underfunded pension plan. Elorza continues to bank on a proposal to shore up the pension (which has less than 30 percent of the money needed to meet its long-term demands) by leasing the city's water supply. It remains unclear at this point if legislative leaders will sign on to the proposal.

16. The fifth anniversary of the RI Senate vote to legalize same-sex marriage took place five years ago this week, and almost no one noticed. Dawson Hodgson, who helped move the issue forward as a senator, called it "one of that Chamber's finest hours: affirming human dignity and equal protection of law. I remember: 12hr Judiciary hearings, passionate advocacy, thousands of citizen voices. Most of all Pat Baker."

17. With talks on the PawSox proposed stadium continuing between the team and House staff, here's an interesting read on how a new luxury development epitomizes the changing face of Worcester. The author notes how Massachusetts' second-largest city, with good food, more affordable housing, and other attractions, is drawing more young people priced out of Boston. The only hassle is how traveling via train to the Hub is less than speedy. Sounds not unlike Providence, right?

18. Scott MacKay on the new landscape in RI politics: "Who knows what to make of Chafee? Is he serious about opening his checkbook and building an organization? When we last saw Chafee, he was a gadfly candidate for president. That effort was notable for the punch-lines he gave late-night comedians, not any support he secured. He says Bernie Sanders supporters urged him to run, but it is difficult to see the Vermont lefty coming to Rhode Island to campaign against colleague Whitehouse, whose voting record is similar to Sanders.  Chafee is dovish on foreign policy and Putin, which aren’t kitchen table issues."

19. Suffolk University and USA Today did a poll of non-voters. As David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times, "No one can know exactly who will not vote, of course. The poll surely includes some people who will end up voting and excludes some who won’t. But based on demographic patterns and on what people say about their intentions, pollsters can get a good sense of someone’s likelihood of voting. So the broad patterns in the Suffolk/USA Today poll are meaningful. And here’s what the poll found: Many nonvoters 'say they have given up on the political parties and a system that they say is beyond reform and repair.' (Why? I think the stagnation of living standards is the main answer.)"

20. Does Texas foreshadow the direction of the U.S., with an increasing pull on the Electoral College. Check out this conversation with author Lawrence Wright, whose new book is "God Save Texas": "The state is as politically divided as the rest of the nation. One can drive across it and be in two different states at the same time: FM Texas and AM Texas. FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers, the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug—almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas: Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu."

21. The name "Yawkey Way" is out, as one of the streets outside Fenway Park, due to the racism associated with the late Tom Yawkey. But Jersey Street has its own connotations: As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, "The Jersey Street name was apparently meant to honor the British Isle of Jersey, where — in a long ago era — local aristocracy boosted their fortunes buying and selling slaves." Perhaps it would do more good to distribute copies of Howard Bryant's "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston."

22. A fun read from the AP's Jennifer McDermott on the restoration of the fountain outside the Providence Athenaeum: "Legend has it that anyone who sips from a 145-year-old public drinking fountain in Providence is destined to return to the city. The ornate granite fountain has been dry for about a decade, unable to cast its spell on residents and tourists alike. But water will soon flow through it again."