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

Mar 2, 2018

March is here, along with a new activist movement influencing the gun debate in Rhode Island. 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. "Let me say I am not a pawn. We are not pawns," Classical High School freshman Adah Bryan said during a Statehouse rally Tuesday to support a proposed RI ban on 'assault weapons.' She was one of three high school students who spoke during the event, reflecting the rising tide of youth activism in response to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Bryan ticked off the mass shootings of recent years -- San Bernardino; Orlando, Florida; and Las Vegas, among them -- and said she's seen enough to know that change is needed: "When I say I want stronger gun control, I’m not a kid who doesn’t have enough information. I’m a young adult who has seen these things over and over again." This kind of advocacy explains why things are different this time around, with major retailers taking notice, and upcoming events, including a March 24 march on Washington, that will keep the issue of gun violence front and center. That could translate into increased pressure on Rhode Island lawmakers to make changes beyond a so-called 'red flag' policy that already has the backing of legislative leaders. Activists on the other side of the issue will also make their voices heard, pointing, for example, to a lack of homicides involving 'assault weapons' in Rhode Island, and questioning the effectiveness of new laws aimed at criminals who don't heed laws. Elsewhere, there's very little known about the effect of various gun policies, and Congress can't fund related research. So for now, the question remains where the newly organized movement against gun violence is headed -- and how much it can accomplish.

2. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's gubernatorial campaign faces a few hurdles this year: trying to offer broad appeal while embracing GOP values (and winning support from Trump voters, while not alienating others who dislike the president.) For now, though, Fung is continuing to mostly avoid comment on an array of issues (including drilling off the coast of Rhode Island)  -- an approach that has come under fire from rival candidates Patricia Morgan and Joe Trillo.

3. Gabriela Domenzain, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, points to the widespread sympathy for Lilian Calderon as an example of how Democratic presidential candidates can win over white working class voters in places like Johnston. "Once you actually speak to people about the reality of what's happening in this country with our broken immigration system, they do come onboard, in the sense that they understand that there's absolutely no way to get right by the law, there's no line to stand in," Domenzain said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week. Meanwhile, Domenzain, who was deputy campaign director for Martin O'Malley's White House bid in 2016, said Hillary Clinton has only herself to blame for not winning over more Latino voters that year: "Hillary Clinton never ran a campaign of her own. She ran an anti-Trump campaign, and despite the Latino activists that were in her campaign, the activists that were outside saying, 'reach out to this community,' what she did was what has been done in the past for all time -- until Barack Obama in 2012 -- which is only reach out to Hispanic voters three months before the election, just to get them in the ballot box, just to get that 60 percent that will vote Democrat regardless."

4. The state Ethics Commission this week dismissed a complaint filed against Gov. Gina Raimondo, determining that Patrick Ward, a state worker who formerly chaired the Providence Democratic City Committee, is not a subordinate employee to the governor. Yet a Providence Journal editorial unloaded on the decision ("Ethics Commission acts like a lapdog"), and state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell is pressing for more details. "It is not appropriate for Governor Raimondo to have entered into a secret financial deal with a state employee her administration recently hired," Bell said in a statement "It should make no difference whether this state employee directly reports to her or to her appointee at DHS [the state Department of Human Services]." And while Raimondo won praise and attention from some locally and out of state for her advocacy on the gun issue, the governor also faced intra-party criticism this week from Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee.

5. With the PawSox stadium debate continuing, it's worth noting how some of those offering professional services have gotten paid by different sides in the debate. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a stadium skeptic, paid more than $13,5000 in Q4 to Checkmate Consulting Group, which includes PawSox consultant Guy Dufault. "It's Rhode Island," said Dufault, who has also done direct mail work for Mattiello in the past, and who explains the situation by citing a relatively small number of consultants in the state. Meanwhile, pollster Joseph Fleming, who has worked in the past for Mattiello, conducted the poll released this week by BuildRI, a labor group that backs the stadium plan. While stadium supporters point to the poll as evidence of public backing, Mattiello remains unconvinced, publicly at least. In a statement, he said, “The poll results are not surprising to me. When given a neutral question [Question 7], only 40 percent of Rhode Islanders agree with the proposal. Those numbers rise only when prompted with assumptions that are speculative at best and are presented in the most favorable light to the proponents of the proposal.”

6. Elsewhere on the PawSox issue, National Committeeman Steve Frias offered the RI GOP response to the BuildRI stadium poll this week -- a noteworthy role due to the very close race Frias ran against Speaker Mattiello in 2016. Speculation continues about whether Frias will take another shot against Mattiello this year. "Nothing has changed," Frias said, since he told RIPR months ago that he was undecided on a rematch. RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell puts it this way: "If Steve is pissed off enough, he'll run." Bell believes Frias could make an effective run even if he waits for months to unveil a campaign, and says the GOP could have other prospective candidates if Frias decides not to pursue it (although he wouldn't offer any names.) Seen another way, though, the longer Mattiello goes without an opponent, the more the speaker benefits.

7. Progressive activist Sam Bell this week announced a run for the state Senate held by Paul Jabour (D-Providence). In unveiling his campaign, Bell pointed to his opposition to the PawSox Providence stadium proposal, his discovery of how the NRA was illegally moving money into RI elections, and his opposition to parts of President Trump's agenda. "I've spent years taking on tough fights against powerful right-wing groups like the NRA and winning," Bell said. "I've learned that when we take on difficult fights and work hard, often we win -- even when most political insiders believe it's impossible. I am running because I believe it is time to take on the fight to resist the Trump agenda right here in Rhode Island." Nick Autiello announced his own Democratic run for the seat held by Jabour last October, and he's responded to criticism over how he used to be a Republican ... Elsehwere in Statehouse news: Sandra Cano won big on the Democratic side of the race to replace Sen. James Doyle.

8. Providence native Tad Devine, a prominent Democrat, tells Graham Vyse that President Trump is most likely to win re-election if he runs as an independent: " 'I think he’s positioned himself from the beginning to run outside the Republican Party, and frankly I think that’s his best option,' said Devine, who served as Bernie Sanders’s senior strategist in the 2016 presidential primary. (Devine thinks Republicans might distance themselves from Trump after he costs them dearly in the midterms.) 'Path number two is that the country moves along for three years and continues to create jobs, and there’s no new war that breaks out, and he wins the Republican nomination without contest, and the Democrats have a long and bitter fight,' he said. Devine isn’t particularly worried about the latter possibility. He calls Trump 'the greatest unifier of the Democratic Party,' and said, 'I don’t think there will be a problem for Democrats to get behind whoever wins the nominating process.' ”

8A. Meanwhile, check out the spreadsheet assembled by David Caldwell (whose wife, Justine, is making a Democratic challenge to Rep. Anthony Giarrusso, R-East Greenwich), showing the percentage of the vote for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in different legislative districts in 2016.

9. Gabriela Domenzain on whether public officials in Rhode Island are reacting with enough urgency to address some bleak findings last year about the outlook for Latino children in the state. "I think there's definitely been a moment of consciousness and of, okay, we need to touch base here," she said, referring to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "We have the answers in this state, we have schools that are performing, we have schools that have completely wiped out the achievement gap. It's just a matter of being held accountable for it. This comes from the top. In other states with Latino populations that are growing, such as this one, they create literally a vertical within the government, where we have to see how Latinos are doing in housing, education, etc, etc., because otherwise our state won't succeed. Here, the consciousness and the public awareness has definitely increased over the past six months because of this report and because of the outrage. Now, it's time for the process to start and for the policy to start, because we cannot fail 20 percent of our state, and nobody here can run for national office if Latinos in the state were the worst on every single socioeconomic metric."

10. A bipartisan mix of state lawmakers -- Reps. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), Evan Shanley (D-Warwick), Moira Walsh (D-Providence), Ken Mendonca (R-Portsmouth) and Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Warwick) -- is pushing to create a state office of inspector general. In a release, the lawmakers say, "The office of inspector general would serve as an independent organization designed to investigate and root out any allegations of abuse, fraud, waste, or mismanagement of public funds at the federal, state, and local level. The inspector general will have the power to subpoena records and testimony from government agencies, quasi-public bodies, and contractors receiving public funds. If the inspector general’s office discovers fraud or abuse, they will work with the attorney general to file civil or criminal charges. In the past, both Democrats (Larry Valencia), Republicans (Dan Reilly) have pushed for an IG, and citizen-activist Ray Berberick has taken up the cause more recently, yet the concept has not moved ahead. Larry Berman, spokesman for Speaker Mattiello, said, "The speaker has not taken a position yet and will evaluate the legislation following the committee hearing, but he has concerns about the cost of creating a new office within state government."

11. A wake-up call for anyone concerned about American politics: "Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty. The building strength of partisan antipathy — 'negative partisanship' — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters. Ticket splitting is dying out. But perhaps the most important consequence of the current power of political anger is that there has been a marked decline in the accountability of public officials to the electorate."

12. RIPR's Lynn Arditi on the news that RI's largest hospital network, Lifespan, will join Care New England in talks with Partners HealthCare of Boston: "The move signals a major shift in strategy. Until now, Care New England had rebuffed overtures by Lifespan about a deal, citing its 'exclusive' negotiations with Partners. The announcement, which was short on details, follows Brown University President Christina Paxson's public criticism recently of the planned takeover of Care New England by Massachusetts’ largest hospital system. On Tuesday, Paxson said she is 'encouraged' that Care New England and Lifespan are talking about the future of health care in Rhode Island and hopes Brown will be included in the discussion. 'Collaboration between Care New England, Lifespan and Brown is necessary for the creation of an integrated academic medical center,’' Paxson said in a statement. 'We continue to be concerned about the impact of the acquisition of Care New England by Massachusetts-based Partners — and now a possible business relationship between Partners and Lifespan — on the cost of and access to healthcare in the state.' "

13. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports on the U.S. Supreme Court considering arguments in a case that could remove a key revenue stream for public sector unions: "The court is revisiting a long-standing ruling that until now has stood as a compromise between union and nonunion workers at unionized workplaces. In 1977, the Supreme Court declared that when public employees vote to affiliate with a union, state and local governments can require those who don't join the union to pay partial fees to help cover the costs of negotiating and administering the contract that the nonunion employees benefit from too. Conservative activists and union opponents have long hated the decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, and now a majority of justices seem poised to reverse it. In 1977, the court said that while nobody is required to join a union, nonunion employees can be required to pay partial dues, known as fair-share, or agency, fees. The idea is to prevent those who don't join the union from becoming 'free riders' on the backs of union members. The caveat is that nonmembers do not have to pay for the union's lobbying and political activities. In recent years, however, an energized, more conservative Supreme Court majority has aggressively viewed money as speech. Now it appears on the brink of a decision that would weaken public employee unions by barring these fair-share fee arrangements that currently exist in 22 states."

14. U.S. consumer confidence is at a recent high point. But Americans remain dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

15. An update on the Kerner Commission, which was formed to report on the causes of the riots that erupted in the U.S. in the late 1960s: "A new study that builds on the Kerner Report's work was released this week. Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report was co-edited by Fred Harris (the sole surviving member of the original Commission) and Alan Curtis, CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation. It notes that poverty has increased and so has the inequality gap between white America and Americans who are black, brown and Native American. The gains children of color made when efforts continued to desegregate schools in the 60s began to reverse by 1988. Court decisions that loosened oversight of previously de facto segregated schools resulted in a huge change: In 1988, almost half of all students of color went to majority-white schools. Today that number has plummeted to 20 percent. Poverty is such a problem, the study concluded, that if it is not mitigated, America's very democracy is threatened."

16. The generation gap in American politics

17. Rhode Islanders appear to be strongly opposed to a Trump administration plan to drill for oil and gas off the East Coast. Via RIPR's Avory Brookins: "An estimated 300 people attended a public meeting in Providence Wednesday on the Trump administration’s plan to drill for oil and gas off the East Coast. Right now, the vast majority of federally-controlled coastal waters are off limits. However, President Donald Trump is proposing to open more than 90 percent of those waters to oil and gas exploration and drilling. At the public meeting, analysts from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management provided information about how the program works, its possible environmental impacts, and how the agency responds to oil spills. They also collected written comments from the public. Tara Franey, graduate student at the University of Rhode Island who attended the meeting, said she’s against offshore drilling because she thinks it would be bad for the North Atlantic Ocean. 'Rhode Island really relies on its natural resources, on the coast and the people here rely upon them, and [the ocean is] part of our culture and part of our history and who we are as people. It’s the [state's] identity and this really threatens that,' Franey said."

18. Dare to dream of a better rail connection between Providence and Boston.

19. The owner of the ProJo, GateHouse Media and its parent, New Media Investment Group, outperformed industry norms for Q4 and 2017. Via Poytner: "Also, in a surprising answer to an analyst's question during a conference call, CEO Mike Reed said that spending on local information not available elsewhere, and, especially on investigative reporting, are keys to maintaining and growing circulation revenue — both print and digital. Many of New Media's peer companies have relied on very aggressive subscription price increases, Reed said. In theory, at companies like Gannett, higher revenue per subscriber makes up for any loss in how many people are buying the paper. But the trade-off has not been happening lately, sending circulation revenue in the wrong direction. The high subscription price strategy creates 'too much carnage on the volume side ... (you're losing business) you never get back,' Reed said. Discussing journalism investments, Reed cited a national investigation of wind farm damage to nearby homeowners, announced as a finalist this morning in the multimedia category of the Scripps Howard Awards, as the sort of work he would like to see more of. Since a 2014 reorganization, the company has acquired 42 local media properties for a total of $892 million.  It currently is absorbing the Morris chain, bought for $120 million late last year — including papers in Jacksonville, Savannah and Augusta. New Media is closing a deal for The Register Guard in Eugene, Oregon, this quarter."

20. Don't be afraid of Putin's fancy new nukes, writes longtime military correspondent Fred Kaplan, while pining for a bygone era in Soviet-US relations: "As someone who lived through the years of duck-and-cover fallout drills, I admit it feels very weird to feel nostalgic for the Cold War. In Three Days of the Condor, the CIA official played by John Houseman says he misses “the clarity” of that era’s heyday. That could be said today, multiplied severalfold, but there’s something missing to a degree that few could have foreseen: the professionalism, the seriousness, the effort—on both sides of the barrier—to see problems as problems, and to deal with them."