TGIF: 24 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jan 6, 2017

Welcome to my first TGIF column of 2017, and thanks for stopping by. As usual your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is reasserting his place at the pinnacle of political power in Rhode Island by doubling down on his vow to begin phasing out the car tax this year. Of course, it helps that the car tax is widely disliked across the political spectrum, even if Governor Gina Raimondo and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed have reacted coolly to the speaker's approach. For now, the big question remains where roughly $40 million will be found to begin the phaseout this year. The challenge is complicated by the presence of a $110 million deficit for fiscal year starting July 1. "We’re not planning on making any cuts," Mattiello told me after Tuesday's House session. "We’re going to control spending. We’re not going to increase spending unnecessarily. And we’re going to rely on economic growth." That may seem like a squishy target, even if state revenue keeps ticking upward. Yet a member of the speaker's leadership team, Deputy Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence) makes a salient point -- it's important to set goals in life. Speaking on RIPR's Political Roundtable this week, Blazejewski suggested where there's will, there's a way: "Speaker Mattiello has shown over the years that when he makes a commitment to a particular legislative item, he finds a way to get it done." Yet some of Mattiello's other priorities for this year, including raising exemptions for retirement income and the estate tax, also come with a price tag. Looking ahead, the speaker could burnish his legacy by being the guy who led the charge to wipe out $215 million in car taxes collected annually from Rhode Islanders. Yet even in that scenario, reintroducing the car tax could remain tempting during future lean times.

2. With Governor Gina Raimondo saying that she's reached her boiling point over the state's troubled UHIP rollout, speculation continues about who will pay the price next week. "Everything is on the table," the governor's communications director, Mike Raia, told RIPR. "She’s considering changes in leadership and actions she can take to hold Deloitte more directly accountable."

3. If you were looking for clues about Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's interest in taking another shot at running for governor, this section from his inaugural address on Monday was the key part (following a few sentences about how private business is "booming" in the state's third-largest city): "And we don’t give the house away. We don’t make this an attractive place by PAYING every business to come here. We do this by making the whole business environment better. We have special liaisons at City Hall who walk the business owners through the permitting process, ensure that our inspections teams respond quickly so that there are not construction delays, and when problems arise, our team gets involved personally ...." The reference to not PAYING businesses to come to Cranston may have been a reference to the millions in subsidies being dished out by the Raimondo administration. Yet when I ran into him Tuesday at the Statehouse, Fung kept fuzzy the   identify of to whom he was referring. Asked if the reference was to Raimondo, he said, "I was referring to the example that we set in Cranston ...." So who was he referring to? "I'm talking about what you see in Cranston is the way to do without having to cut special tax deals for developers. You see a lot of that all across the country ..." Meanwhile, despite the police scandal that generated a series of unflattering headlines in 2015, Fung cruised to re-election last November -- including in the parts of Cranston that were swamped with parking tickets.

4. The latest battle between a mayor of Providence and the city's firefighters union is over, almost two years after it began, although the outcome is described by the combatants in sharply different ways (and the amount of savings is highly disputed). Mayor Jorge Elorza: "This contract not only creates ongoing structural savings, it also supports a more sustainable department for our firefighters and our residents." Paul Doughty, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 799: "The evidence is all in .... Switching your [firefighters] from 4 to 3 shifts is losing proposition. It never saved a penny." Then again, even beyond the actual savings, putting this conflict in the past has to be worth quite a bit to Elorza.

5. Attention Rhode Island: a jacket designed by a Dutch firm enables panhandlers to receive contributions via contact-less smart card that go directly to needed social services. According to a report, "You’re not giving cash to a total stranger to do with it what he pleases. Instead, the fixed sum (one euro) goes into a bank account managed by a homeless shelter, and can only be used to purchase a hot meal, pay for a bath or spend a night at a homeless shelter (many such centers in the Netherlands require a contribution of 5€ per night). Homeless people who really want to turn their life around can also save money for various job certification courses or a down-payment for a home."

6. Writing in The New Republic, Brown professor Matthew Pratt Guterl sees Governor Raimondo's stance against the Trump administration as an emblem of progressive values: "Raimondo insisted that Trump’s victory would not 'erode our core beliefs,' but rather 'provide a greater sense of urgency for the work that I do and for the values that we hold dear, to protect them even more because we realize we need to.' Of course, whether Raimondo is a progressive depends on where you stand. Yours truly once described Raimondo as a "pragmatic progressive." Sam Bell of RI Progressive Democrats disagrees sharply and he'd love for a more liberal Democrat to challenge Raimondo in 2018. Raimondo also won conservative favor with her 2011 pension overhaul. Anyway, Pratt Guterl's point is that blue states need to become even bluer to counter Trump. Writing in Washington Monthly, Martin Longman makes the case differently: "It’s true that Rhode Island, like California, has enough Democratic firepower to act as a counterexample to what is about to sweep our nation. It could be a very attractive place for people to live who feel threatened or marginalized in Trump’s America, or who just want a sanctuary from the onslaught of dumb governance we’ll see in most of our states. But demographic sorting of this type is what made the Republicans’ post-2008 comeback so strong and so virulent. I’d rather see disaffected liberals move to Georgia and Arizona, states that Clinton nearly won. Maybe a mass exodus to Texas would help, since Clinton did better there than she did in Iowa. Of course, people don’t make their living decisions this way. People flock to places that appeal to them or that offer job opportunities that they can’t find at home. Colorado’s reputation as a Mecca for potheads probably does more to attract young people than anything else their politicians could come up with, and people will continue to flock to New York and Los Angeles for no better reason than that they look cool on television."

7. It's on: Governor Raimondo has scheduled her latest State of the State address for January 17, followed two days later by the unveiling of her next budget proposal. Via the Gov's office: "In the upcoming weeks, Governor Raimondo (@GinaRaimondo) and members of her staff will be sharing behind the scenes photos of the process that goes into drafting and planning the State of the State address. Follow along on Twitter, using the hashtag #RISOTS."

8. Rep. Blazejewski was among the 14 lawmakers composing the Providence delegation who recently signed onto a letter urging Mayor Jorge Elorza to reject the expansion of the Achievement First charter school. Blazejewski says he signed on based on the financial needs of the Providence schools. While critics question the return on investment of $235 million in annual state aid, the Providence Democrat calls an uptick in spending part of what's needed to improve city schools. "It is a process," Blazejewksi said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A, "but I'll tell you, I have a three-year-old and a nine-day old, and I intend on having my children go to the Providence Public School system. And I am a hundred percent committed to make sure that my children can have a high-quality education in our public school system. And I don't see how diverting much-needed revenue away from the public system to a separate system -- a parallel system -- helps the majority of Providence school children get the high-quality education that they deserve."

9. Are Rhode Island's two US representatives, David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, ready to make clear their intentions for 2022, when the state is expected to lose one of its two US House seats? Of course not. Cicilline spokesman Rich Luchette said the congressman's "thinking is that Donald Trump becomes President in 15 days, and that means we need to do everything we can to preserve access to health care, economic opportunity, and the environment. He hasn’t given any thought to what he’ll be doing five years and ten months from now." Similarly, Langevin spokeswoman Meg Geoghegan said, "The congressman remains passionate about public service and feels there is still much good that he can accomplish. He has every intention of seeking reelection in 2018, but I think it’s premature to speculate beyond that."

10. Proclamation Ale, aided by a loosening of state regulations that hurt small brewers, is expanding in Warwick.

11. The bit of frostiness coming from Speaker Mattiello toward Governor Raimondo remained on display when the General Assembly session opened last Tuesday. In nominating Mattiello for re-election as speaker, Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable (D-Burrillville) credited Mattiello with lowering the state's unemployment rate. The speaker, meanwhile, said it was Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick)'s jobs bill that created hundreds of new jobs and attracted companies like GE and Johnson and Johnson. Raimondo acted like a good sport while sitting in the House chamber on opening day, before leaving, even though she didn't speak at the rostrum. That was a contrast from the Senate, where the governor spoke, and where President Paiva Weed cited Raimondo as a partner with the legislature in moving the state's economy forward. So what does all this mean? Probably not that much. Raimondo, after all, has gotten the large part of what she wanted from the General Assembly in her first two budgets.

12. We here at RIPR are excited about the station's move to acquire the license of WUMD, the radio station at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. This will strengthen RIPR's signal in Providence and Rhode Island's other population centers. As our CEO and GM Torey Malatia explained, it will also give RIPR ownership of our top signal, and make it easier to extend the reach of RIPR to other parts of the state. Plans call for a capital campaign to pay for the deal and make other improvements. Not everyone's happy, though. Fans of WUMD lament how the station's programming will be moving to an internet-based radio station. 

13. State Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry) is generally a quiet chap on the House floor, although he's fond of tossing shade via Twitter at the likes of Governor Raimondo and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. A few examples: 1) "Running a Poll: Mariah Carey, Ronda Rousey or Gina Raimondo Most BRUTAL 2016 performance?" 2) "...The question is while we needed you Senator [Whitehouse] what were YOU doing? 'One-dimensional Whitehouse' was serving his own agenda. Rhode Island deserves better! ...." 3) "You tell me, is it time to replace @SenWhitehouse and put in a Senator to fight for ALL RHODE ISLANDERS instead of his personal agenda." This kind of commentary, along with the revenue that comes from helping to run a successful funeral home, has sparked speculation that Nardolillo may challenge Whitehouse in 2018. Asked on the House floor this week about a possible Senate run, the GOP rep said only that he's focused on his work as a state lawmaker.

14. Former ProJo reporter Brian C. Jones offers a well-etched appreciation for an esteemed colleague, Robert Frederiksen, who recently died at age 92. Frederiksen helped found the Providence Newspaper Guild, the main union at the newspaper, in 1959. As Jones recalls, one of Frederiksen's contemporaries at the Journal was Ben Bagdikian, who went on to become a well-known press critic, and who described the unionization fight at the newspaper in his 1995 memoir Double Vision, "under the title, 'I Discover I Have a Union Problem.' His 'problem' was months of enforced idleness during 1954, receiving no assignments whatsoever. Bagdikian speculated that the paper’s managers, understanding how eager he was to write stories – he was part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered a deadly bank robbery the year before – would prompt him to leave the paper. 'I was frozen out of the newsroom decorum and clockwork,' he wrote. 'As a union-minded reporter, I was being treated by my editors with unchanging coldness. It was shocking. Life at ‘work’ became painful. It was worse than being called and told, ‘You’re fired.’ I suppose the paper’s law firm had warned them not to fire me but to make life for me so miserable that I would quit voluntarily and be a warning to other reporters harboring thoughts of joining the union.' The tactic backfired. Bagdikian wrote that he became angry at the way management could turn its approval of reporters on and off ­– the previous year, the newspaper had run a big advertisement in a trade publication praising Bagdikian for winning a national award, the headline proclaiming, 'We’re Proud of Ben Bagdikian, but Not Surprised') One of the central reasons that Frederiksen, Bagdikian and the others fought so hard was the most basic: stingy salaries. Reporters’ pay was so low, Bagdikian said, that he had to take freelance assignments for Time and Life magazines in order to support his family. 'The low salaries for reporters contrasted with the higher pay and better health, pension, and vacation benefits for production workers at the Journal and Bulletin,' Bagdikian recalled. 'They had a union and we did not. The message could not have been more clear.' "

15. With the Wyatt Detention Facility under scrutiny, following last week's escape of an inmate, the thinking is that private prisons could benefit from the Trump presidency. As NPR's John Burnett reports, "In the week after Election Day, stocks of GEO and CoreCivic, the two biggest for-profit detention companies, shot up more than 20 and 40 percent, respectively. Last spring at a town hall meeting on MSNBC, Trump said this about the confinement industry: 'By the way, with prisons I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.' Two possible categories of unauthorized immigrants who would go behind locked gates: First, the Trump campaign vowed to stop the catch and release of people who cross the border without documents to ask for asylum. And second, as president-elect, Trump has said he wants to deport 2 to 3 million 'criminal aliens.' "

16. Thomas Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, has been getting a boatload of media attention regarding his offer to make inmates available to build President-elect Donald Trump's vaunted wall along the Mexican border. This isn't Hodgson's first media rodeo. Back in the late 90s, he was broadly castigated for using inmate work crews linked by chains to collect litter and do similar projects. Yet the criticism was a bit ironic, as I wrote in the Providence Phoenix at the time, since the inmates didn't mind and because Hodgson backed rehabilitative efforts that had been vanquished from many prisons. Regarding his offer to Trump, "Hodgson did not provide details on how the program would be funded, and he said he's not heard back from Trump's office yet," reports WBUR's Shannon Dooling. "But he's confident this is something the president-elect can get behind. 'I believe that we will have a good partnership with the federal authorities,' Hodgson said. 'We don't have a commitment at this point, but I fully expect we will, 'cause it makes all the sense in the world. It's hard to argue, regardless of what the initiative is, whether it's building a wall or rebuilding a community after a disaster, it's what government ought to be doing.' "

17. Brookings offers a deep dive on how to fight terrorism in the Trump era. Short take: "The average American is more likely to be shot by an armed toddler than killed by a terrorist."

18. Back in 2013, Rep. Blazejewski spoke on the House floor in support of a bill imposing stiffer penalties for graffiti, including making a third conviction a felony offense. "The ACLU and other organizations noted that graffiti offenses are overwhelmingly committed by young adults and minors," the civil liberties group noted at the time, adding, "imposing excessive fines and jail time upon these young people exacerbates the 'school-to-prison pipeline' and saddles them with a potential lifetime of consequences. Rep. Grace Diaz (D-Providence) argued against the measure, but it passed, 30-28 in the House and became law. Blazejewksi's support for the bill raised some eyebrows since he's a progressive. "I heard from my constituents on this issue," the rep said on Bonus Q&A. "I represent Fox Point, Wayland Square, downtown Providence, parts of the South Side and parts of Smith Hill. I heard from my constituents on the concern on graffiti in the neighborhood." (The ACLU's Steve Brown said he's unsure if the concerns expressed about the impact in the law have come to fruition.)

19. Old friend Darrell West is speaking at 2 pm on Saturday, January 7, at the Newport Art Museum, on "What to Expect from President Trump." Meanwhile, West was interviewed by NPR for a story this week on Trump relatives' potential White House roles could test an anti-nepotism law.

20. Here's how media critic Dan Kennedy sums up the key takeaways from Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory's memo on the evolution of the large newspaper in New England: "The Globe is moving away from the idea that it needs to be a paper of record in the old-fashioned sense. Rather, McGrory wants it to be 'an organization of interest.' In other words, no more obligatory process stories about things that few readers care about. The news cycle will be reorganized to move further away from the deadlines demanded by the print schedule. Instead, stories will be published online throughout the day and night, with an 'Express Desk' playing a key role in that. The old barriers separating the newsroom and business sides will be rethought. There is an industry-wide view that at a time when revenues are shrinking, new working relationships need to be defined as long as they don’t compromise the integrity of the journalism. Easier said than done, of course."

21. Part of the charm of Rhode Island is being able to drive almost anywhere in the state in a short amount of time (though, of course, a jaunt to distant Newport or Westerly requires the packing of a lunch.) So the congestion that increasingly snarls some Providence intersections at peak travel times is troublesome. State Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston) rose to the occasion by sponsoring a bill -- which became law -- outlawing "blocking the box." Of course, enforcement is key here. Providence City Councilor David Salvatore said he has asked the DPW to identify intersections worth monitoring. And thanks to the power of Twitter, PR man/amateur meteorologist Bill Fischer rose to the occasion by pinpointing these troublesome spots: "Exchange Terrace/Francis Washington/N. Main Westminster/Memorial Canal/Steeple Memorial/Steeple" 

22. John Taraborelli does a nice job of reflecting the diversity of Providence, not to mention the many noteworthy people who call the city home, with Providence Monthly's latest annual look at 10 to Watch.

23. Flavor: RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison reports on The Tourtiere, a Woonsocket holiday tradition: "The meat pie traveled to Woonsocket with French-Canadians, who sought jobs in the city’s textile mills starting around the mid-1860s. Many of them came from the province of Quebec, explains Anne Conway, who runs the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. 'Very much from the small villages,' said Conway. 'We hear a lot of St. Hyacinthe, St. Ours, Sorel. It was very much word of mouth, so people knew there was work.' At one time, the number of French speakers in Woonsocket grew so large Conway says you had to learn French if you wanted to work in a mill. By 1920, 70 percent of the population was French-Canadian, which made Woonsocket the most French city in the United States."

24. Nightcap: "A Survival Guide to Colonial Cocktails (So You Don't Die Drinking Them)"