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

Jun 1, 2018

Just when you think the PawSox stadium might be down for the count this legislative session, a new proposal emerges on the scene. 

That's just one of the stories we tracked this week, so thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome and you can follow me on the twitters through the week. Here we go.

1. With slightly more than three months until the September 12 primary, Rhode Island's 2018 race for governor just shifted into a higher gear. Gov. Gina Raimondo used a video announcement to formally unveil her re-election run this week, and her first campaign commercial is going up on TV Monday with a six-figure buy. Crafted by Mark Putnam ("Political Ad Man Finds the Personal in Democratic Hopefuls"), the spot paints Raimondo as a change candidate who has sparked an economic renewal in Rhode Island. Cranston GOP Mayor Allan Fung used some TV ads of his own after announcing his campaign last year, although his campaign has focused more recently on using a fusillade of press releases to critique the Democratic incumbent. The intent seems to borrow from Rule #5 in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals ("Ridicule is man's most potent weapon"). As it stands, the fur is flying with increasing intensity between the various campaigns, with facts sometimes taking an initial hit (Fung's campaign mistakenly asserted the state spends $70 million on communications staffers; Raimondo's team mistakenly said GOP candidate Patricia Morgan supported the 'red flag' bill). Backed by her $4 million+ war chest, Raimondo will continue to air television ads through the rest of the campaign (and a series of endorsements from prominent out-of-town Democrats, here and here, could help the governor to continue put up eye-popping fundraising totals). At the same time, Democratic rival Matt Brown, Republicans Fung, Morgan, and Giovanni Feroce, and independent Joe Trillo will try to capitalize on unflattering news stories ranging from such ongoing sagas as UHIP and E911 to unexpected episodes like this week's highway sinkhole. So what will prove most decisive in shaping voters' views as they head to the polls in September and November? Will cranes and construction in Providence and beyond foster Raimondo's feel-good message? Or will a cranky electorate see too many troublesome symptoms and choose to go in a different direction?

2. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello put his support this week behind a PawSox stadium plan that, he said, removes risk for Rhode Island taxpayers. (For a dissenting view, see the next item). But with lawmakers approaching the finish line of the legislative session, and the PawSox not even saying whether they support Mattiello's plan, the outlook remains for the stadium remains far from clear. There are also a host of unanswered questions about the proposal, including the precise cost and the prospective level of interest from bond buyers. There's speculation, too, that Worcester may be on the brink of making an appealing offer to lure the PawSox away from Rhode Island. On Thursday, supporters and opponents reprised familiar arguments for and against the stadium during a House Finance Committee meeting. Yet the clipped comment after the meeting from Team President Charles Steinberg, a PR pro and veteran of the Red Sox, seemed more telling. "We’re not going to have any comment yet until after we read and study the material [for the latest proposal]," he said, declining to specify how long that would take. So does Mattiello's late-session move on the PawSox represent a step closer toward a new stadium, or is it more of show of effort to keep the team from leaving the state? Stay tuned.

3. Steve Frias, the Republican who lost a state rep race to Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello by 85 votes in 2016, returned to the Statehouse Thursday night to testify against Mattiello's revised PawSox plan. Frias said recent events make it more likely he'll have a busy summer, although he didn't make a definitive statement about a campaign (Frias announced in 2016 on June 23.) A reform-oriented candidate could point to various issues -- magistrates, line item veto, E911 -- while trying to storm Smith Hill. On the PawSox, Frias didn't issue a policy paper like the one he put out last fall. But he did express a litany of concerns. He said the super TIF district envisioned for the area around the ballpark remains undefined and could grow unexpectedly; Frias said the district will reduce Pawtucket's tax revenue and said that could become an issue for the state; He said the eminent domain issue included in legislation may need voter approval; and Frias argued in favor of voters deciding the fate of the PawSox proposal. "Two-thirds of the people I talk to do not want it," Frias said. "They do not want to have a new taxpayer-funded stadium. I just ask people, I say, 'hey this is what is going on, would you sign the petition' and they say, 'yes.' Let the voters decide.”

4. The House version of Rhode Island's budget for FY19 could emerge for a House Finance hearing as soon as next Thursday. A target date of ending the General Assembly session by around June 22 remains in place.

5. Deepwater Wind's announcement of a big new project in RI could buttress the vision outlined years ago by the company's CEO, Jeff Grybowski, while also adding hundreds of construction jobs and about 50 permanent jobs. When critics sounded off about hundreds of millions in projected above-market rates for electricity from Deepwater's first-in-the-nation offshore wind farm near Block Island, Grybowski called it part of building critical mass. "Where the rest of the market is, is completely unknown today -- and it’s unpredictable," he told me in 2016. "So those projections of what an over-market cost might be are simply speculation at this point." The message from Grybowksi is that energy from Deepwater's forthcoming 50-turbine plant will be competitive with traditional sources, although the rates have not yet been set. Yet Deepwater's latest announcement seemed to come out of the blue. RIPR environmental reporter Avory Brookins has more on how Deepwater wound up getting selected for the project.

6. In-depth conversation with RI Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor on Deepwater Wind, PawSox, and RI's economy (on Political Roundtable), and on incentives, small business, why Rhode Islanders remain divided on the direction of the state, and more (on Bonus Q&A).

7. Dr. Michael Fine, who served as director of the state Department of Health during Lincoln Chafee's time as governor,  is considering an independent run for the state Senate seat formerly held by Nicholas Kettle. "It's something that I'm thinking about," Fine, a Scituate resident, tells me. He said he hopes to make a decision in the next few days, based on the feedback he gets from voters in the district. Fine said he was not looking to run for the General Assembly, but began considering a campaign after being encouraged to do so. He's keeping busy writing fiction, working on a health policy book due for release this fall, and helping to operate a Neighborhood Health Station launched with his help in Central Falls in 2016.

8. A run for lieutenant governor by RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell could make a lot of sense. For starters, Rhode Island voters -- like their counterparts in Massachusetts -- have demonstrated a willingness to elect Republican governors, perhaps as a perceived check against overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures. Bell would offer a sharp contrast from a Democratic candidate, particularly if state Rep. Aaron Regunberg wins his primary fight against LG Dan McKee. If Bell were to run and win, he'd become a legitimate GOP candidate for governor (and it's possible that Gov. Raimondo, if she wins re-election, might land a different gig before the end of her second term). Of course, running for LG would also provide an exit strategy for Bell to yield the role of RI GOP chairman. He's warmed to the volunteer role with his affable manner and strong communication skills, but it can be something of a thankless task.

8A. Back in the present, McKee and Regunberg are keeping up a busy pace. McKee attracted an impressive host committee for an event at Wright's Chicken Farm in Burrillville, and he used the event to sound a message against polarization: “Every time you turn on the TV or read the newspaper, it seems as though our politics are becoming more and more polarized. This is not a trend that we want to continue in Rhode Island.” .... Regunberg condemned commercial health insurers' requested rate hikes, and he also used a video to pose three questions to his Democratic rival.

9. The expectation for months has been that state Rep. Joe Almeida (D-Providence), first elected in 1999 and then again in 2012), would not seek re-election. But Almeida tells me he'll be back in the hunt for another term. "I want to make sure I have the fire in my belly, and I do," he said. "I love South Side." Almeida said his decision was not influenced by the prospective field for the race; one past primary opponent, Anthony Roberson, is reportedly no longer interested in running for the General Assembly.

10. Gov. Raimondo has signed into law bills outlawing bump stocks and creating a 'red flag' law meant to disarm people who pose a risk to themselves or others. "Since I've been governor, I've had to lower the state flag to half-staff 10 times because of mass shootings," Raimondo said in a statement Friday. "The red flag law and bump stock ban will go a long way to prevent that kind of tragedy in Rhode Island and will make our state safer. Rhode Islanders are not going to wait for Washington to take action on gun violence. I appreciate the General Assembly's leadership to pass these bill and I'm proud to sign them to send a loud and clear signal that Rhode Islanders will not stand for gun violence." Yet it appears unlikely that legislative leaders will sign off on other gun-related proposals, including measures banning large-capacity magazines and new sales of semiautomatic rifles.

11. State Sen. Dan DaPonte (D-East Providence), who first won election as a 20-year-old URI junior in 1998, announced this week he won't be running for re-election. (The decision was not wholly unexpected after Senate President Dominick Ruggerio bounced DaPonte from the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee last year, replacing him with Sen. William Conley, D-East Providence.) In a statement on social media, DaPonte said this is the right time for him to move on: "It’s a decision I didn’t make lightly, but my children are at ages that require me to be around and there are moments in their lives that I simply don’t want to miss anymore. Professionally, my firm has been growing and it’s becoming very difficult to balance my business, family and public obligations. I will remain active in my community as a private citizen and business owner. I’m proud to endorse Delmar Condinho for Senate District 14. I’ve known Delmar since Kindergarten at Silver Spring Elementary School and I’ve long admired him, especially when I learned that he joined the Marine Corps after high school. He exemplifies what is great about East Providence, our State and our country. Whether as a veteran, holding a master’s degree in public administration or as a small business person, he’s a true leader and public servant, and I wholeheartedly endorse his candidacy. Thank you for your continued support. God bless America and the great State of Rhode Island."

12. General Assembly: State Representative Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield), the former House minority leader, announced he's seeking his sixth term in the House: “Since first elected I have maintained that we do not have a taxing problem in this state, but a spending problem. I have always opposed tax increases and supported attempts to reign in bloated government spending. I have fought to eliminate the abuse-ridden legislative grant program and been a consistent advocate against growth in government generally and in attempting to get my legislative colleagues to adopt a different perspective on many issues. During my tenure, including six years as leader of the opposition party from 2011-2017, I have always worked with the ruling Democrats where appropriate – first proposing and then supporting budgetary items that they eventually adopted including the elimination of state income taxes on social security and the phase out of the car tax. By the same token I have also strongly opposed them where appropriate particularly where they squander opportunities to take bold steps to reform our budget process including enactment of a line item veto, make structural changes to our fiscal policies and continue to heap unnecessary regulations on small business that stifle economic growth while simultaneously doling out corporate welfare for well connected insiders.  My colleagues and I have always fought to reduce the middle class tax burden while opposing such giveaways and hope to continue to do so."

13. Joe Fleming, the longtime pollster for WPRI-TV, gets high marks in a new ranking by 538.com. Fleming got a B+ -- the same ranking as national pollsters CNN, Emerson, Suffolk, Ipsos and UMass-Lowell. What's more, 538 found a slight GOP lean for Fleming, which is noteworthy since he has also polled for legislative Democrats.

14. Providence City Council: Kat Kerwin, who is challenging longtime Ward 12 Councilor Terry Hassett, got a write-up in Teen Vogue: "For Kat, running for office means making Providence a national example of what progressive policy-making can achieve; she also wants to offer another candidate option to a community that has had the same representative for over two decades." .... Meanwhile, activist and labor organizer Mike Araujo this week announced his entry in the race for the Ward 13 seat being vacated by Bryan Principe. “The West End and Federal Hill neighborhoods are at a crossroads," Araujo said in prepared remarks. "Down one path families will be priced out of neighborhoods they’ve called home for generations. Down the other we can build a community centered on the needs of all the families that live here. I’m running for City Council to make sure we take that second road. I will fight for housing stability, for our schools, for access to green spaces. My family has made its home in Ward 13 and I believe in the strength and vitality of the people who live and work here. As a city councilor, I will fight for the working people of Ward 13."

15. Scott MacKay's weekly column looks at RI's abortion debate: "The rhetoric over the topic is up, but abortions are way down. The state Health Department says abortions are down 53 percent over the last decade. In 2007, Rhode Island residents had about 3,700 abortions. Ten years later that number dropped to about 1,700. Each side in this contentious debate repeats talking points on this big decline. Anti-abortion activists assert that protests and political pressure accounts for the drop. Supporters of abortion rights point to advances in birth control—including IUDs and implants injected under women’s skin -- in avoiding unplanned pregnancies."

16. 6 Forces Disrupting Higher Education.

17. Progressives are rallying support for a canvass Monday, June 4, in support of equal pay legislation: "Right now the House is considering a bill that would help end the shameful practice of wage discrimination throughout Rhode Island. This is a serious problem in our state: the average Rhode Island woman loses nearly $10,000 a YEAR to the pay gap and for women of color these loses are even larger. The pay gap begins at women's first jobs and grows over time. It exists across industries, education and jobs. Much of it cannot be explained by choices, but only by bias." ... Meanwhile, the conservative Gaspee Project calls this a phony issue and is organizing opposition: "Demand that your legislators oppose House Bill 7427 & Senate Bill 2475 because, in reality, they are an Unfair to Employers Act that is right out of the Progressive Land of Make Believe. People should be compensated based on their merit— not their identity. This attack on fair, honest, and hardworking businesses cannot be tolerated."

18. RI progressive gubernatorial candidate Paul Roselli in his own words, via the Bartholomewtown Podcast.

19. Have you started collecting CryptoKitties? Me neither. But NPR reports that humans have paid $24 million for the cartoon cats since the company launched last year: "The cats have gained traction in part because they're built on a trendy technology called the blockchain. It's a kind of public receipt that logs every cat and who it belongs to. It's the same tech that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are built on. It means the cats can't be taken away or copied or destroyed." So can blockchain enthusiast Giovanni Feroce bring a CryptoKitties bonanza to RI?

20. PVDFest returns June 7-10.

21. Providence College is well known as a leading alma mater for Rhode Island lawmakers past and present. Less well known is how the Catholic university was once home to a large percentage of Jewish students. RIPR's Chuck Hinman reports on Sons of Providence: The Jewish History of Providence College, 1917-1965.

22. Misplaced media priorities? (via CJR): "While media outlets from cable news to digital publishers obsessed over the cancellation of ABC’s Roseanne, a report on the staggering death toll in Puerto Rico has, in comparison, been met with relative silence. Researchers from Harvard University estimate that at least 4,645 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Maria and its immediate aftermath, more than 70 times the official count of 64. The Washington Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Laurie McGinley write that 'the island’s slow recovery has been marked by a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid and a lack of essential services—all imperiling the lives of many residents, especially the infirm and those in remote areas hardest hit in September.' The Harvard study has a wide margin of error, but even at the low end of its range, the death count from Maria would place the disaster on par with the devastation wrought by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The news received coverage from numerous outlets, but it was swamped by the firestorm surrounding the cancellation of a sitcom. 'I’ve gotten three times as many breaking news emails today about ‘Roseanne’ getting cancelled than I have about the death toll in Puerto Rico being 70 times higher than we thought,' Wisconsin Public Radio host Brady Carlson tweeted Tuesday. The watchdog group Media Matters for America calculated that cable news networks covered Roseanne Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico."