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

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The time for raking snow from the roof has given way to the delights of spring and inevitable complaints about heat and humidity. The General Assembly...

The time for raking snow from the roof has given way to the delights of spring and inevitable complaints about heat and humidity. The General Assembly session is headed to busier times and other big issues are simmering. So thanks for stopping by. Feel free to drop me comments and tips at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters.

1. The PawSox did Governor Gina Raimondo a favor by unveiling an initial ask that met with broad public disapproval. That enabled Raimondo to take the side of the angels, saying things like, "[I]’s more important to me that we get it done right and take care of the taxpayers than we get it done quickly." Yet the governor probably doesn't want to see the PawSox pull up stakes and leave Rhode Island. So the battle of perceptions could get more tangled in the weeks to come. For now, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and 195 District Commission chairman Joseph Azrack continue to represent the state in closed-door talks with the PawSox, and it remains unclear when a revised proposal will emerge. Is a ballpark the best use of a chunk of the former I-195 land? Will it be a lost opportunity if the PawSox move on? These questions will continue to frame the debate as the issue plays out -- possibly beyond the end of the legislative session.

2. If Rhode Island's political class was seeking tangible evidence of public attitudes on the PawSox' proposed move to Providence, this poll from Bryant University's Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership didn't provide any clues. Asked why PawSox questions weren't included, institute director Gary Sasse emailed me this response: "There is not a specific proposal to poll. Question would have been do you favor a ballpark in PVD, or do you support a taxpayer subsidy. Not sure what that would tell us. Felt need to survey specific proposals. All other question dealt w specific proposals. Other issue was budget wanted to limit survey to about 5 min." Yet while the details of the PawSox proposal do appear to be in some degree of flux, there would have been real value in measuring public opinion on relevant details. The omission was all the more striking since Sasse himself has framed the handling of the PawSox issue as a key test for Governor Raimondo and the General Assembly. Meanwhile, was anyone surprised by the finding a new generation of elected officials, led by Raimondo, inspire more confidence than the prior regime?

3. Worlds are colliding as the PawSox issue continues to simmer and Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein considers whether to unseal documents related to the state's lawsuit over 38 Studios. On Friday, Silverstein put off arguments about the documents for three weeks. Via WPRO, Curt Schilling is calling for the release of all the details, and the former Red Sox pitcher's tweets suggest a belief that disclosure will ultimately make him look better and the State of Rhode Island, or at least former governor Lincoln Chafee, worse. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello believes it's time for some Rhode Islanders to move past their reflexive opposition to public investment. "There are folks out there that don't want to spend 10 cents on any incentives," Mattiello said following a news conference in Warwick Tuesday (see #5). "That's a race to the bottom and we're not going to [avoid targeted investments.]" Governor Raimondo sent the same message with the incentives in her budget; perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from the Bryant poll is how using "targeted tax credits for businesses" was most popular among five of the governor's economic initiatives, with 59 percent of the support.

4. Operation Backpage -- the effort to publicize the identities of men soliciting undercover police posing as prostitutes in Providence -- is arguably the biggest shaming operation in Rhode Island since a 2002 police raid of an adult-video store in Johnston. The ProJo's Amanda Milkovits, who has done superb reporting on the underground sex trade, tweeted the reaction of some callers upset by Operation Backpage: "They shouldn't do that to grown men, married men." Like Operation Backpage, the Johnston raid produced a surge of media attention. Yet there's a signal difference between a consensual, if unsavory, gathering of men in an adult theater (one of whom later committed suicide, in a situation blamed by critics on homophobia), and the role played by male customers in creating the demand for prostitution and human trafficking.

5. State Representative Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick), a key ally for both Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello got his moment in the sun, literally, when expected rain showers held off during a laudatory Tuesday news conference. The subject was the job-development tax-credit bill introduced by Shekarchi for the third consecutive year. While Shekarchi puts the annual cost at between $7 million and $9 million, he expects the incentive program to generate enough new taxes to be revenue-neutral. The effectiveness of the program remains to be seen. Yet if it's successful, it might represent the kind of singles and doubles that can serve Rhode Island more effectively than lopsided swinging for the fences.

6. Lincoln Chafee tweeted out a link to Thoroughbred Daily News' coverage this week of his interest in the White House. The story is a bit of a farrier fan piece ("the former governor .... who figuratively still has hoofprints on his heart could find himself leading the country"). Yet it also has some good anecdotes, including how Chafee won a horse-racing bet as a young man in Canada and "used the money to buy a round-trip ticket home, hoping to only stay a couple days. He arrived in time to see his father [John Chafee] re-elected in the 1982 Senate." .... Separately, in National Review Online, George Will has some kind words for Chafee, although he sees Bernie Sanders as the tougher intra-party challenger for Hillary Clinton. (Sanders also raised $1.5 million on his first day as a presidential candidate) .... David Scharfenberg, ex of the ProJo and Phoenix, has his own look (metered pay-fence) at Chafee, in the Boston Globe .... Meanwhile, how many more misspellings of the ex-governor's last name will see in the national media before the Democrats choose their standard-bearer?

7. Things about parking lots and cars: 1) Greater City: PVD has the latest on the Old Public Safety Building Memorial Parking Lot -- a place that some of us associate with Memories of Prignano; 2) PBN looks at downtown's 70 acres of surface parking lots; 3) Aaron Renn asks if we've reached peak car.

8. The inside view from the Statehouse is that 2015 will not be the year when marijuana gets legalized and treated like alcohol. With elected officials trying to offer a unified message on the economy (see #5), an expansion of drug-legalization is considered off-message. The outlook might not be any better since 2016 is an election year. Sooner or later, though, the revenue possibilities of taxing marijuana might prove irresistible to state lawmakers.

9. Asked about the journalistic philosophy of the (Worcester) Telegram & Gazette, a former managing editor once told me the paper was "like a big Fitchburg Sentinel." The T&G trailed only the big-city Globe and Herald in circulation among Massachusetts dailies -- covering the Bay State's whole mid-section, almost up to the border with New Hampshire and down into northern Connecticut. Yet newspaper management's ambitions extended mostly to routine local coverage (town meetings, fires, crime, and the like). But that time, with its bygone network of local news bureaus, looks like a golden era in reporting for Central Massachusetts, compared to what's happened in the years since, particularly with ongoing cuts by Gatehouse, the same entity that owns the ProJo. (The T+G puts its frame on the latest developments here.) There are two reasons why what happens in Worcester has broader significance: 1) The question remains whether Gatehouse can effectively scale its concentration of newspaper holdings in southern New England -- and what cost; 2) While beats like Wall Street and Washington are unlikely to evade attention in an era of diminished journalistic resources, the ongoing loss of ad revenue continues to hurt coverage in places like Central Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  

10. Scott MacKay read David Axelrod's Believer: My Forty Years in Politics so you don't have to and he came up with some interesting nuggets on former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy: "Axelrod recalls that 'Patrick, who struggled with addiction as a teenager and would again, so wanted to please his dad, but lived in constant fear of disappointing him.' At one point [during his 1994 run] Kennedy said, 'We have to win this campaign.' Axelrod says that Kennedy spent much of the campaign 'figuratively curled up in a fetal position.' 'In my family, you don’t lose,’ Kennedy told Axelrod. Axelrod says he found that "curious, because his dad [Ted Kennedy lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter] in 1980. Propelled by the family legend, Patrick was also a prisoner of it.’’

11. To what extent does a disengaged public bear responsibility for what happens in Rhode Island? Sam Howard argues that structural impediments play a big role. Ken Block disagrees. (Of course, another school of thought holds that it's generally ok if informed voters are casting most of the ballots.) Regardless, any way you slice it, there's proof that US voter turnout is embarrassing compared with other countries.

12. The Community College of Rhode Island made a bravura pick by choosing Bill Flanagan as commencement speaker for CCRI's 50th graduation exercise next Friday, May 15. Besides being the son of CCRI's first president, he's a novelist, the TV exec who created VH1 Storytellers and, as CCRI's announcement notes, someone who has published in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ and elsewhere. Less well known is how Flanagan is an OG of the Providence scene from back in the day, an era he captured in this story for the Providence Phoenix.

13. While Providence has yet to finalize its quest for a more standardized approach for handing out tax incentives to developers, Pawtucket's City Council and Mayor Don Grebien have signed off on a new tax stabilization ordinance. According to a news release from Pawtucket City Hall, "The new Tax Stabilization Ordinance will provide for a standard five-year administrative approval property tax stabilization for businesses undertaking a minimum of $250,000 in taxable improvements to a property. Upon satisfying the requirements and completion of the improvements, the tax assessor and planning director are able to authorize a five-year phase-in on the taxes attributable to the new investment." The ordinance also includes a process for a 10-year stabilization for businesses investing $5 million in taxable improvements.

14. Susan Cicilline Buonanno was quick out of the gate when Representative Donald Lally (D-Narragansett), the second-longest serving member of the Rhode Island House announced his departure in March. Buonanno, the sister of Congressman David Cicilline, also had the backing of Speaker Mattiello's team, not to mention more campaign cash and endorsements. In the end, though, South Kingstown Town Councilor Carol Hagan McEntee defeated Buonanno, a Narragansett town councilor, by 75 votes. While McEntee calls it hard to gauge the effect of the well-known Cicilline name, she attributes her victory "to a real grassroots campaign," long on door-to-door campaigning and phone trees staffed by her supporters. "It was a lot of work," McEntee said. She's slated to square off June 9 against Republican Robert Trager and independents Elizabeth Candas and Jamie McKnight Jr.

15. I never met Jay Goodman, the highly esteemed Wheaton College professor (and former RI political adviser) who passed away this week at age 75. To give Goodman his due, we turn to this profile by Ted Nesi, who has his own strong ties to Wheaton. Excerpt: "Goodman has had an indelible impact on generations of Wheaton students, many of whom call him a formative influence on their careers in politics, law and academia. Asking them to describe his impact on their lives brings forth praise that’s nothing short of effusive."

16. As one of 11 Republicans in the 75-member House, state Representative Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) has high praise for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. "I think he's done a very good job -- you know, reaching out to the other side, he couldn't be nicer. He's very inclusive, any time you need to talk to him, his doors always open. And I know he's a Democrat, but he's very conservative, by all accounts. We see things a lot in the same way," Giarrusso said during a taping of this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. Giarrusso (who won in 2012 the seat once held by former House minority Leader Robert Watson) is also pragmatic in noting the difficulty of electing more GOP lawmakers in RI's Democratic strongholds. As he puts it, "Why would an army of three take on the US Navy, or something like that?" Ultimately, though, Giarrusso thinks Republicans could increase their ranks if they communicate the need for a more balanced legislature to guard against bad legislation: "You need some defense," he said. "Right now, you look at the way the legislature is comprised, and you can say, we have no defense, we have no goalie, and sometimes we can say we don't even have a referee."

17. A few media reads worth reading: Dan Kennedy shares his take on the reinvention of the Boston Globe's editorial section ..... "The beta version of a new business model for news" .... How cable news distorts events like the Baltimore riots by repeating videotape days after an event ..... How one TV station is using a Pretty Woman-style ad to tout its newscast.

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