Mid-May and the political kettle keeps bubbling. 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.
1. It was more than 27 months ago -- in January 2014 -- when the state Board of Elections referred a matter involving Providence City Councilor Kevin Jackson to the office of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. The absence of public action on the case in the time since led some observers to question if anything was happening. The other shoe dropped Wednesday when State Police arrested Jackson and charged him with campaign finance violations and embezzling $127,000 from the Providence Cobras youth track and field organization; he resigned the next day as council majority leader, although he remains on the council. Jackson's lawyer, Artin Coloian, called Jackson a selfless public servant and community leader who is looking forward to his day in court. Yet Jackson's flouting of campaign finance filings had been well known for years. Coming on the heels of the resignation a week earlier of House Finance chairman Ray Gallison, Jackson's jam left many Rhode Islanders shaking their heads. Yet it's worth remembering the role played by the state Board of Elections, since the January 2014 referral to the AG's office by the board's director of campaign finance, Richard Thornton, got the ball rolling in the first place. The process slowed down when Jackson and the BOE reached a settlement. Yet Thornton subsequently found discrepancies in Jackson's campaign filings, a court complaint shows, and that led the AG's office to move the matter to State Police in December 2015. In a situation reminiscent of the case of former House speaker Gordon Fox, Jackson's campaign finance issues led investigators to pursue a deeper look and the embezzlement charge. So while the Board of Elections has faced a lot of heat for issues involving director Robert Kando (whose future at the agency remains uncertain), the agency also played a key role in the Jackson case.
2. Fallout, Part I: Who's next? That remains the big question in Rhode Island, in the aftermath of Gallison's resignation and Jackson's arrest.
3. Fallout, Part II: You can bet lawmakers and other elected officials are paying more attention to their campaign finance reports and ethics filings.
4. Fallout, Part III: “Every time something like this happens, it’s five steps back in the public perception. I think a lot of people in the general public throw up their hands and say, ‘We can’t fix it.’ Everyone is lumped in one big package. It’s like the whole General Assembly is corrupt, or everyone who’s elected is corrupt — and that’s not the case.” This quotation, from an experienced observer of Smith Hill, is from 2006. It nonetheless captures the current public response to cases of suspected political wrongdoing. Rhode Island's elected leaders have failed for decades in improving the state's economy, so some level of negativity is unsurprising. (Nationally, more than a dozen years have passed since a majority of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction.) Add to that the unenviable political task of responding in the short-term to generational economic challenges (the slowdown in growth and a shrinking middle class, for starters) and it makes for an understandably cranky electorate. In Rhode Island, 38 Studios and other boondoggles have added further insult to injury. The depth of dissatisfaction can been in how 50 percent of the respondents in a new Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership poll say Rhode Island is going in the wrong direction.
5. Governor Gina Raimondo was a guest for part of a Thursday evening taping at PPAC of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me (airing on RIPR this weekend at 10 a.m. Saturday and noon Sunday). Raimondo was game and self-effacing, serving as a good sport when host Peter Sagal called out Rhode Island's Cooler and Warmer fiasco and the state's periodic outbreaks of corruption. To see this, you probably wouldn't think Raimondo's approval rating is under-water. It's unsurprising that the governor's rating took a hit after a period marked by the tourism controversy. "Gina from Smithfield," who was praised in a ProJo profile around the time of her gubernatorial victory for her emotional intelligence, has found more plaudits in out of town media. But being considered an outstanding world leader is less impressive when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker continues to set the national bar on governors' public approval. Back in Rhode Island, even if the economy is slowly improving, progress remains tepid for a lot of people. Meanwhile, there have also been self-inflicted wounds, like premature rollouts of Raimondo initiatives on bridges and medical marijuana, and the controversy over Don Lally's former state job. In response, the governor has signaled her intention to do more listening to Rhode Islanders through public forums. Yet in the absence of a burst of economic growth, turning around her approval rating will probably be difficult in the short term. A tighter focus on a smaller handful of priorities might help, but that's tough to do in a state where a lot of things are broken.
6. If as expected, the General Assembly signs off on the leadership-backed move to strengthen the state Ethics Commission, Ray Gallison will deserve some of the credit. Although House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had an ethics bill in the works before Gallison's resignation, the resulting anti-General Assembly climate led to a tougher, more rigorous piece of legislation. An impasse had prevailed since the state Supreme Court struck down in 2009 the Ethics Commission's ability to police lawmakers for conflicts of interest. But thanks to the cloud hanging over the Statehouse, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio joined Mattiello and House Majority Leader John DeSimone in offering their support for the measure. Just as significantly, longtime ethics watchdogs Phil West and John Marion largely endorse the legislative approach for strengthening the Ethics Commission.
7. Former state GOP chairman Gio Cicione said the heightened perception of political mischief will bolster the outlook for gaining Republican legislative seats this year. Yet Cicione, speaking on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week, said there's still a question of whether the GOP is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. "We've had scandals before and not been able to turn those into additional seats. Under the Carcieri administration and my predecessor, Pat Morgan, they took a strong push to be the anti-corruption team and it yielded about the same results that it did every two years, or every four years, on the off-year elections. And that's unfortunate, because I think Rhode Islanders are just burnt out on the corruption issue. I think they just expect it and honestly, it's the curse of the low expectations."
8. The Gaspee Project has sent out a mailer targeting some of the Democratic reps who voted for Governor Raimondo's RhodeWorks bill, including Mia Ackerman (Cumberland), Cale Keable (Burrillville), Joseph McNamara (Warwick), and possibly also Brian Kennedy (Hopkinton) and Eileen Naughton (Warwick). The piece faults lawmakers who "voted to toll Rhode Island roads!" and "joined with political insiders ... defying the will of the people." The mailer says using imposing tolls on big trucks will "increase the cost of groceries and other products you buy for your family .... harm economic growth in our Ocean State over the long term ... someday lead to TOLLS ON YOUR CARS." Supporters say the truck toll plan will improve the state's bridges without causing added costs for consumers or leading to car tolls. (RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse, who served as interim director of the Gaspee Project, couldn't be reached for comment Friday afternoon.) McNamara, state Democratic chairman and a student of Gaspee history, is upset over what her calls the hijacking of the name by a conservative group. In a statement, he asked, "Who is paying for these tea party attacks? Are they illegally coordinated with Republican leaders who are targeting certain districts? Are Wall Street cronies and out of state Republican billionaires like the Koch Brothers trying to buy Rhode Island's election? Unfortunately, we don't know the answers about these negative attack mailings or the recent newsletter they sent out for Republican Sherry Roberts. Rhode Island Democrats have passed strong campaign finance laws in the wake of Citizens United. But, shadowy conservative groups like the Gaspee Project still get away with underhanded mailings like this with no reporting to the Board of Elections website. I find it disgusting, especially with the use of patriotic symbols like the HMS Gaspee." (Update: House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) used Twitter to accuse McNamara of selective outraged: "Is JoeMac the same guy who chairs a party that sent an anonymous flyer out a year ago likening a GOP legislative candidate to Nazis?" And this: " 'Koch Brothers' 'Shadowy' 'Tea Party' 'Wall Street' It's like what a defective talking points machine would randomly spit out."
9. On a related note, the Gaspee Business Network is offering itself as a conservative alternative to groups like the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. On its web site, the Gaspee Business Network describes its objective this way: "To fulfill our mission of developing a strong and incorruptible voice for the business community, the primary objective of the Gaspee Business Network is to strengthen the state's dismal business climate by advancing pro-growth public policies and candidates, and to oppose those that do not .... Where many existing chambers of commerce and other business associations have failed, acting more like insider cronies than independent representatives of their members, you'll be able to count on GBN to hold firm to its pro-business principles." The group said it plans to target direct public advocacy; legislative advocacy; and making independent expenditures in support of and against certain candidate.
10. Is it time for a bolder political response to the General Assembly's community service grants and legislative grants? How about suspending the community service grants and creating a commission to examine the process? For her part, Governor Raimondo has detailed her Administration head, Michael DiBiase, to examine the process for awarding community service grants. In his weekly commentary, Scott MacKay says the charge for state lawmakers is clear: "Fix this mess or flirt with voter anger that is likely to result in the both in elimination of this gravy train and harm to many fine organizations that help make Rhode Island a better place."
11. Inspired by the $67,500 in post-employment benefits paid to Betsy Wall, formerly RI's chief marketing officer, state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo (R-Coventry) and Sen. John Pagliarini (R-Tiverton) are backing a bill to reduce a non-union state employee's salary and benefits after they leave their position. It would cut maximum severance pay from one year to two weeks.
12. ICYMI: the rundown on Governor Raimondo's judicial nominations.
13. General Assembly races: Jason Knight, a Democrat from Barrington, is running for the seat held by Rep. Jan Malik (D-Warren). A lawyer, Navy veteran and former state prosecutor, Knight said in a news release, “We need new voices at the State House. Our current government is not working fast enough to address our problems; especially in the areas of infrastructure and jobs. We need creative and inventive solutions to our issues. Every year, our General Assembly gets together and can’t seem to get the job done. If recent events prove anything, it’s that it’s time for new blood. This district deserves a representative with real Democratic values and is willing to stand up for change that matters." .... RI Future reports that Jennifer Siciliano is running against state Rep. Joseph Solomon (D-Warwick)
16. How times change: as an aspiring reporter, A.J Liebling (who spent some time in Providence at the bygone Evening Bulletin) once hired an unemployed Norwegian seaman to march outside the New York World, clad with a sandwich board reading, "Hire Joe Liebling." The contemporary equivalent? A young guy designing a Snapchat geo-filter to attract the attention of his chosen ad agency.
17. Selfies with bear are a thing. Who knew? Here's a story on how wildlife biologists are managing interactions with bears in America's national parks as a result