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

Mar 23, 2018

What if there were predictions of a big snow storm and the forecasted flakes failed to materialize? Well, unexpected stuff happens -- in weather, as in politics. With that note, 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. The top RI talker of the week -- the diversion of millions of dollars in E-911 fees to the state general fund each year -- strikes some as a quintessential Ocean State bait-and-switch. During a speech last October before the New Jersey Wireless Association, Michael O'Rielly, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, identified Rhode Island as one of the worst offenders in diverting 911 funds. On Monday evening, during a summit staged by Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), O'Rielly cited what he called an “ 'insidious' and 'appalling' diversion of money away from an essential public safety function," according to the ProJo. (The headline for the story: "R.I. 'stole' millions, says FCC official") But as Rhode Island Public Radio reported, the diversion of 911 fees has been taking place since the fee was instituted in 1997. Three years later, the ProJo reported then-911 director Ernest Ricci's criticism: "'It's very clear in the legislation what the intent of the surcharge was. The money should be deposited in a restricted account for 911 purposes." But until Sen. Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) last year filed a bill to restrict the use of 911 fees, no one -- Democrat or Republican -- seems to have done anything significant about the diversion. Lancia has helped draw attention to the issue, and no one would want an undue delay in sending help to an emergency. At the same time, there's a political tint to the issue, considering how this is an election year in Rhode Island and how O'Rielly has faced criticism for partisan activity. Then again, the underlying story of the 911 diversion is another long-running situation -- Rhode Island's less-than-robust revenue stream. The state is already banking on assumptions like the U.S. Supreme Court signing off on a big expansion of sports betting. Diversion and budget scoops are fair game for criticism. but without them, Rhode Island would have an even tougher time balancing its spending plan each year. (Of course, Republicans, including 2014 gov candidate Ken Block, say the issue is how RI has a spending problem.)

2. The snow storm that wasn't.

3. State Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry), one of two Republicans vying for the chance to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse this November, remains a big fan of President Trump. When Nardolillo announced his campaign last May, he gave Trump an A- for his work in the White House. The Coventry Republican now puts Trump in the B+ range. "He deserves a lot of credit for tax reform," Nardolillo said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week. "While it doesn't satisfy every American, it has put the American First efforts forward, in terms of ... we saw many businesses giving bonuses." As far as a top concern, Nardolillo points to Trump's social media habit. In related news, Nardolillo said he hasn't yet polled his GOP primary fight with former RI Supreme Court justice Robert Flanders, although he asserted during Political Roundtable that he's more in touch with middle class voters than Flanders. "The judge came up hard, but for a tremendous amount of time he's lived very well. I still live in the atmosphere and perspective of student loans and understanding their struggles, getting bills in the mail, looking at them, and saying, which one are we going to pay first."  

3. Meanwhile, a recent Facebook ad bought by Robert Flanders' Senate campaign touted him as "an independent voice for Rhode Island," leading at least one Nardolillo supporter to question Flanders' GOP credentials. Flanders' campaign manager, Richard Kirby, was unapologetic about the tagline: "Bob is an independent-minded person," Kirby said. "He's not a partisan." Kirby said Flanders' campaign has not polled the question of how Flanders would fare as an independent compared with a Republican, and he said Flanders is completely committed to running as a Republican.

4. In the ongoing debate over whether the economic situation in Rhode Island is half-full or half-empty, Gov. Gina Raimondo got some favorable news this week. Her communications director, Mike Raia, ticked off a series of bullet points: "1) There were 498,900 jobs in Rhode Island last month – a record high; 2) We added 1,200 jobs in February, 6,300 over the last 12 months and more than 16,000 since Governor Raimondo took office; 3) There were more Rhode Islanders working in February than at any point in the last decade; 4) There were 19,200 construction jobs last month – the most since 2008; 5) Over the last year, we’ve created 900 manufacturing jobs; 6) Our labor force has grown by 4,400 in the last 12 months; 7) Unemployment is at 4.5 percent and has been below 5 percent for 16 straight months." Yet others view the information more skeptically. URI economist Len Lardaro says RI's peak employment came with 547,000 workers in 2006, not 532,000 this month, and Justin Katz makes the case that RI's economy lags most other states. (If you're confused by competing claims, some of this comes down to how information is quantified. As Ted Nesi tweeted, "RI employers currently have the most jobs ever on their payrolls (including residents of other states) - but the number of RI residents working (whether here or in MA or elsewhere) is not at an all-time high. If that makes sense"

5. It's worth noting how rising star state Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls) and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) joined forces to introduce legislation this week (House bill, Senate bill) to protect Dreamers in Rhode Island. "DACA youth have called Rhode Island home since they were children -- some since they were infants -- and have no significant connection to the land of their birth,” Maldonado, who co-chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said in a statement. “They have become a vital part of Rhode Island’s educational community, business community and culture." A recent WPRI poll indicated that 75 percent of Rhode Islanders support allowing immigrants who were brought illegally into the U.S. as children to remain without being deported. Beyond sponsoring the House bill, Maldonado attracted support from the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, Whip Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham), and Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), a longtime outspoken critic of U.S. immigration policy. Meanwhile, McCaffrey -- who is poised to one day succeed Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, gets to enhance his progressive credentials by sponsoring the bill. Meanwhile, the growing profile of Maldonado and Pawtucket Senate candidate Sandra Cano shows how the Blackstone Valley continues to fuel the rise of Latino political power in Rhode Island.

6. Another perspective on RI's economy from Lincoln Town Administrator Joseph Almond, via The Valley Breeze, during a Northern RI Chamber of Commerce event earlier this week: “ 'The state is sputtering with deficits,' he said. 'The structural deficit that brought such a challenge in 2008 is not going away. It’s made even more significant in a time of economic growth,' he said, noting that in a time of economic downturn there is some explanation for the funding gap. Almond, who became administrator in 2008 during the financial crisis, said Lincoln has been slowly building itself back up after the recession tanked the economy, but he has concerns with the lack of state funding for municipalities in Rhode Island. 'You cant just say we’re doing great here – we’re a small piece of a bigger pie and those other pieces will come down,' he said. 'The current theory of government is that we can grow our way out by stimulating government spending. We are too small and do not have the base to do that, in my opinion. On a local level, I worry when the state takes local revenues to feed itself ... as state spending grows, there’s less spending on the local level.' "

7. The Gaspee Project used social media this week to unveil the conservative group's 2018 public awareness campaign "by exposing the voting records and costly agenda of progressive lawmakers." The first target is Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), a progressive favorite and the driving force in a new House commission examining sexual harassment. Tanzi's fans fired back, in part by noting a spelling mistake in the flyer ("campain") and calling the pieces so over the top as to be potentially ineffective.

8. With a few busloads of Rhode Island students set to take part in an anti-gun violence demonstration in Washington this weekend, here are two related perspectives. Give a listen to this 10-year-old Houston student talking about potentially making a sacrifice to help protect his classmates from a gunman. Meanwhile, a radio news director in Iowa underscores why gun culture is so strong in rural communities: "The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference. Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun. To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility. Even after a horrific event like the school shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, more gun control would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be even more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting. What my conservative friends see is not gun control, but rather control, period."

9. Does the Cranston police controversy -- which came to a head in 2015 -- have legs in the 2018 race for governor? Republican candidate Patricia Morgan hopes so, since she used that episode as the basis for an attack this week against Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Morgan's campaign pointed to a finding that costs for State Police involvement in Cranston topped $7 million. “This is the same man who, as mayor of Cranston, appointed his own chief of police to deliver political retribution on his enemies instead of protecting the public," said Morgan spokesman Bryan Piligra. "Allan Fung is the last person who should be lecturing us on diverting law enforcement resources." Andrew Vargas Vila, Fung's campaign manager shot back, "In December 2017, Morgan told WPRI that Mayor Fung did a 'good job' in Cranston. But now, because she is trailing so badly and only falling further behind, she needs to say absurd things to get the media to pay attention to her. If Rep. Morgan wants to challenge a culture of corruption, she should do something besides renovating her Statehouse office."

10. Scott MacKay on the recent skirmishes between RI and CT: "Perhaps it’s time for some bi-state therapy, since both get their inferiority complexes from living in the shadows of real cities –Boston for Rhody and New York for the Nutmeg State. In a nation that worships big, both are small. Their histories are similar. Hartford and Providence were both founded in 1636 and led by preachers – Connecticut’s Thomas Hooker was a Congregationalist Calvinist; Rhode Island’s Roger Williams, a Baptist who promoted the separation of church and state. Both states were early  industrial powerhouses fueled by Yankee tinkerers .  Sam Slater famously started the American Industrial Revolution in the Blackstone Valley. Connecticut had Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Rhode Island has Brown University;  Connecticut  Yale. Both states have minor league Kennedys;   Ted Kennedy Jr., is a Connecticut state senator, his brother Patrick served as a Rhode Island Congressman."

11. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has a Run For Office guide.

12. Almost 20 years have passed since the publication of Bowling Alone, a seminal work on the decline of civic culture in America. Here in Rhode Island, we're hardly immune to the broad trends sweeping the country, even though the Ocean State remains a close-knit place, for both good and ill. So it's worth taking note of TogetherRI, the effort led by the RI Foundation to get people talking about how to improve Rhode Island. Here's the foundation's pitch: "No one knows Rhode Island better than you, so let’s talk over a meal (on us!) about your ideas to improve it. Sit down with other diverse, engaged people and see what comes up—there’s bound to be common interests and healthy conversation. We’ll help moderate and give you a little guidance, but the topics and opinions are all up to you. It’ll be a casual way to get creative about the challenges and possibilities that face our state. And who knows? A free meal with interesting folks might even spark a connection to tackle change in your community."

13. Has the U.S. learned the lessons of the war in Iraq? Meanwhile, the Costs of War Project at Brown puts the cost of post-9/11 wars at close to $6 trillion.

14. Providence City Councilor Bryan Principe is winding down his time representing Ward 13. In a statement this week, Principe said in part, "Almost eight years ago, in deciding to run for City Council, I set out to make even a small difference in our great neighborhood. It has been a distinct honor during this time to work in collaboration with people across the community to strengthen our city. To note, short-term finances in Providence have stabilized, with an operational surplus for two consecutive years, a complete payoff of the cumulative deficit and the start of a rainy-day fund.  More than sixty projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars are in the development pipeline, including neighborhood gems such as the Wedding Cake House artist-in-residence renovation, the Almy Street School redevelopment, the opening of the Pilgrim Lofts, the $10 million clean-up and development of the Louttit Laundry site, the pending $7 million reconstruction of the Althea Street School into Head Start programming and the $400 million 6/10 highway interchange reconstruction slated to begin by the end of this year.  Though not yet out of the woods, Providence is on the move .... My household had a serious discussion on the commitment incumbent upon the possibility of another four-year term.  With increased work obligations for both my wife and myself, as well as more demands from the lives of our daughters, I have decided it is time for someone new to represent our ward on the City Council; I will not be seeking a third term."

15. Jack Shafer brings some context to anxieties about too much information: "Almost without fail, cultures greet new communications technologies with great optimism, but soon, the information ecstasy turns to information anxiety. The telephone came first. It was a boon. By 1897, it was a bane, as the New York Daily Tribune griped about “telephone mania, a modern disease from which only the friends of those afflicted suffer.” The power of radio animated the nation when it arrived in the 1920s, but by 1932, a New York Times writer was calling the radio experience a passive thing with a “dazing, almost anesthetic effect upon the mind.” An ecstasy to anxiety oscillation has greeted every subsequent communications technology: movies, television, satellite TV, computers, video games, the internet, the smartphone. First, it’s the greatest thing. Soon, news articles and studies push back, observing how the new technology zombifies users."

16. Providence is hardly alone in looking for more cash through such new approaches as speed cameras. As Marketplace reports, "Cash-strapped American cities are increasingly asking their residents to pay higher amounts for mundane services as they struggle to pay for mounting pension obligations, cover costly infrastructure improvements and replace revenue depleted by the last recession. Bills are rising for everything from parking tickets and 911 calls to sewer service and trash pickup."

17. Will Trump tariffs hurt the reeling U.S. newspaper industry by increasing the cost of newsprint?

18.The image of Stormy Daniels has been all over cable news in recent weeks. Roger Williams Law School professor David A. Logan offers this perspective on how 60 Minutes has been considering airing an interview with Daniels. Excerpt: In 1995, 60 Minutes taped a bombshell interview with Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, an executive from Brown & Williamson, a major tobacco company. Wigand was the first insider to reveal the industry’s decades-long conspiracy to mislead the public and U.S. government about the dangers of cigarette smoking. When tipped off about the taping, lawyers for Brown & Williamson knew they couldn’t get a judge to grant an order prohibiting the broadcast because the First Amendment almost never allows the government to impose a “prior restraint” on publication. However, the canny tobacco lawyers had another tactic that didn’t raise constitutional concerns: Rely on Wigand’s own voluntary “restraint on speech” — the nondisclosure agreement he signed when he went to work for Brown & Williamson, which he violated by talking to reporters. Brown & Williamson could sue Wigand for breach of that contract, as well as CBS for “inducing” the breach. The tactic worked, at least for a while. CBS delayed the broadcast, with corporate lawyers fearing that regardless of the legal merits of its position, litigation with a relentless foe, backed by the deep pockets of the entire tobacco industry, would be too costly to justify the news value of the show. Months later, 60 Minutes aired the interview — but only after the Wall Street Journal had the backbone to publish the basic story. The parallels between then and now are striking: Both situations involve CBS holding a story of great public interest and a highly motivated and well-resourced foe trying to find a legal argument to keep the lid on. But while the applicable legal principles haven’t changed, I suspect that for a number of reasons CBS won’t wait much longer to air Stormy’s story."

19. Latino Public Radio is getting ready to sign off at 1290 AM, transitioning to an Internet-only format.

20. Play ball! The Red Sox open their 2018 season Thursday. Meanwhile, the PawSox, as part of an appoach throughout minor league baseball will become Osos Polares de Pawtucket ("the Polar Bears of Pawtucket") for almost all Tuesday home games this season. “Copa de la Diversión ("Fun Cup" is the cornerstone of MiLB’s 'Es Divertido Ser Un Fan' ('It’s Fun to be A Fan') Hispanic fan engagement initiative," the PawSox said in a statement.