TGIF: 17 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jun 8, 2018

Just another quiet week in the Biggest Little. So 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. When Rhode Island's 2018 gubernatorial race is over and done with, how will this past week be remembered? Will the potentially costly missed deadline by a lawyer at the Exeutive Office of Health and Human Services be a millstone for Gov. Gina Raimondo's re-election hopes, or just part of of the back-and-forth in the run-up to Election Day? For now, it's too soon to know. Democrats sympathetic to Raimondo pin the blame on former EOHHS lawyer Gregory Hazian and say the governor can't be responsible for overseeing 15,155 state employees. But Christmas came early for Raimondo's gubernatorial rivals when word of the HHS blunder was first reported by the ProJo's Kathy Gregg last Sunday, and Allan Fung, Patricia Morgan, Joe Trillo, Matt Brown and Giovanni Feroce all unleashed salvos taking the governor to task, criticizing her staff choices and oversight of state government. While some of the criticism is opportunistic, the situation at HHS raises a lot of questions: How has the state not had a better case-management system for tracking major litigation? And why did a top aide to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello stop by to visit Hazian this week?. Coming after the UHIP saga, the perception arising from Hazian's blunder is bad for a chief executive like Raimondo -- whose self-described brand is about competence in government. The potential cost to the state, of somewhere up to $24 million in retroactive Medicaid payments, could be a hard pill to swallow for typical Rhode Islanders (and rival candidates can be expected to keep hammering this issue in the months to come). Then again, the state could lose this court case even without flubbing the timing on an appeal. (A temporary stay in the case is in place until next Wednesday.) And Raimondo attempted Friday to seize the high ground on the issue (see the next item). Looking ahead, we can only wonder what will loom larger in voters' thinking -- the flurry of construction activity around Providence, the generally positive economic trend in the state, or a series of woes in certain parts of state government.

2. During a Statehouse news conference Friday, Gov. Raimondo asserted the archaic state personnel policies are part and parcel of the situation involving Hazian's flubbed deadline. She empathized with Rhode Islanders' frustration about the situation: "There are a lot of Rhode Islanders who are disappointed and frustrated and angry with the mistakes that have been made. I count myself as one of them. Most state employees work incredibly hard and do a good job, and it's unacceptable and demoralizing when we see any instances of incompetence or malfeasance." And Raimondo said the more important thing than the initial problem is her administration's new initiative to boost accountability in government.

3. A $9.55 billion budget -- about $220 million more than the amount proposed by Gov. Raimondo -- is headed to the House floor next Friday. Republicans called a 40-minute hearing in House Finance a rush job; House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said the budget is a good document for the people of Rhode Island. More here.

4. Republican Patricia Morgan's go-to line when asked how she'll overcome Allan Fung's advantages in name-recognition and fundraising is that she has better ideas. Yet September 12th is drawing steadily closer, and Morgan may have her work cut out in drawing even with the GOP's 2014 gubernatorial candidate. Morgan this week acknowledged a shakeup in her campaign staff -- which she said numbers four -- although she declined to identify, for now, who is running her campaign. You can hear Morgan in her own words from her appearances this week on RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q&A. (We're still keeping a door open for Mayor Fung, whose campaign has steadily declined invitations for the mayor to join us as an in-studio guest for more than a year.)

5. It was just a matter of time until rival Democrat Matt Brown used the pension overhaul spearheaded by then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo as a line of attack against the governor. Raimondo attracted lots of adoring national press due to the pension change, and it became a central part of the narrative that has made her a prodigous fundraiser. Yet bitterness about the pension overhaul persists in Rhode Island, even among some Republicans whose family members have state jobs. So it was unsurprising to see Brown pledge this week to restore cost of living adjustments for current and future state retirees if he becomes governor. "Governor Raimondo’s drastic pension cuts needlessly hurt public employees and retirees, exposed their retirement funds to even greater risk, and will cost the state’s taxpayers millions more long-term," he said in a statement, adding a critique of hedge funds: "Even as experts like Warren Buffett warned public pensions to avoid hedge funds, Raimondo went ahead with a risky hedge fund gamble that cost taxpayers $500 million in underperformance -- the equivalent of roughly half of the cost-savings from cutting the COLAs over 10 years. The movement to these high risk and high cost funds has increased the state’s investor fees to nearly $80 million annually for the defined benefit plan alone."

6. In a rebuttal to Brown, Raimondo campaign spokeswoman Emily Samsel said: "Matt Brown is making a desperate attempt to pander because he knows his campaign is failing to gain any traction with Rhode Islanders. We can’t go back to the days of politicians making empty election-year promises. Brown wasn’t even living here when Central Falls was fighting bankruptcy and we were working to pull our state through the worst recession in a generation. After his failed campaign for Senate in 2006, he stiffed his vendors for half of what he owed them and moved to Washington, DC to start Global Zero -- a think tank where he paid himself more than a million dollars to wine and dine the political elite and crisscross the world attending glitzy summits and movie premieres. In 2010, when Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was over 11 percent, Matt Brown was on the international film festival circuit. In 2011, Central Falls filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy and Matt Brown hobnobbed with the ultra-rich in London rather than pitching in to help our state. Pension reform was difficult but necessary work needed to ensure state employees’ retirement savings will be there when they retire, and to position Rhode Island for the crucial investments we're now making to create jobs and give everyone the education and job training they need to keep and get ahead. Today, in part because of our successful pension reform, more people are working in Rhode Island than at any time in the past decade and our wage growth is the highest in the nation."

7. Via NPR: 4 Lessons from the 2018 Primaries. Basically, women are on the move, and President Trump has solidified his hold on the Republican Party. 

8. How a strong economy could hurt Democrats in the mid-terms.

9. Laufton Ascencao has become known as one of the young RI politicos pushing for a more progressive General Assembly, and this week he announced his primary campaign against state Rep. Ken Marshall (Bristol), a senior deputy majority leader in the House. This will be a must-watch race, since House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's team can be expected to make a strong push in support of Marshall. In a statement, Asencao said he makes his living between working in the renewable energy sector and diving for quahogs. Speaking of his native Bristol, he said, “This community has supported me my whole life and more than anything I want to give back. People feel like the State House is ignoring them. Families are struggling and we aren’t passing the policies needed to ensure all Rhode Islanders have a chance at success. The effects of climate change are obvious every time we have a storm, yet we aren’t doing enough to protect people’s livelihoods, homes, and families. We have attacks coming out of Washington every week and the State House won’t even protect women’s right to control her own body. We need our elected officials to step up.”

10. Burrillville Democrats endorsed Jim Langevin, Nellie Gorbea, Seth Magaziner, Peter Neronha, Cale Keable for the House and Kevin Heitke for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Fogarty. But Dems in the northern Rhode Island town that is ground zero for the sharp debate on a controversial energy plant proposal declined to endorse in the race for U.S. Senate, governor, or lieutenant governor.

11. State Representative Robert Lancia (R-Cranston) told TGIF in late April that he was not ruling out a run this year for lieutenant governor. Then he told the ProJo's Kathy Gregg he was not running. Then, this week came this announcement: “I see there is a need for a candidate with a strong solid legislative background, a proven track record of fighting for taxpayers, and working tirelessly for the people of Rhode Island, and that candidate is me. Not only have I served two consecutive terms in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, proudly served my country as Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy, I have also been an outspoken voice for all Rhode Islanders. My legislative pressure, and public support, saw to it that laws were changed, and our state is better as a result. I worked tirelessly to shed a light on the fact that taxpayer money federally mandated for 911 services was being diverted to the state’s general fund, leaving many cities and towns without critical resources during emergencies. I fought for veterans, as well as for children, again reaping positive legislative results. Additionally, I saw to it that we lowered the beach fees in our state, allowing more accessibility while keeping money in the pockets of fellow Rhode Islanders. As Lt. Governor, one of my top priorities will be to create the office of Inspector General to help root out waste, fraud and abuse in state government. It is the centerpiece of my plan to lower taxes and reduce our bloated budget. So many citizens, over the years, have seen the office of Lt. Governor as one of little use or value. I, however, believe I will be able to use it to streamline cost and spending in our state government.”

11A. State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell said Lancia's consideration of an LG run is not a factor in his own look at the race.

12. PawSox consultant Guy Dufault tells me the team expects amendments next week to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's ballpark proposal and will evaluate them upon receipt.

13. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline points to more concerns on Facebook in tweeting: "Sure looks like Zuckerberg lied to Congress about whether users have “complete control” over who sees our data on Facebook. This needs to be investigated and the people responsible need to be held accountable." Read FB's view on why it takes issue with the aforementioned NYT story.

14. Noteworthy observation in a piece on "What the Governor of Massachusetts tells us about American voters" (h/t Sam Howard): "For all the evidence that Democratic and Republican citizens increasingly disagree over policy issues and view each other in negative personal terms, it's still important to acknowledge the role of messages from elites—politicians, interest group leaders, media figures—in regulating the climate of partisan conflict. The mass public is often portrayed as fatally inattentive to political nuance, but it does seem to notice when party leaders prize collaboration over confrontation (and vice versa). At the national level, however, it has become rare for both sides to view mutual cooperation as serving their interests at the same time—and even if party leaders themselves wish to turn down the partisan temperature, they face increasing pressure to remain maximally combative from ideological media outlets and other powerful actors, especially on the Republican side."

15. Staff moves: Best wishes to Adam Toobin, son of New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who recently left U.S. Rep. Cicilline's staff. Toobin said he's heading home to NY, and will work on the re-election campaign of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo .... Meanwhile, Stuart Malec has signed on as U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin's press secretary. According to a news release, Malec, who graduated from URI, worked on Langevin's Warwick staff over the last three years and was field director for the congressman's 2014 campaign. (Langevin's previous press secretary, Anita Baffoni, joined his campaign earlier this year.)

16. My wife tells me there are too many words in my column, so it's shorter this week. JK. It's been kind of a busy Friday.

17. Talking Heads have a partial Rhode Island pedigree, due to frontman David Byrne's time at RISD, and Remain in Light was among the band's great albums. So check out this cultural cross-polination: "In 1983, Angélique Kidjo moved to Paris from her native Benin. An upstart musician, she wanted a new life away from the communist regime of her native land, where she could listen to hits, not propaganda, on commercial radio. Once in Paris, Kidjo attended a jazz school and absorbed all the music she could. '...I became a music junkie,' she recently told the Los Angeles Times. During her studies, she came across the single, "Once in a Lifetime," an Afrobeat-inspired tune from Talking Heads. Encouraged by the African sound of the record, Kidjo told her fellow students about the rhythms she heard. They insisted — incorrectly — that it was rock. 'I said, 'That's not rock and roll,' she told the L.A. Times. 'It's African music.' Perhaps fueled by that experience, Kidjo's Remain in Light recreates the 1980 LP as an authentic Afrobeat record that dives head-on into the Fela Kuti-inspired aesthetic of the Talking Heads original."