TGIF: Rhode Island's 12 Top Unanswered Political Questions for 2014

Dec 27, 2013

Your faithful correspondent is breaking from TGIF's usual format this week to gaze ahead into 2014. Thanks for stopping by and feel free to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Will 2014 mark a turning point for Rhode Island? The economy is showing glimmers of improvement, and gubernatorial candidates are offering talking points about turning the page. Yet the Ocean State (Rhode Island and Sisyphus Plantations, as URI's Len Lardaro has dubbed it) remains in a decades-long struggle to reinvent itself. Budget deficits are a hardy perennial at the Statehouse. Despite considerable assets and periodic progress on different fronts, Rhode Island sometimes takes two steps back -- and the tens of thousands of jobless people are getting left behind. So does 2014 offer more of the same, or an improbable, significant break from the past? 

2. Will Rhode Island elect a Democratic governor? The last Democrat to win a gubernatorial election was Bruce Sundlun in 1992. Republicans have mostly held the top job for the last 30 years, in part since voters like the idea of a GOP counter-balance to the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. This time around, the Democratic contestants include the two rising stars of Rhode Island politics, Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras, and Clay Pell looks like he's getting into the race. Yet the Republican gubernatorial candidate (either Allan Fung or Ken Block) could benefit significantly from a bruising primary among the Democrats.

3. Who buys the Providence Journal? There are a lot of different models out there for media ownership, from stewardship to slash-and-burn. With A.H. Belo planning to unload the ProJo in 2014, the suitors may range from a deep-pocketed local to an out-of-town corporation. Belo's decade-and-a-half legacy (during a tough time for newspapers) is one of cutting journalistic resources. So will a new owner emerge, and if so, can it inject some fresh vitality into a state with a strong need for watchdog reporting?

4. What's next for the pension overhaul of 2011? More than a year of meditation seems likely to produce a settlement in the legal challenge to the overhaul that attracted national attention. Yet all bets will be off once a deal heads to the General Assembly, since any variety of further changes can be put up for consideration. The legislature faces a delicate calculus in this election year: pacifying union members upset by the overhaul without antagonizing voters who supported it.

5. Does 38 Studios change the political landscape? The annual ask in repaying investors in the failed video game company is set to jump in 2014 from $2.5 million to $12.5 million. Republicans like House Minority Leader Brian Newberry and state Senator Dawson Hodgson (who's running for AG and renewing his push for an independent probe on this front) think 38 Studios is a winning issue for RI's perennially struggling GOP. Sure, Republican governor Don Carcieri was a big supporter of the dubious deal back in 2010, but legislative Democrats also had a role. With the tab for 38 Studios set to spool out past 2020 (barring a significant settlement in the lawsuit filed by the state), voters may prove receptive.

6. Can Gina Raimondo win the Democratic gubernatorial primary? Raimondo heads into 2014 with the biggest war chest in the race for governor and a savvy battle-tested campaign manager, among other assets. Yet she still needs to claim considerable support from independents -- the state's largest voting bloc -- while ramping up turnout to claim the Democratic primary. If she wins there, her future could be golden.

7. Can Angel Taveras overcome his money problem? The plan called for Taveras to ride the three Ls -- liberals, Latinos, and labor -- to a primary victory. Yet the Providence mayor has struggled to keep up on the fundraising front with Raimondo. The situation has grown serious enough that Taveras' campaign took the unusual step last week of sending out an email ask subject-lined 3:1 (see item 3) -- a reference to the proportion of Raimondo's superior fundraising -- and quoted from the critical point of Scott MacKay's RIPR essay on the subject.

8. Can Ken Block overturn Allan Fung's advantage? Fung is the GOP establishment favorite in the Republican gubernatorial primary; he's repeatedly won election as a Republican and proven popular as the mayor of Cranston. At minimum, Block will be a thorn in Fung's side, forcing him to spend money and energy he'd rather use in a general election. After Block got just 6.5 percent of the gubernatorial vote as a Moderate in 2010, the question remains: can he upset the apple cart of GOP politics? The Barrington businessman has potential resources; his plain policy talk won some kudos in his long shot bid in 2010, and Block's campaign manager, Jeff Britt, is a smart strategist.

9. Who's the next mayor of Providence? While the governor's race will increasingly dominate attention, a fascinating contest is slowly unfolding for an open seat in Rhode Island's capital city. City Council President Michael Solomon has set the fundraising pace among Democrats, well ahead of Roger Williams University Law School professor Jorge Elorza; consultant/lobbyist Brett Smiley, and businessman Lorne Adrain (Republican Daniel Harrop is also running). Yet the field remains unsettled, with state Rep John Lombardi, a longtime former councilor, leaning toward a campaign, and Buddy Cianci still figuring in the discussion. (With classic cheek, Cianci says his decision on a possible run won't be known until the filing deadline next June.) Providence remains a great city, and one with serious problems, so Taveras' successor will have plenty on his plate in 2015.

10. Who's the next speaker and Senate president? The precise timeline remains to be seen. Yet we're probably getting closer, based on the length of their tenures, to the eventual end of Gordon Fox and Teresa Paiva Weed's time at the top of the Smith Hill hierarchy. The jockeying for succession in what former speaker William Murphy dubbed "the House of ambition" and its counterpart chamber will make for a lively subtext at the Statehouse.  

11. What's next for labor? Unions face shrinking membership nationwide, and the union movement -- in contrast to the overstated notion that it runs the legislature -- has taken a number of local defeats in recent years. Yet the ability of the labor-backed For RI Daughters coalition to put WPRO's John DePetro on the defensive shows how labor still has strength in numbers.

12. Will Rhode Island develop an effective strategy for protecting its third-largest revenue source? The Ocean State has benefited from dumb luck as Massachusetts has yet to develop a new casino or slot parlor. Still, it's probably just a matter of time until that day comes, and it will have a big impact on one of  Rhode Island's few golden cash cows.