TGIF: 20 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jan 12, 2018

Next week looms as a big table-setter for Rhody politics in 2018, with lots of storylines to follow. So thanks for stopping by. As usual your tips and comments are welcome and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. On Tuesday, Gov. Gina Raimondo will present her latest State of the State address against the backdrop of signs of economic improvement in Rhode Island, continued mixed feelings about her job performance, and the steady approach of Rhode Island's next statewide election (not to mention a certain sideshow in DC). Watch for the speech to amplify themes already sounded by the governor, chiefly that the state is moving ahead after earlier periods of stagnation -- and how more work needs to be done. Scores of politicians have emulated Ronald Reagan's approach of using faces in the audience to tell a story; Raimondo will highlight the stories of Rhode Islanders faring better than they were four years ago. Yet voters remain divided about the governor, as seen by how approval rating in recent years has yet to hit 50 percent in publicly available polling, so it might not be a surprise if the incumbent governor tries to position herself as the change candidate in 2018. (At least two of Raimondo's prospective rivals will likely be in the House chamber for her speech, GOP House Leader Patricia Morgan and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, as part of the delegation of mayors attending the occasion.) Small business will be one particular focus of Raimondo's State of the State address -- she'll announce plans to double the goals of a small business loan program launched by her administration in 2015. Other pressing topics -- like the ongoing opioid crisis -- are certain to get a mention. One emphasis will be the school building program envisioned by a panel headed by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Secretary Ken Wagner; the main question at this point is whether Raimondo advocates a bond question with an initial $250 million in spending, or more. It's unclear if the governor will mention the proposed PawSox deal; skipping that would invite questions about the governor's level of support for the ballpark plan. Regardless, two days later, on Thursday, January 18, the governor will submit her budget plan, setting the stage for months of legislative hearings and growing debate between Democrats and Republicans.

2. This column has raised the question in recent weeks of whether bad feelings from last year's legislative budget scrap would carry over into the new year. Now we have the answer, with a story that is both surprising (the RI Senate is considering taking court action against the RI House) and completely unusual (disputes over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly, are a longtime staple on Smith Hill; when the Senate president post was created, after legislative downsizing, William Irons led a brief fight for the Senate to gain equal representation on the JCLS. The House still has a 3-2 advantage, although Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the committee has not met since 2009.) More to the point, this dispute shows how Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello continue to have a stormy relationship -- the opposite of what some people expected when Ruggerio succeeded Teresa Paiva Weed last year.

3. How will Gov. Raimondo propose to wipe out a projected deficit of $260 million for the current and next fiscal year? The details on that remain under wraps for now, although to things are certain: broad-based tax hikes don't have the support of the governor or the Democrats who run the General Assembly. As House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, “I can you tell there’s no appetite from the members of the Democratic House caucus for any kind of broad-based or significant tax increases.” Meanwhile, there's no doubt that the car tax phaseout plan championed by Speaker Mattiello -- a move that will ultimately cost the state upwards of $225 million each year -- remains on track.

4. After a quick committee vote, the PawSox stadium deal is ticketed to clear the Rhode Senate next Tuesday, but the real question is what happens after that. Asked on Political Roundtable what it would take to get the ballpark proposal through the House, Majority Leader Shekarchi said, “I think it would take a lot of support from the general public, to contact their members and to be involved in the process .... I encourage anybody who feels strongly for or against the PawSox to attend these hearings that we’re having.” (Last June, Shekarchi suggested the PawSox ownership take a page from how Twin River won support for its Tiverton casino. "The burden is on them to sell it to the public," he said at that time.) The flip side is supporters' view that lawmakers should decide the PawSox proposal on its putative merits, regardless of public opinion. Yet given the uncertainty in the House, will that chamber ultimately support calls for a public referendum on the PawSox proposal? That would be more politically palatable. But by slowing down the process (as negotiations in Worcester creep along) and pursuing a measure opposed by the Triple A team's ownership, a referendum could be the final nail that sparks the PawSox' exit from Rhode Island.

5. Speaking of the PawSox, Steve Frias -- Speaker Mattiello's GOP rival from 2016 -- was back at the Statehouse on Tuesday to argue against the stadium deal. In short, he argued that it doesn't pay for itself, that the economic projections are too rosy, and that schemes to use the team to spark broader development have come up empty for years. If nothing else, Frias' presence served as a reminder that he's hovering on the edge of Election 2018, although he's remained opaque on the question of whether he'll seek a rematch with Mattiello. For his part, the speaker has rejected suggestions that Frias' shadow is the tail swinging the dog of the PawSox debate. Shekarchi expanded on that viewpoint during Roundtable: "The reality is that we have a lot of members who are from non-Trump districts, and moderate districts, and even progressive districts who do not support this proposal in the House. When the speaker is speaking about the public, he's not talking just about his district. He's talking about the districts in general." (For the record, Frias did not announce his 2016 run against Mattiello until near the end of June.)

6. Freakonomics Radio -- a nationally syndicated program/podcast carried each week on RIPR -- recently taped an interview ("How to Be a Modern Democrat -- and Win") with Gov. Raimondo. The piece shows some of the exuberance of Raimondomania, interpreting the governor's cordial relations with Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker as a sign that she has "made friends with Republicans." Still, the Q&A offers some insight on how a well-read out-of-town interviewer like Stephen Dubner perceives Rhode Island ("I think of a state that I rarely hear about in discussions of forward-thinking technology, or economics, or society. I think of a sort of — a land that time forgot") and how Raimondo responds to suggestions that the Ocean State is mostly about corruption, industrial decay and government gaffes: "When I think of Rhode Island, I think of some of the best beaches in America. I think of Brown University and RISD and Johnson & Wales. We are nestled between New York and Boston, which means if you want to start a company, be part of the ecosystem of northeast talent, but you can’t afford the eye-popping prices of New York and Boston, you should come to Rhode Island. And having said that, we were stuck. It was kind of a tragedy. There’s no reason that a state with our resources and strategic location should have had the highest unemployment rate in the country for as long as we did. But today, our unemployment rate is below the national average. In the past year and a half, companies like G.E. Digital, and Johnson & Johnson, and 17 other companies have moved here. So my experience is, it’s an amazing state. People just don’t know about us. And when I tell the story, people fall in love. They just don’t know the story."

7. Majority Leader Shekarchi on whether he would like to succeed Speaker Mattiello when the speakership becomes open: "Yes, but I don't anticipate that position to be open for many, many years, so I just take one day at a time," Shekarchi said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "A lot of people like to speculate about the future. I'm one of the few who do not. I like to live every day as it comes."

8.You can't make this stuff up: Senate Finance Chairman William Conley's explanation of why the bonds in the PawSox proposal are not moral obligation bonds began almost 38 minutes into Tuesday's hearing. Conley was in part rebutting Steve Frias, who made these argument about why the PawSox bonds are moral obligation bonds: “Because what is you’re doing is putting a debt on the taxpayers, without their approval, to assist a private company, to promote economic development. Sounds a lot like 38 Studios.” A bit later, Conley responded to a question about this from his predecessor, Sen. Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence), by saying, "These are not moral obligation bonds. Moral obligation bonds in terms of structure are bonds that are secured by a fund established specifically for purposes of building reserves out of which the debt service is paid. This is not the case for any of these three series of bonds. These are essentially revenue and appropriation bonds. As such, they give essentially a better interest rate when they go to the market. And the series C bonds are contingent debt bonds in that if we get to an occasion of default, which we don't expect, state funds still, for the City of Pawtucket, are still accessible for payment of those bonds. So none of the series, A, B, or C, are moral obligation bonds. That's a misunderstanding."

9. Stephanie Chafee, who made millions when the Providence Journal was sold to Belo for $1.5 billion in the 1990s (due to the Danforth family's stake in the newspaper), is coming into a new financial windfall thanks to family assets, RIPR has learned. In 2010, Lincoln Chafee got 65 percent of the money for his winning gubernatorial campaign from his wife, according to this report. So tossing in a few million dollars for a Chafee gov run in 2018 could be done with all the exertion of most people buying lunch for a friend. The big question, though, is whether Stephanie Chafee would really support another campaign by her husband after he faced slings and arrows during his 2016 presidential bid. (In Buddyesque fashion, Chafee has said he may not decide whether to pursue a campaign until the June filing deadline. In a statement this week, the former governor said his decision "on whether to enter the race will be based on what is best for Rhode Island.")

10. After the opening General Assembly session, Speaker Mattiello cited his barber, Ralph Petronio of City Hall Barber in Cranston, as a top go-to for gauging public opinion. Of course, this is hardly the first time that barbers have emerged on Rhode Island's political map. Then Gov. Lincoln Chafee referred to Ernie Persechino (who also cuts the locks of former ProJo political columnist M. Charles Bakst, on a proposed tax on hair cuts. Back in the 1980s, Gov. Edward DiPrete invoked his barber, Don Cataldo, of the Garden City Barber Shop. the follicly challenged Buddy Cianci made numerous riffs about Squires, an establishment also patronized by Bruce Sundlun. Then there's Joe "The Barber" Muschiano, a caller to talk radio and sometimes participant in the political sphere.

11. Brown University President Christina Paxson contends it would be bad for Rhode Island if the state's second-largest healthcare system, Care New England, is sold to Boston-based Partners HealthCare. Gov. Raimondo praised Brown's competing proposal to buy CNE with California-based Prospect Medical Holdings. But as RIPR's Lynn Arditi reports, "the union representing health care workers at one of Prospect's two locally-operated hospitals blasted the plan, saying it’s a 'bad deal for Rhode Island patients and health care workers. We find it difficult to understand why Brown University would risk its stellar academic reputation through a partnership with Prospect Medical Holdings -- an out-of-state run, for-profit corporation with a documented history of jeopardizing patient safety and care,' Chris Callaci, general counsel for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP), said in a statement.  'Prospect management represents the worst in profit-based medicine and we believe this move would be calamitous for Rhode Island patients and health workers.' "

12. Next Thursday, January 18, at 6:30 p.m., I'll be moderating a Providence College discussion on "The Trump Presidency -- One Year In." The all-star panel includes state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell; PC alum Devin "Short Pants" Driscoll, who ran President Obama's RI campaign in 2012; Gabriela Domenzain, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Lisa Pelosi, former spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Almond; and PC political science professor Joe Cammarano. The discussion is free and open to the public, so come check it out.

13. Who will succeed James Doyle as the new state senator from District 8 in Pawtucket? Former RI Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch is mulling it over; Matthew Fecteau (who almost beat Doyle in 2016) is off and running; and another former Doyle rival, Mark Theroux, is also expected to run. Pawtucket ace Ethan Shorey expects a large field, and that could include Pawtucket Councilors Sandra Cano and Albert Vitali.

14. A few months back, this column raised the question of how the Providence Journal can publish occasional magazine-style supplements with minimal or no advertising. Another one of these publications was inserted into the Sunday paper right before the new year -- an impressive collection of photojournalism by ProJo photogs past and (mostly) present. Meanwhile, a recent notice about a price hike for a Journal subscription, to $18 a week, included this: "The advertised price does not include additional charges of up to $5.00 for each premium edition. Premium editions are published to provide additional information and value. Rather than bill you up to $5.00 for each premium edition, the length of your subscription will be adjusted to accelerate the expiration date of your your subscription when you receive these premium editions." As it turns out, some customers of ProJo owner GateHouse Media have groused about their subscriptions expiring sooner than expected due to these editions, and GateHouse last year agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over a related matter.

15. Kat Kerwin, a newly announced challenger to longtime Providence Ward 12 Councilman Terry Hassett, is also the first paid employee for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, serving as communications director for the group.

16. While everyone likes a lower increase in energy rates, the issue can also double as a political football. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee was most visible in objecting to National Grid's proposed hike. Grid later said it was scaling back its increase due to the GOP tax plan. McKee called it a step in the right direction, and Gov. Raimondo weighed in, laying claim to some of the credit. State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell cried foul, as did Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who said Raimondo was out of line. But by offering indirect praise of the GOP tax plan, Fung sparked a critical response by the Democratic Governors Association.

17. Interesting read: "What does anyone care about the color of hair cyber warriors have? So much of what we as a society think is a military warrior is based on our cultural understandings of what the military caste looks like — a problem that may be exacerbated as the civil-military divide continues to grow. Why doesn’t the military like blue hair? There is the obvious problem of attracting more attention than desired in a firing zone. However, more fundamentally — especially for those not on the front lines of a ground offensive — blue hair may symbolize a threat to the good order and discipline of the armed forces. Blue hair is not uniform and therefore those with blue hair cannot be trusted to follow orders. The same arguments have been made about tattoos and beards — grooming standards that have not only been hindrances for recruitment, but also detrimental to many combat missions. It’s now standard practice for special operations forces to wear beards while deployed in the Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the history of military grooming standards is rife with cultural anachronisms. Marine recruitment standards of the 1960s called for women recruits to “be the most attractive and useful women in the four line services” and regulations required “lady Marines” to wear lipstick to match the Scarlett braid of Marine hats. Allowing military members some level of personal choice in their grooming could be a low cost and easy recruitment and retainment measure. Further, looser grooming standards don’t necessarily have to come at the expense of the mission when the mission is re-programming digital threat files, developing algorithms for analyzing imagery, or finding zero-day vulnerabilities."

18. Via John Marion's Twitter, we learned that Kent Willever is getting set to retire as executive director of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Willever took leadership of the group about 16 years ago, after a tough stretch in which the commission was caught in the cross hairs of the state Supreme Court, the General Assembly, and others. A Don Quixote-themed decoration in his office seemed like a commentary on the challenge of policing ethics in Rhode Island, but Willever told me he just liked the way it looked. (Years later, the controversy associated with the commission has receded into the past.) And while the Ethics Commission is still viewed by some as a kind of fourth branch of government, Rhode Island voters considered it necessary when they created it.

19. Rhode Island native Martha McSally ("She remembers her feet in the waters of Matunuck digging for clams and shoveling snow from the driveway in the blizzard of ’78") has joined controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.

20. There's a guy on the Interwebz ranting about Rhode Island chowder: "No thickening agents. Not a one. This isn’t real chowder. It’s soup that rebranded itself to be more hip and cool in 1817 so younger fishermen would stop buying the real chowder and increase soup sales. Some 19th century Don Draper living in Providence figured out that this was an amazing advertising trick and ran with it."