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TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

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Inaugural week is almost over, and the hard work of trying to nudge Rhode Island forward begins anew with a fresh slate of politicos. Thanks for...

Inaugural week is almost over, and the hard work of trying to nudge Rhode Island forward begins anew with a fresh slate of politicos. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are invited at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you're welcome to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. With the mercury dipping and a light snow falling Tuesday, there was never serious doubt about moving the swearing-in of Gina Raimondo away from the picturesque south portico of the Statehouse. Rhode Island's first female governor had probably conceived that very image in her mind's eye well before it actually happened. Raimondo's subsequent speech was -- by design -- devoid of fresh news. Instead, the address amplified a simple message: the state's problems won't be solved overnight, although Raimondo said she'll work vigorously to push for a better economy and other key needs. The new governor is known for expecting a lot from her staff and herself - as the story goes, Raimondo toiled for such long hours in her early months as treasurer that she once found herself locked inside the Statehouse. It should help, too, that she's assembled an administration with a mix of fresh faces and people, like Department of Administration nominee Michael DiBiase and legislative director David Cruise, who know their way around Smith Hill. For now, the big question is how Raimondo focuses her energy -- and whether she tries to make a splash before showing her priorities with the unveiling of her first budget in February.

2. Speaking of the budget, both Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello say they want to wipe out Rhode Island's structural deficit, which is expected to top $400 million by fiscal 2019. Making the red ink disappear will take time. Yet Mattiello's commitment to eliminating the deficit marks a significant change from the time, a little more than a year ago, when the concept wasn't even on the radar screen.

3. For all the talk about Boston's booming economy, broad swaths of central, western and southeastern Massachusetts have much more in common with Rhode Island's long-suffering economy. So one level, it made sense for the Bay State's new GOP governor, Charlie Baker, to attend Raimondo's inauguration, and for RI's new chief executive to return the favor Thursday. In different interviews, the two govs talked about how they hope to work together on things like increasing the regional energy supply. At the Statehouse Tuesday, Baker's answer came down to "best practices" when asked how Raimondo and he might collaborate to help depressed cities in both states. Although Baker (who contributed $1,000 to Raimondo's campaign) couldn't name the last Massachusetts governor to attend a Rhode Island inaugural, the moderate Republican's collegiality with the business-friendly Raimondo isn't particularly surprising. Yet things could take a turn for the worse if the PawSox move north across the border, dealing a significant psychic loss to the Ocean State.

4. Republicans now control the US Senate, yet Jack Reed continues to gain influence through the power of seniority: he's the 17th most senior member of the chamber, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and he's moved up three spots on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Reed has become the top Democrat on the Appropriation Committee's Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Subcommittee. The subcommittee, chaired by Maine Republican Susan Collins, controls funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration, as well as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. “This assignment is good news for Rhode Island and puts me in an even stronger position to advocate for the state’s interests," Reed said in a statement. "I look forward to working on a bipartisan basis with Chairman Collins to improve our transportation infrastructure and accelerate economic growth. This subcommittee plays a critical role on a variety of key issues, from transportation to affordable rental housing to looking out for homeless veterans. I want to ensure Rhode Islanders have a voice when it comes to our national transportation and housing priorities. And I want to continue helping Rhode Island’s economy by focusing on efforts to help the state upgrade our roads and bridges, as well as our airports, railways, and ports.”

5. Jim Baron, who passed away this week at age 57, was an old-school reporter who took seriously his role in keeping an eye on Rhode Island politicians, without taking himself too seriously. The longtime Statehouse scribe for the Call of Woonsocket and the Times of Pawtucket wrote with wit, context, and a strong sense of history, and a deep knowledge of legislative procedure. The tributes for Baron from local politicos and other reporters reflect the impact he made in 30 years of covering Smith Hill. "His insightful columns captured the spirit of politics in Rhode Island, and often brought a smile to our faces," said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. "We will miss his insight and wit, both in person and in the pages of the newspaper." A common refrain was that Baron was tough, but fair -- pretty much the ideal for how any self-respecting reporter wants to be remembered. "Even when he was critical of the General Assembly in his weekly columns, he was constructive and usually on target," said House spokesman Larry Berman, a former editor at The Call. "I worked very closely with his wife, Denise Perreault, and both of them were good friends. I fondly remember their wedding.  He was funny, extremely knowledgeable about politics, current and historical events, and a great reporter and columnist.  He will be deeply missed at the State House." Anchor Rising contributor Andrew Morse adds this: "As everyone familiar with RI journalism knows, Jim Baron was both a beat reporter and a columnist. With Jim, there was never any doubt about which type of article you were reading. In all the years I read him, I can't remember any case of Jim the columnist making a guest appearance, even for a paragraph or two, in a story by Jim the reporter. This was an important lesson and example to me as a starting-out blogger, in that he showed that it was possible both a top-flight reporter and a top-flight columnist -- as long as you knew which one you were being when writing a particular piece, and stayed disciplined about your choice." (UPDATE: via a Faye Zuckerman tweet: a celebration of Jim's life will be held Saturday, January 17, at 2 pm, at Bellows Funeral Chapel, 16o River Road, Lincoln.)

6. RIPR ace Morning Edition host/education reporter Elisabeth Harrison broke the news this week of how the deadline has passed for a notice to renew state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's contract. Gist, meanwhile, told Politico she remains focused on implementing the state's five-year education plan. Excerpt: “I’ve never been someone who takes a job and thinks how that’s going to propel me to the next thing. Our goal from the time that I got here is to have the best public schools in America, and Rhode Island I think is positioned to do that.”

7. Here's what's happening with other members of RI's congressional delegation, besides Senator Reed (see item #4) in a time of Republican dominance in DC. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse plans to introduce his first three bills of the year on Tuesday, with the details set to emerge early next week .... This from Congressman David Cicilline: “Despite being in the minority for the last four years, I’ve been able to advance priorities for our state in Congress, including establishing a new national park in the Blackstone River Valley, funding a regional innovation program to support manufacturing,  preventing a reduction in Social Security benefits for seniors, and increasing healthcare funding for veterans. In the new Congress, I’ll continue to do all that I can to help grow our economy, create jobs, make college affordable, strengthen public safety and secure federal funding for Rhode Island. Being in the minority requires both an ability to forge working relationships with colleagues on the other side of the aisle to find common ground when possible and the ability to stand up and fight where important and real differences exist. I’m confident that this new Congress is a new opportunity to address the challenges facing Rhode Island and our country and get some important work done.” .... Congressman Jim Langevin: "Our to-do list is long and includes a jobs bill, infrastructure investment, comprehensive immigration reform and support for American manufacturing. I will also continue my fight for improving our nation’s cyber defenses. Cyber-security is on the minds of many Americans right now in the wake of the Sony hack and the attacks on many private companies, and I am confident that this increased awareness will continue to build momentum for meaningful cyber-security legislation .... I remain committed to supporting career and technical education .... I am also excited about two pieces of legislation that House Democrats have introduced – one to prevent U.S. corporations from seeking tax shelter overseas and another that incentivizes companies to give their employees raises rather than claiming tax-deductible bonuses for company leadership."

8. How did former Brown University president Ruth Simmons land a $100 million contribution -- the university's largest -- from liquor magnate Sidney Frank? The decade-ago contribution enabled Brown to adopt "need-blind" admissions and to build a new life science building. Former Brown professor Darrell West, who will speak tomorrow (Saturday, January 10, 2 pm) at the Newport Art Museum about his book, "Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust," shares this anecdote on the story behind the story: "Cultivating wealthy individuals requires considerable tact, persistence, personal contacts, and know-how. For example, to persuade Frank to give that sum of money, Simmons spent long hours wooing the reclusive and somewhat eccentric older gentleman. He did not like to get dressed up, preferring instead to lounge around his residence wearing pajamas. On occasion, he would invite her into his bedroom to watch his favorite movie videos. While he lay on the bed in his pajamas, she sat in a chair, praying that the film wouldn’t last too long." 

9. Although Mark Smiley plans to give up the state GOP chairmanship after one term, he points to the addition of five Republicans in the RI House (and an independent caucusing with the GOP) in calling his tenure as a success. Smiley said there are some potential candidates thinking about running to succeed him in March -- but none yet willing to be identified. Smiley said he's not seeking another term mostly because he can't justify time needed for the unpaid post. While GOP candidates were shut out of state and federal offices last November for the first time in more than 40 years, Smiley said he nonetheless feels positive since his focus was on gaining legislative seats. The GOP now has 11 of 75 reps and holds steady with five of 38 senators.

10. Other GOP news: Rob Coupe, the spokesman for Allan Fung's run for governor last year, is now director of administration in Cranston .... Ian Prior, who managed Brendan Doherty's 2012 congressional run, is being promoted to national press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2016 cycle.

11. News from my colleagues at Rhode Island Public Radio: Susan Lusi talks with Elisabeth Harrison about Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza's decision to keep her on as school superintendent .... Sean Daly spoke with Catherine Welch about his long run in Rhode Island news .... and Mike Szostak cheers the word that Boston has a chance at hosting the 2024 Olympics.

12. RI Public Radio General Manager Joe O'Connor was the person who hired me in 2009 to be RIPR's political reporter, so I'm less than wholly objective in singing his praises. Yet the facts reinforce how Joe played a major role in transforming an AM station with an uncertain future into a robust FM-based news organization, with strong community support, and with beat reporters covering education, healthcare, the environment, and politics. Joe is something rare for a broadcast GM; not just a forceful ambassador, he also has a serious news background as someone who spent more than 20 years working at ABC News. So while we're sorry to see Joe preparing to leave at the end of the month for WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, we remain grateful for how he built a strong foundation for public radio to move forward in Rhode Island.

13. City Haul: Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, inaugurated earlier this week, is hosting a Twitter Town Hall from 1-2 pm on Monday, January 12, with the hash tag #AskElorza .... Lynne McCormack is staying on as the city's director of Arts, Culture and Tourism, while Adrienne Southgate is the acting city solicitor .... Bonnie Nickerson is the acting head of Planning, Adolfo Bailon was named to lead Neighborhood Services, and Larry Eichler is heading up Strategic Partnerships.

14. Christine Ferguson got taken by surprise when Governor Raimondo decided to replace her as the head of HealthSource RI. Yet Ferguson got a nice victory lap when the New York Times' The Upshot column offered a mostly favorable take. In particular, the story pointed out how 78 percent of Rhode Island customers returned to select a 2015 plan, compared to 40 percent for Healthcare.gov.

15. Former Rhode Islander Aaron Renn takes on what he calls "The Myths of Municipal Mergers." Excerpt: "As for cost savings, evidence suggests that these are vastly exaggerated and that the cost of government can actually go up. This was the case in Indianapolis, where in 2007 the city finally consolidated police departments. The move was projected to save $8.8 million per year. A post-merger audit by the firm KSM Consulting found that actual savings were “negligible.” Corporations frequently manage to save money when merging. That’s because they can pare costs by eliminating redundancy and harmonizing salaries. But in the public sector, nobody is likely to lose his job, and salaries tend to be harmonized to the high water mark."

16. ProJo nuggets: The era of Howard Sutton, who rose from a circulation statistician to become the newspaper's publisher and an influential community figure, quietly ended when Sutton walked out of the Journal building late last month .... the paper is expected to double its single-copy price, from $1 to $2, for a handful of special issues in 2015 .... Gatehouse Media is once again advertising for an investigative reporter and (another) breaking news reporter on Fountain Street .... As part of Gatehouse Media's previously announced plan to consolidate page design and copy-editing functions at a hub in Texas, 13 ad employees will lose their jobs January 31, and 12 workers on the copy desk will be out of work as of February 18. The job cuts are roughly 17 fewer than previously expected by the Providence Newspaper Guild.

17. Narragansett is out with an H.P. Lovecraft line of beers.

TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media