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

Aug 31, 2018

We're getting down to the wire, with less than two weeks until Rhode Island's September 12 primary election. 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 run-up to September 12 will be, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Democrat insurgent Matt Brown is pressing his sharp criticism of Gov. Gina Raimondo to anyone who will listen -- as with an appearance this week on The Young Turks -- and Raimondo's campaign unveiled an attack ad aimed at creating more distance from her primary challenger. This is a lopsided fight in some ways. Raimondo entered summer with millions in her campaign account, while Brown is running on fumes. Raimondo has near-universal name recognition in Rhode Island, while Brown is far less well known, due to his extended absence from local politics after an ill-fated 2006 U.S. Senate run. But progressive upsets by under-funded candidates in New York and Florida, not to mention President Trump's win in 2016, illustrate how political outcomes have become more unpredictable, at least in some cases. One important factor is the level of turnout in the race. A recent high point for a Democratic gubernatorial primary came in 2014, when 128,095 voters cast ballots for three relatively well-known candidates, Raimondo, Angel Taveras, and Clay Pell. It's possible -- but not certain -- that the voting pool could be significantly smaller this time around. But a lot of voters remain ornery -- and Brown's campaign is a test case for the level of dissatisfaction facing a nationally heralded governor who continues to face challenges at home.

2. With 12 days until the primary, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung emerged Friday for a debate with GOP rivals Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce on the John DePetro Show on Woonsocket's WNRI. Not surprisingly, Fung mostly used the debate to go after Gov. Raimondo while largely ignoring Morgan and Feroce. Things got more interesting late in the discussion when DePetro asked Fung about his big idea, and the Cranston mayor cited his proposal to cut the state sales tax from 7 to 5 percent. Morgan faulted Fung for not explaining how he'd make up for the loss of more than $300 million in state revenue each year. Fung then responded by blaming Morgan -- a departing member of the tiny GOP faction in the House -- for not doing more to cut state spending, and he insisted the money to cut taxes can be found by rooting out waste and fraud. While Morgan and Fung scrapped, Feroce lamented how the discussion didn't focus more on the future of the state. I moderated RIPR's GOP primary debate this week (Fung declined our invitation to participate) and you can listen to it here. While Fung is considered the front runner on the GOP side, Morgan maintained during the RIPR debate that she'll be a more formidable Raimondo foe and is headed toward victory. "What Allan proved last time," in 2014, "is that he loses to her," Morgan said.

3. Republican Steven Frias offered more evidence this week that he plans to take an aggressive fight to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, via a mailer criticizing the controversy involving Frank Montanaro, director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the hiring and spending arm of the legislature. "We struggle to pay for college, Mattiello's staff got it for free," reads the topline on the mailer. The flip side of the piece features a mock $49,787 check made to Montanaro, drawn on the account of "Cranston taxpayer." The Montanaro story, first reported by WPRI, attracted a lot of attention, and the idea of a Statehouse insider with a six-figure salary and a free tuition perk is grist for Frias' outside narrative. Mattiello was reportedly upset by the mailer, although his campaign spokeswoman, Patti Doyle, maintained an upbeat tone in responding: "The speaker is focused on his own positive, issue-oriented campaign that thus far has addressed jobs and the economy, school safety, elimination of the car tax, women’s health and tax cutting measures." Mattiello has his own mailers, touting his record on the economy and other issues.

4. Within minutes after the end of WPRI-TV's Democratic gubernatorial primary debate on Tuesday, one of Gov. Raimondo's campaign commercials played on television screens across Rhode Island. That epitomizes how Raimondo has relied on ads, in large part, to get her message out while shunning participation in debates with Matt Brown (and Spencer Dickinson). It also speaks to the outsized role played by televised campaign ads in American politics (to the tune of billions of dollars in spending this year). Efforts to create a more level playing field, by getting television stations to offer free air time to candidates, have gone nowhere fast. So the very small number of pre-primary debates in Rhode Island this year may be a sign of where things are headed. (RIPR and other local news organizations have plans for general election debates featuring the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.)

5. Speaking of debates, Aaron Regunberg joined us in-studio this week to talk about his campaign for lieutenant governor and to answer related questions. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee declined our invitation to take part. McKee's campaign released a new ad touting his record on education, While Regunberg's campaign is spending generously on ads, Regunberg and his supporters criticize how Oklahoma energy businesswoman Stacy Schusterman has contributed $50,000 to a super PAC backing McKee's campaign.

6. Which generation has the greatest increase in voter registration in Rhode Island from 2014 to 2018? Would you believe the Silent Generation (people born between 1928-45), which had a 39 percent bump, from 996 to 1,381 over the last four years, according to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office. Boomer (born 1945-64) registrations jumped 30 percent, from 4,163 to 5,423, while Xers (1965-1980) climbed 20 percent, from 5,055 to 6,060. Generation Z (1997-) is up 9 percent, 3,290 to 3,574, while Millennial (1981-1996) registrations dropped 11 percent, from 12,275 to 10,892. (Via Gorbea communications coordinator Joe Graziano: "The time comparison is Jan 1, 2014 to Aug 10, 2014 and Jan 1, 2018 to Aug 10, 2018. In 2014, those in the Gen Z category were pre-registered, but not yet eligible to vote.")

7. PawSox fallout: Brendan McGair uses an open letter to ask Larry Lucchino to give his blessing to keep some form of minor league baseball in Pawtucket .... Speaker Mattiello tells Anita Baffoni that the people of Rhode Island got what they wanted .... Lucchino points to what he calls a flawed public process in RI.

8. Gov. Raimondo focused more attention on the gun issue with this week, backing a directive meant to keep guns (except for those carried by police) out of schools. Rival candidates Joe Trillo, Allan Fung, Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce criticized the governor's approach.

9. Wages for American workers have remained largely flat -- or worse -- over recent decades, helping to fuel the longing for a different time. Via Pew: "On the face of it, these should be heady times for American workers. U.S. unemployment is as low as it’s been in nearly two decades (3.9% as of July) and the nation’s private-sector employers have been adding jobs for 101 straight months – 19.5 million since the Great Recession-related cuts finally abated in early 2010, and 1.5 million just since the beginning of the year. But despite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers."

10. Scott MacKay remembers John McCain. Excerpt: "In a 2000 memoir .... McCain summed up his philosophy: 'Success, wealth, celebrity, gained and kept for private interest are small things…But sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause and your self-respect is assured.' In his final book, McCain, facing death, said, 'I hope those who mourn my passing, and those who don’t, will celebrate a celebrate a happy life in imperfect service to a country made of ideals, whose continued success is the hope of the world wish all of you great adventures, good company and lives as lucky as mine.' ” (Counter-intuitive take from Jack Shafer -- "Are journalists allowed to criticize John McCain?")

11. A mailer sent this week by the state Democratic Party emphasizes Spencer Dickinson, seemingly with the intent of drawing votes away from Matt Brown

12. In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott scrapped a $2.4 billion federally funded bullet train from Orlando to Tampa because, he said, he thought it was a dubious deal for taxpayers. Yet Scott and his wife have since invested at least $3 million, the Tampa Bay Times reports, in a fund with Fortress Investment Group (which helps to manage the parent company of the Providence Journal) and he now backs a high-speed rail being pursued by a Fortress subsidiary between Orlando and Tampa.

13. Heavy traffic congestion flared on I-195 last week, emerging as an issue in a place where we can generally take for granted our ability to get around without too much trouble, before the state relieved the clog by changing course. In the end, the Journal editorialized in favor of Gov. Raimondo: "The governor came up with a plan for fixing Rhode Island’s bridges as cheaply and quickly as possible, after her predecessors had kicked the can for decades. That kind of strong leadership is immensely important to the state."

14. With Labor Day on Monday, read up on RI's Great Textile Strike of 1934.

15. Recent notes in the U.S. Senate race: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was among the pallbears for John McCain. Whitehouse's campaign released a digital spot praising his support for veterans. And like McCain, Whitehouse was interviewed for Active Measures, a documentary on Vladimir Putin's influence outside of Russia. GOP rival Robert Flanders unveiled an ad depicting Whitehouse as being singularly focused on climate change.

16. Barrington native and former White House press secetary Sean Spicer is headling a fundraiser in Exeter for the state Republican Party on September 9 (reception at 7:30).

17. Via the NYT: "The 2018 election cycle has brought a surge of female candidates. A record number of women ran or are running for the Senate, the House and governorships, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Many more are running for state legislatures and local offices. And in the process, they are finding that harassment and threats, already common for women, can be amplified in political races — especially if the candidate is a member of a minority group."

18. Republicans: Former RNC Chair Michael Steele has been named a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown University's Watson Institute .... RI native Martha McSally this week won a GOP primary in Arizona for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Trump critic Jeff Flake.

19. Is any level of drinking a prelude to premature death? That was the suggestion from media coverage of a recent study. But fear not. You can still sip (to some degree) your vino, Bud or craft beer without too much worry, according to Vox: "While no one disputes the damaging effects of heavy drinking, there is a lively debate about what constitutes healthy moderate drinking (and concern about the alcohol industry biasing research about the benefits of light drinking). But the new Lancet paper went much further and made the bold claim that people should drink nothing because even a single drink per day is problematic."

20. Is insider reporting on politics really a thing of the past?