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

Feb 2, 2018

The political heat is rising, slowly but surely, as we move closer to election season. 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. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza seems like a happy guy these days and it's easy to see why: he can use his State of the City address Tuesday to crow about how Rhode Island's capital city is boasting a surplus, along with a rainy day fund and a two-notch improvement in its credit rating; the mayor and his girlfriend, Stephanie Gonzalez, are expecting a baby in a few months; the first-term mayor is a favorite for re-election this November, and Elorza, a Patriots' season-ticket holder, will get to see his team (from the comfort of home) back in the Super Bowl this weekend. In putting Providence finances on a better track, Elorza likens his approach to a physician: "Like a doctor, you have to stabilize the patient, you have to stop the bleeding," he said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week. Yet he acknowledged that the tough work of addressing Providence's long-term obligations for pensions and retiree healthcare remains to be done. Elorza is pinning his hopes on legislative approval for a plan to monetize the Providence Water Supply Board. "I'm willing to put that full amount into our pension fund, which would bring us to about 60 to 65 percent funded status, from 27 percent," he said. "And if we're able to do that, we're looking at savings on a yearly basis of $30-to-$40 million for the city." A similar proposal was DOA at the Statehouse last year, and new legislation has yet to be introduced. Elorza said he remains determined to win support for monetizing Providence's water supply, even if it takes years. He frames the issue as one of statewide importance, due to the fiscal stakes for the capital city: "We're making the case to the General Assembly that, first of all, this is not a bailout of Providence. This is an asset that we own. And we have a solution to our pension challenges, all we're looking for is authorization from the state."

2. Patricia Morgan is hiring two experienced operatives with Republican Governors Association experience as part of her campaign to win Rhode Island's GOP gubernatorial primary. Josh Robinson, co-founder of RedPrint Strategy, a media and digital consulting firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, has signed on to Morgan's campaign. Robinson was formerly political director for the RGA, overseeing a $55 million budget, according to his bio. Morgan said she expected to bring aboard another RGA veteran as her campaign manager, but declined to provide specifics since the details weren't finalized. Speaking of her campaign, Morgan said, "I'm putting my foot on the gas." Cranston Mayor Allan Fung maintains a financial edge on the GOP side of the race for governor, with $240,572 in his campaign account at the end of Q4, compared with $117,330 for Morgan. (Another Republican, Giovanni Feroce, does not have an active campaign account.)

3. Elsewhere in the race for governor, Gov. Gina Raimondo scaled another fundraising peak with her Q4 filing, bringing her campaign balance to a robust $3.3 million, at around the same time that Morning Consult's latest survey put her approval/disapproval numbers at 40/47. Low approval numbers don't doom a candidate to defeat -- just ask David Cicilline, whose approval rating dipped below 30 percent in 2012. Yet Raimondo's less than stellar polling support lends hopes to Republicans like Mayor Fung, who used a video this week to criticize the Democratic governor .... on public safety in Providence. As local reporters have indicated, crime in Providence (and elsewhere) has generally been on the decline since the 1990s (although Raimondo also used a public safety line of attack against then-Mayor Angel Taveras during a 2014 Democratic primary). on RIPR's Political Roundtable, Mayor Elorza reacted: “Mayor Fung mentioned the Providence of his youth. In the early 1990s we had a crime rate that was as twice as high as it is today, so I’m not exactly sure what he’s talking about. But this is a page straight out of the Trump playbook ..." Still, it's not surprising to see Fung trying to expand his line of attack against Raimondo beyond the obvious issue of UHIP. One question to watch moving forward is the extent to which outside money flows to Republicans in Rhode Island. The RNC has a big financial edge heading into mid-terms, yet it remains to be seen if the RGA will prioritize RI's gubernatorial race on the national map. Meanwhile, RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell tweeted that he had dinner with President Trump and "got a commitment of help to prevent [Raimondo] from getting re-inaugurated."

4. The word "exodus" -- to describe an outflow of journalistic talent from The Providence Journal -- was first used in a Providence Newspaper Guild newsletter in 2001, amid a bitter contract dispute between the Guild and Belo, the Dallas-based company that owned the ProJo at the time. But the exit of staffers really intensified after that, particularly with a 2008 buyout and an increasingly frequent series of layoffs and voluntary departures since then. The changes have been especially striking of late, with the decision of two excellent reporters, Kate Bramson and Jennifer Bodgan, to take jobs in state government. By my count, the ProJo now has 15 news reporters (not including columnists and sports reporters) -- less than a tenth of the number that once worked on Fountain Street. Yet it's no secret that the newspaper industry is struggling and that opportunities to change journalistic jobs while staying in Rhode Island are few and far between. Some (here and here) question the sudden move from journalism to state government. But Journal staffers have gone without a raise for 10 years (some nominal increases are planned later this year, thanks to a recent agreement) and individual reporters are now being asked to cover geographical areas that were once covered by a bureau of journalists. Meanwhile, it's telling that the ProJo reporters who have left in recent years have, by and large, gone to university or government jobs. Back on Fountain Street, 15 reporters is still enough to do a lot of compelling work. As ProJo Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg notes, suggestions that job-hunting affected ProJo reporters' reporting is baseless, and he vows, "The departure of any reporter isn’t going to change our mission." Yet the shrinking number of reporters keeping an eye on state and local government throughout southern New England is certainly bad for the public interest.

5. Related I: now that Jennifer Bogdan is set to be Gov. Raimondo's deputy communications director, that could set the stage for the governor's press secretary, David Ortiz, to move to her (as-yet unannounced) re-election campaign later this year. Ortiz is a skilled communicator and a veteran of Angel Taveras' team at City Hall, as well as AS220 and PBN.

6. Related II. While some ProJo employees are voting with their feet, GateHouse Media CEO Kirk Davis maintained an upbeat tone in a "looking ahead" letter obtained by RIPR. Excerpts: "Despite the dramatic shift occurring in retail, we continued to demonstrate an ability to outperform our traditional publishing peers. And, although we saw revenue decline in 2017, we’re a lot less 'traditional' than we used to be. We have put many of the building blocks in place to grow again .... It is quality journalism, whether delivered in print or on desktop and mobile devices, which keeps us relevant in our communities and serves as the foundation of our business .... We view this year as pivotal in scaling many of the wonderful new businesses we’ve invested in. We are ready to GROW! Achieving this growth, with an emphasis on digital revenue growth, is at the foundation of our Newspaper Publishing Division’s Accelerating Change initiative. We believe that greater centralization of functional areas will enable more consistent implementation of best practices and scale opportunities, and also heighten accountability. Among our highest priorities is to focus intensely on assessing opportunities to better serve our readers. My commitment is to facilitate an honest dialogue about where investments are needed, and ensure we’re accountable in realizing the improvements that should result."

7. Sam Bell, the former state coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and an outspoken critic of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, has raised more than $31,000, although he declined to specify when I asked earlier this week which office he's seeking. Bell lives in the district represented by Daniel McKiernan in the House, and Paul Jabour in the Senate; both are planning to seek re-election. (As previously reported in TGIF, Nick Autiello is already running against Jabour.)

8. U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts got a lot of attention this week after delivering the Democratic response to President Trump's State of the Union address. E.J. Dionne Jr., a Fall River native, writing in The Washington Post, said the selection "sent a welcoming signal to the party's lost souls. While Hillary Clinton won the city in 2016, deep economic discontent allowed Trump to up the GOP’s share by 11 points. Kennedy brought with him his family’s tradition of confronting dividers on behalf of a diverse alliance, a role Barack Obama famously played 14 years ago. 'Bullies may land a punch,' Kennedy declared. 'They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.' The vigorous nods this generated in Democratic living rooms around the country could probably power Fall River for a decade. But it shows how much politics has changed that choosing Kennedy to carry the torch was controversial. For younger generations, 'Kennedy' as a concept is so five decades ago. He is a white guy with ginger hair speaking for the party at a moment when African Americans, Latinos and women are in the ascendancy in the Democratic coalition. Its members differ sharply over whether they should even try to bring home white working people who strayed to Trump. Many want to forge a new majority without them."

9. PawSox saga: The Boston Globe's Jon Chesto -- in a story headlined, "Worcester has a shot at luring the PawSox" -- notes, "Worcester officials have an important advantage: They don’t need to go through our Legislature. The Baker administration can contribute millions of dollars — potentially tens of millions — through the MassWorks infrastructure program, which doled out $85 million in 2017." Yet does Charlie Baker really want to set a precedent in a state loaded with professional sports teams, from the New England Revolution to the Red Sox, that millions of dollars could be available if and when they want a new home?

10. Speaking about Care New England, the state's second-largest hospital group, Brown University President Christina Paxson tells Ted Nesi, “The issues that are at stake are so important to every single Rhode Islander. They are just first order of importance. This is about access to health care, quality of health care, economic development in the state, access to health care for underserved communities – so many, many dimensions.” So with a very possible Boston drift in RI's hospital landscape, will lawmakers take up laws requiring a certain threshold of service to low-income Rhode Islanders and other vulnerable communities?

11. House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi (D-Warwick) had an evocative line during the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative lunch this week: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." That's a reflection of how politics is a participatory sport, and how individuals or interest groups that don't register their points of view tend not to figure in the equation.

12. It might be a stretch for some to think that the Moderate Party of RI could approach its impact from 2014, when Robert "Cool Moose" Healey attracted more than 20 percent of the vote for governor. Healey, sadly, is no longer with us. But Moderate Party Chairman Bill Gilbert has loaned himself more than $100,000 to show doubters that the party is serious. Exactly who will carry the Moderate banner in the gubernatorial race remains unclear for now. But a Mod candidate would add to a field with a Democrat, Republican and at least one independent, likely lowering the percentage needed to win in November. Gilbert offered this comment on the party's plans: "The Moderate Party of RI has two interrelated goals for 2018. First, to field a candidate for governor who is capable of articulating a leadership vision for the state in a way the two major parties have not, and executing a campaign that receives sufficient votes to retain the party’s ballot access; Second, to provide organization, advise and support for consensus-building, reform-minded candidates to any public office who want to distinguish themselves from partisanship, intra-party bickering, or general poor results of the two major parties."

13. On H.P. Lovecraft's troubling legacy: "The city of Providence, Rhode Island, mostly celebrates the legacy of author H. P. Lovecraft – one of the fathers of horror fiction and, increasingly, a pop culture icon. But there’s a lot to grapple with – and his bleak, wordy prose about incomprehensible interstellar monsters is far from the most difficult thing about Lovecraft." For more, listen to this podcast.

14. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke this week at Roger Williams University Law School and Temple Beth-El in Providence. Here's an excerpt from Scott MacKay's dispatch on the latter: "As a woman in the overwhelmingly male profession of the law, Ginsburg faced a wide spectrum of discrimination, which became the fulcrum for her emergence as a lawyer battling for women’s rights and equality. The status of women in the law profession she describes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s hardly seems believable today, but of course it existed. Women professors in law schools were routinely paid far less than men –the rationale being that men had to support families. It wasn’t just the white collar legal profession that was suffused with prejudice yoked to sex. She describes in detail a case where Columbia University fired women maintenance workers, called “maids,” while preserving jobs for male maintenance workers, labeled 'janitors.' She talked about her tenure working on the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. When she began in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court had never found a gender-based work classification system unconstitutional. In those days, she recounted, women couldn’t legally work in some states as a bar tender unless they were the wife or daughter of a tavern owner."

14B. Ginsburg was the eighth current or sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice to speak at RWU Law, a situation aided, no doubt, by how Judge Bruce Selya of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals is vice chair of the school's board of directors. RWU spokesman Ed Fitzpatrick provided these details on previous appearances: "Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave the law school’s first commencement address in 1996, and law students have since heard from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. (2008), Justice Antonin Scalia (2008), Justice Stephen G. Breyer (2011), Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. (2012), Justice Elena Kagan (2013) and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (2013)." Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Brown University is bringing in Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday, February 7.

15. The RI AFL-CIO has endorsed Sandra Cano in the race for the state Senate seat vacated by James Doyle in Pawtucket. According to the union, "Cano received the Rhode Island AFL-CIO endorsement based on her response to questions posed about issues important to working families.

16. "Why, RI, Why?" asks the Hartford Courant, responding to a recent ProJo editorial with this (excerpt): "A little interstate competition is fine, but if Connecticut suffers, so does Rhode Island — and all of New England, for that matter. Connecticut is losing residents at a troubling rate, but Rhode Island has an outmigration problem of its own. From 2015 to 2016, the Ocean State experienced a net loss of about 2,000 tax filers, who took with them more than $182 million in adjusted gross income. The top destination states for people who fled Rhode Island were Massachusetts, Florida and — wait for it — Connecticut. Connecticut residents moved to Rhode Island as well, of course. But Connecticut’s population is 3½ times as big as Rhode Island’s. So the 1,175 tax filers who left Rhode Island for Connecticut represent a far larger portion of the Ocean State than the 1,220 who moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island. If any state should be concerned about losing residents to its neighbor, it’s Rhode Island." Looks like the ball is in your court, Ed Achorn.

17. While former GOP senator John Pagliarini's elevation as Senate parliamentarian might strike some as an indicator of the cross-party unity that generally characterizes that chamber, former House Speaker John Harwood also picked a Republican, former minority leader David Dumas, as parliamentarian in the more boisterous House. That was perceived as part of the calculus when GOP votes enabled Harwood to win the speakership in 1993.

18. Dave Butler came out of retirement to lead the ProJo newsroom in 2015, after Belo sold the paper to GateHouse Media. Now, he's ensconced at the Boston Herald, near the office used by top editor Joe Sciacca. A source there said Butler is doing an assessment of the Herald newsroom, interviewing employees ahead of a decision on the sale of the newspaper. A winning bidder is expected to be named later this month; GateHouse Media is among the bidders.

19. "The State of Our Politics Is Divided, Mistrustful and Engaged"

20. Here's the rundown on the newly elected leaders of the Women's Caucus of the RI Democratic Party, via a news release from the party: "The Caucus -- led initially by Sen. Gayle Goldin, Rep. Grace Diaz, Rep. Shelby Maldonado and Rep. Lauren Carson -- has engaged hundreds of women in monthly workshops about the political and election process. The new officers elected by the membership are Sulina Mohanty, Chair; Bridget Valverdi, Vice Chair; Jessica Vega, Secretary; Darlene Allen, Treasurer; Michelle McGaw. Congressional District-1; Jordan Hevenor Congressional District-2; Joanne Borodemos, Kent County; Tracy Ramos, Bristol County; Abby Godino, Washington County; Tracy LeBeau, Providence County; and Danielle Abbott, Newport Country. Also elected: Abigail Altabef, Town Committee 1, June Speakman, Town Committee 2. The Board will serve an initial one-year term; subsequent terms will be for two years, per their bylaws. (Copies of board member resumes will be uploaded to our website.) 'Over the past year, the Women’s Caucus has grown to over 160 members, thrown a successful fundraiser, held monthly meetings, voted on a resolution to support reproductive rights, connected with women who are ready to run for office, and made sure our voices have been heard in Rhode Island. I cannot wait to see what great accomplishments this next year and this new board will bring,' said founding co-chair Sen. Gayle Goldin."

21. "Here's what Tom Brady eats on an 'average day' " Excerpt: "In addition to his strict regime of mostly plant-based foods, Brady follows a so-called alkaline diet, which purports to minimize muscle inflammation. Long story short, he generally tries to limit 'acidifying' foods — such as white rice and bread, but also cold cuts, pineapples, and yogurt, to name a few — to 20 percent of his diet. The other 80 percent he says should be made up of alkalizing foods, like Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and dandelion greens."

22. Why dogs have floppy ears -- an animated tale.