Who needs holiday presents when Rhode Island politics is the gift that keeps on giving? 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. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo likens efforts to put the state on a better long-term footing to the middle innings of a baseball game. "We're not where I want us to be," she told me in the second part of a year-end interview. "I want every high school student to graduate ready for college or ready for a career, and we've got a ways away to go. I want every third-grader reading at grade level at the end of third grade; we're at less than half." At the same time, the governor trumpets various things, including a decline in unemployment, and a rise in construction jobs on her watch. "Ninety-eight percent of Rhode Islanders have health insurance," she said. "People are working. People are making money. Kids are going to CCRI tuition-free and coming out and getting jobs. Twenty companies have moved here." While Rhode Island faces a $260 million deficit between the current and next fiscal year, Raimondo said in part one of our interview that the state "is on the right path and we just have to continue on this path."
2. On UHIP -- the problem-plagued IT system for administering human-service benefits, the governor acknowledged, "You cannot sugarcoat this." She called the contract inherited by her administration "a terrible contract and a lot of this had been under way before I got here, including spending millions and millions of dollars. Having said that, it went live on my watch and I take responsibility. It went live before it should have .... We bought a system that's still not working .... My pledge to the people of Rhode Island is I will not give up until this is fixed and working the way it should be." Meanwhile, while Raimondo has been disinclined in the past to make categorical statements about her future, she said she remains firmly focused on seeking a second term as governor and "would not have gone to work in Hillary's cabinet, had she won and asked me. I would not run for the Senate if Jack Reed or whoever decided not to run. I can unequivocally say that. I've got the job I want. I'd like to keep the job for a few more years, 'cause I think we're on a good path. And I'd like the chance to continue leading Rhode Island and getting us to a better place."
3. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio appeared to throw an inside fastball at Speaker Mattiello when he refused to commit to commit (while speaking with Kathy Gregg) to supporting the second installment of Mattiello's prized car tax phaseout. With the General Assembly set to begin anew on January 2, it's worth remembering how the legislative budget process went off the rails last June and it took about a month to smooth things out. Now, with the Senate poised to support the PawSox proposal, and the House remaining a very big question mark on the issue, lingering tensions from the clash of '17 could spill into the new year on Smith Hill. Meanwhile, the PawSox outlook remains as clouded as ever, with some observers putting the odds of the team staying vs. going at 50-50. PawSox consultant Guy Dufault says the team is continuing "the education process" with lawmakers, making the case that Rhode Island will lose $2.3 million in annual tax revenue if the PawSox split for Worcester. "That's not a good deal for the Rhode Island taxpayer," Dufault said.
4. While GOP gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan and Republican-turned independent candidate Joe Trillo point to what they perceive as the state GOP's preference for Allan Fung, state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell said the view is without a basis in reality. While the state Republican Committee is slated to hold a convention in June to make endorsements, "the party leadership doesn't pick a candidate," Bell said. Fung's campaign manager, Andrew Vargas Vila, formerly worked as a regional coordinator for the Republican National Committee, and Fung consultant Mike Shields was once a top aide at the RNC. But Bell calls the perception cited by Morgan and Trillo uninformed, considering their experience with the state GOP. "Both should know better than to make accusations like that," he said. Bell still pans Trillo's decision to run as an independent as "terrible," but said the two men had a productive talk during a meeting two weeks ago. "We agreed to disagree," Bell said.
5. Related: Patricia Morgan points to her legislative experience in arguing she's a stronger GOP gubernatorial candidate than Cranston Mayor Fung. "I've actually read the entire budget -- I kind of know where all the bodies are buried," Morgan said on RIPR's Political Roundtable this week. "I just think I have more experience at the state level, thinking about and acting on all the things that affect all of us. I don't want to take anything away from Allan. He's done a good job at the municipal level, but that's just a city and the governor takes care of the entire state .... I think I have a very strong message that appeals to people all across the state .... If you've been watching me at all in the last few years, you know that I constantly think about how we can turn Rhode Island around, how we can really ignite our economy one more time .... But we have so many bad laws and bad state policies that we have to reform and eliminate. I think we need to do that."
6. Politics makes for odd bedfellows, as the saying goes. Providence's Ward 14 City Councilor David Salvatore, representing Elmhurst and Wanskuck, was able to emerge as the new president of the Providence City Council by joining forces with former foe John Igliozzi, now the council majority leader. "I think we both recognize that working collaboratively is more important to addressing issues than working on opposite sides," Salvatore told me. "Communication will be important. We are going through the growing phase of our working relationship, and I’m looking forward to working with him on a regular basis." As far as gripes from some fellow councilors that his rise to the presidency lacked transparency, Salvatore said, "I think anytime a legislative body caucuses to garner votes for a leadership position, there are going to be some folks who feel like they have been left out of the conversation. I felt that way three years ago, so I can certainly understand and appreciate where they're coming from. But I do want my colleagues to know the intention was not to hurt them in any way. I want to work with them moving forward. There was a majority of the city council membership who want to see the City Council, from a legislative perspective, move in a different direction. So that's where we are today." Salvatore was on the outside looking in during Luis Aponte and Kevin Jackson's time leading the council; the seeds of his rise were planted when Aponte and Jackson ran into still-pending legal charges.
7. Gov. Raimondo tells me she will not seek an expansion of the RI Promise tuition program in her next budget in January. If re-elected, she hopes to expand the program in the future. She said her budget will include money to overhaul the physical condition of Rhode Island schools.
8. Jeff Neal, who served as press secretary for most of Don Carcieri's time as governor (and previously worked for John and Lincoln Chafee), started work in August as vice chancellor for communications and marketing for the University System of Maryland. Neal set a high bar as a gubernatorial press secretary, promptly returning media calls and offering extemporaneous quotes on short notice; he worked in communications at Harvard University after leaving state government. "When we talked to his references, we heard terms such as proactive, astute, respected, self-motivated, collaborative, and valued colleague," USM Chancellor Robert L. Caret said when Neal was hired. "We found the right person, and I very much look forward to working with him in the years ahead."
9. Reaction to the GOP tax plan remains divided along partisan lines. Democrats say it will mostly benefit the rich while running up the deficit by more than $1 trillion. Republicans say lowering the corporate tax rate will spark economic growth. Meanwhile, closer to home, employees of WJAR-TV, Channel 10, will benefit from a bonus being offered by the station's controversial owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group. "We are grateful to our President and legislature for passing the landmark 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and are excited about the benefits it will provide for our country’s economy, our Company - Sinclair Broadcast Group, and our employees," Sinclair's senior VP for human resources, Don Thompson, wrote in a memo, a copy of which was obtained by RIPR. "We are pleased to announce that we will be paying a special $1,000 bonus to almost 9,000 of our full-time and part-time regular employees at all our stations and subsidiaries (excluding senior level executives and employees covered by collective bargaining agreements currently in the negotiation process). We recognize that our employees are our most valuable resource, truly appreciate their combined achievements for our Company and look forward to a very bright future!"
10. The preservation of Rhode Island's two congressional districts -- thanks to a 157-person margin -- will focus attention on the next census. U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin have tended to pooh-pooh questions about a possible clash in 2022, even though that day could be drawing steadily closer -- along with the related Q of whether the reps have an exit strategy. Four years is an eternity in politics. Still, with Seth Magaziner and Nellie Gorbea shaping up as possible Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2022, you have to wonder whether either of the congressman may emerge in that field.
11. Members of the Providence Newspaper Guild, the biggest union at the ProJo, are getting a long-sought raise due to a new agreement with the paper's owner, GateHouse Media, and all of its newspapers. Terms of the deal include a 1 percent wage increase (in both actual wages and scales) effective September 1, 2018, and a 1.75 percent wage increase (in wages and scales) effective October 1, 2019.
13. David Cruise, who left a $167,000-a-year post as a Traffic Tribunal magistrate to join Gov. Raimondo's staff in 2015, is taking a job with Nixon Peabody LLP, effective February 1. "As many can attest, David has dedicated decades to serving – and improving – the State of Rhode Island," the governor's chief of staff, Brett Smiley, wrote in an email to staff. "He will be missed as both Governor Raimondo’s friend and close advisor. David began his career in public service in 1976, when he became the youngest elected Town Council person in Cumberland at age 20. From there, he worked for Lieutenant Governor Tom DiLuglio and later served as a state senator representing Cumberland, before resigning his post to serve as Chief of Staff for Governor Bruce Sundlun. After his tenure in Governor Sundlun’s Administration, David worked in Washington, D.C. as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. In 2000, he returned to Rhode Island to serve as legal counsel for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, and later as the Chief of Staff for Senate President Joseph Montalbano." Meanwhile, Stephen Zubiago, partner in Nixon Peabody’s Providence office and leader of the firm’s Business and Finance Department, offers this comment: “We’re thrilled David will be joining our Providence office. David bring strong government experience working most recently in the Governor’s office as well as serving a former Judge in addition to his years working at the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. As we anticipate the future needs of our clients, we are always looking to attract top talent who will benefit our clients. We look forward to introducing David to our clients in the new year.”
15. Considering how Gov. Raimondo won election with 40 percent of the vote in 2014, and Lincoln Chafee with 36 percent in 2010, perhaps it's not surprising that a number of Rhode Islanders have been less than supportive of their administrations. House Republican Whip Blake Filippi of Block Island wants to amend the state Constitution to require candidates for state general offices and the General Assembly to get a majority of votes, through instant runoff if need be. He points to the 2014 and 2010 gubernatorial races in saying, "These results demonstrate why our current voting system needs to change – we sometimes don’t even know whether the will of the majority is reflected in our elections" -- a situation that could happen again with Joe Trillo running as an independent in 2018. Here's Filippi's explanation of how his process would work: “If no candidate initially breaks this 50% threshold in a typical 3-way race, the first and second place finishers will have a runoff election. Instant run-off voting allows this second match-up to occur on the same day, thereby avoiding the expense and delay of another election. This is accomplished by voters marking their first and second choices on the ballot. If a voter’s first choice candidate is not among the initial top two vote earners, their vote in the runoff will be cast for their second choice."
17. Frank "Bobo" Marrapese, one of Rhode Island's most storied mobsters, has died at age 74. Here's a classic story about Marrapese, courtesy of Mike Stanton's The Prince of Providence: "Bobo was a squat fireplug of a man with a violent temper and a bright future in the mob. He ran the Acorn Athletic Association, a popular organized-crime haunt on the Hill, and dabbled in burglary, gambling, loan-sharking and assault. Even a parking ticket could set him off: he once threw two chunks of concrete through an offending policeman's windshield.
"The week before Christmas in 1971, Bobo went on trial for conspiracy to steal a Ford camper. [Prosecutor Buddy] Cianci invited a friend down to the courthouse to watch the show.
"His star witness was Bobo's ex-girlfriend Vivian. In a raucous direct examination, she told Cianci about their tempestuous relationship. After one spat, Vivian hid the keys to all the cars that Bobo had stolen and stashed around Providence. So Bobo beat her up. But the fiery Vivian concocted a spicier revenge. She invited Bobo over for dinner and served him some of her Italian wedding soup. With Vivian's encouragement, Bobo ate one bowl of soup, then a second.
" 'Did you like the soup?' she asked Bobo.
"He grunted that he did.
" 'Well, I pissed in it!" Vivian screamed.
"Bobo's lawyer leap to his feet and objected.
" 'Did I hear what I thought I heard?' he asked in disbelief. Cianci, who would regale people with the story years later, pantomiming Vivian ladling out the soup and making his voice raspy and nasty like hers, struggled to keep a straight face ...."
18. How climate change is already hitting home for some coastal villagers in Alaska.
19. The best drivers in the U.S. are in Rhode Island? You've got to be kidding!
20. "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel" was an apt aphorism for the analog age. But on the Internet nobody knows if you're a dog, so a zillion online flowers have bloomed, some useful, some awful and some just wannabe. So thanks @RIDeadXmasTree, for bringing a deft touch to the important business of lampooning RI politics.