TGIF: 15 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Aug 29, 2014

If the Rhode Island political news is coming this hot and heavy, what's it going to be like next week? The September 9 primary witching hour is steadily approach, so welcome back for another edition of my Friday column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and the land of 140-character notes awaits you via the twitters. Here we go.

1. Gina Raimondo offered the most polished performance during Tuesday's Channel 12-Providence Journal debate at PPAC and within days, her campaign unleashed an attack Web site (whose URL was snapped up more than a year ago) going after rival Democrat Angel Taveras. While this contrast might jar casual campaign observers, it shows how candidates go to the wall in their attempts to win, using every possible resource at their disposal; politics ain't bean bag, as the saying goes. Rest assured, Taveras would follow a similar path if he had the same impressive pile of cash to draw from. As it stands, the Providence mayor -- in a change -- trained his fire on Raimondo in his latest ad. (He also got taken to task for an overreach in one of his other spots, as Raimondo did with her Narragansett commercial.) Clay Pell has remained out of the air war back-and-forth between his two rivals, using his wealth to instead fuel a stream of upbeat commercials. And though Pell and Taveras went at each other during the PPAC-Palooza, as did Taveras and Raimondo, it's worth noting that Raimondo didn't fire any shots at Pell.

2. Alice Walton might be a self-employed philanthropist (net worth $34.8 billion), as she lists her occupation on this form describing a $100,000 donation to the 50CAN Action Fund in Washington, DC. But she's also a Walmart heiress, and $90,000 of that contribution has been funneled as an independent expenditure in support of Dan McKee's lieutenant governor run. What's the common link between one of the world's richest women and the Cumberland mayor? Both are enthusiastic supporters of charter schools.

3. RIPR has confirmed a significant endorsement for GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Block. John Robitaille, who almost nipped Lincoln Chafee in the 2010 race for governor, will endorse Block during a noon Tuesday news conference at the Statehouse. The endorsement was first reported by Dan Yorke. Republican Allan Fung scored points this week by landing a member of the respected RI State Police as Cranston's new police chief. Yet Robitaille's endorsement of Block is all the more significant considering how the almost-winner from 2010 has up to now played a middle path, even as some Republicans blamed Block's 6.5 percent of the vote that year for handing a victory to Chafee.

4. Clay Pell's vaunted ground operation got some attention thanks to PolitiFact's look at his boast of how his campaign has created more jobs in Rhode Island than Narragansett. The article cited a field staff of 30, including, three deputy field organizers, 23 field organizers, two regional field directors, a deputy field director, and a field director. Pell's campaign manager, Devin Driscoll, knows Rhode Island's electoral field well; he's a veteran of past Obama campaigns. It helps Pell, too, that the National Education Association Rhode Island (a big help to Lincoln Chafee in the 2010 election) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals have lined up behind him .... Angel Taveras' campaign has been calling for last-minute contributions to enhance its field operation, as with this Friday afternoon email: "We’ve got a huge opportunity if we can get the funds to put a few more organizers in strategic spots." The Providence mayor's campaign boasts a large volunteer corps, it has the backing of the Working Families for Angel coalition, and can also be expected to play well with Latinos .... Gina Raimondo has field director Andrew Childs, who (along with Gina's campaign manager, Eric Hyers), helped David Cicilline to roll up a surprisingly large re-election victory against GOP challenger Brendan Doherty in 2012. Raimondo's campaign has touted 5000 daily door knocks, 40,000 daily phone calls, and it pledges a vigorous push in the final days of the primary campaign. 

5. For all the Election 2014 fascination among Rhode Island's gang of 500, a lack of wider public buzz has been perceptible. So what's the turnout in the Democratic primary for governor? The count was 119,524 in 2002, when Myrth York (46,806) edged Sheldon Whitehouse (45,880) by 926 votes, with Antonio Pires winning 26,838 tallies.

6. Politico's most bizarre political ads of 2014.

7. Jorge Elorza's sudden burst of momentum in the Providence mayoral race was interrupted Thursday night by the revelation that a mailer his campaign sent in June was identical in parts to a statement offered by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa in 2012. In an interview, Elorza offered this explanation of how it happened: "I approve everything that goes out of my office and out of my campaign. I check to make sure that everything is truthful, it's honest and accurate. I reviewed the draft of that letter and it was all of those things. I wasn't aware that the assistant who wrote that draft had borrowed the language from another letter that either he had worked on or he had written. If I had known that that paragraph and that language was borrowed, there is no way I would have allowed it and no way I would have approved it." Elorza calls the issue "a distraction" and says it's markedly different from the state Ethics Commission probe facing rival Democrat Michael Solomon. Elorza says that's because he disclosed his own shoplifting arrest at age 18, and since Solomon's Ethics probe stems from a lack of disclosure.

8. Solomon used his own news conference at location du jour Prospect Park on Tuesday to defend himself against the argument put forward a week earlier by Elorza and Brett Smiley, and to make the case he's the guy to take on Buddy Cianci. During an appearance Thursday on RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A, Solomon doubled-down on his message of experience, emphasizing how he worked with Angel Taveras to confront the $110 million deficit that emerged in early 2011. One of the quirks about Solomon is how he does communicating better during news conferences (the one he held this week was only the second since he announced his run) than during one-on-one interviews. Yet the more central question for the council president is whether his coalition and his superior war chest can withstand the late push by Elorza for supremacy on September 9.

9. Howard Sutton's career trajectory is right out of the old paradigm of newspapers. He began as a circulation statistician on Fountain Street back in 1973, when the Providence Journal-Bulletin was the unquestioned master of Rhode Island's media landscape. The Warwick native rose to take on the top job of publisher in 1999, just as the Internet was beginning to wield a steadily bigger impact on the newspaper business. The Journal has muddled through since then, although with a diminished scope, a staff winnowed by serial buy outs and layoffs, and trepidation about further cuts under new ownership. So some staffers might question Sutton's characterization (h/t Romenesko) of his tenure as "very rewarding." Time will tell whether Belo's last publisher in Rhode Island will get a bonus of the type handed out to some other company execs.

10. Progressive groups Clean Water Action, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club, among others, are backing Doris De Los Santos as she tries to defeat Senator Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) in the September 9 primary. A hard-hitting mailer sent by De Los Santos' campaign cites the Senate Journal in asserting Ciccone missed 68 percent of roll call votes in 2014. Ciccone's own mailer touts himself as a trustworthy leader, pointing to votes to raise the minimum wage, lower the corporate tax rate and to allow free tuition for disabled veterans at state colleges. Ciccone's mailer also says "he voted AGAINST the 38 Studios deal," although, as many lawmakers who were present in 2010 point out, the actual approval came through the entity then known as state Economic Development Corporation. And when push came to shove, former rep Robert Watson was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill paving the way for 38 Studios. (Legislative records show the Senate voted, 32-0, on a related standalone bill sponsored in 2010 by then-House Finance chair Steven Costantino. Ciccone is not recorded as part of the vote.)

11. Secretary of State candidate Nellie Gorbea has a new hard-hitting ad that highlights her experience while trying to make an issue of rival Democrat Guillaume de Ramel's self-funding and background. (Her campaign also says Gorbea narrowly out-raised de Ramel, $328,838 to $326,599, from April 1, 2013 to August 11, 2014, with the big difference coming from de Ramel loaning himself $500,000. That's probably not a issue with big play in this race, though, in part since many voters think self-funding candidates are less beholden to politics as usual. Gorbea's campaign manager, Rico Vota, says the spot contrasts "Gorbea's real experience as a deputy secretary of state against her opponent's record. "Nellie's opponent claims he has started businesses, but according to Ethics Commission reports, neither of the companies he mentioned - Air Newport and Newport Hangars - have earned him any income." In his own new spot, de Ramel vows to work for government transparency and a more business-friendly government (although his pledge not to take lobbyist money, a la Pell, is less significant given his own ability to contribute to his campaign). De Ramel's campaign manager, Dave Hoffman, says, “Guillaume De Ramel is running for Secretary of State to reform lobbying so something like 38 Studios never happens again, modernize the way Rhode Islanders vote to increase participation, and improve the business climate and help put Rhode Islanders back to work. Based on available metrics, what Guillaume hears on the campaign trail his positive message is resonating with Rhode Islanders. Guillaume will continue to communicate with Rhode Islanders about his ideas for the office through Election Day September 9th.”

12. While candidates make a lot of promises that never come to fruition, former President Bill Clinton was emphatic in describing Treasurer candidate Seth Magaziner's economic blueprint as a practical plan for Rhode Island. A day after the "Comeback Kid" came to town, rival Democrat Frank Caprio offered his own "comeback" message, vowing to aid small business and cut state fees paid to Wall Street investors.

13. Narragansett Beer's Mark Hellendrung offered a video response this week to commentary about the intersection of the venerable brand and politics. One of my favorite quotes about Gansett remains this recollection by the estimable Ted Widmer, from a 2005 Phoenix story, who recalled seeing Narragansett signs as far north as Maine and as far west as the Berkshires while growing up: "It was really a whole way of life, and it involved loving the Red Sox . . . and loving a certain sense of Providence as the center of a little empire in southeastern New England," says Widmer (whose former Phoenix column was illustrated by an image of Chief Gansett). "To drink Narragansett meant that you were somehow a citizen of that empire."

14. As Frank Ferri, Ralph Mollis, and Dan McKee fight it out in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Republican Catherine Taylor made a smart, low-risk play by calling on Mollis (who she almost beat back in 2010) to play down the influence of the master lever.

15. The emerging threat posed by the Islamic fundamentalist group ISIS figures to be in the discussion when US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visits the Naval War College in Newport next Wednesday. CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto will moderate a 3 pm discussion that can be seen here.