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

May 11, 2018

The May Revenue Estimating Conference is in the books, signaling the beginning of the end of the legislative session, and all the excitement that comes with that. 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. With a $135 million bump in expected revenue since November, the state now has an additional $120 million or so to use for the budget year starting July 1. Chunks of that will go for unbudgeted raises for state employees and other costs. Meanwhile, with Gov. Gina Raimondo's budget relying on $26 million in new sports gambling revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case that may make that money available. Raimondo nonetheless sounded a upbeat note. “What was clear to me before and what is even more clear following the results of [the Revenue Conference] is that our economy continues to grow stronger each day." House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he remains "committed to making sure we pass a responsible budget that addresses the critical needs of our citizens and continues to move the state forward.” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the windfall allows more flexibility for spending on DCYF and developmental disabilities, although he also cautioned "that a significant portion of this increase is one-time revenue that may not continue in future years." Expectations are that the next recession will arrive in 2020, so perhaps state revenue will continue to climb in the short term. Then again, can anyone remember the last time when state lawmakers began a new General Assembly session without a fresh deficit?

2. As we've noted before, there's a half-full vs. half-empty quality to the ongoing debate on the condition of Rhode Island's economy. Gov. Raimondo's administration, for example, highlighted a recent finding by the U.S. Commerce Department that RI had the highest rate of growth in the Northeast for the four quarter of 2017. The Republican Governors Association counters by highlighting unflattering bits from local media reports, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's campaign pounces whenever UHIP returns to the news. Independent Joe Trillo and Republican Patricia Morgan appear focused on Fung, while Republican Giovanni Feroce has steered clear of directly criticizing rival campaigns. Meanwhile, Raimondo's campaign is stepping up its attacks on Fung and rolling out a series of professionally produced Facebook ads. To some, the focus on Fung suggests that he's shaping up as a formidable force for the fall. Count Sam Howard among the skeptical; he used a tweet to note how Fung's "general election poll numbers are unchanged since 2014, and he can't raise as much money."

3. Karl Wadensten, known for opposing the 38 Studios deal as a member of the state's economic development agency, appears to be contemplating a run for governor. Asked if he's mulling a campaign this year, the VIBCO president would say only, "You'll have to wait and see."

4. Will President Trump help or hurt Republicans running for office in Rhode Island this year? A WPRI poll released in March found that just 34.6 percent of Rhode Islanders give the president a favorable approval rating. More ominously, 76 percent of woman had an unfavorable view of Trump. State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell downplayed those findings (even if he embraces the hypothetical matchup depicting a close race between Mayor Fung and Gov. Raimondo). "I think people are looking at their wallets," Bell said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. "People are looking at what President Trump has done for their taxes, for the economy, for national security. ISIS is in retreat, all these good things are happening, and I do not think it's going to be as bad as what the pundits are saying." Speaking on RIPR's Political Roundtable, Bell said, "Look at what's happening in North Korea -- [Trump's] got them coming to the bargaining table. I would trust him with his decisions. Something is happening right now -- something big is happening right now with the president. He's doing really good things on foreign policy."

5. Former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block made clear his frustration this week with the lack of progress in moving forward the line-item veto issue in the House of Representatives. "The study commission is a sham, plain and simple," Block tweeted. Asked about the challenge of advancing an issue like line-item veto in Rhode Island, Block told TGIF, "It is extremely difficult to bring governmental reform to Rhode Island. This is largely because the General Assembly remains very powerful politically, and that power is concentrated in the hands of just one person in each chamber. For the line-item veto, the speaker is the road block to this necessary reform because the line-item veto, in his mind, chips away at his power, which is extraordinary when it comes to the budget. The speaker has the ability – and has used this ability – to put virtually anything into the budget at the very last minute and there is no check and balance on this. The reason our system of government works so well is the concept of checks and balances. The speaker wants no check and balance on his personal ability to place virtually anything into the budget." (Asked for comment, Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said, Speaker Mattiello is awaiting a report in June from the bi-partisan study commission of legislators and public members, which has already held five meetings and will be convening again next week. The commission has received presentations on the state’s fiscal process, the history of the RI Constitution, and an analysis of the different types of budget processes throughout the country as presented by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The commission is also charged with studying the issue of runoff elections.)

5A. Here's comment from Block on his consideration of another potential run for governor: "I continue to watch the governor’s race very carefully. I suspect there will be some more movement inside this race as the filing deadline looms. Maybe more people in, maybe already announced candidates deciding to run differently than they are considering today. I don’t have any inside scoop, but this is shaping up to be a very interesting race with no clear front-runner and an electorate which does not seem to be loving any of the candidates. So ... I am watching to see what happens next." (Block declined to specify which party he'd align with if he makes another run. His consideration of a third run for governor was first reported by Ted Nesi last month.)

6. Lisa Tomasso, a former member of Speaker Mattiello's leadership team started lobbying in February for the Hospital Association of Rhode Island. HARI's president, of course, is former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. Tomasso was unseated by Rep. Sherry Roberts (R-West Greenwich) in 2014.

7. The weekly email calendar from the RI Democratic Party lists the usual litany of fundraisers, along with a few items of interest. Gov. Raimondo, for example, is staging one of her occasional hipsterish fundraisers, this time at the Black Sheep on May 22, and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has a campaign kickoff slated for May 30 at Wright's Farm in Burrillville. (Matt Brown is also set to launch Monday evening his primary challenge to Raimondo.) Yet one of the more noteworthy upcoming Democratic events is omitted from the official list. On Saturday, May 19, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena will open his re-election HQ -- and every key Democrat in the state is expected to be there. It's worth remembering how Johnston represented the biggest swing from D to R in 2016 over the last presidential election. Polisena's support is considered vital for Democrats who want to win the Italian-American stronghold west of Providence.

7A. Speaking of Johnston's place in the universe of RI Democrats, this from the hardworking Steve Ahlquist: "Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena (Democrat) turned what was supposed to be a simple welcome to the Rhode Island Democratic Platform Committee into a rambling, ten minute diatribe extolling the virtues of conservatism and warning against the dangers of progressivism. Polisena declared that core Democratic Party values are “traditional,” conservative, and Catholic. Polisena also launched into an attack on Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) by specifically calling out various pieces of legislation (carbon tax, single-payer and death with dignity) that Regunberg has introduced or added his name to, before endorsing Daniel McKee, the incumbent lieutenant governor Regunberg is challenging this September. Regunberg was in the room. McKee was not. What Polisena did, along with Representatives Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) and Stephen Ucci (Democrat, District 42, Johnston), was to open, for the world to see, the internal struggle of the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP). At issue is the rising power and representation of a progressive left that wants things like protection for Roe v Wade at the state level and some reasonable gun laws, (as well as lots of other stuff) versus the Catholic-flavored conservatism that opposes reproductive rights but also somehow embraces gun culture."

8. Aficionados of organized crime got to travel back in time this week thanks to the murder trial of former Mob boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme. WPRI-TV's Tim White captured the flavor of the proceedings from Boston;  former Mob associate Thomas Hillary emerged from the Federal Witness Protection Program to offer this kind of testimony: “If you had union problems we’d straighten it out. We did hijackings, shakedowns - it was like out of the movies.” Back in 1989, Salemme was shot during an attempted hit outside a pancake house in Saugus, Massachusetts -- reflecting how Mob violence could flare in unexpected settings. But that's a very long time ago in the history of LCN in New England. OC, even with some activity on the margins, has been largely a spent force in Rhode Island for many years. Salemme is charged with the 1993 disappearance of Steven DiSarro, who ran the Channel nightclub, located in a neighborhood mostly populated by artists at the time, even though it was a short distance from Boston's Financial District. In another sign of how much things have changed over the last 25 years, hyper-gentrification and choked traffic now typify that once-forgotten area.

9. Reaction to President Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran deal broke, predictably, along partisan lines. "This is a reckless decision," said Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. "It’s a decision that endangers our security and makes it harder for other countries to take us at our word. For two years, the Iran deal has imposed the most intrusive nuclear inspections regime in the history of the world. It has prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It is not perfect, but the President’s decision will make it harder than ever to improve it. In addition, the President’s decision undermines the United States’ reputation. We have always kept our word, but that changed today." .... GOP U.S Senate candidate Robert Flanders offered this comment: “I applaud President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. For far too long, the U.S. has allowed Iran - the leading state sponsor of terrorism - to continue the development of its nuclear weapons program without suffering any consequence. Now, with new economic sanctions placed on Iran, and a President who puts America’s interests first, the United States will be able to negotiate a better, more enforceable agreement to protect the world’s safety.” ... Fellow GOP U.S. Senate candidate Robert Nardolillo said, "It should not have surprised anyone that the President is pulling America out of this flawed arrangement. What's important is the subtext to President Trump's long expected exit from JCPOA .... Some might mistake this for slow-walking. In fact it is a slow tightening of the screws on both Iran and our European allies .... We all saw rioting in the streets of Iran last December and January. So I expect the terrorist Iranian leaders to be on a relatively short leash when it comes to retaliation because they'll have to keep one eye on internal unrest."

10. General Assembly: former GOP state Sen. Jack Lyle tells the Call that he's "actively exploring" a run for the House seat being vacated by Rep. Jay O'Grady (D-Lincoln). Lyle served 10 years as a senator before leaving Smith Hill in the mid-90s. He's a lawyer and also served as school superintendent on Block Island. From the Block Island Times in 2004, "Considering himself a political moderate and not bound by any fixed ideology, [Lyle] feels the most important feature of his position in the legislature was to play the role of a loyal opposition. 'It has always been important to me,' he said, 'to engage in a healthy dialogue. Things are not always black and white.' "

11. With the end of June filing deadline approaching, RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said the party hopes to field challengers for 50 to 60 of the 113 legislative seats on Smith Hill. "We're going to target districts where the president did well in 2016," Bell said on Political Roundtable. "We're going to target districts where we think we can win. It's not a matter of running 113 people for all 113 seats .... It's about the quality of candidates more than it is about the quantity of candidates in my strategy." Bell offered no additional details, but he said the RI GOP expects to field candidates for treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general.

12.  The Democratic base might be energized, but do Democrats have a message for 2018 beyond being against President Trump? NPR's Mara Liasson reports on a belief that "the power of the quiet voice" and a focus on economic issues can bridge differences among Democrats. Her story quotes Gov. Raimondo (who offered a similar answer when I asked her in December about what kind of message should be used by Democrats): "I think whether you are a recent immigrant, whether you're in the LGBTQ community, if you're a woman, if you're a middle-aged, white working man, you need a good job. The thing that most people are most focused on is keeping up and getting ahead in an economy which is changing incredibly fast, and that's the message I believe Democrats need to pound home."

13. Mike Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group, overlord of GateHouse Media -- which owns newspapers in Providence, Newport, Fall River, New Bedford and Worcester, among other places -- tells NPR member station KCUR that the company remains intent on buying more newspapers. "We see an opportunity to acquire them at relatively inexpensive prices because nobody likes them and to reinvent the business model, moving it from advertising to services," Reed said. Yet University of North Carolina journalism professor Penelope Abernathy faults companies like GateHouse for reducing news-gathering resources: "So there is a very strong emphasis in these new media barons on return to shareholders versus a commitment to what has historically been the mission of newspapers, which is to contribute the news that feeds our democracy, even at the grassroots level." (FWIW, the ProJo has filled two recent reporting vacancies and is expected to roll out a third new reporter, a bilingual woman expected to cover City Hall, in the near future.)

14. With the PawSox issue lingering in Rhode Island, here's an explantion from Dr. Charles Steinberg on why there can be a discrepancy between the paid and actual attendance for a game at McCoy: “Minor League standards dictate that tickets purchased, and tickets distributed to community groups, count in the announced attendance. For example, if thousands of children from the Boys & Girls Club are invited to a game, those children count. If we have children from underprivileged areas as our guests, those children count.  And when we have our annual Challenger Game for those with disabilities, those adults and children count.”

15. Conservative columnist George F. Will on VP Mike Pence: "Donald Trump, with his feral cunning, knew. The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure. And Pence, who has reached this pinnacle by dethroning his benefactor, is augmenting the public stock of useful knowledge. Because his is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing."

16. A U.S. Justice Department official was a no-show for a congressional hearing about the U.S. Census, and he now faces a subpoena. Meanwhile, as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reported from Central Falls, the trial run of the Census indicates that noncitizens plan to avoid the rollout in 2020.

17. U.S. Sen. John McCain's memoir includes some kind words for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, pointing to the Rhode Island Democrat as a frequent traveling partner and a "smart, widely respected senator." .... Meanwhile, the Boston Globe's James Pindell looks at how "Lincoln Chafee is staging a comeback, but all R.I. wants to talk about is Russia.

18. Via Facebook, Pedro Espinal announces a challenge to Providence Ward 10 City Councilor Luis Aponte: "To my family, friends, constituents, members of the press and and the public at large, it is with great pride and honor that I humbly announce to you that I am running for Providence City Council Ward 10. Today, I have taken the first step in my campaign by filling notice of organization with the Board of Elections. I can not do this alone therefore, I will be reaching out to each and everyone of you in hope of gaining your trust and support. Please help me spread the news and stay tuned for campaign details and an exciting kickoff."

19. In a tweet, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed faulted President Trump for soaring prescription drug prices. So what is Reed doing to rein in pharmacy benefit managers like CVS Health? Spokesman Chip Unruh provided this answer: "Just like every Rhode Islander, Senator Reed wants lower prescription drug prices. The proposal he and other Senate Democrats is offering takes some concrete steps to get there, and as the debate continues it’s clear that a comprehensive solution is going to take the involvement of every sector of the industry."

20. Beyond being deputy police chief in Providence, Cmdr. Thomas Verdi is a baseball enthusiast and amateur scout for the Cincinnati Reds. Give a listen to this conversation describing how Verdi helped mentor Rommy Morel, now a student at Rhode Island College.

21. An interesting read from former RIPR weekend host Matthew Algeo on the origin of Food Stamps. Excerpt: "SNAP has become an essential program for the nation’s poor. In fiscal year 2016, more than 44 million Americans—roughly 14 percent of the country’s population—received SNAP benefits. On average, participants received $125.51 a month in assistance, a total of $70.9 billion. But SNAP has also become an important source of income for the 25,000 retailers nationwide who accept EBT cards. Although retailers are neither required nor inclined to reveal how much of their income comes from customers redeeming SNAP benefits, the business consultant AlixPartners estimates that the single largest beneficiary of this largesse is Walmart, where 18 percent of all SNAP benefits were redeemed in 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available). That amounts to about $13 billion—roughly 4 percent of Walmart’s total sales in the United States. AlixPartners estimates that all the Trump administration’s proposed SNAP cuts would cost Walmart about a billion dollars a year in sales. Target, the second-largest beneficiary, would lose about $500 million."

22. Some Rhode Islanders (including a few Buddy Cianci supporters who I interviewed on Federal Hill amid his attempted 2014 comeback) take it as an article of faith that Ocean State politicians are corrupt. Even those who acknowledge that as an exaggeration consider Rhode Island a national leader in corruption. Yet New York AG Eric Schneiderman recently became the latest in a long string of Empire Station officials to get caught in a scandal of one type or another. As The New York Times reports, more than 30 current or former state officeholders in NY have been convicted of a crime, been sanctioned, or been accused of wrongdoing.