Expect the unexpected in Rhode Island politics, right? Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome (idonnis at ripr dot org), and feel free to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.
1. No it wasn't an overdue April Fools' joke, a story in the Onion, or a Monty Python skit: Lincoln Chafee is serious about exploring a run for the White House. The news struck many Rhode Islanders as absurd, thanks to Chafee's idiosyncrasies and the abysmal approval ratings that dogged him in his one term as governor. (In classic style, his campaign Web site includes a micro-documentary with cameos by Dwight Eisenhower, Dick Cheney, and Silvio Berlusconi.) Yet back in 2006, when Rhode Islanders' dim view of national Republicans cost Chafee a US Senate seat, his approval rating topped 60 percent. That positive perception crumbled under closer scrutiny, in large part due to a governing/messaging style at odds with Rhode Island's real and psychic needs in the aftermath of the Great Recession. So it's not a stretch to suspect Chafee wants to recapture some of his bygone stature, speaking on a national stage about foreign policy, the environment and other topics close to his heart. The Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat has a signature difference from Hillary Clinton in how he voted against the war in Iraq (the only Senate Republican to do so). He's 62, has time on his hands, and certainly doesn't need to earn a salary. So although Chafee is unlikely to be much more than a small part of the 2016 presidential race, that could be more than enough to satisfy an ex-governor who marches to his own distinct beat.
2. Critics of how Rhode Island's proposed pension settlement rap how the deal leaves unanswered a fundamental legal question -- whether or not the state has a legal right to make unilateral changes in penison benefits. During their availability after the settlement was announced in court, Governor Gina Raimondo and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner -- in response to questions by the ProJo's Kathy Gregg -- steered clear of declaring the pension crisis solved once and for all; the not-so-subtle implication is how state officials don't want to rule out additional pension changes in the future. Yet at least one influential union official, Robert Walsh of the National Education Association Rhode Island, appears similarly untroubled by the lack of judicial clarity on the issue. "I think the standard's still the same -- that we have contractual protections and the state would have to make case, ultimately meet a reasonableness case, if there was a greater government purpose to do so," Walsh said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "The pension system, you know, the numbers were pretty bad. There's just no denying that. I would have gotten there on a slower boat to get it fixed than the now-governor had proposed, but it did need to be addressed. I think that it's on the right path now, but there are no guarantees in anything. The government -- shockingly and this is hard for our folks who are used to the contract being sacrosanct -- the government can take your land by eminent domain; they can look at you and say I'm sending you to a foreign country to fight, by imposing the draft; they collect taxes from you; they impose a lot of rules on you and they can change the rules; and that's hard for people to accept, but that's the harsh reality."
3. With Hillary Clinton set to announce her presidential run on Sunday, it's worth noting that she remains quite popular in Rhode Island, and continues to enjoy overwhelming support from the local Democratic establishment. Although Barack Obama proved an unstoppable force in 2008, Clinton clobbered the future president in the Ocean State with 58 percent of the vote -- a reminder of what might have been and what may still be.
4. It's always all about Rhode Island, right? Hillary Clinton is a rock star here; Lincoln Chafee is in the mix; Brown-educated Erica Sagrans is heading Ready 4 (Elizabeth) Warren; Bobby Jindal went to Brown; Providence native Tad Devine is advising Bernie Sanders; and former Martin O'Malley staffer Stephen Neuman is Governor Gina Raimondo's chief of staff.
5. Rocco Quattrocchi, 88, the former RI Senate majority leader and state Democratic chairman, died Friday morning. An old-school Democrat from Providence, Quattrocchi enforced such discipline among his followers that they became known as "Rocco's Robots," a nickname coined by former ProJo political columnist M. Charles Bakst. "He was kind of a stereotypical legislative leader who couldn't be bothered with the outside thing," Bakst recalled. "Their audience is the inside game. They don't spend a lot of time thinking of what people think of them." As majority leader, Quattrocchi was effectively the head of the Senate, since the post of a president was created after legislative downsizing. He lost his power after presiding over a botched 1982 redistricting plan that was successfully challenged in court, leading to a costly 1983 special election and a dramatic, if short-lived, increase in the number of Republicans in the Senate.
6. Given the predictability of the Statehouse, it was completely unsurprising that leadership-backed campaign finance bills cleared House and Senate committees Tuesday, even as a move to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of the legislature was held for further study. The finance bills emerged as ways to address concerns initially raised by state Rep Joe Almeida's arrest, although the bank statements called for in one of the measures would not be public documents. That's the explanation offered by Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed on why they refused to provide bank statements to WPRI's Tim White and Dan McGowan, in spite of the leaders' calls for greater accountability. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if there will be any real support for instituting random audits of campaign finance reports. And there's no clear way to move past the current legislative impasse on the Ethics Commission. (A 2009 state Supreme Court decision stripped the commission of its ability to police the legislature.) Asked what his group will do to try to change the situation, Common Cause of Rhode Island executive director John Marion told me, "We've been surprised by Speaker Mattiello's contention that restoring the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly is special interest, not public interest legislation. We, of course, disagree, and based on our interactions with the citizens of Rhode Island the public disagrees, too. To demonstrate that this is a specious argument on the part of the Speaker, we are working to expand the coalition of groups beyond the good government folks. Every Rhode Islander has a stake in a more ethical General Assembly and we will demonstrate that in the weeks, months, and if necessary, years ahead."
7. Will the lack of development interest in the former I-195 land help the new PawSox ownership as it rolls out a formal ballpark proposal as soon as mid-week? James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) likened the ballpark pitch to an 800-pound gorilla in the room before Jan Brodie, executive director of the I-195 District Commission,offered an update Wednesday to the,Senate Committee on Government Oversight. Brodie began with a familiar reminder on the challenges facing development in Providence: taxes are higher here than in Boston and other nearby cities, and yet the rents that can be charged here are less than elsewhere. Brodie nonetheless held out hope that Governor Raimondo's proposed $25 million incentive for the I-195 land, coupled with some kind of tax enhancement, will spur greater interest from developers. "It will leverage and it will get people interested, which is what we need," she said. Brodie also said she remains in touch with the principals of Cambridge Biolabs and still wants to attract a Providence laboratory.
8. While news organizations and the ACLU didn't like it, the NEA-RI's Robert Walsh believes the gag order imposed on the pension settlement process by Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter "probably helped somewhat." "I don't think it was a mistake," Walsh said during our Bonus Q+A taping. "I could have lived with either decision. It doesn't matter to me. I would be happy to talk with you during the process. It would have been another distraction, and you would have been handling a lot of bits and pieces of information that weren't necessarily accurate. But it's not unusual during a negotiations process .... And everything gets to be fully vetted now: there will be legislation, there will be fairness hearings before the court. I think that in the pre-Twitter age of media this would have been as big a deal as it was in the current environment."
9. If you care about the changing world of media, don't miss Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron's latest take on the change from print to digital. (Short version: original reporting remains vital, as does a commitment to move unsentimentally into the post-print future.) Meanwhile, Brian McGrory, the editor at Baron's former paper, The Boston Globe, is sounding some similar notes.
10. From Elisabeth Harrison's report on the pushback to restore funding in the state budget for private school bussing and books: "Some school committee members have questioned the practice, pointing out that a district like Pawtucket has to pay for bussing for private school students when it does not provide bussing for its own students. When asked how he would respond to that type of complaint, [House Finance Committee chairman Ray] Gallison said the practice saves money for school districts because it allows more families to send their children to private school. Gallison believes without the funding, more children would attend public school, which would add to the cost of public schools."
11. Michael Napolitano, who worked on gubernatorial campaigns for John Robitalle in 2010 and Ken Block in 2014, is part of a new shop, Precision Political Consulting. The group says its advisers include Block, Robitaille, Gary Sasse, Helen Glover, and former House candidate Steve Tetzner.
12. Highlights from my colleagues at Rhode Island Public Radio: Kristin Gourlay reports on how Massachusetts officials are looking to RI for approaches on preventing overdoses .... Elisabeth Harrison talks with Providence students about their hopes for the state's next education commissioner .... Listen Monday as RIPR launches a new periodic series looking at Rhode Island's recovery from the recession. Here's Scott MacKay's preview.
13. Longtime City of Providence employee Ann Gooding, the spokeswoman on David Cicilline's 2002 Providence mayoral campaign, has signed on as communications director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Gooding joins field director Anne Pease, although the RI Democrats remain without an executive director since Jonathan Boucher left to become council/legislative liaison in Providence.
14. "It seems like every firefighter you ask can rattle off examples of 911 calls that didn't come even close to being life-threatening," begins this NPR story about doctors making house calls on tablets carried by Houston firefighters. All this adds up to some very big savings -- "Treating those patients in the ER costs, on average, $600 to $1,200 per visit, compared with $165 to $262 if the patients were treated in an outpatient clinic."
15. Former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch, a business icon for many and a villain to others, is slated to speak to students and faculty Monday at Bryant University. The visit includes a 3:30 pm media roundtable on :why education in business is important in today’s growing global economy."
16. Investigative reporter Stephen Kurkian speaks at the Warwick Barnes & Noble on Saturday, April 19 (1 pm) on his book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist.