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

May 4, 2018

It might be spring, it might feel like summer, but the signals of an intensifying election season are increasingly evident. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. It seems hard to believe that legalizing same-sex marriage was a hard-fought political issue in Rhode Island just five years ago. At the time, opponents warned of an overreaching state government and violations of religious freedom. But after an initial swell of attention after same-sex marriage was legalized in May 2013, the controversy associated with the issue quickly faded from public view, and we don't hear much about adverse consequences. Five years on, the three top state officials who were in place at the time -- Gov. Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox, and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed -- no longer hold elected office. To some, the role played by the three shows how even flawed public figures have the capacity to make an important change in the social/political culture of a state. Fox, considered the first openly gay speaker in the U.S., is the most dramatic case. He had a sudden and dramatic fall from power in March 2014 and later served prison time on corruption charges. But Fox, who had been criticized for not bringing same-sex marriage to a floor-vote in 2012, never seemed so happy as when the House overwhelmingly passed the measure in 2013. Paiva Weed, now the head of the Hospital Association of RI, was the key player in the issue. A personal opponent of same-sex marriage, she nonetheless sensed the rapid shift in public attitudes on the issue and allowed the process to play out in the Senate. Meanwhile, Chafee inspired more than a few eye rolls with his quixotic presidential run in 2016 (and his potential plans for 2018). Supporting same-sex marriage fit squarely in the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat's brand of moderate politics, but his role as governor still counts. That's because predecessor Don Carcieri would have been an almost-certain roadblock on the issue (albeit one whose veto could have been easily overcome by Democratic super-majorities in the General Assembly).

2. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello continues to downplay the state Board of Elections' recent findings about his 2016 re-election campaign. The speaker maintains that his leadership PAC did not give him an edge over GOP challenger Steven Frias, even though contributors could donate to both his PAC and his personal campaign account, since he was effectively limited to a $1,000 contribution from the PAC to his own campaign. "It wasn't the best-run campaign, I'll be the first to admit," Mattiello said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "I regret that we used the wrong account [to pay campaign funds], but there's absolutely no strategic advantage." (The speaker said he has since back the $72,000 over-spend to his PAC.) Mattiello also rejected the suggestion that the BOE treated him more gently than other candidates who have been fined for various infractions. "This was an over-the-limit receipt of contributions. So look through the records in the past and see how often they fine for that," he said. "I don't think they do. I think they warn for you for a first offense. I think it's exactly the same standard. There are a lot of people that would like to see the speaker being treated special, in a harsher way, and that's not fair." 

3. Providence's pension system has only about 26 percent of the money needed to meet its long-term obligations -- an issue of statewide concern -- so Mayor Jorge Elorza is making a renewed push to lease or sell the capital city's water supply. Narragansett Bay Commission Chairman Vincent Mesolella likes the add of adding Providence's system to the NBC. But state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell pans this concept as a bailout for Providence, there are concerns on regulatory oversight, and the outlook remains uncertain in the House, even if the Senate is on board. Speaking on Roundtable, Mattiello said the House will be mindful of the ratepayer issue: "I cannot imagine how you can monetize a large sum of money out of that system and not raise the rates substantially." Read Scott MacKay's commentary on the issue here.

4. Notes on the race for governor: Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's GOP gubernatorial campaign sounded a Trumpian note with the subject line - "Fung is Ready to Bulldoze Smith Hill" -- on his government reform proposal this week. The release came a day after rival Republican Patricia Morgan offered her "blueprint" for improving Rhode Island. (That was similar to how Fung's campaign put out a tax cut plan one day after Giovanni Feroce offered details on his ideas). There's a certain amount of inevitable overlap among the various campaigns. Morgan and Fung both proposed creating an office of inspector general, for example, and Fung and Gov. Gina Raimondo are each backing some of the same good government initiatives. One difference is Fung's call for new work requirements for people who get welfare. Raimondo's campaign responded by attempting to link that with President Trump's approach on safety net policies. Meanwhile, questions about Feroce's whereabouts surfaced after the ProJo's Amanda Milkovits reported that he faced possible arrest after missing a court date. Feroce disputed the report and argued instead that the ProJo is out to get him. Will this kind of manufactured claim win over GOP primary voters who hate the media?

5. What does Speaker Mattiello, as a Cranston resident, think of Mayor Fung's touting of Cranston as an example of what he can do for the state? "I'm not the most partisan person, but I will tell you that Cranston is very well run," Mattiello said. "I'm very pleased with the job he's done in Cranston as mayor and yes, we've had a lot of development in Cranston...." Mattiello, a Democrat, went on to note he's had differences with Gov. Raimondo, but he said he's supporting her for re-election "because she's worked very hard on improving the economy. My mantra has been jobs and the economy. And we've got more jobs -- the governor is working hard and she's very dynamic." 

6. Gina World: Rhode Island climbed a best in class 10 notches, from 42 to 32, in Chief Executive's best and worst for business rankings .... Meanwhile, Gov. Raimondo is touting expansion plans at one of the state's most prominent employers, Electric Boat (which is getting $14 million in infrastructure improvements and up to $20 million in tax breaks; EB itself will spend close to $800 million in RI). Critics of the defense industry, meanwhile, question the value of the kind of jobs offered at EB.

7. With more women running for office, and with women activists pressing for a state-based law to protect abortion rights, will Speaker Mattiello bring the Reproductive Health Care Act to the floor for a vote this session? "Well, I see no effort nationally to change the Roe v. Wade standard," Mattiello said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. When Scott MacKay noted various efforts to restrict abortion rights in other states ("Iowa Lawmakers Pass Abortion Law With Roe v. Wade In Sights"), the speaker said, "I haven't seen the law or the court case, and if there is, please bring it to my attention at some point, but I have not seen the court case that challenges Roe v. Wade. I mean, some states are trying to limit it, but that's not what the concern is. The concern is an overturn of Roe v. Wade and there's no case in the system anywhere. So I don't think it's a real concern. And I just remind folks that this is a very divisive issue on both sides, and it's an issue that would utilize all of the oxygen in the room, and we have significant budget challenges. We've got the PawSox we're working on. We've got important bills that are of concern to a lot of people, and I choose to concentrate on everything and not to utilize every drop, ounce of oxygen on one particular issue which is not of consequence either way. For everybody that wants that there's almost someone who doesn't want it, so it's just divisive for no real end, no real benefit either way. It's in my opinion irrelevant and I don't say that in disregard to the wants of people because I know the issue is very important to people. I say irrelevant because Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned. I think that's a concern that's not founded in reality."

7A. In a statement in response to the speaker's s comments, the RI chapter of NOW said, "The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW) would like to remind the Speaker that while this may not be an issue that is of real concern to him personally, this is an issue that is of serious concern to a great many Rhode Islanders .... RI NOW believes that our elected leaders are capable of multi-tasking, dealing with more than two or three major pieces of legislation at the same time. We urge the Speaker to follow his own advice and work on bills that are of concern to a lot of people --or at the very least to allow Rhode Island’s legislators to vote on the Reproductive Healthcare Act of 2018."

8. A revised PawSox stadium proposal could hit a House committee as soon as later this month. As RIPR first reported, Speaker Mattiello seems a bit more amenable to an agreement than in the past: "[I]f the PawSox want to stay in Rhode Island, we'll work on making that happen and we'll make a deal that is favorable to the taxpayer where a lot of the risk is shifted." State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell responded via Twitter with this message: "The closer the speaker gets to a deal for taxpayer funded PawSox stadium, the closer we get to a Frias v. Mattiello careful." (Steve Frias has said he remains undecided on another possible run against the speaker. Mattiello told us he will seek re-election, regardless of whether Frias or other candidates challenge him."

9. Deepwater Wind has plans for a major production facility in Brooklyn, with hundreds of jobs. That news led some to question on Twitter why the jobs are not being created in Rhode Island. "Were we even in the running?" asked Art Norwalk. State Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) was sharper: "I seem to recall that all those local backers of Deepwater Wind had dreams of Rhode Island jobs dancing in their heads in exchange for artificially high electric rates for Rhode Island citizens. What a bi-partisan farce. One of the best 'no' votes I ever cast." (RIPR reported in 2016 on the debate about whether Deepwater's Block Island wind farm is worth the cost to ratepayers.) To bring the issue back to the present, Deepwater CEO Jeff Grybowski responded to the questions about why the Brooklyn plant isn't RI: "Why not in RI? Because we have other, big plans for RI. We aren’t done with announcements. But I’m not going to scoop myself so stay tuned this summer."

10. Gov. Raimondo remains Rhode Island's undisputed queen of campaign fundraising, with more than $4 million in her account as of the end of March. That's almost 14 times the $315,826 held by Mayor Fung, the governor's top-funded GOP rival. Having a big fundraising edge is no guarantee of winning an election, and Raimondo's rivals will try to turn her fundraising prowess into a negative. Yet the cash stash mean the governor will have ample resources to fuel her campaign. With fellow Democrat Matt Brown trailing far behind in fundraising, Raimondo (if she wins the primary) is unlikely to face a short-term cash crunch like the one after her September 2014 primary with Angel Taveras and Clay Pell.

11. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has released a new report on locally administered pension plans. Despite some improvements, the reports warns of significant challenges: the 34 plans included in the study have a combined unfunded liability of more than $2.4 billion, and more than a third of those plans are less than 60 percent funded, meaning that they are considered in critical condition.

12. The House of Representatives has passed the "red flag" bill and a ban on bump stocks, although it has not acted on a proposed prohibition on semiautomatic rifles or large-capacity magazines. Given Speaker Mattiello's profile as a pragmatic who has to balance the concerns of liberals and conservatives in the House, will the latter two issues move ahead? "The issues will be addressed from the point of view of, how will that help society," Mattiello said on Bonus Q&A. "When you're asking somebody to compromise their constitutional rights, it has to have a real palatable effective benefit, and if it doesn't -- just become someone wants to do it because it feels good or it's their ideology -- is not an adequate reason to do it. So we're doing the analysis."

13. The ProJo editorializes on the hotly debated Fane Tower proposal: "[T]here is much to be said for the opinion of project architect Gianni Ria, director of IBI Group Architects of Toronto, who called the design 'sensuous' and said 'it looks like water carving through the stone.' It is indeed bold and sinuous. It shows far greater imagination than the bland rectangles that serve as modern architecture in many locations. And great cities that remain vibrant — London, New York, Boston, Chicago — are filled with soaring new buildings that capture the eye, even if they look quite different from those in older neighborhoods. Little Rhode Island has long had a reputation for being unduly negative, resistant to reform, set in its ways." .... The Providence Preservation Society retorts: "Dialogue about design can be an engaging way for citizens and organizations to influence new development in our city. No matter one's opinion about the current design, as rendered and presented to the City Plan Commission on 4/25/18, the issue at hand remains zoning. The Fane Organization, Jason Fane, and the I-195 Redevelopment District, have petitioned City Council to make THREE changes to the Zoning Ordinance and to change the Official Zoning Map of the City of Providence to accommodate this non-conforming proposal. If City Council approves this request, the way will be paved for this project to move forward. The result? A tower as tall at 600 feet on the west side of the Providence River." (The Preservation Society expects comment on the proposed tower to continue at a May 15 hearing of the City Plan Commission.)

14. New General Assembly candidates on the scene: Republican Stephanie Calise of Bristol plans to challenge Sen. James Seveney (D-Portsmouth). "For too long, a progressive policy culture has forced our citizens to seek greener pastures elsewhere, dividing families," Calise, who ran in 2016 against Rep. Thomas Winfield (D-Smithfield), said in her campaign announcement. "In order to restore economic prosperity, we must work to create a place where our talented people can afford to stay, so that together we can build a better Ocean State. Calise says, 'Corporate welfare, lack of transparency, and a pass the buck mentality has made it nearly impossible for struggling families to maintain a household without having to rely on some sort of assistance from the government. Retirees and recent college graduates are leaving in waves. Grandparents are forced to miss milestone events and baseball games, because they are no longer across the street or at minimum across a bridge. Our best and brightest, that we so diligently and rightfully educated, have no choice but to seek employment elsewhere.' " .... Meanwhile, Democrat Ewa Dzwierzynski, who was part of a three-way primary with state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) in 2016, is soon to announce an as-yet-unspecified campaign.

15. A heartbreaking listen from RIPR health reporter Lynn Arditi: the family of pro hockey player Thomas G. Cavanagh, who was 28 when he died in 2011, talks about how he struggled to control his schizophrenia and the hurdles they faced in getting him help. (On a related note, Gov. Raimondo has signed an executive order meant to improve access to mental health care.)

16. Give a listen to Chuck Hinman's interview with Rob Blair. His Brown University class, which has been picked up by other colleges across the country, is examining whether democracy in America is failing. From the description: "Importantly, the course is not intended as a partisan critique of Donald Trump, or of any other politician or political party. Our goal is to treat the threat of democratic erosion as an empirical question, rather than merely a political one. Is American democracy really under threat? What about democracy in the West, or the world, more generally? If democracy is indeed under threat, what can we do about it? And if it’s not under threat, why are so many of us so worried that it is? This course aims to help answer these questions."

17. The three-way Democratic primary continues to heat up between incumbent Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence) and challengers Sam Bell and Nick Autiello. Bell reported this week that he had $50,592 on hand at the event of Q1, compared with $38,985 for Autiello and $240 for Jabour (at the end of 2017). Autiello, meanwhile, recently called on Democrats to denounce Lincoln Chafee's supportive statements regarding Russia and Vladimir Putin: “Governor Chafee’s comments are disappointing," Autiello said in a recent statement. "Our democracy is under attack and the forces of destruction and division don’t need any extra help. Elected officials at every level of government need to stand up for democracy and the rule of law and against attacks on freedom, openness, and human rights that are coming out of Russia. He is right that the military-industrial complex often leads us to destructive decisions and that we need more voices calling for peace, but that’s not what this is about."... After news broke of Chafee's campaign, Bell tweeted that he had texted Chafee and urged him not to run: "I think it's probably better to say that a candidate wants to claim the Bernie mantle, even when they are not actually more liberal, are not backed by most Bernie supporters, and are running against someone who has worked with Bernie quite a bit in the Senate." 

18. Coming up on May 18-19: help Rhode Island Public Radio celebrate our 20th anniversary.

19. Secretary oof State Nellie Gorbea has a new one-stop site for information for Rhode Island voters.

20. The hubbub on Smith Hill about the need for stronger sanctions against bombs and those who make them reminded us of this old General Assembly tale (via William G. McLoughlin's classic book on Rhode Island history): "At the 1924 session of the legislature, the Democrats demanded that the Republicans call a constitutional convention. They refused, and the filibustering began again. This time it lasted six months, until, on June 19, 1924, the exasperated Republicans hired a Boston thug to set off a stink bomb of bromine gas behind the senate rostrum. The fumes forced the evacuation of the chamber. All the Republican members of the senate then left the state and went to live in a hotel in Rutland, Massachusetts. Their absence prevented a quorum, and the senate ended with no legislation bill, not even an appropriation to pay the salaries of government employees and sustain state institutions. Twenty-three banks in the state joined to lend money to the state to cover these expenses till the next session .... [following the episode] Rhode Island became the laughing stock of the Jazz Age.”