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

Apr 6, 2018

To paraphrase a remark (mistakenly) attributed to Mark Twain, the coldest winter I ever spent was a spring in southern New England. But we roll with the punches, right? 

So thanks for stopping by for my Friday column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome and you can follow me through the weeks on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Gov. Gina Raimondo has quietly been increasing her in-person outreach with Rhode Islanders in the run-up to what is expected to be a close re-election fight. In recent weeks, the governor has made stops (some of them unpublicized) on Broad Street in Providence, Warwick, North Providence, East Greenwich, Johnston and North Kingstown. She'll be in Bristol this weekend, and more of outings are planned. For some local observers, it has long been an article of faith that the governor comes across better in person than on television -- and this approach seems to validate that thinking. David Ortiz, Raimondo's deputy campaign director, calls the heightened outreach a way of making the administration's efforts more tangible. He points, for example, to how a stop in East Greenwich provided an opportunity to talk about fixing local bridges, offering innovation vouchers to businesses like S2S Surgical and Vacuum Processing Systems; and making $32,000 in physical improvements on Main Street. So will this be an X factor for a candidate known both for her prodigious fundraising ability (Raimondo's campaign account could certainly climb over $4 million at the end of Q1) and a 37 percent job approval rating? Time will tell. For now, the governor's static approval rating (after she attracted 40.7 percent of the vote in 2014) reflects multiple causes. To name a few: the deep-rooted quality of RI's economic problems; administration gaffes like UHIP and Cooler & Warmer; and fallout from the controversial pension overhaul spearheaded by Raimondo as state treasurer in 2011. But there's also a big personal quality to politics, and some Rhode Islanders harbor doubts about how well the first-term Democrat represents them. Ocean Staters, of course, always expect to meet their candidates up close. Yet Raimondo's stepped-up in-person interaction around RI underscores the importance of making a personal connection with voters.

2. Independent candidate for governor Joe Trillo said he won't drop out of the race in the waning weeks of the campaign even if GOP candidate Allan Fung pleaded with him to do so. "You have seen candidates move 10, 15 points in two weeks," Trillo said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "We have such a late primary, a lot of people really don't start to pay attention to the races until the primary's over. We don't even know who's in the race right now. My intent is to put on as good a campaign as I can, to get my message out -- which I think is going to be somewhat unique from the other candidates -- and see how it plays right down to the last day."

3. PawSox representatives are continuing talks with the House Finance Committee staffers about the team’s quest for a new stadium in Pawtucket. The team is attempting to address House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's request that the team reduce the potential exposure for taxpayers as part of a stadium deal. Talks are expected to continue over the coming weeks, with different concepts still being assessed. One version of the stadium plan was passed by the state Senate in January.

4. Mark P. McKenney, a partner with McKenney, Quigley & Clarkin LLP, is staging a primary challenge to state Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick), a freshman elected in 2016. McKenney plans to formally launch his campaign on Tuesday. Here's his explanation of why he's running: "First, I grew up in the Buttonwoods area of District 30, and raised three kids here, and I've been deeply involved in this community for as long as I can remember. I've been fortunate in my life, and much of that is due to the people of this great community. I’ve always believed in public service – in the idea that you should give back to the people and places that helped lift you up along the way. And while I've been fortunate, most Rhode Islanders don't have the same opportunities I had. I want to change that. I love Rhode Island. And I believe I have a unique skill set that will allow me, as senator from District 30, to help fix our state’s problems, turn our economy around, create new jobs and opportunities, and deliver positive change for the people of this district and this state. I'm an optimist by nature, and I’m convinced we can do better .... There’s important work to be done in this state – like turning around our economy and creating jobs, fixing our schools, implementing stricter gun control laws, ensuring women get equal pay in the workforce, ending corruption in government, and much more. As senator, I will fight for these issues by working together with state leaders to find common sense solutions that will help move our state forward." .... Calkin, a progressive who was a Bernie Sanders' delegate at the DNC in 2016 and won election by defeating incumbent Sen. William Walaska, said via email: As I am not aware of Mr. McKenney's platform, I can only speak to why I ran and what I have done during my time in office. My reason for running for office was to represent the people of my district. To stand up for the issues they care about and not for special interests. I believe we need representation from people with different backgrounds, including more teachers, waitresses and those with science backgrounds. And of course we need more women as we are underrepresented in the General Assembly.I hope to continue to fight for economic justice, women's rights, and our environment - among many other issues."

5. The Rhode Island GOP has sent a series of emails (update in about 30 districts) seeking to attract legislative candidates for 2018. In some cases, the emails point to the relatively strong performance of President Trump in certain districts in 2016, and solicit challengers against Democratic incumbents in those districts. "Would you like to be that candidate?" reads one of the emails obtained by TGIF. "If you would, or if you would just like more information about what is involved, then Reply To This E-Mail at will get back to you with more information about what the R.I. Republican Party can do to help you with: Candidate Training Classes/Technical Assistance/Access To Voter Database & Lists Of Targeted Voters/Some Financial Assistance." (As TGIF reported last month, RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said the party would be stepping up its recruitment and candidate-training efforts in April.)

6. The 2020 Census is shaping up as one of the signature battles between the Trump administration and its critics. Gov. Raimondo, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, and Mayors Jorge Elorza of Providence, James Diossa of Central Falls, and Don Grebien of Pawtucket gathered this week to condemn plans for a citizenship question in 2020 and how they think that will discourage participation. “If a person is living here, they need to be counted," Diossa said. "This isn’t about immigration policy or partisan politics. We are here because the federal government has taken steps that make it harder for the upcoming Census to get an accurate count for all people in the United States.” The elected officials and community groups also faulted what they call a lack of support to raise awareness about a current Census test in Providence County. Elsewhere, AG Peter Kilmartin and Elorza filed suit to block the citizenship question -- part of a wave of litigation. From the perspective of Scott MacKay, undocumented immigrants have an obvious reason to be wary of the Census.

7. Fewer than 90 days remain until the June 27 filing deadline for the 2018 election season. The state representatives not seeking re-election include three gunning for other offices, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, Aaron Regunberg of Providence, and Bobby Nardolillo of Coventry, along with Joy Hearn of Barrington, who decided not to run again. Other reps not expected to seek re-election include Jeremiah "Jay" O'Grady of Lincoln (who declined comment); Joseph Almeida of Providence  (who did not respond to a request for comment); and freshman Helder Cunha of East Providence, who is reportedly moving out of his district (he did not respond to a request for comment).

8. Rhode Island Public Radio is staging an April 16 panel discussion -- Ask a Reporter -- oriented toward people interested in running for public office in RI and southeastern Massachusetts. The all-star panel includes AP correspondent Michelle Smith; Will Richmond from the Fall River Herald News; Ethan Shorey from The Valley Breeze; Dan McGowan from, and I'll be moderating. We'll talk about the intersection between politics and media, why different candidates get different levels of coverage, and take questions from the audience. It's free, but RSVPs are required since there's limited space in the room where the discussion will take place at the RI Foundation.

9. Some of what's happening with the Republicans in the race for governor: Giovanni Feroce is staging an event at noon Tuesday, at the Eleven Forty Nine restaurant in East Greenwich, to flesh out his policy proposals .... Allan Fung is staging a grassroots kickoff at 9 am Saturday at his campaign office at Chapel View: "Rain or shine, we will be knocking on doors or making phone calls to take Allan’s message to Rhode Island voters." .... Patricia Morgan's campaign name-checked Cher this week in a missive aimed at Fung.

10. Independent candidate for governor Joe Trillo was a GOP state rep for 16 years and he's a former RI Republican national committeeman. But he's also quite friendly with Statehouse Democrats like Speaker Mattiello and former House Majority Leader John DeSimone. So how does Trillo come down on the question of whether Republican Steven Frias -- who nearly ousted Mattiello from his Cranston state rep seat in 2016 -- should take another shot? "Of all the reps I served with in the General Assembly, there were a lot of conservatives," Trillo said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week. "Nick Mattiello was one of those guys. I helped him get elected as speaker. I think that they don't realize that if they take him out with another Republican rep -- no matter who that rep is. I'm not going to say it's Steve Frias or anybody -- any Republican that takes out Nick Mattiello, there's going to blood on the hands of the Republican Party if we end with a progressive or a liberal that takes the helm as speaker." (Frias has said he has not yet made a decision about whether he'll make another political run in 2018.)

11. "Attila the Nun" The BBC resurrects a colorful nickname for the inimitable Arlene Violet as part of a closeup via podcast: "Arlene Violet served as a nun for 23 years in the US state of Rhode Island. When she was there she realised that there were big problems locally: the mob ruled the streets and a Colombian drug cartel had moved in. Arlene thought it was her duty to fight the injustices she saw every day, so she decided to run for State Attorney General. She went on to become the first woman in that role, and she sent 18 top criminals to jail." Whether it was People magazine in 1979 or  Lenny Letter more recently, Arlene's compelling personal story remains a great tale to tell. Plus, you can catch her column each week in the Valley Breeze.

12. Critics sometimes hold Massachusetts up as exemplar of what Rhode Island should be. To give credit where credit is due, the greater Boston-Cambridge area shows how innovation, higher education (and decades of gradual improvement) can fuel a white-hot economy. The Bay State has also made significant strides in improving public education since a more level playing field was created through a big school-funding reform in the early 1990s. But it's worth remembering how large swaths of western, central and southeastern Mass economically resemble Rhode Island far more than the gentrified precincts of the South End and Somerville. Traffic in Boston has become a nightmare. And big problems with agencies like the MBTA, the State Police, and a state drug lab -- not to mention the Massachusetts Statehouse -- show how even a state held up as a national model has its share of dysfunction.

13. Give a listen: NPR's Steve Inskeep questions Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg about the disclosures about FB information being used in previously undisclosed ways.

14. The dearth of affordable housing in Rhode Island is an important topic that tends to get overlooked. As Ted Nesi reported this week, rising prices are combining with low inventory and little new construction to create a greater squeeze in the market: "That’s causing a housing crunch for a growing number of Rhode Islanders, particularly younger families looking to buy a starter home, experts say. 'There’s huge demand to live in Rhode Island - contrary to what folks think, right?' said John Marcantonio, head of the Rhode Island Builders Association. But he sees people being priced out. 'There’s not a desire to leave the state, so much as a lot of folks feel like they have to, financially,' he said."

14. Rhode Island Public Radio is having a a big party in May to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Read all about it.

16. Media notes: 1) NPR reported on Sinclair telling its news anchors to denounce fake news weeks ago, but the story really got traction in the last week. National Review; 2) Findings on what's next for TV news.

17. A big RI welcome to a new member of the Providence AP bureau, Dylan McGuinness, who has been assigned to the Statehouse beat. His first story this week looked at efforts to update expulsion rules in the General Assembly.

18. A coalition of progressive and women's groups criticized Lt. Gov. McKee this week for being, in their view, too casual about the threat posed to Roe v. Wade. "The Woman Project is shocked by Lt. Governor Dan McKee’s out of touch statement, which makes us wonder where he has been since January 2017," Jocelyn Foye of The Woman Project said in a statement. "Did he miss that a 15-week abortion ban was passed in Mississippi? Did he hear that four pregnant teenagers have been detained by ICE and were denied their right to receive abortion health care? Does he know that there is legislation pending in Ohio that could completely ban abortion? I hope Mr. McKee will start paying attention. Reproductive health care is under attack, and women and marginalized communities are already feeling the impact.” During a recent interview on RIPR, McKee responded this way when asked about the proposal for a state-based law to protect abortion rights in RI: "First of all I’m not a constitutional lawyer so I don’t even know if that like, you know is it more of a gesture, as opposed to support, is actually, is it actually going to hold up, I don’t know. I don’t see the Roe Vs Wade going to be reversed .... I don’t know if it adds anything any more protection or not quite frankly."

19. Have we been lulled into dismissing health concerns that may be linked to cell phones?

20. Back in the day, famed muckraker Lincoln Steffens pronounced Rhode Island "a state for sale -- and cheap." But now: "A Chicago-based private equity real estate firm is offering as much as $2 billion to purchase office buildings, health-care facilities, transit-related properties and whatever the governments [of Hartford and Connecticut] think they can sell, so long as the buyer gets a 7.25 percent initial return, plus annual rent hikes of 1.5 percent."