TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Mar 31, 2017

More boisterous times in state and national politics. 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. Let's travel back in time to 2006, when the first commercial for Sheldon Whitehouse's Democratic U.S. Senate campaign began with this message: "It's one of the first votes that a senator makes -- will they support a U.S. Senate controlled by the Republicans or the Democrats? It's on that vote that George Bush's agenda rises or falls." The focus on the majority leader vote merits close attention because of Robert G. Flanders Jr.'s seemingly incipient Republican campaign against Whitehouse. Flanders declined an interview request after news of his exploratory committee emerged earlier this week. Instead, he used a news release to decry hyper-partisanship and cite the need for "practical solutions to the issues facing our country and our state." Flanders, 67, also contrasted himself with Whitehouse by emphasizing his middle-class upbringing. But if the former state Supreme Court justice moves ahead with a campaign, Democrats will hammer how his first vote -- if he wins -- would be for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Nationalizing the race enabled Whitehouse to oust then-Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2006, even though Chafee's approval rating was north of 50 percent at that time. Conversely, if Flanders can nudge Whitehouse to the left and take up more of the middle ground, it would raise his chances of beating the incumbent. "I think Bob Flanders is the best chance we've got," state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell tells me. With state Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-Coventry) set to announce his Senate campaign in May, Bell said he hopes Nardolillo will consider other options if Flanders moves ahead. Meanwhile, with Flanders taking an apparent turn away from a race of governor, it remains to be seen which Republicans -- beyond expected candidate Cranston Mayor Allan Fung -- will try to knock off Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo. Ken Block would say only, "It is early and shaping up to be a very interesting cycle." Meanwhile, Giovanni Feroce's Lincoln Day Dinner speech in North Kingstown is on FB for all to see.

2. The state Senate has been known in recent history for its etiquette, a place where rarely is heard an argument or discouraging word. The big change following Dominck Ruggerio's rise as Senate president was the replacement of Senate Finance Chairman Daniel DaPonte with another East Providence senator Billy Conley, after DaPonte tested the waters to become majority leader. DaPonte sounded off on Facebook: "If this is a window into how the new 'team' will operate, it does not bode well for the institution or the citizens of Rhode Island." In a similar vein, consider the remarks by Sen. Donna Nesselbush of Pawtucket, who resigned her deputy majority leader while voting against new Senate rules Thursday. "I believe our rules should prescribe a more democratic process the Senate must follow when electing new leadership," Nesselbush said. "There should be timelines that allow for a deliberative process worthy of this body and worthy of the words transparency and democracy." (She also objected to how committee chair are chosen by the president, rather than committee members.) Yet in the real world of Rhode Island politics, the key elements in leadership changes are speed and coalition-building. Back in 2014, Nicholas Mattiello moved quickly from his de facto command post at the Old Canteen on Federal Hill, assembling the support that enabled him to succeed Gordon Fox as speaker. And by the time Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey put together their winning team, DaPonte and Nesselbush appeared to be on the outside looking in. (“I have great respect for Senator Nesselbush and would have liked for her to remain a part of our leadership team as a deputy majority leader," Ruggerio said in a statement. "I was a little taken aback by her comments on the floor because she did not offer an amendment and had never expressed concern during the committee process.”)

3. On the surface at least, President Ruggerio used a soft touch with other changes: he elevated Sen. Ana Quezada of Providence as a deputy majority leader; gave progressive Sen. Josh Miller of Cranston a new role as Senate Democratic Policy Caucus chairman; and didn't use committee changes to punish two progressive senators, Jeanine Calkin of Warwick and Gayle Goldin of Providence, who seemed less than happy with the leadership transition. (Sen. James Sheehan of North Kingstown was also moved out as chair of the Oversight Committee, although his chairmanship appeared from the outside to lack the full-blooded support of leadership.) So what does all this show about Ruggerio's leadership style? "He wants to have a cohesive group moving forward, he wants to have an inclusive group moving forward," Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "It's about getting things done. At the end of the day, our electors don't necessarily know who's doing what to whom; they care about results." (A reputed front-runner, DiPalma kept his powder dry when asked on Political Roundtable why he wasn't chosen as Finance chair, noting only that chairs serve at the pleasure of the president.) Meanwhile, time will tell whether any of those unhappy with the recent leadership change choose not to seek re-election in 2018. At the same time, just because you go to Siberia, it doesn't mean you have to stay there, as legislative history shows us through such examples as state Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston), now deputy speaker in the Rhode Island House.

4. Spotted: Governor Gina Raimondo and Senate President Ruggerio lunched Friday at Capriccio.

5. Alisha Pina bridges two distinct eras in the history of the Providence Journal. She started there as an intern in 1995, when the ProJo was a journalistic powerhouse with a national reputation, and was hired as a reporter in 2000 -- just as the threat posed to newspapers by the internet was slowly emerging. Now, 17 years later, Pina becomes the latest in a stream of staffers to voluntarily leave or get laid off. She told RIPR she wants to do something different, in part through her work as the new spokeswoman at the state Department of Human Services, while also acknowledging a level of dissatisfaction with a recent change in her reporting responsibilities. That leaves hanging the question of whether the ProJo is reducing its traditional Statehouse presence from three full-time reporters, a prospect that alarms good-government watchdogs like John Marion of Common Cause of RI. (Journal editor Dave Butler didn't respond to a request for comment.) Perhaps the ProJo is pursuing a new approach, deploying different reporters to cover particular stories on Smith Hill, as with Katherine Gregg's report on abortion-related legislation this week. Regardless, Pina's exit means that Rhode Island's statewide daily lacks any black or Latino reporters.

6. Shoshana Lew, the new chief operating officer for the state Department of Transportation, is the daughter of Jack Lew, President Obama's last Treasury secretary. She succeeds Peter Garino, who left in January, and most recently worked as chief financial officer and assistant secretary for budget and programs for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

7. A hard-fought turnout-and-organizing race is shaping up among the Democrats hoping to succeed Teresa Paiva Weed in Senate District 13. David Allard this week joined Dawn Euer and John Florez -- a noteworthy addition since he'll likely draw from the same progressive base as Euer. There's a Raimondo-ish flavor to Allard's run since he formally served as an outreach manager for the governor, and because Talia Policelli, formerly deputy legislative director for Raimondo, has signed on to manage Allard's campaign. Euer is said to have a strong progressive base, stemming in part from her work for the Marriage Equality RI campaign in 2013, and Florez has built his name recognition as a Newport councilor. The Democratic field may grow larger, and we've yet to hear from any Republican candidates. The deadline for candidates to file declarations is June 8-9. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office has set the primary for July 18 and the special election for August 22.

8. RIPR's Kristin Gourlay talks with Dr. Trista Piccola, director of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, about efforts to move DCYF past a recent cycle of crises involving at-risk children in state care. During RIPR's Political Roundtable this week, I asked Sen. Louis DiPalma about the same question, since he keeps a close eye on the agency. He said much has improved in DCYF, although there remains a long way to go. "The workers that are there come to work every single day figuring out how they're best going to do their job to address those 3,000 children" in state care, he said. DiPalma said a critical recent report by the state child advocate shows that "there's no one solution. There's no one piece, one thing that we do that's going to move the needle completely. It's both complex and complicated issue that's going to take a multi-dimensional solution. It's people, it's money, it's policies, it's quality-assurance, it's supervision, it's training. All of those are going to have to come together."

9. Here's the explanation offered by Larry Berman, the spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, on a series of off-site meetings the speaker has been staging with the 21 female members of the House of Representatives: "Speaker Mattiello and Majority Leader Shekarchi are taking out the 21 Democratic Representatives in three groups of seven each – they have already had one dinner and two more are planned. The dinners are paid through their campaign funds. The speaker and the leader are sensitive to the fact that many of the women are angered by the policies of the Trump Administration. They believe the dinners provide an informal setting to discuss issues of particular concern to women and to thank them for their valuable service to the state."  

10. With President Trump's approval rating in the mid-30s, the thinking is that congressional Democrats don't have much incentive to work the POTUS. "The challenge now, though, is for the party to wield its modest influence strategically—knowing when to shape the Republican agenda when possible and when to try to stop it in its tracks," former Lincoln Chafee staffer-turned-journalist Graham Vyse writes in The New Republic. Vyse also delves into why Democrats are arguing about free college tuition proposals. And to complete the Graham trifecta, he notes how Hillary Clinton isn't done sparring with Donald Trump.

11. When then-AG Patrick Lynch rolled out a unicameral legislature concept during his short-lived 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the proposal seemed little more than a novelty. Writing in Boston Magazine, David S. Bernstein makes the case that eliminating the Massachusetts House of Representatives would significantly improve government in the Bay State. There are some differences between the Rhode Island and Massachusetts legislatures, like how we lack formal conference committees to reconcile bills. (Then again, the not-unheard-of end of session stalemates over competing House/Senate priorities might buttress Bernstein's argument as it applies to the Ocean State. Here's an excerpt: "It’s not a panacea, but switching to a single chamber—a unicameral legislature, instead of the current bicameral arrangement—would be a major positive reform of the legislative process, improving efficiency, transparency, and responsiveness to the public. The bicameral state legislature is a ridiculous anachronism, born of outdated, class-based ideas, that serves only to frustrate progress and limit open government. Still, we and 48 other states (all but Nebraska) keep doing it that way just because it’s always been done that way. For one thing, having two chambers (particularly in a de facto one-party state such as ours) is, literally, government redundancy, with two bodies representing the same people in the same way, and performing the same duties—but with additional chokepoints where interest groups kill what they don’t like, in secret, with no fingerprints or blame. 'The system,” says one Beacon Hill staffer who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal, 'gives the power to the people who just sit on the bill.' ”

12. Writing in the Valley Breeze, Common Cause's John Marion makes the case for auditing some of RI's election results: "It’s easy to imagine far-fetched scenarios, including some worthy of a podcast like 'Crimetown,' that might lead to an incorrect election result. But it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that administrative or technical errors pose a more likely threat to election integrity. If your computer has ever crashed you’ve been the victim of a bad line of code. The same could happen with our election equipment. The solution does not come from the plot of a popular podcast, however. Rather it comes from the 33 states that perform post-election audits of some type. It’s time for Rhode Island to join those other states and put some people’s imaginations at ease."

13. While marijuana legalization once again faces an uncertain outlook in the General Assembly, even with the rise of Senate President Ruggerio, some advocates point to the drug war as a powerful reason to embrace legalization. Speaking during last week's RIPR Bonus Q&A, the NAACP's Jim Vincent points to disproportionately high arrests of African-Americans for marijuana charges. "Three times more blacks than whites are arrested for marijuana, even though the usage is the same and in some quarter people feel that whites use marijuana more than blacks. So that's an outrage -- that kind of targeting doesn't do anybody any good; once you have a record, that's when the problems really begin. You can't get housing, you can't get a job, you can't get a loan to go to school. So basically, it becomes a gateway drug -- a gateway to broken lives, broken families and broken communities, and our community can not stand it any more. It's sucking the life out of it, and we refuse to remain silent."

14. Baseball returns to New England when the Red Sox square off against the Pittsburgh Pirates (rivals in the 1903 World Series, considered the first of modern baseball) at 2 p.m. Monday at Fenway Park. Las Vegas likes a Cubs-Red Sox matchup, but there's a long way to go to October. Here's Over the Monster's preview on the Olde Towne Team. Meanwhile, the drama involving the PawSox and their search for a new home remains in the early innings. Meanwhile, here's an ode to the national pastime by Scott MacKay.

15. West Warwick native Paul Tencher who worked in a series of RI political/government jobs (including CoS to Elizabeth Roberts during her tenure as lieutenant governor) before decamping for itinerant campaign manager jobs and Washington, D.C., has a new gig: chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. In a statement (which noted how Tencher is a lifetime member of Red Sox Nation and a Patriots season-ticket holder), Markey said, “Paul joins our team during an unique time in America, and I am fortunate to have an experienced advisor to lead our efforts in Washington. Paul’s proven track record managing effective organizations and strategic agendas shows he has the leadership, energy and grit to direct my office in this unprecedented time of legislative battles. Paul knows how to motivate others to win, and I know he will use his years of experience in politics and public service to fight for the people of Massachusetts.”

16. The Providence NAACP's Jim Vincent give high marks to Providence Police for significantly ramping up diversity in a recent cadet class, but he said other Rhode Island cities and towns have a long way to go in broadening the makeup of their public-safety forces. "The problem is that they're not committed," Vincent said on Bonus Q&A. He said just a handful of East Providence firefighters are people of color. "In Cranston, you have an all-white, all-male Fire Department," Vincent added, "and I know that I've had meetings with Mayor Fung in terms of trying to change that. And we've looked at some of the barriers, like having to have an EMT [credential] in advance and having people who are able to pay for it with no guarantee of a job, but it goes deeper than that."

17. Ted Nesi has the story on State General Treasurer Seth Magaziner's proposal to allow more municipal pensions into the state-run MERS system.

18. Via Radiolab: "When you think of professional wrestling, you probably picture cartoonish characters like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. But after the Montreal screwjob, the real world lurked just beneath the scripted spectacle of professional wrestling. Simon Adler tells the story of one moment that tore a hole in the fiction of wrestling."

19. Radio has staying power. As JJ Green writes for the Radio Television Digital News Association, "Uninformed bad-mouthing of radio is not new. People have been prematurely eulogizing it for decades, claiming every new technology is going to kill it. But frankly, it’s indestructible. During natural disasters, power outages, places where smart devices and other electronics don’t work, radio is there; a lifeline during those desperate times. And on those bad days and every other day as well, radio comes loaded with indispensable information, education, perhaps most importantly, imagination."

20. Clay Pell and Michelle Kwan are ending their marriage. There's still no word on whether Pell will be a candidate for a general office in 2018.

21. The Pew Research Center has a timely look at "The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online." Excerpt: "Most experts predicted that the builders of open social spaces on global communications networks will find it difficult to support positive change in 'cleaning up' the real-time exchange of information and sharing of diverse ideologies over the next decade, as millions more people around the world become connected for the first time and among the billions already online are many who compete in an arms race of sorts to hack and subvert corrective systems. Those who believe the problems of trolling and other toxic behaviors can be solved say the cure might also be quite damaging. 'One of the biggest challenges will be finding an appropriate balance between protecting anonymity and enforcing consequences for the abusive behavior that has been allowed to characterize online discussions for far too long,' explained expert respondent Bailey Poland, author of 'Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online.' ”

22. Via NPR's Planet Money: "Last month the U.S. Court of International Trade ruled on a question with millions of dollars at stake: Is the Snuggie a blanket with sleeves or a sleeved garment that looks like a blanket?"