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

Jun 29, 2018

Summer is here, the General Assembly has adjourned and the political news keeps coming fast and furious. So 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 voters of Rhode Island's House District 15 will have a disproportionately strong impact on the future of state when they decide in November between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican opponent Steve Frias. Back in 2016, on the same night when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, Mattiello swept into the Oaklawn Grange and proclaimed victory -- even though Frias had the edge in votes cast that day. The speaker was right. Mail ballots put him over the top, providing a narrow 85-vote win, from a total of 7,349 votes. Yet the Frias-Mattiello promises to be a brusing battle, and the outcome is far from certain, meaning that the speakership -- often called the most powerful post in state government -- could be up for grabs. Mattiello has the advantages of incumbency, including a campaign account of almost $400,000. He can also boast about how he's followed through on a promise to reduce car taxes -- a tangible issue that could resonate with voters. Mattiello signaled that he'll run on his record, touting the car tax phaseout and "my pro-business and pro-economy agenda that is moving our state forward with a very balanced approach." Yet running against the Statehouse often plays well with Rhode Island voters, and Frias, with his strong grasp of symbolic issues, can be expected to zero in on issues ranging from an absence of progress on the line-item veto to the tuition controversy involving Frank Montanaro Jr., executive director of the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly, the Joint Committee on Legislative Services. (When Mattiello said a change in the speakership could set back a business-oriented approach in the House, Frias shot back, suggesting essentially that Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi -- well positioned to one day succeed Mattiello -- is hardly a Marxist.) In 2016, an independent candidate in District 15 got 202 votes, more than twice the speaker's margin. This time around, the field appears to consist solely of Frias and Mattiello, despite speculation that a broader field might divide the vote. Any number of other factors will influence the battle in District 15, including local turnout in a election that may include Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, and the relative savvy of the dueling campaigns and their operatives.

2. Seema Nanda, the new head of the DNC, is an alum of Brown University. Via Glamour: "The first Asian-American to head the DNC in recent memory, Nanda takes the reins from an interim ceo, Mary Beth Cahill, in overseeing the financial and political trajectory of the DNC at a pivotal moment.The Democrats are trying to generate a "blue wave" to control of the House from the GOP by anchoring Republicans to a controversial and unpopular president. But the party is also facing an internal reckoning on how to craft the best message for November and has dramatically trailed fundraising by the Republican National Committee under its chairwoman, Ronna Romney McDaniel."

3. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's announcement this week that he plans to retire alarmed supporters of abortion rights near and far. State Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), a candidate for lieutenant governor, responded by calling for an emergency General Assembly session to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act, and other progressives echoed that call. The measure from Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, both Providence Democrats, is meant to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island if Roe v Wade is overturned; it has failed to move to the House floor for the last two years. Speaker Mattiello explained his thinking during an interview at Rhode Island Public Radio in early May (see #7). In essence, Mattiello said, there wasn't a present threat to Roe, and he wanted to keep a divisive issue from overwhelming other issues. "[I]t's just divisive for no real end, no real benefit either way," the speaker said in part. "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." Progressives and women's groups were troubled by this. They said the right-ward direction of the Supreme Court has been clear, and noted how some states have increased efforts to target abortion rights. Even now, since the U.S. Supreme Court has ended its session, the issue remains on hold in that venue. In the short-term, though, heightened anxiety about abortion rights might further energize the women and progressives who are already troubled by the recently-ended legislative session. (RI NOW issued a news release with this headline: "RI has created a political environment in which women's bodies are ignored.") Meanwhile, an epic fight looms over the replacement of Justice Kennedy.

4. "He Never Stopped Caring," was the motto for Buddy Cianci's 1990 comeback -- and now former state Rep. John Carnevale is using that message as he tries to vault back into the General Assembly. Although he was found by the Providence Board of Canvassers to not be a resident of his district (and still faces related criminal charges), Carnevale disputes the findings (as well as the charges) and he's considered to have a strong shot of winning a three-way primary race in September with Rep. Ramon Perez and Mario Mendez. As Carnevale declared his run this week, other Democrats were mostly quiet. In contrast, Sulina Mohanty, chair of the Women's Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, tweeted, "There are some things Dems can disagree on, but [condemning] a man like this should be an easy thing for everyone to come together on. Criminal behavior like his should be an absolute disqualification and leaders need to state that clearly." Asked about Carnevale during her guest appearance on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said, "I'm disappointed that he's moving forward with this. I think it encourages cynicism among voters, given the issues that's facing with his past race. But hey, you know, there are requirements. If he meets the requirements and he decides to run, he can do so." Guest panelist Tim White noted that if Carnevale is convicted or gets a sentence of at least six months before the election, he would be precluded from running. But what happens if the court resolution comes after the November election? "That's where your local Board of Canvassers, the state Board of Elections come into play," Gorbea said. "They're the ones who are the real arbiters of elections .... I'm hopeful we don't have to get to that point."

5. When news broke Thursday of how five people were killed at a Maryland newspaper, my mind jumped back in time to the image of an armed guard in the lobby of the Arizona Republic building in Phoenix. I had a summer fellowship at the Republic after college, and the idea of a newpaper needing a guy with a gun struck me as odd, a reflection, perhaps of Wild West ethos. (Or possibly how an investigative reporter at the Republic, Don Bolles, had been killed by a car bomb in 1976 while probing corruption.) Then again, this was in the mid-1980s, way before the phenomenon of mass shootings became a regular occurence in the U.S. With a lot of this column still to write, I don't have any profound thoughts. But I do know this: reporters play a vital role in American democracy. If we're lucky, the tragedy in Maryland will raise the focus on the value of journalism.

6. From Charles Fogarty, the outgoing director of Rhode Island's Department of Elderly Affairs: "In May of 1978, as a 22-year-old Providence College graduate, I was excited to join the staff of Governor J. Joseph Garrahy as a junior policy aide. Little did I know then that I would be spending most of the next 40 years in public service. During the past four decades I have served as an aide to a governor, a state treasurer and a Lieutenant Governor. I was elected to the Glocester Town Council, the RI State Senate and as Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island. And in 2006, I had the great honor to run for Governor .... and nearly win. I’ve also served as a cabinet member in the administration of two governors, running two different agencies. It’s really has been quite a ride! During it all, I’ve tried to follow the advice of my parents and the example of my first boss, Governor Garrahy; they taught me public service was a public trust, and that what was most important was what you did to help make the lives of others better. So, whether it has been my work on health care, senior issues, environmental matters or education, that’s what I’ve always tried to do- help people. And I hope that in some way I have lived up to the example they set. I am most grateful for the incredible opportunities that have come my way. I look forward to continuing to contribute to our community as a volunteer for some of the causes I care about."

7. With the passage of the filing deadline this week, it appears that at least 35 lawmakers (and one candidate) will not face any competition on the way back to the 113-seat General Assembly in January (Two caveats: some late entries may still be coming into the secretary of state's web site. Also, the number of uncontested races usually increases due to how some candidates do not return signatures in July.)

Here's the count so far on the unopposed reps and senators.

HOUSE: Edith Ajello (D-Providence); Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence); Ray Hull (D-Providence); John Lombardi (D-Providence); Scott Slater (D-Providence); Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston); Art Handy (D-Cranston); Joseph Solomon (D-Warwick); Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick); Julie Casimiro (D-North Kingstown); Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham); Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly); Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston); Gregory Costantino (D-Lincoln); Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland); Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield); Michael Morin (D-Woonsocket); Stephen Casey (D-Woonsocket); William O'Brien (D-North Providence); Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence); Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls); James McLaughlin (D-Cumberland); Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat running for the seat being vacated by Rep. David Coughlin; Mary Duffy Messier (D-Pawtucket); Gregg Amore (D-East Providence); John Edwards (D-Tiverton); Dennis Canario (D-Middletown); Lauren Carson (D-Newport).   

SENATE: Ana Quezada (D-Providence); Gayle Goldin (D-Providence); Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence); Walter Felag (D-Warren); Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket); Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls); Susan Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown); Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly).

8. Governing's Daniel C. Vock takes a look at RI's race for governor. Excerpt: "The discontent in Rhode Island isn’t just limited to conservatives. There’s turmoil in the Democratic ranks, too. Part of the reason is a growing progressive movement in what has traditionally been a relatively conservative blue-collar Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, for example, won Rhode Island’s presidential primary in 2016. And on the same night that Hillary Clinton carried the state in the general election, Rhode Island’s House speaker barely held on to his seat in the chamber with an 85-vote win over his Republican opponent. That’s created a dynamic where the progressives feel emboldened to push for more liberal policies, even as Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has hewed to a more conservative approach of lowering taxes and reining in spending. The liberal wing and the traditional wing have clashed recently on gun control measures, abortion rights and the minimum wage."

9. The inside view on the PawSox is that the top minor league team of the Red Sox is increasingly likely to leave Rhode Island, due to the increased cost of the legislation passed by the General Assembly and what is expected to be a better offer from Worcester. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien really needs a win, what with local bummers like the winding down of Memorial Hospital, and he's still fighting hard to keep the team. Gov. Gina Raimondo passed the PawSox bill late Friday; the team issued this statement: “We recognize the step that Governor Raimondo has taken today by signing the proposed Pawtucket ballpark legislation, giving the parties an opportunity to vet the numerous issues presented. This past week, we met with City officials and also with City and State officials to continue discussions regarding the legislation that was passed late last Friday night. Analysis and talks will continue over the holiday week.”

10. Former ProJo investigative reporter Mike Stanton is out with a new book -- Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight For Perfection in a Crooked World -- and it's an excellent read. Stanton, now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, sat down to talk with me about the book. Stanton reviewed military records and other source material to find new discoveries about Marciano, including how a Japanese-American doctor performed career-saving surgery on Marciano's lead boxing hand when the Brockton native was confined at an installation. "Rocky was this kind of all-American hero," Stanton said. "People said he embodied the American values in the fight against communism; he punched like the atomic bomb. And the shorthand story that the public knew about his war service was he served in World War II and he helped ferry supplies to Normandy during the D-Day invasion. What people didn't realize was he didn't actually make that trek because he was in an Army stockade; he was court-martialed. He and another G.I. assaulted and robbed two British civilians after they went AWOL from their base shortly before the D-Day invasion." 

11. A stunner this week in New York: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, "a 28-year-old Democratic Giant Slayer," sent packing U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 19-year-incumbent and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House. Does that have implications for the progressive movement in RI? Some reaction from Georgia Hollister Isman, director of the RI Working Families Party: "It's incredibly validating to see progressive candidates, especially progressive women of color, run shoestring campaigns with clear vision, turn the tables, slay giants, and change reality. It's what we're about at RI WFP. And we hope political leaders of every stripe here in Rhode Island take notice. If it wasn't already clear it should be today--running on a bold progressive vision can lead to surprising victories."

12. Karl Wadensten is something of a folk hero in Rhode Island, thanks in part to how he was the only member of the state's economic development agency to vote against the 38 Studios deal in 2010. Does he have the right stuff to be lieutenant governor, and to win a battle with either Lt. Gov. Dan McKee or Democratic challenger Aaron Regunberg? (UPDATE: In a surprising development, Wadensten has pulled out of the LG race just a few days after entering it. Here's his full statement: "To the People of Rhode Island, I did not do a good enough job earning the endorsement of theRepublican Party. My public service participation has always been motivated by the goal of making Rhode Island a better place to live and work.  In my ambition for Lt. Governor, I came late to the 2018 nomination process for the state republican party, did not understand the process well and as a result did not earn the nomination as an endorsed candidate. Now I will move forward with the same goals of improving Rhode Island, not as a candidate, but as a business owner, community member and supporter of all political parties looking to improve Rhode Island. I am formally withdrawing my candidacy for Lt. Governor. As I withdraw my candidacy of Lt. Governor my ambitions to make Rhode Island a better place has never been higher. For many years, I have been humbled in working with all types of parties with the same mission of making this state a place of growth and sustainability. I will continue to move forward as a family man, business owner, community member and supporter of all parties during this important election cycle continuing to drive process improvements. I hope that you can understand my decision to not move forward with this run for office and respect both my family and I as we will continue to do our best with making Rhode Island the State we know it can be.")

12B. Wadensten's exit raises questions once again about the competitive posture of the Rhode Island GOP. The Republicans still have an LG candidate in Paul Pence, but he's a significant underdog against whomever wins the Democratic primary. Pat Cortellessa is an underdog against Nellie Gorbea for secretary of state. Michael Riley promises to be a lively challenger to Democratic General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, but Republicans are not contesting Peter Neronha for AG. State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, after flirting with an LG run (which was also considered by state Rep. Robert Lancia of Cranston), has chosen to run for a state rep seat in Cranston). Yet once again the RI GOP appears to be making a few big bets, in the races for governor, U.S. senator, and state rep in Cranston. A win in even one of those could be considered significant, yet elsewhere Rhode Island Republicans may just tread water -- or even shrink their legislative representation.

13. The GOP U.S. Senate primary between Bobby Nardolillo and Robert Flanders offered a style in contrasts, but now Nardolillo is out and putting his support behind Flanders in his battle with Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. "It is with great personal disappointment that I conclude my fourteen month campaign for the US Senate." Nardolillo said in a prepared statement. "The Challenge of raising sufficient funds for a national class run has proved too great for me. That fact has led to making my organization too small to effectively communicate the benefits of my candidacy statewide. Although my strong instinct is to keep fighting. My political experience informs me that mounting a primary challenge to the Endorsed Republican would ultimately only benefit Mr. Whitehouse. My objective all along was to remove Sen. Whitehouse from office. So the best thing I can do now, to benefit all Rhode Islanders, is to stand aside and permit a full throated Republican Campaign against the incumbent to be conducted."

14. William Gilbert has signed on as the Moderate Party candidate for governor, potentially reducing the percentage of the vote needed to win in November. In a statement, he said in part, "I will not accept matching funds or seek and pander for donations. Elections should be free from influence.I will seek an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court for stopping payments for the 38 Studios fiasco. The voters never agreed to this obligation and should never have been charged with it. It was our leaders' job to look after us and they failed and continue to do so. It is the voters' money, not Mattiello's or Gina's. I will work to restore the cost of living increases that were stolen from our pensioners under Gina Raimondo. Understandably, the government's previous squander required holes to be filled and for some, state employees are easy targets and scapegoats, but compounding bad management and giveaway policies by breaking promises for work already performed is governmental theft. Situations like these prove you don’t need 'a guy' to rob someone. I will cut the administration by 15%. We need more front line workers servicing the people -  not minions pretending to perform the people's works while really running the next election cycle's campaign. I will work tirelessly to make Vo-tech training available to all students. As a state we fully understand that less than fifty percent of our high school graduates go on to college and of the ones that do, less than half of those earn a degree. Not only are we are failing our children by not providing them with real world and marketable skills, we fail our industries and communities by not ensuring that we have a viable work force for the future. Stayed tuned! I have alot to say from the current womens reproductive issues to ensuring our dreamers are not victimized further from choices thier parents made. If listen, plan then act we will be successful. Follow me @moderatepartyri on Twitter and Friends of William Gilbert on Facebook."

15. Come for the Q&A with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea on a range of topics. Stay for Gorbea's standard political dodge about whether she's looking toward a run for governor in 2022.

16. As a secretary of state candidate in 2002, Matt Brown talked about trying to do something about the end-of-session rush of bills through the General Assembly. It seems as if not much has changed. So I asked Gorbea whether there's a role for the secretary of state in that issue. "The timing of the legislation is really under the General Assembly's control," she noted. "What I can do in my office is to try to provide as much information to citizens around what's happening and when."

17. Some details on Gov. Gina Raimondo's California fundraising, via earlier this week: "The first fundraiser will be a noon lunch at the Hancock Park home of Cynthia Telles, the director of the Spanish Speaking Psychosocial Clinic at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is set to attend as a “special guest,” according to an invitation obtained by City News Service. 'I’m proud to have known her since our days as students and I’m proud to support her re-election campaign,' Garcetti tweeted on May 30, a day after Raimondo confirmed she was running for a second term. The second fundraiser will be from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Studio City home of Elizabeth Hirsh Naftali ... Both Telles and Hirsh Naftali hosted fundraisers for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign."

18. Larry Anderson, a Democratic candidate for Town Council in Little Compton, shares word of an uptick in Democratic campaigns in local politics there. "This will be the first time since 2002 that we Democrats have fielded a full slate of five candidates for the five-member Town Council," Anderson said. "Four of the five incumbent Republican Council members have served continuously since 2004."

19. Sad news: 2nd Story Theatre is closing.

20. Curt Schilling of 38 Studios fame is backing a pro-Trump conspiracy. Via The Daily Beast: "Schilling’s Facebook post includes a link to a pro-QAnon video that presents a version of the conspiracy theory that’s wild even by the already warped standards of the QAnon community. Filled with images of hooded figures and secret society meeting, the video’s narrator posits that every president since Ronald Reagan has been a 'criminal president' allied with a global cabal responsible for all the evil in the world. The video’s narrator blames this cabal for, among other things, orchestrating the Sandy Hook and Las Vegas mass shootings, “hijacking” North Korea’s Kim dynasty to force them to make nuclear missiles, and, according to one especially surprising segment of the video, forcing Miley Cyrus to abandon her family-friendly 'Hannah Montana' image in an effort to destabilize the American family structure. The solution to these deep state machinations, according to the video, is an alliance between Trump, the military and foreign figures like Vladimir Putin, who supposedly helped convince Trump to run for president to stop America’s villainous government bureaucrats."