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


Election Day has come and gone – and with the exception of heightened turbulence in the Rhode Island House, the state’s political landscape remains mostly unchanged. 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. 

By Thursday night, Election Day and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s decisive re-election win over Republican Allan Fung almost seemed like old news. The action was at Chapel Grille in Cranston, where House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello -- as expected -- lined up the votes to retain his powerful post. It was Mattiello’s second win of the week, after he dispatched GOP state rep challenger Steve Frias, and the speaker described his Democratic caucus support as a victory over a coordinated progressive attack. But the 21 reps and reps-elect who voted against Mattiello say they defy a simple description. More significantly, opposition from almost one-third of the 75-member chamber seems bound to spark a stormy House session in 2019, making it harder for leadership to pass bills. Mattiello told me it’s premature to ask whether he’ll have the votes to pass the budget, although he defended his leadership style and expressed confidence things will improve over time. Then again, the nine Republicans in the new House session could join with the 21 Democratic rebels for a level of budget chaos not seen since 2004. (That was when dissident Dems and Republicans opposed the budget, leading then-Majority Leader Gordon Fox to decry efforts to put “lipstick on a pig.”) As it stands, the current rebels are upset not just about process issues and the concentrated power of the speakership, but also perceived personal sleights, Mattiello’s temperament (the speaker insists he’s collaborative and listens to others), and his handling of the harassment allegation made by Rep. Katherine Kazarian of East Providence. (In a statement, Mattiello said, “Just like these representatives, I respected Representative Kazarian’s requests to keep this matter private. This is a three-year-old issue whose timing is politically suspect.”) Moving ahead, do these grievances fade or intensify with time?

2) Georgia Hollister Isman, state director for the progressive group RI Working Families, offered some prescient views in a memo ahead of voting on Tuesday (when progressives picked up a string of seats; meanwhile, women will represent 42 legislative seats in 2019, up from 36 in 2018). Here’s her first point: “The Statehouse will be more progressive and more female in 2019. We made big progress toward gender parity and progressive power in the primary. We expect to see that continue on Tuesday. Progressive incumbents are running strong campaigns and are less likely to lose their seats to Republicans or Independents than some of the more moderate Democrats. This provides yet more evidence that what are often thought of as progressive issue positions -- $15 an hour minimum wage, protecting a woman’s right to choose, Medicare for All -- are mainstream values in Rhode Island and good politics all around. Some terrific progressive women -- mostly from the southern part of the state -- are poised to take seats held by Republicans (or open seats formerly held by conservative Democrats, in the case of Melissa Murray, running for 24th Senate district seat previously held by Marc Cote). Given all of this, we will go into the 2019 legislative season in a substantially stronger position win fair pay and $15 an hour minimum wage as well as other priorities.”  

3) Gov. Gina Raimondo had a series of advantages heading into the just-past campaign season: incumbency, an improving economy, her skill as a powerhouse fundraiser, and a strong campaign team. Raimondo outspent GOP opponent Allan Fung by a factor of about 3 to 1, dropping more than $6 million into her campaign, and a string of independent groups also chipped in for her. Perhaps that’s why Fung decried the difficulty of going up against what he called the machine in Rhode Island. I asked Raimondo on election night if things would have been different had she and Fung competed on an equal campaign finance footing. She shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I know we won. We won big. We got a clear majority and it’s a chance to finish the job we started.” Then again, Raimondo probably had her pension overhaul on the mind when she ran for general treasurer in 2010. It was bound to be controversial – and you didn’t have to be an expert to know a big campaign account would help keep her in office. For better or worse, that’s how the game gets played in American politics. And yes, the Raimondo and Fung campaigns both used a flotilla of TV ads to paint either Cranston or Rhode Island as a dystopia. In the end, Rhode Islanders spoke and Raimondo’s almost 53 percent of the vote (the best showing by a RI gubernatorial candidate in more than 15 years) can be seen as a validation of her time in public office. Raimondo might want to send a thank you note to Matt Brown. Although her campaign team was concerned about Brown’s progressive challenge, Raimondo’s team turned on the jets, scored a big primary win, and kept running. For his part, Fung kept a low profile in the primary and then struggled to boost his statewide appeal.

4) Gov. Raimondo offered a direct response -- “Yes” – when I asked if she would rule out the possibility of leaving office before the end of her second term. During her victory speech, the governor said the focus of her next term will be trying to spread more widely the benefits of Rhode Island’s economic recovery. (Many economists expect a recession within the next few years, so that could pose a serious complication.) Regardless, it won’t be a surprise if Raimondo faces pressure to increase her national profile ahead of 2020. She’s one of a small number of Democratic woman governors, an adept fundraiser, and someone who can speak the language of business people and progressives alike. Asked about this, Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said, “I think Raimondo actually likes the job of being governor, so I do think she’s likely to finish a second term. But this is politics and there are times when opportunities present themselves that are difficult to turn down. In the immediate future, though, she is slated to take the chair of the Democratic Governors Association for 2019 and perhaps 2020. That is an opportunity to raise her profile outside the state, especially if she stays on through 2020.” Meanwhile, for those who question the national prospects for a Democrat from a small state with few electoral votes, there’s always the example set by Joe Biden.

5) State Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), speaking on Bonus Q&A this week on The Public’s Radio, said she’s not aware of any other allegations of Statehouse-related sexual harassment that rise to the level of the allegations against former House Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable of Burrillville (who denies any harassment). “But there is a culture up there where people feel that they can get away with things,” she said. Harassment is “not rampant. It’s not an Animal House, but it doesn’t have the type of leadership from the top that shows this is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

6) Rhode Island Republicans had a tough time on Election Day. Robert Flanders got just 38 percent of the vote in his challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Steve Frias lost his second bid to nab the state rep seat held by Speaker Mattiello (even if he helped expose rifts among Democrats). Republicans also suffered a net loss of seats in the RI House, from 11 to 9, while holding steady with five seats in the Senate. (The only incumbent Democrat to lose a seat was Rep. Cale Keable of Burrillville, amid recent allegations of harassment; he denies the claims.) RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, who lost his challenge to Rep. Alex Marszalkowski (D-Cumberland), said he’s proud of the GOP candidates and the party’s efforts to assist them. But he said national issues overshadowed local Republicans. “We will take the appropriate time to assess how to crack the blueness of this state,” Bell said. “As to my leadership, even if we won every seat we challenged I likely would not have stayed on after my term expires in March. I will always be involved and who knows where I might go from here. The thankless volunteer chairmanship is extraordinarily time-consuming and after almost four years, I am thankful my wife and kids were able to pick me out of a lineup.”

7) In a time of political polarization, some glimmers of partisan outreach: Bell stopped by Marszalkowski’s victory celebration to congratulate him. “As I told him, he is a good person and I hope that my challenge against him makes him an even better legislator,” Bell said, after I asked about his visit. Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Chippendale (R-Foster), who cruised to a re-election victory, invited his Democratic opponent, Lauren Niedel-Gresh, to take a spot on his ‘constituent services’ committee, and the former combatants continued a friendly rapport on Twitter. 

8) Elections this week reinforced the idea that American politics is getting more extreme; Democratic bastions are getting more Democratic, and Republican strongholds are getting more Republican. Here’s a view from John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of RI, on what might be done to address the issue of political polarization: “Political polarization has many causes, some of which we can’t do anything about, like the geographic sorting of like-minded people. But there are some very real efforts to deal with one source -- political gerrymandering that packs like-minded citizens into safe districts that are growing ever more extreme. On Tuesday voters in four states, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Utah (unofficial results as of this writing), passed reforms to the redistricting processes in those states, with the goal of creating more competitive maps in the 2020 redistricting cycle. Common Cause supported all of those, plus on that passed earlier in the year in Ohio, and will be pushing a legislative effort to put a question on the Rhode Island ballot in 2020.” The Washington Post has details on how voters are stripping redistricting power from partisan politicians. 

9) More (condensed) observations made ahead of Tuesday’s election from Georgia Hollister Isman of RI Working Families: “New forms of voter communication are effective, but door-to-door canvassing still matters most. We’ve experimented with texting voters this cycle, both in the primary and the general elections and are learning some valuable things about this relatively new form of direct communication. Nearly everyone read their texts, and a surprising number of people will write back to tell you how they feel about a candidate …. This technology is an exciting addition to grassroots campaigns, but it is no substitute for shoe leather …. Progressive Democratic women running tough campaigns against Republicans (and who represent the Democratic Party’s best chances to pick up seats) are still largely ignored …. This year, progressive women are the best candidates and yet they still meet with resistance. The future of the political leadership in Rhode Island, and especially among Democrats, will be female and progressive. The Democratic Party establishment should get on board if they care about engaging and representing Rhode Islanders -- as well as winning -- rather than reinforcing patriarchal power …. Leadership at the State House has become a salient topic for voters. Voters are paying surprisingly close attention to how the people’s business is carried out in the State House. This was a theme in the primary and it has remained one even in the bigger, less politically clued-in general election electorate. The log jam of legislation, the power of corporate lobbyists, leadership’s willingness to protect insiders at the expense of others, and toleration of sexual harassment in the State House have all become issues that are as salient as many public policies. Voters are demanding to know that their legislators will be independent, accountable to the community, and open in the way they do business.

10) Even with fewer GOP reps, Blake Filippi and Mike Chippendale could play a significant role as the respective new House Republican leader and minority whip. Both are well-liked in the chamber and could add to the support for changing what Filippi calls the imperial speakership. Filippi was first elected in 2014, and he has a noteworthy background as a lawyer-organic cattle farmer whose father, Paul, owned the Celebrity Club in Providence. Like one of his predecessors as minority leader, Brian Newberry, Filippi is a fiscal conservative who leans more moderate on social issues.

11) Back when Arthur Gregg Sulzberger was working as a reporter at the ProJo around 2005, it was clear he was destined for bigger things. That was due to droit du seignur (“the divine right of kings), and how he’s part of the family that runs The New York Times. Sure enough, Sulzberger moved up to become publisher of the NYT in January 2018. As it happens, his wife, Molly Messick, also has Rhode Island connections (beyond having worked at Gimlet, the outfit that makes Crimetown). Like Sulzberger, she graduated from Brown University, while also working at Brown Student Radio.

12) State Rep. Robert Craven (D-North Kingstown) is seen as a strong prospect for the vacant chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee.

13) U.S. Rep. David Cicilline is among the beneficiaries of how Democrats retook the House on Tuesday. Cicilline is trying to move his way up the ladder, competing with two peers for the post of assistant Democratic leader. Asked on Election Day if he could see himself one day taking over the post of U.S. speaker, Cicilline laughed and said, “We have to first take the House back, but I’ll do anything I can to be sure that I’m in the leadership, so that Rhode Island has a voice at the leadership table.”

14) Massachusetts voters this week approved the creation of a commission of volunteers to examine the issue of campaign finance in the state. Here’s what Common Cause’s John Marion says about the next steps for campaign finance reform in RI: “Rhode Islanders will have a front row seat for the soon-to-be created commission in Massachusetts charged with making suggestions for how to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That’s a different approach than Rhode Island took, which was passing a General Assembly resolution in 2012 calling for a constitutional amendment. Given the difficulty in passing a federal constitutional amendment, the Massachusetts commission may not drive real change to our campaign finance system. In 2019 Common Cause Rhode Island will unveil a new bill to reform the public financing of elections for statewide offices, including extending our current system to the primary elections. That bill will also extend the public financing system to include state legislative elections. In a one-party state it makes little sense to have a public financing system for the general election only. There are innovative systems like Seattle’s voucher program that are showing how to attract more participation in our democracy.”  

15) Via Dan McGowan: How Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza cruised to victory, amid what some thought might be a stiffer challenge from independent rival Dee Dee Witman

16) Back in the day, Ken Block thought Rhode Islanders might glom onto a centrist effort that eschewed the extremes of left and right. Block ran as the Moderate Party candidate for governor in 2010, and when Block ran as a Republican in 2014, the late Robert “Cool Moose” Healey had a stronger showing as a Moderate Party candidate, attracting almost 22 percent of the vote. The latest Moderate hopeful, William Gilbert, attracted just 2.7 percent of the vote, so the Moderate Party will lose its recognition from the state. Meanwhile, Gary Sasse shares word of plans to launch a Rhode Island chapter of No Labels, another group that tries to focus on areas of centrist agreement. “In January, we will be announcing the creation of a Problem Solvers Coalition and Unity Convention,” Sasse writes via email. “In the meantime, No Labels is working with the Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress to reform the rules under which the House of Representatives operates.”

17) RI-related out of state political nuggets: U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, whose 2012 run was piloted by West Warwick native Paul Tencher, was among the Democrats who lost this week. Tencher now works as CoS for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts …. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has a narrow lead over RI native Martha McSally, a Republican, in a U.S. Senate race in Arizona …. Joel Coon, who ran Patrick Lynch’s short-lived RI gubernatorial campaign in 2010, helped pilot a victory for Democrat U.S. Rep-elect Mary Gay Scanlon, the first woman congressional representative in her area.

18) Sen-elect Sam Bell (D-Providence) continues to rock the boat even before being sworn in to his new post. In an unusual move for a Democrat, he voted against Senate President Dominick Ruggerio during a caucus at the Statehouse Thursday night. Bell said his stance was based on Ruggerio’s opposition “to many of the core principles of the Democratic Party,” including abortion rights. In prepared remarks, Bell said, “My constituents’ perception is that the chamber should be more open, more democratic, and more collaborative in its approach-and I agree with them. So much legislation that a majority of Rhode Islanders support has been held up for years. The people of our state deserve more from us. That being said, I am fully aware that I have not yet served in the chamber, so I have only seen it from the outside. I am optimistic that I may be pleasantly surprised about how things work. Early signs, however, have not been what I had hoped for.” More on the Senate caucus from Ted Nesi.

19) Looking back on the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice.

20) Jerry Elmer writes about the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

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