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

Published
Happy Friday, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. There's plenty of news, even in the peak of summer, so we're ready to dive in. Your tips...

Happy Friday, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. There's plenty of news, even in the peak of summer, so we're ready to dive in. Your tips and thoughts remain welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has been one of the few bright spots in recent years for the Rhode Island Republican Party. Although Gina Raimondo wound up beating him in last November's gubernatorial race, Fung had a respectable showing and he seemed secure in his post as the popular mayor of the state's third-largest city. Now, however, a cloud hangs over Fung and his political future, due to critical State Police findings about the Cranston Police Department and Fung's relationship with the department. The net effect of the mayor's approach -- from last year's gubernatorial race to his request for an advisory opinion from the attorney general's office -- has been to delay the process. That's not to say there aren't any legitimate privacy concerns raised by parts of the report. Yet the Republican mayor made a curious choice by picking Cranston's Democratic-controlled City Council as the place where he made his most detailed comments on the State Police report. Speaking Monday, Fung declined to respond to any of the serious problems outlined in a terse four-page letter written by Colonel Steven O'Donnell. Instead, Fung touted his accomplishments, cited the need to do better, and pointed to improvements, like the hiring of Michael Winquist, formerly #2 in the State Police, as chief. Ultimately, though, Fung downplayed a host of findings -- including political interference -- that are sharply at odds with the mayor's self-narrative as an effective city leader. Whether Michael Sepe, longtime chairman of Cranston's Democratic City Committee, will be able to unseat Fung next year remains unclear. In the short term, pressure to release the report is growing, and there will be more questions about its findings. Here's how URI political science professor Maureen Moakley put it on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, "Mayor Fung was riding a tiger. It was clear there were a lot of problems in the Police Department. The attempt to stave off some internal investigations during the [gubernatorial] campaign prompted him to ask for a State Police investigation -- and he got more than he bargained for, and now he's got to deal with it." 

2. Wexford Science & Technology's emergence as the funding source to complete financing for the $220 million South Street Landing project seems auspicious, given how Wexford has proposed a major life-sciences park for part of the former I-195 land. The news broke on the same day as a positive report on Rhode Island's housing market and a key development for Deepwater Wind's initial wind farm (for more on that, see item #10). The trio of events suggest a possible turning of the page for Rhode Island's recovering economy, and positive momentum moving forward.

3. The clash between City Hall and the International Association of Firefighters, Local 799, is shaping up as one of the defining events of Mayor Jorge Elorza's first year in office. Elorza had his share of early stumbles -- not a surprise for someone who took office without previous elective experience. Yet the former law school professor and Housing Court judge has shown signs of growing into the job. Elorza is now using a multi-faceted approach in his quest for lower firefighter overtime costs, simultaneously calling their current contract void and using a carrot-and-stick tack to try to tamp down Local 799's legal challenge. With implementation of the new platoon structure set for Sunday, the mayor predicts the move will eventually save the city between $5 million and $7 million in overtime costs per year. (Local 799 president Paul Doughty, reached late Friday afternoon, said he's declining comment for now). Elorza is drawing praise for his stance from groups such as RI Taxpayers. Yet city unions have long memories, and the mayor's relationship with the different municipal worker groups that all backed Buddy Cianci last year is, relatively speaking, just beginning.

4. Terrible problems involving state-based child welfare agencies, sadly, are all too common, in part due to the intrinsic difficulty of dealing with forgotten and overlooked kids. In relatively prosperous Massachusetts, the agency once known as the Department of Social Services faced its share of crises in past decades. More recently, in 2014, The Boston Globe reported on how more than 95 children have died in state care in Massachusetts since 2001. Meanwhile, a Rhode Island report in 2003 called for "ensuring public accountability," and "developing a planning and evaluation capacity within the Department of Children, Youth and Families." Yet 12 years later, a state audit revealed this week that DCYF lacks basic controls and oversight. For more, listen to RIPR's Kristin Gourlay break down the findings and the state's intended response.

5. With the PawSox sponsoring a junket to Durham, North Carolina, next week, two contrary scenarios continue to play out in the minds of many observers on the team's Providence stadium quest. On one hand, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has always seemed bullish on the general idea of a downtown stadium -- and he clearly has a lot of juice. Yet with public opinion running against the project, Governor Raimondo and most other public officials have reacted quite coolly. The thinking is that ongoing talks are aimed at a so-called revenue-neutral approach, although some onlookers remain deeply skeptical. "Maybe it will be and maybe monkeys will fly," tweeted Gary Sasse. Worcester, meanwhile, says it doesn't want to get "played." So it won't be entirely surprising if the issue bleeds over into the next regular General Assembly session in January. (RI Public Radio, for the record, declined an invitation to go on the trip to Durham.)

7. Rhode Island got shut out on The Hill's annual click-bait worthy rundown of the 50 Most Beautiful politicos in DC, although staffers or electeds with Massachusetts and Connecticut ties did make the cut. Yet the Ocean State has a past honoree (2013) in Governor Raimondo's hard-working spokeswoman, Marie Aberger. "I just try to look, no matter what, like I got some sleep last night," the Cranston native said at the time, in offering a beauty tip. To bring things up to the present, WPRO's Kim Kalunian recently detailed Aberger and fellow staffer Gabe Amo's move from the White House to the Statehouse. Bonus: it's a big summer for Marie -- she's getting married in Newport on August 8. Congrats!

8. Speaking of #TeamGina, Missouri native Stephen Neuman plays a key role in charting strategy and messaging as Raimondo's chief of staff. He came to Rhode Island after having a broad portfolio while serving as director of public affairs for former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, now a Democratic presidential candidate. As a student of crisis management and political communication, Neuman probably has some lively thoughts on the Cranston controversy involving Mayor Fung. Yet like any good staffer, Neuman kept his powder dry, remaining (unsurprisingly) on-message during his appearance this week on RI Public Radio's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A. It still made for some good conversation, especially with the addition of guest panelist Dan McGowan from WPRI.com.

9. Neuman is hardly the only staffer with a past or present Rhode Island-Maryland connection. DLT director Scott Jensen came here from a post in Maryland, as did the governor's deputy chief of staff, Eric J. Beane. Michael Raia, communications guru for Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts, spent his formative years in the Old Line State (as did his younger brother, Chris, who works for Duffy & Shanley). To delve a bit deeper, Neuman's predecessor in Governor O'Malley's office was Johnston native Rick Abbruzzese, now a lawyer and consultant. And Providence College grad Shaun Ademac, with his own communications shop in Massachusetts, backed Raimondo's run last year and previously worked as a press secretary during O'Malley's time as governor. Crab cakes (and coffee milk) all around.

10. Deepwater Wind's big step forward on its initial wind farm this week is attracting quite a bit of favorable media attention for Rhode Island. Instead of riffing on "Freshening New England's armpit," for example, The Economist is touting America's first offshore wind farm as "the test bed for a new industry." Other stories also highlight the Ocean State's pioneering role. Yet an answer to the big question -- whether above-market prices for wind power will eventually drop to more reasonable levels (background here) -- remains way off in the future.

11. Former RIPTA GM Beverly Scott, under fire more recently at the MBTA, has been appointed by President Obama to the National Transportation Safety Board.

12. National Journal's Nancy Cook (who used to report for WRNI -- as RINPR used to be known -- and is married to ex-ProJo scribe Chris Rowland) ventured to one of New Hampshire's poorest rural counties to see how Lincoln Chafee was playing with voters: "Overwhelmingly, they tell me that they found him to be a surprisingly nice, down-to-Earth guy—but no one plans to vote for him for president. Corry Hughes, a 61-year-old retired special-education teacher, says she thinks Chafee's platform doesn't really resonate with the 'economic hardships up here.' Wayne Moynihan, a state representative who tells me he has lived in northern New Hampshire long enough to watch four paper mills close in the area since the 1980s, shares that opinion. He says he liked Chafee as a person but already planned to support Sanders, whose speeches he calls 'music to my ears.' 'I think he lacked the inspiration to get people really worked up and motivated," says 20-year-old Andre Rowell, a student at Plymouth State University. But perhaps all hope is not lost. Notes Rowell: 'He would make a great Cabinet member.' "

13. Success breeds success, as the saying goes. That helps to explain why Boston continues to enjoy "arguably the biggest building boom in [its] history" -- check out this map of more 70 projects under construction. Yet Boston and Cambridge are increasingly choked with traffic, as Mrs. TGIF and I found during a jaunt earlier this summer, and traveling a few miles by car can take an increasingly long time. Gentrification has long since driven up housing prices in such places as Jamaica Plain, South Boston, and Somerville. Boston's economic dynamism isn't about to fade away. Yet is there a point at which the city's cost/traffic/hassle elevates Rhode Island as an appealing alternative?

14. Are Pell Grants for prisoners a good idea, or not so much?

15. SEIU Rhode Island is pressing the case for a $15 wage for workers caring for the elderly and developmentally disabled, even as debate continues about the economic impact of higher wages.

15. Netflix has a track record of turning out quality entertainment, like its adaptation of House of Cards. So Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming production on the history of hip-hop promises to be worth a watch. Only problem is, legendary rapper Grandmaster Flash -- a consultant for the show -- is missing a few crates of his vintage vinyl, as the BBC reported this week. Bonus FWIW: Flash claims to have invented the practice of scratching, although NPR reports the creator was Grand Wizard Theodore.

16. Darrell West has five pieces of advice for Donald Trump. And don't miss Philip Bump's funny riff on what Trump's Cabinet could look like.

17. Et tu, On Point Radio? Taunting us with the delight of slowly smoked meats and tangy sauces, even as Rhode Island remains gripped by an alarming paucity of barbecue? Say it ain't so.

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