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

Oct 27, 2017

The past week has featured a blur of campaign announcements, and Rhode Island’s 2018 campaign season is just getting started. 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. Will Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s handling of the Joe DeLorenzo controversy come back to haunt him? On Thursday, word came that DeLorenzo had left the Rhode Island Democratic Party, and that James Diossa – the well-liked mayor of Central Falls -- will replace him as the party’s second vice chairman. But the DeLorenzo issue might have lasting consequences at the Statehouse. For starters, it’s very unusual to see the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs take an effective vote against the speaker, as the RIADTC did in joining the call for DeLorenzo’s exit earlier this week. On the other hand, Mattiello produce an outcome that got DeLorenzo to go, on his own terms (albeit a week later than otherwise possible). That's significant when you consider how the speaker's membership in the House of Representatives includes a big chunk of socially conservative Democrats whose beliefs overlap, to some degree, with DeLorenzo. But in Diossa, Mattiello also put in place a younger, more progressive individual who represents a sharp contrast from DeLorenzo. Meanwhile, political reporters like me framed the overall scrape as one of progressives vs. the old guard. And sure, there's a level of inside baseball to this, since Joe DeLorenzo is hardly a household name in Rhode Island. Yet to many of the Rhode Islanders who were paying attention, the issue was one of fundamental decency – and DeLorenzo had flunked the test in part by questioning Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s allegation of sexual harassment and making an apology that didn’t even mention Tanzi. That unleashed a torrent of anger among progressives and raises the question of whether the controversy will put Joe D on the doorsteps and mailboxes of Democratic primary voters next September.

2. Rhode Island could be the scene of an unusual four-way Republican primary for governor next year. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan announced campaigns this week, former Rep. Joe Trillo said he's 99 percent committed, and businessman Giovanni Feroce is leaning toward a launch next year, despite his well-publicized financial issues. Fung remains the favorite for now, after losing to Gov. Gina Raimondo by four points in 2014. He hopes to win votes with a message that he's managed Cranston well, in contrast to some of the governor's well-publicized controveries, and that she's too closely aligned with "her friends on Smith Hill." (That may cause a wry smile for some Raimondo loyalists, considering her sometimes-fractious relationship with the legislature.) Yet more candidates introduces more variables into the race with a tiny voting pool (31,929 in 2014), raising a variety of questions: will the multi-candidate field make it harder for Fung to raise money? Will Morgan or Trillo better capture the passions of GOP primary voters? Who will win the battle for votes in Cran-Wick? And significantly, will President Donald Trump come to Rhode Island to campaign for Trillo? (Trillo declined comment when asked about that this week.) Republicans have high hopes of ousting Raimondo -- whose approval rating has remained well south of 50 percent in publicly available polls, suggesting she has failed to connect with Rhode Islanders on some level, despite general improvements in the economy. That helps explain why the race has drawn the attention of the Republican Governors Association. In Rhode Island, the GOP has nowhere to go but up, after getting locked out of state and federal offices in 2014, for the first time in decades. Yet Raimondo has ample resources to fuel her campaign, and few insiders doubt her tenacity in a tough fight.

3. Did you notice how it was the Democratic Governors Association that responded quickly and most forcefully, not the Rhode Island Democratic Party, after Minority Leader Morgan and Mayor Fung announced their campaigns? That suggests an ongoing chill between Speaker Mattiello and Gov. Raimondo -- and it also raises doubts about whether Rhode Island Democrats will run the kind of coordinated campaign next year likely most desired by Raimondo and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. (This column first pointed to a vacuum in RI Democrats' messaging capacity in 2015.)

4. There was a big shift this week in the stance of Rhode Island elected officials toward the proposed PawSox stadium in Pawtucket, raising questions about whether the project will move ahead. Separate comments by Gov. Raimondo, Senate Finance Chairman William Conley, and Speaker Mattiello show that public officials have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the deal, at least for right now. Now, the ball is in the PawSox' court, to use a metaphor from a different sport. The team's willingness to confidentially share profit and loss details -- barring information that raises additional red flags -- might spark progress toward a resolution. The pivot also shows how elected officials, encouraged by public pressure, are taking their roles as fiscal watchdogs more seriously after the counter-example of 38 Studios. Still, state Rep. Ken Mendonca (R-Portsmouth) is just one of the lawmakers pointing to additional questions. The PawSox financial condition "is one piece," Mendonca said on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week. "There are several unanswered questions that we have regarding this deal. To list them, whether they still haven't secured the property [for the stadium; there's a legal dispute]. The legislation that's in place still has eminent domain in it, and that's a concern; if it passes, then it means that all 39 cities and towns here can then use that provision. Whether there's long-term maintenance that hasn't been built into this. There's still quite a few questions ... I think it's important that we look at that and some of the comments that Mr. [Larry] Lucchino has made about his concerns about the viability of the PawSox in this state if they don't get the infusion to help build the stadium."

5. Democrat Rebecca Kislak plans to run for the House District 4 seat being vacated by Aaron Regunberg in Providence. Kislak describes herself as "a seasoned lawyer and policy expert," with a particular focus on healthcare and degrees from Brown University and Georgetown University Law School. Her experience includes serving as a previous director of the Rhode Island Medical-Legal Partnership. Kislak currently serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her Twitter profile calls her a "fan of building strong more connected communities."

6. Progressive supporters were delighted when two-term state Rep. Aaron Regunberg of Providence kicked off his Democratic primary challenge to Lt. Gov. Dan McKee this week. Regunberg delivered an impassioned speech, patiently took questions from reporters about everything from his height (6'4") to policy details, and even landed some attention later in the week from CNN. But if McKee announces a re-election run next month, part of his attack will likely include questioning Regunberg's experience outside of community organizing. Or as Ken Block asked on Twitter, "How does someone with ZERO business experience become Chair of Small Biz Advisory Council. Rep needs broader experience to be effective." For his part, Regunberg points to the tangible gains he's helped make as an activist and legislator, including the new law introducing paid sick days to Rhode Island in 2018 for workers who don't currently get them.

7. Kobi Dennis wants to use his campaign for mayor of Providence to get more people involved in politics. That could be a big lift, considering how young adults and people left behind by government -- two key constituencies for Dennis -- are hard to galvanize. But he's got a plan, as Dennis told me in an interview on RI Public Radio this week. "I go into barbershops, these are men that are in the community that own homes, cars, businesses, and they say, 'I've never voted -- who is the mayor?' They don't even know the mayor's name. To me, that's shameful .... I'm going to be going places other politicians wouldn't go. I'll be on street corners, and I actually have a community group building some voter booths. They're going to have wheels on them and I'm going to take them to the community and show people, 'step on in. Step on in.' And they're going to say, 'What is this?' And this is where you need to be, this is our future. Vote. And it's not necessarily vote for Kobi. It's just vote, get active, be a part of the change."

8. Long before Rhode Island made a bid for Amazon, a video was produced in the bygone '90s, in an effort to bring the New England Patriots to a new home in Providence. The tape now seems dated, although it features a pitch by Buddy Cianci toward the end and extols some of the same Ocean State charms being hawked to Bezos and his crew.

9. Amazon's pursuit of world domination helps explain why CVS is looking at buying Aetna.

10. The Women's Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, which began meeting in earnest after President Trump's election last November, emerged as a force in the battle over Joe DeLorenzo and his place with RI Democrats. I asked one of the members of the caucus, Justine Caldwell, about what kind of impact she expects the group to make moving ahead. Here's her answer: "Our mission is to get more women into elected office in Rhode Island from School Committees and Town Councils to the State House. But it’s both a great time and a demoralizing time to be a Democratic woman even here in Rhode Island. The Women’s Caucus helps us recommit to each other, our causes, and what it means to be a Democrat. Being a Democrat means you value inclusivity, equality, and justice; and when you're a woman, you know just how hard some of those fights are. For me, the spark in that room every month comes from smart, energized women taking time out of their lives to come together and talk about what matters to women and families in Rhode Island. That’s what being a Democrat is all about. That’s why I keep coming back: to see the values I believe in represented by women from all over our state who believe like I do that the Democratic Party needs to lead in 2018 and beyond." Not surprisingly, one legislative focus for the caucus will be fighting for a bill to create a separate Rhode Island law protecting abortion rights.

11. Steve Ahlquist has done a public service by reporting and frequently posting videos of public meetings and other scenes from the body politics. So it caught our attention when Ahlquist's material appeared this week on his own web site, rather than the typical destination of liberal RI Future. Steve told me he's on a hiatus of sorts from RI Future and is unsure whether he'll return. Asked for comment, RI Future head Bob Plain said, "I'm very sad Steve left RI Future, but I also very much understand why anyone would want to do their own thing."

12. GateHouse Media made another addition to its empire in southern New England this week, buying up the Newport Daily News and affiliated properties for an undisclosed price. Besides owning The Providence Journal, Gatehouse now owns papers in Fall River, New Bedford, and Worcester. Being able to aggregate a broad audience is part of the company's business plan, as I told RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison in a discussion about the sale. But Gatehouse also has a reputation for cutting costs -- something we've seen with repeated buyouts and layoffs at the ProJo. “Today is one of the saddest days of my life — a day I have always hoped would never come — when I must tell you all that the Sherman family has decided that we must sell the papers,” Albert K. "Buck" Sherman Jr., retired publishing board president of the Newport Daily News, said while announcing the news. Sherman didn't make his reasons explicit, according to the account in the Daily News, but he clearly laments the time when family-owned newspapers were the rule rather than the rare exception.

13. With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe: if ravens are surprisingly intelligent, why do they have a scary reputation?

14. News this week about the sale of the Providence Biltmore sparked memories of a classic tale, as told by reporter-turned-mystery writer Bruce DeSilva in a long-ago Rhode Island Monthly feature about the ProJo: "By the early 1970s, the Journal-Bulletin had become less a newspaper than the state stenographer, reporting the official version of Rhode Island life as expressed by businessmen, public officials, and the police. Day after day, the paper was crammed with local trivia. 'It was anti-news,' [reporter Brian] Jones says. 'It was the newspaper of record gone berserk.' 'One day, someone called the city desk and said they heard there was a kangaroo in the lobby of the Biltmore,' says Fraser Smith, then a Journal-Bulletin reporter and now a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. 'I went over and looked around. No kangaroo. I asked people, 'Had there been one there earlier?' No. I came back and told the editor, "No kangaroo.' He said, Okay, in that case just give me two or three inches [of copy].' The thinking was, if somebody out there had heard there was a kangaroo in the Biltmore, we had to let them know it wasn't true. And that wasn't the only 'no kangaroo' story I ever had to write."

15. It says a lot about the depth of long-running problems with UHIP, the $400 million system for administering human service benefits in Rhode Island, when even state Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown), who is generally favorable toward Gov. Raimondo, has difficulty containing his frustration. “While I am pleased the governor has secured a $58.6 million credit from Deloitte Consulting, in addition to Deloitte agreeing to cover the cost of any federal fines and penalties, I am extremely frustrated and disappointed by the recent Deloitte disclosure of backlogged applications in the RI-Bridges system (UHIP - Unified Health Infrastructure Project)," DiPalma said in a statement this week. The official number of applications that have been backlogged is still unknown, but has been estimated to be in the thousands. This is yet another, in a series of issues, which have plagued the beleaguered system. I have been actively following the development of RI-Bridges since it ‘went live’ in 2016 and regrettably, a multitude of challenges have manifested themselves with the computer system since going live. In my professional opinion, we shouldn’t expect major improvements to occur any time soon operationally or financially without significant changes. The system remains unstable, and it is unclear what the adverse impact to the state budget and our residents will be in the coming months."

16. Mayor Fung's campaign announcement said his administration, if elected, would focus in part on cutting taxes. (There were no details, and Fung was hustled from the room without taking questions from reporters.) Meanwhile, there are indications from some other states that tax-cutting efforts haven't worked out as planned. Via The Christian Science Monitor, "As in Kansas, where tax cuts in 2012 led not to supersized economic growth but to a fiscal cliff, Oklahoma may serve as a cautionary tale in the national debate over the efficacy of cutting personal and business taxes in order to spur spending and investment. Like Kansas’s Republican governor, Sam Brownback, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin was elected in 2010’s 'Tea Party' wave election that gave her Republican party a free hand at fiscal experimentation. Governor Fallin vowed to eliminate state income taxes and make Oklahoma more attractive to business, in part by shrinking the state government. Fallin’s tax cuts were less drastic than those in Kansas, which saw an immediate drop in revenues. But the global crash in oil prices in 2014 laid bare Oklahoma’s fiscal vulnerabilities. Yet the state failed to roll back generous tax breaks for oil and gas producers and other powerful industries, even as budget deficits piled up, year by year."

17. Closer to home, the $237 million deficit for Rhode Island's next fiscal year raises additional questions about the sustainability of the car tax. "That is going to be very interesting to see," Rep. Ken Mendonca (R-Portsmouth), a member of the House Finance Committee, said during the taping of this week's RIPR Bonus Q&A. "As we know, we just got some revenue numbers and the revenue numbers are off a little bit than what we had expected. We also lost some funds regarding the tax because of the delay of the passing of the budget, so we lost some of the Internet tax and cigarette taxes. That is going to be something we're going to have to watch. We're really going to have to see, are we going to be able to get some of those revenues back, or we're going to have to take a hard look" at changes to the car tax phaseout.

18. Did you know that the TV classic Candid Camera began as a radio show and was a forerunner of our world of reality TV and selfies? Give a listen to this fascinating account via Radiolab: "Candid Camera is one of the most original – and one of the most mischievous – TV shows of all time. Admirers hailed its creator Allen Funt as a poet of the everyday.  Critics denounced him as a Peeping Tom. Funt sought to capture people at their most unguarded, their most spontaneous, their most natural. And he did. But as the show succeeded, it started to change the way we thought not only of reality television, but also of reality itself. Looking back at the show now, a half century later, it’s hard NOT to see so many of our preoccupations – privacy, propriety, publicity, authenticity – through a funhouse mirror, darkly."

19. Controversial talk-show host John DePetro, no longer with WADK in Newport, plans to make an announcement about his next move Monday.

20. Some worthy highlights from my RI Public Radio colleagues this week: John Bender looks at the question of whether children are getting enough free play time, in a world of changing recess. Elsewhere, give a listen to Chuck Hinman's sound-rich first installment on trying to learn to play cello as an adult.

21. "The Secretive Family Making Billions From The Opioid Crisis"

22. Toward the end of a podcast (well worth a listen!) with Politico's Isaac Dovere, director-actor-activist Rob Reiner touches on how the volume control in Tesla cars go to 11 -- since Elon Musk is a fan of a classic scene in This is Spinal Tap.