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

May 25, 2018

It's Memorial Day weekend, a time to reflect on the sacrifices of others while also looking to summer pleasures. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can reach me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The precise number of women candidates seeking office in Rhode Island this year won't be clear until after the June 27 filing deadline. But early reports suggest a surge of political activity by women, both locally and throughout the nation. "Our number one goal is to get people engaged, in the process, to get women engaged at all aspects of the process," from voting to seeking legislative seats, said Sulina Mohanty, who won election in January as chairwoman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party's Women's Caucus. Mohanty got bitten by the political bug as a youth in East Greenwich. On Bonus Q&A, she said President Trump's election in 2016 was the largest single factor in unleashing a wave of political activism by women in Rhode Island. "The Women's Caucus becoming reenergized and becoming reorganized was a direct result of that," Mohanty said. "Our meetings have had hundreds of hundreds of people. Some people who came, they've been activated and working in the political world for 40, 50 years, and also people who came for the first time, saying, 'I've been upset and I have to do something other than just sit on my couch and get upset at the TV. I need to do something.' "

2. Speaking on RIPR's Political Roundtable, Mohanty said the Women's Caucus will continue advocate for issues important to its members -- like a bill meant to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island -- even if leading Democrats don't intend to bring the issue to a vote. (The Women's Caucus signed on to a letter by RI NOW expressing concern about House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's comments on RIPR about the abortion bill, and she testified in support of it at the Statehouse.) When it comes to a clash between a female candidate and a Statehouse Democrat (Jennifer Rourke's primary challenge to Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, for example), Mohanty said the Women's Caucus has a campaigns committee "that's working on a process for who we'll support and how we'll decide that, but we'll also stick to the party's positions. And we are not as a caucus running people to primary anyone. So we'll support endorsed candidates who are also in line with our values."

3. The military draft was eliminated in 1973, back when the U.S. was still engaged in Vietnam War. Forty-five years on, the all-volunteer fighting force gets high marks for its performance, although so many young people are unfamiliar with the armed services that the Pentagon has launched a PR effort to familiarize people with the miltary and challenge stereotypes about it. The absence of a draft has other effects, too. "The drawbacks of the all-volunteer force are not military, but political and ethical," Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post in a 2012 opinion piece. "One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us essentially went shopping. When the wars turned sour, we could turn our backs. A nation that disregards the consequences of its gravest decisions is operating in morally hazardous territory. We invaded Iraq recklessly. If we had a draft, a retired general said to me recently, we probably would not have invaded at all." Kasim Yarn, Rhode Island's director of Veterans Affairs, declined to offer a view on whether the all-volunteer military is the best approach. Speaking during an RIPR interview set to air on Memorial Day, Yarn said the creation of his Cabinet-level post in 2016 has raised the focus on Rhode Island's 70,000 veterans, 70 percent of whom are over 55. "I'm a glass half-full kind of guy," said the former Navy lieutenant commandar, "but we still have a long way to go" in better providing services and taking on tough issues. Speaking of the population of veterans throughout the U.S., Yarn said, "Read the statistics -- there are 20, 22 veterans committing suicide daily based on PTSD issues." 

4. June is around the corner -- meaning there's a bit more than three months until Rhode Island's September 12 primary -- and Gov. Raimondo has yet to formally announce her re-election campaign. That's a contrast to the 2014 election cycle, when Raimondo used an emailed video message to confirm her plans in December 2013. This time around, the incumbent's team sees benefits in compressing the more publicly active part of the campaign. Asked when Raimondo will announce, campaign spokeswoman Emily Samsel would say only: "As Memorial Day approaches we are certainly getting closer!"

5. A lot of Latino votes could be up for grabs in Rhode Island's 2018 campaign season. Back in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a big part of the Latino bloc was drawn to Dominican-American Angel Taveras. That was the same year when Raimondo used her campaign announcement to highlight her support for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants; Some Latinos were upset when Raimondo didn't use an executive order to push that issue forward and instead said it was a matter for the General Assembly to pursue. Meanwhile, some of those who helped bolster Latino support for Raimondo in the past, like Melba Depena, are not playing that role this time around. Bringing things up to the present, Democratic primary rival Matt Brown cited the educational under-achievement of Latino children in tweaking the governor via tweet amid a fundraiser earlier this week: "Maybe if Latino schoolchildren showed up tonight at Black Sheep with tens of thousands in campaign contributions they could get the Governor's attention. #Priorities" Raimondo campaign spokeswoman Emily Samsel responded by saying, "Governor Raimondo is working to ensure every Rhode Islander is included in our state's comeback – no matter where you were born or where you live." Samsel pointed to a litany of data points: "Since she took office, Latino students reading on grade level has increased by 33 percent; The number of Latino young adults in school or working is up and the number of Latino youth living in poverty is down; Thanks to the Governor’s PrepareRI program, twice the number of Latino students are taking college courses in high school -- more than 700 Latino students are currently participating; Thanks to the Governor’s Promise Scholarship, 150 percent more Latino students who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to go to college are enrolled in CCRI for free this year -- including 30 DREAMers; 22 percent fewer Latinos are unemployed than when the Governor took office; Wages are higher, because we’ve raised the minimum wage three times; The Governor passed paid sick leave because no one should ever have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child; There's more work to do, but Latinos are clearly doing better today because of Governor Raimondo's efforts." (Andrew Augustus, campaign spokesman for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, said Fung has been building coalitions across racial minorities since entering office. "He also ensures that his own departments reflect the state's growing diversity. For example," Augustus said, "his chief of staff at City Hall, senior center assistant director, and campaign manager are Latino.")

6.  Steven Frias, the Cranston Republican who almost ousted House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello from his state rep seat n 2016, returned to the Statehouse this week to make the case for the line-item veto. Frias also figured conspicuously in a state GOP news release about the diversion of money from E-911 fees. With the GOP national committeeman remaining publicly undecided about a possible rematch vs Mattiello, Frias is considered a significant factor in the fate of the PawSox stadium proposal. As we've noted before, the General Assembly is expected to end its session around June 22, and the filing deadline for candidates closes June 27, so the timing is less than ideal for stadium supporters. Yet if Frias decides against another run for state rep, the House could potentially take up the PawSox issue some time later -- perhaps early in 2019. That's really not that far away, and although Worcester remains a wild card, the team may be willing to wait a bit longer to stay in its preferred market. (And who knows? Maybe something will happen in RI before then.)

7. The issue of sexual harassment at the Statehouse has receded in Rhode Island, publicly at least, since state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) last year recounted being harassed by a higher-ranking lawmaker (whom she declined to identify). The fading view contrasts with such other states as Massachusetts, where more women have spoken out. Asked about this disparity on RIPR's Political Roundtable, RI Democrats' Women's Caucus Chairwoman Sulina Monhaty said, "I can't speak specifically about Teresa's incident, because I'm not her and I don't work at the Statehouse. But I can say that I think what's not coming out at the Statehouse is really connected to why you don’t hear about a lot of things in most places of business, all across the country and in all different fields. And I think that really leads back to women not being believed and that culture of intimidation and fear, retribution and you know, there’s a lot of risk in coming out, and you say that even with people in the news that been having allegations against them and there colleague still come out and support the person being accused, rather than just believing the accuser. There's often a lot of backlash against the accuser. So I can't speak for the Statehouse specifically, but I think for most women in the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields, there's a lot of risk and just the idea of not being believed, I think, still holds a lot of people back."

8. Not long after Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena opened his campaign HQ, Gov. Raimondo has decided to endorse Lt. Gov. Dan McKee over challenger Aaron Regunberg in the Democratic primary. The governor's deputy campaign manager, David Ortiz, offered this explanation: "Lieutenant Governor McKee has been a great partner to the Governor. She especially values the work he's done to advocate for Rhode Island's cities and towns and support our small businesses." Ortiz declined comment on whether the endorsement was influenced by Polisena and other municipal leaders who back McKee .... Elsewhere in the race for LG, the ProJo's Kathy Gregg reported on RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell's contemplation of a run. Bell tells me, "Several of my recent predecessors have served one term (2 years [as chairman]). A couple were crazy enough to serve two terms like me (Gio Ciccione was chair from 2007-2011). My decision whether or not to get in this race is purely based on how I can best use my voice to effectuate change in this state on economic and good government issues. If I run, maybe I would send the message of practicing what I preach." (Aaron Weisman is the perceived front-runner to be selected as RI's next U.S. attorney; Bell said his contemplation of an LG run is unrelated to that.) .... Meanwhile, Zach Hall, Regunberg's newly hired organizing director, offered this message in an email about a South County canvass and phone bank on Saturday, May 26: "I could not be more excited to join #TeamAaron and help make his vision for the Lt. Governor’s office a reality. Aaron has always stood up for human rights for everyone—and that means a lot to me. I joined the Army when I was 17 because I felt it was the best way I could honor my country. When I was accepted to West Point, it was a dream come true. That dream faded when I faced discrimination as an openly gay man, and ultimately, bigotry ended my military career. But it sparked something new – a realization that we needed to fight discrimination not just on an individual level, but also a systems level."

9. Opponents of New York developer Jason Fane's proposed 46-story tower in the I-195 District hope to convince him to consider alternative sites, including the parking lot at 110 Westminster Street that was envisioned as a luxury high-rise back around 2005. "It would be a perfect site, and it would allow Jason Fane to build his iconic tower," Sharon Steele, one of the leading oppponents of the development, told me during an interview this week. (Fane spokesman Dante Bellini poured cold water on the suggestion, saying that Fane is interested only in the I-195 site.) The conflict over Fane's vision will shift to the Ordinance Committee of the Providence City Council in the weeks ahead. For now, a compromise appears unlikely, since supporters and opponents view the project so diffferenly. To some, Fane's tower would be a bold vision and an expression of confidence in Providence's future. Steele said the development would violate the letter and spirit of Providence's zoning while undermining the appeal of an adjacent park and raising the focus on high-end residential in a district meant to serve as a focus for jobs.

10. Providence City Council Majority Leader John Igliozzi, who also serves as the council's Finance Committee, remains unconvinced of the need for an administrative tax stabilization agreement for downtown development projects. Supporters of the concept, including Providence Foundation executive director Cliff Wood, say the TSA template has expedited projects in the Capital Center and I-195 District, and that Providence should seize the the momentum with a current boomlet of construction in the city. Speaking during a taping of ABC6's In the Arena with Joseph R. Paolino Jr., Igliozzi made it clear he sees merit in TSAs, describing them as a multiplier of real estate value. But he wants to see the results of a study by Fourth Economy before deciding how to come down on the administrative TSA. "TSAs are a privilege, not a right," Igliozzi said.

11. General Assembly: freshman East Providence Rep. Helder Cunha (D) this week confirmed he won't be seeking re-election this year. (TGIF reported that back in early April.) Cunha is backing Joe Serodio as his successor .... Sen. Paul Fogarty (D-Glocester), chair of the Senate Labor Committee, and someone who was first elected in 1998, announced he won't be seeking re-election. “I want to thank my wife and sons for allowing me the chance to serve," Fogarty, a licensed plumber, said in a news release. "Being in the General Assembly can be very time-consuming and without their support and encouragement I would not have been able to do it. Now I look forward to spending more time with them in the coming months and enjoying our boat on the lake this summer!” .... Republican Jessica de la Cruz is running for the seat being vacated by Fogarty.

12. Karen Alzate is set to challenge Rep. David Coughlin (D-Pawtucket) in a primary. Alzate, the first generation in her family to go to college, is running with the endorsement of Sen. Sandra Cano (D-Pawtucket). (There's some interesting back-story to that. Cano helped Coughlin run in the past, but got irked by how he signed on to a bill sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, described by critics as anti-immigrant.) Alzate said she works as a case manager and employment specialist at the Providence Center and has a bachelor's degree from Rhode Island College and is working toward a master's in community development at Roger Williams University. “I am running for State Representative because I love Pawtucket,” Alzate said in a news release. “We need a strong new voice at the State House to fight for education, affordable housing, small businesses and for all families who come to Pawtucket to pursue the American Dream.”

13. Care New England announced this week that it has signed an agreement for a takeover of Rhode Island's second-largest hospital network by Boston-based Partners HealthCare. Via RIPR health reporter Lynn Arditi: "The deal, if approved by federal and state regulators, would mark a giant shift in Rhode Island’s healthcare market, granting Massachusetts’ largest health system huge influence -- and pricing power -- over Rhode Island’s health system. Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson -- previously one the most vocal critics of the proposed partnership -- expressed optimism about the new development. Brown’s senior leadership had “productive conversations” with Partners and Care New England to address her concerns. 'Preserving and strengthening healthcare and biomedical research and innovation in Rhode Island continues to be an important priority,' Paxson said in a statement. 'As Brown’s discussions with Partners and Care New England continue, I am optimistic that we can address the various concerns that I raised earlier this year.' Brown's particpation in the Care New England-Partners deal, Paxson confirmed, 'would take the place of the alternative" partnership Brown had proposed with the Prospect Medical, the California for-profit parent of CharterCARE.' "

14. A big expansion of wind power in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

15. Media Notes: Michael Reed, the CEO of New Media Investment Group, the parent company of The Providence Journal, tells Bloomberg that efforts to cut its newsrooms are not driven by profits: “ 'We’re buying newspapers because we think we have a strategy that can save local journalism,' Reed said in an interview, referring to plans to find new revenue sources by selling various services, such as online marketing help, to local businesses." (While New Media's GateHouse Media has a reputation for cutting newsroom resources, it's worth noting how the ProJo has recently hired three reporters, and the paper's A section has had more Rhode Island news of late.) ..... More downsizing at The Boston Globe .... "Could a newspaper rebellion against hedge-fund ownership spread to Massachusetts?" .... How VTDigger, a nonprofit, increased its audience from a few thousand people to more than 260,000.

16. Will anyone press Joe Larisa's argument, via a ProJo op-ed, that Rhode Island voters need to approve the addition of sports betting at Twin River's facilities in Lincoln and Tiverton? In a legal opinion commissioned by the state, lawyer John Tarantino wrote in a March memo that voter approal is not required. "The state is confident that the legal analysis in that document is thorough and that the legal conclusions reached by Mr. Tarantino are correct," Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi told me this week. About the only public official to wade into the debate was independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo. Via statement: “After listening to Joe Larisa’s explanation of whether sports betting is legal, as assumed by the governor, wtihout a referendum, I would totally agree with Joe Larisa, who has expertise in constitutional and gaming issues. Voters are constitutionally entitled to fair notice of what they are voting on. My advice to Governor Gina Raimondo is that instead of ramming this through without letting Rhode Island voters completely digest what they’re signing up for, she work with the General Assemby before it adjourns for this session. A referendum needs to be put on the ballot to ask voters whether or not they approve of sports betting, before relying on anticipated revenue to balance her budget. If she does so, and someone challenges the constitutionality of it, and the state loses, it will be another headache for Rhode Island taxpayers.” 

17. Gov. Raimondo points to state incentives as evidence that Rhode Island has learned from the lessons of 38 Studios. "We're doing it the right way, which is to say transparent programs that anybody can apply for," the governor told reporters after the Commerce Corporation approved a series of incentives this week, "and no company gets one penny until after the jobs are created, so there's accountability and also, it's working." In March, RIPR reported that the state has never evaluated its business tax incentives -- despite a law requiring the state do that. UPDATE: But since then, the state Department of Revenue has issued reports on the effectiveness of the state's film and TV tax credits, and job development incentives.

18. RI AFL-CIO President George Nee, a board member of Commerce, said the jobs news emerging from the meeting made it a good time to make a pitch for mass transit. Nee said some of the almost 12,000 workers with jobs at the Quonset Business Park are still having difficulty getting there.

19. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has rejected what may be one of the last legal challenges to the 2011 overhaul of the state pension system.

20. Rest in Peace, Stephen Mindich, who founded The Boston Phoenix and established an alternative media empire that included The Providence Phoenix. Mindich died this week at age 74 from pancreatic cancer. Like many other Phoenix alums, I'll remain grateful to him for giving me a chance and for being a strong supporter of journalism. Mindich made regular trips to Providence for meetings back in the day and he loved bantering over occasional lunches with Buddy Cianci. As Bryan Marquard writes in The Boston Globe, "The media empire he went on to build became an essential part of Boston’s cultural identity, and its award-winning flagship weekly, The Boston Phoenix, was the place where an array of prominent writers began their careers." The internet, the same force that has sparked the lost of thousands of daily newspaper jobs, ultimately proved fatal for alt-weeklies like the Phoenix. Yet as a former Phoenix editor tells Marquard, journalists whose careers were nurtured by Mindich "can now be found around the world — a legacy 'more powerful than anything he could have imagined.' "

21. Patrick Laverty shares word of a conference on hacking and cyber-security, set to take place at the Pell Center in Newport on Saturday, June 16: "It’s not just computers getting hacked: people are getting hacked too. More than 70% of all data breaches in the last year involved phishing or some other type of social engineering. That means that one of the weakest links in computer security is, well, us. Hackers are using these social engineering techniques to get passwords, credit card data, patient data and other personal information that we all look to protect ... The full-day conference will bring together some of the best minds in the field of social engineering, including Christopher Hadnagy, author of 'Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking.' The event will also feature talks on 'How to Rob a Bank Over the Phone' and 'Social Engineering Your Way Into a Career.' "

22. Rest in Peace, Philip Roth, one of the literary giants of recent American history. He once told Terry Gross that writing a book is like building a house -- without a blueprint: "What you're trying to do is hook one sentence to the sentence before and the next one to that sentence. And as you do, you're building a house, you know ... The architect and the contractor, they know what the house is going to look like when it's done — and that's the big difference. I don't have any idea what it will look like when it's done. I don't have any idea whether it will even be done, because you don't know what you're doing when you're at work."