TGIF: 19 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Dec 1, 2017

There's barely a month left in 2017, meaning we're on the brink of what promises to be a dynamic election year in Rhode Island. 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. Gov. Gina Raimondo had a very good week, starting with the announcement of Infosys' plan to bring 500 new jobs to Rhode Island, continuing with ribbon-cuttings for Virgin Pulse and South Street Landing, and then word of another new airline coming to T.F. Green Airport. "It all speaks to the wind at our back and us delivering results for the people of Rhode Island," Raimondo said, drawing a contrast to the time a few years ago when the Ocean State had one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation. Even the ProJo editorial board, which has taken a more evenhanded view of Raimondo since Howard Sutton's exit as publisher, credited her with crafting a new image for Rhode Island: "Certainly hundreds of additional jobs and economic activity here are preferable to the misery and malaise the state endured under Governor Raimondo’s predecessor, Lincoln Chafee." But Rhode Island still faces significant budget challenges (more on that in #2), and not everyone is a fan of the kind of tax credits used to spark a string of job expansions. On Monday, the governor got something of twofer with Infosys -- a big infusion of jobs that jibes with her rhetoric about bolstering the skills of the local workforce. "We have everything. [Rhode Island is] an amazing place to live," Raimondo said, waxing positive about the state and its direction. The question as we move into 2018 is whether a growing number of Rhode Islanders share the governor's optimism and her assessment about the state's direction.

2. "We have right-sized our fiscal picture," Raimondo said during the Infosys news conference -- a questionable view considering how the state faces deficits of about $60 million for the current budget year and $200 million for the next one. (That's in keeping with the long-running tradition of mountains of red ink greeting lawmakers as they return for a new General Assembly session each January.) For another troubling indicator, consider how Rhode Island still has the highest poverty rate in New England (12.8 percent), with 130,000 people living in households below poverty, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. And the projected cost of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) has grown to almost $500 million, offering a fertile source of criticism for the governor's various political opponents.

3. The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in a nutshell: Aaron Regunberg is having a fundraiser Monday evening at The Black Sheep, the hipish sports bar Providence, while at about the same time, incumbent LG Dan McKee is staging a time at Chelo's Waterfront Bar and Grille in Warwick.

4. Infosys President Ravi Kumar offered ample praise for Rhode Island's education system during Monday's announcement. In fact, the way he talked up students and schools like CCRI was reminiscent of how Virgin Pulse CEO David Osborne used a similar message in 2016. Is there a disconnect, in terms of how many of Rhode Island's schools are under-performing and many incoming students at CCRI need remedial education? Here's a response from Mike Raia, Gov. Raimondo's communications director: "The investments and focus we’ve put on education in recent years (all-day K, computer science, college readiness and dual enrollment, free SAT/PSAT, PTECH partnerships) are the kinds of things that excite big companies like Infosys, as well as smaller, local companies. Students are taking remedial courses at CCRI, but that’s in part because more students are enrolling (42 percent increase in CCRI enrollment this year). It’s also worth noting that U.S. News ranks Rhode Island as the 8th best state in America for college readiness. No one questions that there are performance gaps. But the investments in we’ve made in Pre-K, all-day K and the Governor’s focus on hitting the third grade reading goal are all aimed at closing that gap." (Raia also notes that Raimondo is working with General Treasurer Seth Magaziner "to make a once-in-a-generation investment to improve our school facilities because when kids have access to tech-ready schools that are warm, safe, and dry, they learn more. Governor Raimondo lifted the freeze on school construction because our kids deserve great school buildings, but also because it gives employers more confidence that we’re teaching future workers the skills those companies will need in future years."

5. Another week and more revelations: Matt Lauer, known for his time at WJAR-TV, is gone from the Today show; public radio personality Garrison Keillor was accused of inappropriate behavior; and four men allege sexual misconduct by the husband of the president of the Massachusetts Senate. In Rhode Island, progressive women were already energized ahead of the Harvey Weinstein story. Looking ahead, many observers anticipate what the Washington Post called the " 'Year of the Woman' on steroids" and we can only guess right now at the fallout in Rhode Island.

6. Bristol County, Massachusetts Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has been a durable vote-getter since first getting appointed in 1997 by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Hodgson remains controversial because of his tough-on-crime approach and he's such a big supporter of President Trump that the Boston Globe dubbed him "The sheriff from Trumpachusetts." Yet Hodgson wouldn't bite when asked whether Trump's excesses (like getting called out by British Prime Minister Theresa May -- and freshly lauded by David Duke -- for amplifying anti-Muslim tweets from a fringe UK group) are an acceptable tradeoff for getting Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court and undoing Obama-era executive orders. "I may not certainly present things exactly the same way," Hodgson said on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "But I do think that this president is making a lot of progress. What we're seeing, though, is, we're seeing the media constantly trying to focus and distract away from these things. I've even gotten to a point where I believe it's intentional, so that the Democrats can say, 'Hey listen, pay attention to this thing over here, don't look over there,' because we don't really want you to know that the stock market is up." Hodgson downplayed talk about him possibly landing an appointment in the Trump administration, but that remains a possibility.

7. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed on the decision by Middletown native Mike Flynn, formerly national security adviser for President Trump, to plead guilty to lying to the FBI, while cooperating with independent prosecutor Robert Mueller: “Today’s admission of guilt raises serious questions about both Flynn’s judgment and Trump’s credibility. It is further evidence that members of the Trump campaign appear to have engaged in unpatriotic and criminal activity and were undermining U.S. policy and working counter to American interests. This is now the fourth senior Trump associate to face federal criminal charges, and second to plead guilty. At some point in the near future, the President himself should answer questions under oath about his role in terms of what he did and what he -- or senior members of his team -- directed others to do.  He owes the American people honest, straightforward answers.  We live in the greatest country on earth, and protecting our democracy starts with protecting our elections. It is disturbing that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seem to be birds of a feather in terms of refusing to acknowledge Russian interference in our 2016 presidential election.  The American people deserve to know why. They deserve the facts. [This] plea deal is further proof that this is not a ‘witch hunt.’ It is an evolving and much-needed criminal investigation.”

8. Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson gained controversy in the 90s for sending out inmate work crews attached at the ankle in shackles -- a practice derided by critics as "chain gangs." More recently, Hodgson has moved to substitute video conferences as a replacement for in-person visits (with the visitors separated by a clear wall) for the inmates under his care. Critics say Bristol County has a higher rate of inmate suicides than other Massachusetts counties, although Hodgson disputes the findings and said his approach includes more programs, like GEDs, meant to promote a more positive future. He said the Bay State is gearing up only now starting to track former county inmates, in an effort to measure the success of efforts to keep them from returning.

9. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker supports Worcester in its quest for the PawSox, although it remains unclear about whether state support for infrastructure and the like would be enough to woo the team away from Rhode Island. Back in the Ocean State, a revised Senate bill could emerge on Thursday. According to Senate spokesman Greg Pare, "Pending receipt of financial reporting the committee is presently awaiting from the Auditor General’s office, the committee’s goal is to convene on Thursday, December 7, to issue a report and bring forward revised legislation. The committee does not intend to vote on the legislation on the 7th. Rather, the revised legislation will be brought forward and posted online so that it is available for the public to review. The legislation is still being worked on, but will address concerns raised during the public hearing process, such as Pawtucket’s debt service. The Senate will not convene in December. The revised legislation will be re-introduced in the first days of the January session for consideration by the committee at that time."

10. Woonsocket-based CVS Health is reportedly closing in on a deal to acquire Aetna, a move that "could be one of the biggest health-care mergers of all time and would mark a major shift in the competitive landscape for health care," according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, change will likely continue to be a watchword for Rhode Island's healthcare landscape in 2018.

11. An in-depth interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan, courtesy of NPR's Steve Inskeep.

12. Farhad Manjoo says the undoing of net neutrality would be the final blow against the internet: "Because net neutrality shelters start-ups — which can’t easily pay for fast-line access — from internet giants that can pay, the rules are just about the last bulwark against the complete corporate takeover of much of online life. When the rules go, the internet will still work, but it will look like and feel like something else altogether — a network in which business development deals, rather than innovation, determine what you experience, a network that feels much more like cable TV than the technological Wild West that gave you Napster and Netflix." Scott MacKay also has some thoughts on net neutrality.

13. Cumulus Media, the owner of WPRO, filed for bankruptcy protection this week, in a move aimed at reducing $1 billion in debt. The move is not expected to impact the day to day operation of the corporation's radio stations.

14. Aaron Renn on T.F. Green Airport: "One way Providence is reaping gains from its nearness to Boston is a pickup in flights at its airport – including several interesting international destinations. Providence TF Green Airport has long been an alternate for people flying to the Boston region. In fact, in my first trip the area many years ago I was visiting a friend from the Boston suburbs, and he specifically asked me to fly to TF Green because it was easier to get in and out of than Logan. Now a group of low-cost carriers has moved in. This includes Norwegian Air, which offers ultra-deep discount tickets to select trans-Atlantic destinations. There are now non-stop flights from Providence to cities including Edinburgh, Belfast, and Dublin. (I believe Norwegian is doing a similar thing at Stewart Airport in New York). A number of other low-cost carriers have also moved in. Traffic is up over 20% at the airport."

15. Alternative politics: "The Green Party of Rhode Island, one of the oldest in America, is pleased to announce it will be holding its 25th Anniversary Celebration and New England Regional Summit on December 2, 2017 from 1-5 pm at Bell Street Chapel in Providence. Keynote speakers Dr. Jill Stein and Mr. Ajamu Baraka, the 2016 presidential and vice-presidential nominees, will appear as will local activists the Party has chosen for recognition in thanks for their important efforts over the years. Tickets are now on sale via for $10 each. Greens and Green voters from across the state, region, and nation are welcomed to this historic summit."

16. With tolls remaining a hot topic in Rhode Island, should companies like Uber and Lyft pay a fee to use the streets?

17. RIPR's John Bender offers an overview on the unrest in East Greenwich. Excerpt: "It’s not every day an angry crowd shuts down a town council meeting. But it’s happened more than once in East Greenwich, a well-off suburb not known as a hotbed for political animus. So what’s behind this surprising exercise in civic duty? Sipping coffee at Felicia’s on a recent weekday morning, residents of this waterfront community say everybody is talking about the town council. 'I moved here because I thought it was a well-run town, now I think it’s like a banana republic,' said Dan Lopez, a former police officer who moved here eight years ago."

18. Mike Novogratz, formerly with Fortress Investment Group -- which helps manage the owner of the ProJo -- thinks bitcoin skeptics are just too old to get the digital world.

19. Now that FX is planning a TV series based on Crimetown's look at Providence, it's time to renew the local practice of casting the top roles. So who do you like for Buddy C? Paul Sorvino, Oliver Platt, or someone else?