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

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The big day is finally at hand. After months (years?) of anticipation, Election Day in Rhode Island is just a few days away, following a tumultuous week in local politics. We’re here to break it all down, so thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1) House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was already facing a competitive race for his state representative seat in Cranston before news broke of new allegations of sexual harassment involving two lawmakers. As documented by WPRI-TV’s Ted Nesi, many legislators had been aware of the alleged harassment for years. Mattiello now faces questions about his handling of the situation involving Reps. Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence) and Cale Keable (D-Burrillville). The emergence of a new claim of sexual harassment involving the Statehouse isn’t surprising; rumors involving Keable (who denies any harassment) have floated around the Capitol, although lawmakers were unwilling to go on the record – until this week. Now, the emergence of the story through a leaked email suggests an effort to damage Mattiello’s re-election hopes. (Protecting sources is serious business for us reporters, so Nesi was understandably unwilling to talk about the genesis of his scoop or where it came from. During an appearance on The Public’s Radio Political Roundtable this week, he said, “The election timing, I’m sure played into it, partly.” Nesi said he also suspected Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee “affected a lot of people, how that played out – the Brett Kavanaugh hearings – and that might have also played into why this suddenly emerged.”) In the (very) short term, the negative cloud posed by the Keable story marks another potential millstone for Mattiello as he tries to maintain his hold on power. (And Keable’s re-election prospects are uncertain in the face of another challenge by Republican David Place, who lost their 2016 race by 134 votes.) Yet it also points to how the reckoning involving Statehouse-related sexual harassment is still playing out.

2) Two of Rhode Island’s most prominent Democrats – Gov. Gina Raimondo and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse – remain favorites to win re-election on Tuesday. The high-profile race with the greatest uncertainty is Speaker Mattiello’s fight to overcome another challenge from Republican Steve Frias (who lost his 2016 race by just 85 votes). I spent time with both candidates on the campaign trail while reporting this story. Meanwhile, even if he wins his state rep race, Mattiello faces opposition to remaining as speaker from a growing number of groups, including the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, Rhode Island Young Democrats, The Woman Project and Portsmouth Democrats. Provided he wins on Tuesday, Mattiello would move quickly to consolidate his support. Would he have the votes to maintain the speakership? Most likely, although a different outcome is not inconceivable to some reps. (House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi of Warwick is considered a strong contender to claim the speakership if Mattiello loses his state rep race, although other lawmakers could also be expected to vie for the post. Shekarchi declined a request for comment.) 

3) As of early afternoon Friday, about about 200 fewer mail ballots had been requested in House district 15 than in 2016 (when mail ballots pushed Mattiello to victory over Frias), according to the Cranston Board of Canvassers. Of the roughly 568 mail ballots requested this year, roughly 400 had been returned as of Friday early afternoon (compared with about 721 returned mail ballots in 2016). The number for the amount of returned mail ballots could remain in flux through Tuesday.

4) Scenes from the race for governor: Gov. Raimondo, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline are among the Democrats staging a GOTV rally at 6 pm Sunday at the Southside Cultural Center. The RI GOP counters with a GOTV 'Weekend of Action.' .... Republican Allan Fung picked up an endorsement from the Cranston Herald and turned in an aggressive performance for the final gubernatorial debate, on WJAR-TV NBC10. Fung’s campaign touted his appearance as a win; Raimondo’s campaign argued that Fung proved “that he does not have the judgement or temperament to be governor.” …. Fung’s campaign spokesman, Andrew Augustus, left the campaign due to offensive tweets from his college days. The NRA endorsed Fung, although he didn’t publicize that …. Fung’s campaign also pointed to state Democrats’ support for a mailer linking independent Joe Trillo with President Trump to suggest “they’re in cahoots.” … Raimondo picked up endorsements from the ProJo, Boston Globe, and a group of RI mayors. She pledged to expand job training if she wins re-election … The final poll ahead of the election by WPRI/RWU showed Raimondo with 45 percent of the support, Fung with 34 percent, and Trillo with 9 percent. Trillo said his own poll showed him with 33 percent of the vote.

5) With RI’s 2018 election season almost in the books, has it been the best of times, the worst of times or somewhere in between? Winners will contend that the best candidates prevailed. BUT: 1) there were far fewer gubernatorial debates than in recent election cycles, and the respective Democratic and Republican front runners almost entirely avoided debates ahead of the primary; 2) Raimondo has outspent Fung by about 3:1, indcating a less-than-level playing field; 3) Fung largely avoided reporters ahead of the primary, speaking mostly to conservative-leaning talk radio. His campaign would not let reporters ask Fung questions after his October 2017 campaign announcement, and the GOP standard-bearer from 2014 went many months before staging another campaign event; 5) The tiny GOP faction in the General Assembly risks losing more seats, Republican candidates for state general offices mustered little visible support from voters. GOP treasurer candidate Mike Riley unleashed an angry tirade on his blog and later told the AP that a threat he made was actually in jest.

6) Election night: Mayor Fung will be at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Gov. Raimondo, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and most other top Democrats will be at the Providence Biltmore. Speaker Mattiello will be at the Oaklawn Grange in Cranston.

7) Here’s a rundown on some top General Assembly races to watch (in no particular order).

HOUSE: Independent Luis Vargas makes another attempt to knock off Rep. Joseph Almeida (D-Providence); Democrat Christopher Millea vs. Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), who had flirted with a run for LG; independent Ernie Nardolillo vs. Rep. Sherry Roberts (R-West Greenwich); a hard-fought and sometimes acrimonious fight in East Greenwich between Democrat Justine Caldwell and GOP Rep. Anthony Giarrusso; independent Ewa Dzwierzynsky takes another shot at Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown); activist Lauren Niedel-Gresh vs Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster); independent John Cullen, Republican John Lyle and former Democratic rep Mary Ann Shallcross Smith vie for the seat being vacated by Rep. Jay O’Grady (D-Lincoln); RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell challenges Rep. Alex Marszalkowski (D-Cumberland); Terri Cortvriend tries to oust Rep. Ken Mendonca (R-Portsmouth), in a district that has been known to flip back and forth between Democrats and Republicans; and Rebecca Schiff is considered one of the best GOP prospects in her fight with Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Jamestown).

SENATE: Republican Stephanie Westgate challenges Sen. Jim Seveney (D-Portsmouth); Republican Billy Charette vs. Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland), in a race still feeling the aftermath of sore feelings from a local mayoral race; Republican Jessica De la Cruz vs Democrat Kevin Heitke for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Fogarty (D-Glocester); Democrat Jennifer Douglas tries to get past Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton); Republican Dana Gee and Democrat Bridget Valverde square off in East Greenwich.

8) For a sign of the latest fractures among Rhode Island Democrats, consider the reaction when Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee seemingly endorsed former rep Doug Gablinske, the independent challenger to Rep. Susan Donovan (D-Bristol). Gablinske hailed the endorsement Thursday, along with one from Bristol’s Republican town chair, as a sign of his broad support. But Bristol Democrats were among those incensed by the move. “The Bristol Democrats endorsed Lt. Governor McKee in the Democratic Primary because he said he shared our Democratic values and principles,” the group said in a statement. “McKee’s decision to partner with the Republicans in their endorsement of Doug Gablinske, proves that this was nothing but political rhetoric.” UPDATE I: And then Friday night, McKee issued a statement saying it was all a misunderstanding and that he's actually backing Donovan. McKee's campaign spokesman, Mike Trainor, declined comment on whether the backlash was a factor in the situation. UPDATE II: Gablinkse says there was no misunderstanding. In a statement released over the weekend, Gablinske said, "Although pressure from the extremists progressives in the Democratic Party has forced Lt Governor McKee to walk back his support of my candidacy, I will always appreciate Dan's friendship and his work on education reform. However, I unequivocally did not misunderstand his support for what it was, which was support for my candidacy. The press release that we sent out announcing Dan's support of my candidacy was sent to his chief of staff for clearance. Dan personally told me that it was 'OK' to send out the press release at a Halloween Party campaign event I sponsored in Bristol last Sunday-which he attended. I supported Dan in his Democrat Primary in September against progressive Aaron Regunberg, while the progressive Democrats did not support Dan, so I am disappointed that blind party loyalty seems now to have taken precedence over our mutual political accomplishments. The moderate and traditional side of the Democrat Party will not succeed in pushing back this progressive takeover of the party if they don't stand up to them for what they are, which is extremists, spendthrifts and elitist who think they know what is best for everyone and are unwilling to compromise. I hope that voters will remember to vote for candidates who actually stand up for them rather than the extremists of both political parties. This divide can only be solved by the voters, who need to send a message to both parties by electing moderate and centrist candidates."

9) Then again, the endorsements from Rhode Island Right to Life for a host of establishment Smith Hill Democrats offers a reminder of how Rhode Island politics doesn’t fit neatly with outside assumptions. Those winning RIRTL’s support include Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, and a number of Democratic senators, along with Speaker Mattiello, Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi, and plenty of Democratic reps.

10) There’s growing support from both Democrats and Republicans for moving power away from leadership in the General Assembly. Whether this actually goes anywhere is open to question, particularly without changes at the top. But here’s part of the case from Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) and Sen-elect Sam Bell (D-Providence) would be good for small-d democracy: “One of the ways in which the Assembly is broken is the manner in which we elect leadership. Currently, we do so via a roll call/voice vote. We respectfully request and dutifully demand that this process be changed to a secret ballot, as is required by Rhode Island law, and as is the practice of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. A roll call/voice vote is a problem because of the antiquated yet robust system of rewards and punishments, alive and well in the Rogue Island General Assembly. The roll call/voice vote allows the winning leadership team to know the identities of those who voted for them and those who voted against them. And then come...the rewards and punishment. Instead of praising all for voting her or his conscience, instead of calling for bygones to be bygones and for Democrats to unite behind the winning leadership team, instead, those who voted for the winning leadership team quickly become the winners and the insiders while the losers and the outsiders head to legislative Siberia. The winners/insiders are rewarded with committee chairmanships, committee appointments, the sponsorship of important bills, legislative grants, desirable offices and many other perks. The ‘losers’ so to speak, are left to ‘pound sand,’ struggling to get hearings and with little chance of getting a bill passed. The real losers, of course, are the people of Rhode Island, who must live under a broken political process ….”

11) Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza laughed out loud at independent rival Dee Dee Witman during an ABC6 debate this week. The reason? Witman’s mention of how she’s developing a plan to shore up Providence’s pension – and how it won’t be ready until after Election Day. Even Scott MacKay, political analyst for The Public’s Radio, found that hard to swallow – he compared Witman’s envisioned pension fix to Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam War. But as a savvy East Sider noted to me, Elorza’s plan of monetizing Providence’s water supply remains DOA at the Statehouse, at least for now – so for all intents and purposes, he lacks a pension fix, too. Meanwhile WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan joined MacKay, Maureen Moakley, and myself to discuss Providence politics this week. As McGowan noted, the real concern for Providence residents should be the possibility of Elorza losing interest in seeking a pension fix, and instead just sloughing the problem off on someone else down the road.

12) State Rep. Teresa Tanzi says the latest harassment case involving the General Assembly shows how the legislature lacks an effective process for dealing with harassment allegations. As I reported this week, that’s due in part to how the RI Commission for Human Rights typically lacks jurisdiction in cases where fellow lawmakers are not in an employee relationship. Speaker Mattiello has suggested complaints could go the HR department that is part of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly. But Tanzi’s says that office isn’t equipped to deal with harassment complaints, and that it’s a bad idea anyway, since the speaker effectively controls JCLS.

12) After last week’s horrific attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the attempt to hurt or kill a series of people through pipe bombs, almost 80 percent of Americans fear that incivility will lead to violence, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. But they’re divided on who bears the most blame: “More say President Trump is the most to blame than say the same thing about Democrats, the media or Republicans in Congress. Specifically, 42 percent say the president is the most to blame, while about a quarter to a third say the media are the most to blame. That finding, of course, is sharply divided along party lines. Seventy-one percent of Democrats say Trump is the most to blame. Forty-four percent of Republicans say Democrats in Congress are the most to blame with another 42 percent saying the media are the most to blame. Among independents, 45 percent say Trump is the most to blame and another 30 percent say the media are the most to blame.” 

13) With election 2018 almost over, is it too soon to look ahead to 2022, when General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea could be on a collision course, via a Democratic gubernatorial primary, possibly joined by AG-in-waiting Peter Neronha and Mayor Elorza?

14) Yours truly contributed to an NPR overview looking at races for governor across the nation.

15) What’s on voters’ minds ahead of the mid-term elections? Via Pew: “Health care and the economy are among the top voting issues. About three-quarters of registered voters cite health care (75%) and the economy (74%) as very important issues to their vote this year, but there are partisan divisions. Nearly nine-in-ten Democratic candidate supporters (88%) say health care is very important, compared with six-in-ten Republican supporters. On the economy, 85% of Republican voters cite this as a very important issue for their vote, compared with 66% of Democratic voters. In the survey, conducted amid the Senate’s confirmation proceedings for Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, large shares of Democratic (81%) and Republican voters (72%) also said Supreme Court appointments would be a very important voting issue. Partisans are also divided on other national issues. While 85% of Democratic voters say the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities will be very important in their vote, just 43% of Republicans say the same. Democrats also are much more likely than Republicans to cite the environment as a very important voting issue (by 82% to 38%). And the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people is cited as a very important issue by two-thirds of Democrats (66%) and just 24% of Republicans.”

16) Phil Eil on how to constructively criticize the media.

17) Is meta-analysis a better way to boost trust in media organizations?

 18) “World widlife ‘falls by 58% in 40 years’

19) Also via BBC: “A professor of surgery says students have spent so much time in front of screens and so little time using their hands that they have lost the dexterity for stitching or sewing up patients.”

20) In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren head into Election Day in strong shape, and Bay State voters appear prepared to reject a ballot question regarding mandatory staffing for nurses.