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

Feb 23, 2018

The fallout from two significant events will remain in the air when Rhode Island lawmakers return from their mid-winter break next week. With that in mind, 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. On the surface, the criminal case involving former state Sen. Nicholas Kettle is the latest in a long string of Rhode Island lawmakers running into legal trouble. Yet various aspects of the situation -- from the way Kettle was arrested to how the Senate leadership moved quickly to force his exit -- have left lingering perceptual questions. State Police say they did things by the book by moving quickly to arrest Kettle, a 27-year-old Coventry Republican, when a grand jury indicted him on the afternoon of February 16 (which effectively led to Kettle being held at the ACI over the weekend). Yet the high-profile presence of troopers at Kettle's Superior Court appearance on Monday, and the distribution to reporters of the salacious affidavit in the separate video voyeurism case, left some observers thinking differently. The gap between 2011 -- when the basis for two counts of extortion allegedly took place -- and 2018 remains unexplained by investigators. It's possible the alleged victim decided to speak out in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, perhaps after news surfaced in January of the video voyeurism probe. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and GOP Leader Dennis Algiere leaned on the seamy nature of the allegations against Kettle in effectively pushing him out the door. ("As President of the Senate, as a father, and as a grandfather, I am absolutely horrified and disgusted by these allegations," Ruggerio said. "We in the Senate are deeply shaken.") Yet the Senate resolution calling for an expulsion vote -- with a line about how Rhode Islanders believe "that public officials and employees must adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct ...." -- was bound to roll eyes in this scandal-prone state. Kettle -- who calls the allegations against him unfounded -- said he was "extremely disappointed in Senate Leadership on both sides of the aisle because" Ruggerio and Algiere "do not appear to understand the importance of due process as a cornerstone of our legal system." The RI ACLU cited the same concern. Then there's the overarching question of whether other issues emerge involving the student page program at the Statehouse. (State Police have declined comment on whether that remains a subject for investigation.)

2. A raft of gun proposals are emerging in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida. On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Miller (D-Cranston) and Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington) plan to unveil a proposed ban on assault weapons (Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has spoken in support of such a ban). Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Providence) is set to introduce the same day a "red flag bill" meant to prevent people from possessing guns if they are considered dangerous to themselves or others (House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, traditionally a strong supporter of gun rights, is a cosponsor of the House version, and Gov. Raimondo plans to use an executive order to back the same concept.). Sen. James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) and Rep. Robert Craven (D-North Kingstown) have a proposal to ban bump stocks and similar devices. Raimondo is also working with the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to take action on guns. Meanwhile, some city councils and local political committees are making their own proposals or supporting the call for new efforts. Advocates who oppose new gun restrictions can be expected to marshal their supporters. Meanwhile, a Warwick company's products include 20-round and 32-round magazines, so what happens if and when calls for change bump against a local outfit?

3. House Speaker Mattiello has increasingly emphasized the influence of public opinion in making decisions on issues like phasing out the car tax and the proposed PawSox stadium. So if Rhode Islanders have a strong preference on gun restrictions, will that lock in the speaker's stance? Asked about this, House spokesman Larry Berman said, “Speaker Mattiello is always listening to his constituents, both in his district and across the state. The House will be scheduling public hearings to be conducted by the Judiciary Committee on all of the gun bills, and the legislative process will control the outcome.” According to the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence, 75 percent of respondents "very much or somewhat" support limiting the number of bullets in a gun to 10 rounds, and 83 percent "very much or somewhat" oppose concealed weapons. Then again, there are so many polls on gun issues that partisans can pick something to support their argument. For example, a new Quinnipiac poll shows that 66 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, "the highest level of support ever measured" by the university. Yet an ABC/Washington Post poll shows that 77 percent of Americans think that better health monitoring and treatment would be more impactful in reducing mas shootings.

4. The heat these days is on the GOP side of the gubernatorial race, where House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan has been stepping up her criticism of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. In a statement this week, Morgan charged that “Mayor Fung has been attempting to either play both sides of nearly every issue or simply refuse to comment. From tolls, to taxpayer funding of a new stadium, to the federal tax cuts, he either favors both sides, waits until the dust has settled or simply refuses to comment. It appears that is his election strategy: not allowing voters to know what they are getting if they vote for him." Fung campaign manager Andrew Vargas Vila fired back: "This is more nonsense from a candidate who is falling further behind in this race. As leader of one of America’s Top 50 Cities for three years in a row, one of the Top 100 Cities to Raise a Child In, and now the top City in the State, Mayor Fung leads by actions and not rambling press releases. The same can't always be said of Rep. Morgan. When there were calls for Frank Montanaro, an employee of the JCLS of which she is member, to pay back $50,000 in free tuition he received, Rep. Morgan said 'I’d have to think about that ... I’d rather not comment on that.' " It's clear to see why Morgan is going after Fung: she needs to raise her visibility and fundraising. Fung, meanwhile, has set the fundraising pace on the GOP side, although his Q4 balance ($240,572) was just about $10,000 more than what he had at the end of Q3, after spending more than $100,000 on consulting and advertising. Meanwhile, Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo, who has the ability to toss some significant money into his own campaign, can remain on the sidelines for now, since he has a ticket to the general election in November.

5. Two timely reads on media: 1) "The Making of a No. 1 YouTube Conspiracy Video After the Parkland Tragedy" 2) "How to clean up the conspiracy theory 'pollution' that's making us all sick" (with a mention of WPRI's Dan McGowan).

6. Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, isn't backing down after some recent back and forth, via the ProJo op-ed page, on the emerging progressive movement in Rhode Island. While the center doesn't back individual candidates -- and Stenhouse declined to declare a preference in the race for governor -- he remains alarmed about the progressive movement: "It's a cancer in our state," Stenhouse said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. "They don't share the same values that most Rhode Islanders share. It's growing, it's dangerous." Stenhouse points for evidence to the RI Progressive Democrats' Progressive Value Pledge (which we reported on back in December, via #6; it advocates, among other things, supporting abortion rights, protecting LGBTQ rights, and backing racial, social, economic and environmental justice.) The other side of the argument, from the Young Democrats' Laufton Ascencao, is that progressive values are aligned with Rhode Islanders' values.

7. T.F. Green -- or what may become known as RI International Airport -- is widely hailed as one of the state's key assets, particularly with a proliferation of new flights and an increase in usage. So it's worth remembering some of the negativity that greeted then Gov. Bruce Sundlun's initiative to create a new terminal. Via a Tony DePaul story in the ProJo, in 1991: "The engineers and architects hired to improve Green State Airport told the state last January that there was no clear need for the new terminal Governor Sundlun wants to build, and that building it would inconvenience the public and the airlines, create safety hazards during construction, and delay the start of airport improvements for a year. Sundlun, however, insists the need is obvious because traffic through Green has steadily increased in recent years and will continue to do so in the next decade." Meanwhile, Scott MacKay offers a refresher on the largely forgotten T.F. Green, whose admirers "praised him for finally overturning a Republican-run state government that was regarded as the most corrupt state political system outside the deep  south. Opponents saw Green as a despot who flouted the law and made Rhode Island appear to be a lawless state."

8. BuildRI, a labor/management construction trade organization, plans to release at 11 a.m. Monday a Joe Fleming poll about the proposed PawSox stadium in Pawtucket.

9. More than twice as many women are running for Congress, compared with 2016, and more female General Assembly candidates are emerging in Rhode Island. The latest to announce is Bridget Valverde of North Kingstown, vice chair of the Women's Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. She plans to take on Sen. Mark Gee (R-East Greenwich). “I’m running for state Senate to be the advocate the people in my district deserve at the State House: someone who is approachable and available to listen to their concerns and ideas," Valverde said in a campaign announcement. "Someone who will work hard to find solutions to problems. Someone who will pass legislation to improve the everyday lives of all Rhode Islanders. As your state Senator, I promise to fight for access to comprehensive health care for all, to protect the coastline and other natural resources in our beautiful state, and to raise wages and create opportunities for working families. I'm a mom, so education is always at the top of my mind. I will ensure we provide all Rhode Island children with education that will challenge them, grow their skills, and prepare them for the future. Providing safe and up-to-date school facilities is a huge piece of that, and I will support smart investments in school infrastructure.” Valverde said she "has worked with national organizations expanding access to health care; with food banks helping make sure that children, families, and seniors have enough to eat; and with animal welfare organizations to stop cruel and inhumane treatment." (Bob Plain has more on other potential candidates in the race, including the NEARI's Robert Walsh.)

10. Republican Giovanni Feroce, who last year signaled his intention to run for governor, has filed paperwork with the state Board of Elections, meaning he can start raising money. Feroce has also slated an event for April 10, at the ElevenFortyNine restaurant in East Greenwich, where he plans to deliver a speech highlighting some of his major campaign initiatives.

11. Talk about strange bedfellows: U.S. Sen. James Inhofe -- one of the biggest skeptics on climate change -- and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, wrote a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week about how conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats can find common ground on infrastructure. Excerpt: "There’s a strong link between infrastructure investment and a robust economy that creates jobs. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that unless the U.S. starts making smart investments now, by 2025 the country will have forgone $3.9 trillion in gross domestic product, $7 trillion in business sales and 2.5 million American jobs. The time is right to close the infrastructure gap. America’s economy is strong and poised to continue growing if Congress can work together to make smart decisions. In the past few weeks we’ve heard a lot from our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, about their respective priorities. The path to success is to start with shared goals. The two of us believe that state and local leaders should identify and select the projects that are most needed in their communities. There is no one-size-fits-all federal solution for infrastructure. Local communities know best what they need, whether it’s to upgrade a wastewater facility in Warren, R.I., or repair a levee in Tulsa, Okla."

12. Former Rhode Islander Jennifer Lawless, who ran a primary race against U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin in 2006, reports via FB that she's accepted an endowed position as a professor of politics at the University of Virginia -- which happens to be home to such heavyweights as Larry Sabato.

13. As part of RIPR's recent One Square Mile closeup on New Bedford, environment reporter Avory Brookins looked at the success -- and sustainability -- of the scallop crop. Excerpt: "Last year, commercial fishermen landed more than $300 million worth of fish at the Port of New Bedford, and 85 percent of that value came from scallops. Michael Quinn, whose family has been in the scallop fishing industry for 30 years, said he believes the industry is well-managed partly because of the collaboration between fishermen and researchers ...." But Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation, warns, "If the port allows itself to sort of fall into that fantasy that sea scallops will last forever, they’re making themselves really vulnerable to unforeseen changes in the future."

14. "The Rise of the Low Trust Society," via Aaron Renn: "Today, the number of scammers in America is going up. So companies like LL Bean that used to be able to take a high trust approach for many decades, assuming very few customers would abuse its generous returns policy, now have to change direction. Note that their new policy is still very generous. Lowering of trust creates sand in the gears of relationships and transactions. This is only one example, but it’s something to keep an eye on."

15. Given the grumpy notes routinely sounded about Rhode Island by a segment of the population, it's worth noting this upbeat commentary by George H.W. Bush, during a fundraiser for then-Gov. Edward DiPrete, in 1989: "Ed and I stand side by side. And I do value his counsel, and I truly respect his leadership. And that strong leadership has helped Rhode Island's economy as well as the schools. Ed took over as Governor, and since then, Rhode Island has gone from being a job-poor State to one of the top-ranked in the country in terms of employment. And that's just one measure of the sound economic course that this Governor has mapped for this State. Job training, outreach to expand foreign trade, how to foster high-tech industry of the future -- Ed understands how to keep Rhode Island on top in a competitive business climate that we're going to be facing in the 1990's. When it comes to a strong economy, to growing prosperity for all Rhode Islanders, you need Ed. You need him here. And I need pro-growth Governors like him to help keep the economic expansion going forward."

16. State Rep. Bobby Nardolillo (R-Coventry), a U.S. Senate candidate, got a lot of out of town media attention with his proposal to impose a tax on video games rating M or higher, with the revenue directed to counseling and conflict resolution for students. “There is evidence that children exposed to violent video games at a young age tend to act more aggressively than those who are not,” Nardolillo said in a news release. “This bill would give schools the additional resources needed to help students deal with that aggression in a positive way.” "[W]hile that evidence may be correct," responded Rolling Stone, "it's been largely dismissed that violent video games are either the cause of mass shootings or even played by perpetrators. According to Researchers Patrick Markey and Chris Ferguson in a recent Glixel opinion piece, 'Research done by the US Secret Service and our laboratories have both found that less than 20 percent of school shooters played violent video games with any amount of regularity. Not only is interest in violent video games rare among school shooters, these perpetrators express much less interest in this violent medium than most other individuals.' "

17. Changes in Gov. Raimondo's staff, from earlier this week: press secretary David Ortiz is now deputy campaign manager, with his former role being taken over by Josh Block. Block, coming from the Conservation Law Foundation, was previously deputy campaign director for Jorge Elorza and communications head for Brett Smiley's Providence mayoral run, both in 2014. In formally announcing the changes, Raimondo's communications director, Mike Raia, noted that he's one of five full-time communications staffers in the governor's comms shop. The others are deputy communications director Jenn Bodgan, ex of the ProJo; Block; social media manager and event coordinator Audrey Lucas; and creative manager Jon Gourlay.

18. The Moderate Party of Rhode Island plans a gubernatorial forum and debate at 7 pm on March 29, at the Sheraton Airport Hotel, near the airport, at 1850 Post Road in Warwick. WJAR-TV's Bill Rappleye will be the moderator. In a news release, Mod Party head Bill Gilbert said the candidates participating include Republicans Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce, a Mod to be named later, and Democrats Paul Roselli and Spencer Dickinson, with invitations having also been extended to Gov. Raimondo, Allan Fung, and independent Joe Trillo.

19. Facebook is turning to an old technology -- postcards -- to try to guard against election-meddling: "In advance of November's midterm elections, anyone interested in buying political ads for a specific candidate will receive a physical piece of correspondence along with a special code to confirm that they really do live in the U.S. 'If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,' Katie Harbath, Facebook's director of global politics and government outreach, said at a weekend conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Only after entering that code into Facebook can a person or organization purchase an ad."

20. It's a bittersweet weekend for some of us in Rhode Island, since Friday marks the last version of the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts. The Follies began as the way to heal the rifts from a brief 1973 strike at the ProJo and became a signature event for political and media types in the ensuing decades, highlighted by a lively cocktail hour, a cholesterol-laden buffet and a scathing satirical send-up of Rhode Island news. Now, the Guild is depleted and attendance has fallen at the Follies, always held at the Venus on the last Friday in February. (There may be a scaled-down version of the event in the future.) Yet the Follies will live in on in the memories of those of us who shared the good times.