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TGIF: 18 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

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Thanks for stopping by for my weekly read. Lots going on, so we'll get right to it. As always, feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot...

Thanks for stopping by for my weekly read. Lots going on, so we'll get right to it. As always, feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot org) and to follow me on the twitters.

1. Although March 12 will be here before we know it, few details have emerged on how Governor Gina Raimondo's first budget will try to address the litany of bleak economy indicators she outlined during her "Stop the Decline/Spark the Comeback" news conference Wednesday. Medicaid is one clear focal point, along with "strategic cuts in areas where I think we're out of whack," and investment in other places. Raimondo has steadily put her team in place, and she places a premium on political communication, outlining where things are and where she thinks the state needs to go. "You don't have to agree with my solution," she said during her news conference. "You just have to confront the reality." Raimondo's focus on glum economic indicators leads some political observers to question whether big changes are afoot. Yet a large number of small tweaks may be just as likely, ranging from heightened tourism promotion and school construction to attempts to nudge along growth sectors. Raimondo's overarching message is a variation on a favored Republican catchphrase -- "The best social program is a job." And although it's slap-your-face obvious that more jobs are the answer for this little state, that puzzle has remained unsolved by previous elected officials.

2. A few noteworthy points, via Politico, from Gina Raimondo's visit this weekend to Washington, D.C.: 1) Raimondo said a female president would offer practical benefits since, “The single greatest under-utilized resource we have as a nation is women and girls;" 2) "[S]he urged Democrats to take on unions, traditional allies of the party, when necessary — not just on pensions, but also on issues such as education. 'Democrats and all public servants just need to be honest,' she said. 'If we have schools that aren’t working … we need to face the facts and fix them;' " 3) "Raimondo also said officials in Washington have dropped the ball on infrastructure investment and that they should do more to foster economic development in the states."

3. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is offering a qualified "yes" to the question of whether ISIS, or Islamic State, can be defeated without a large commitment of US ground troops. "I think so, but it's going to take a lot of cooperation from nearby countries, it's going to take a lot of cooperation from the Arab world," Whitehouse said (at about 3:13) during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable." Asked whether that's a realistic prospect, the senator said, "I think it is. We had Qatari jets flying sorties over Libya. You had Jordanian jets, and a Jordanian pilot shot down, flying sorties against ISIL. So it can be done, and I think we're now at a stage where a lot of these Arab countries are looking around at the nightmare in Libya, the nightmare in Syria, the ISIL group on the loose in Iraq, and they're starting to say, This is getting a little out of control,' and they're kind of running up against how much disorder they can tolerate, so I think they are going to be more willing to act, but they're more reluctant, and it takes a lot of leadership from the president to pull them together and to get them willing to do this."

4. It could be a lot worse for those RI municipal leaders drawing flak about snow-removal -- they could be in Boston and getting this kind of unwelcome national exposure: "[J]udging from what locals are saying about him, [Boston Mayor Marty] Walsh might wish he could disappear under a snow mound too, along with Gov. Charlie Baker." Meanwhile, old friend Phil Marcelo reports on ice bars, window jumping, and other things Bostonians do in the snow.

5. Ken Block has kept up his citizen-activism with some sharp criticism of Rhode Island's business community. Via tweet, Block this week wrote, "RI has 18 Chambers of Commerce-none of which has shown the ldrshp my companies need on RI's broken TDI and UI issues. These shld b front+ctr." In related news, a study by the New Harbor Group found a relative dearth of campaign contributions in 2012 by board members of RIPEC and the four largest chambers. New Harbor's David Preston called Rhode Island's economy a "precise reflection of the business community's historic political effectiveness." Contrast that view with this one from former Rhode Islander Patrick J. Canning, now the managing partner of KPMG's Chicago office: "Providence is a city-state where easy access to city, state and federal legislators is taken for granted. The business community was always at the table trying to help solve the most pressing issues of the day." Just to complicate things, don't miss Ted Nesi's coverage of a recent Boston Federal Reserve study. One of the key takeaways is that structural weaknesses, rather than taxes, are the biggest challenge facing Rhode Island's economy.

6. New York Times reporter James Risen, a Brown University grad, this week offered one of the sharpest indictments of the Obama administration's approach to prosecuting leaks to the media: "The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation." (Risen previously faced the possibility of prison for refusing to name a source.) As a progressive, Senator Whitehouse has been a staunch defender of the Obama administration's approach to surveillance. So during RI Public Radio's Bonus Q+A this week, I asked Whitehouse what he thought of Risen's criticism of the White House. "The Obama administration has gone after more leaks in the national security space than their predecessors," the senator responded. "I think the target more often than not has been the actual leaker, and the vehicle to the leaker is to try to get the correspondent to say who they spoke to. I think they've backed off on that, and I think they were probably wise to back off on that. But it is a problem when everybody in the national security world thinks that they've got a right to go to the newspaper and disclose classified and covert programs that could very often put folks at risk who are working for us overseas."

7. Speaking of Whitehouse, one of the senator's former communications directors, Alex Swartsel, who most recently worked for the Motion Picture Association of America, started a new gig last month as a senior adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

8. The battle over the future of HealthSource RI is joined, with Representative Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) submitting a bill that would prevent the use of state funds on HealthSource RI while directing the governor to transfer the exchange to the federal government. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who has been a less than enthusiastic support of the exchange, offered this statement on Morgan's bill: “I have been clear on this issue that we will make a determination, as part of the budget process, if the health exchange can be run more cost effectively. We will hold public hearings and weigh all of our options, including the possibility of turning it over to the federal system, but no decisions will be made until there is a thorough analysis done. At this time, the bill is too premature."

9. RI Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly, whose plan to retire next month after 35 years in state government was first reported this week by the ProJo's Kathy Gregg, tells me she was in the habit of asking job applicants, "Why would you want to be a public servant? -- that's not a popular thing to do. And I could always tell by their answer whether they were ready to be part of my team." So it's not surprising, as Gregg tweeted, that Gallogly used her departure note to exhort her colleagues, "[K]eep that public service flame burning!" Gallogly says public employees need encouragement, since the publicized misdeeds of a few feed into broader cynicism. But Gallogly -- whose knowledge of the state budget is rivaled perhaps only by her graciousness in answering reporters' questions -- said she thinks most public employees do a good job for taxpayers.

10. The US economy enjoyed robust growth in the fourth quarter of 2014, so it was easy to think the good times would eventually filter down to Rhode Island's struggling economy. Yet Dean Baker is among the economic observers who say Q4 mostly made up for negative growth in Q1 of 2014. The upshot for the US? "Looking into 2015 there is little prospect for much of a growth pickup," Baker writes. Asked about what this means for her attempts to improve Rhode Island's economy, Governor Raimondo said during her Wednesday news conference, "It makes it harder. Look, it makes it harder. The United States economy being stronger would certainly help us enormously. Having said that, we are growing at a lower rate and in the wrong direction relative to our neighbors and relative to other states around the country."

11. An annual Statehouse tradition: a lawmaker -- sometimes a Democrat, sometimes a Republican -- contends that creating an office of inspector general would save taxpayers' money and root out mismanagement. And every year, leadership shoots it down.

12. New Media Investment Group, the company that last year bought the Providence Journal, keeps growing, even as the ProJo's staff keeps shrinking. As reported here last week (#9) about 12 copy desk workers lost their jobs Wednesday as part of a previously announced plan to shift their work to a GateHouse Media hub in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, New Media is buying Stephens Media, which owns a group of daily and weekly newspapers, for just over $102 million. New Media says it in its first year as a publicly traded company it has made agreements to buy almost $500 million in local media assets. "Looking forward, we feel very optimistic about our ability to continue to create tremendous shareholder value," New Media's president and CEO, Michael E. Reed, said in a news release. Yet with Gatehouse standardizing the ProJo this week to look like some of its other papers, the big questions remains: can the company effectively scale its holdings to the point where it could reverse the outflow of talent from Fountain Street, not to mention a long slide in circulation?

13. Recent highlights from my colleagues at RI Public Radio: Elisabeth Harrison talks with RISD's new president, Rosanne Somerson .... Ambar Espinoza has the latest on a long-running environmental dispute in East Providence .... and Scott MacKay has details on tickets for the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies next Friday, February 27.

14. Developer Richard P. Baccari Sr. has been no stranger to the headlines in Rhode Island. Back in the 1980s, as H. Philip West Jr. notes in his book on RI politics, "Secrets and Scandals," the ProJo reported on how Baccari contributed to then-Governor Edward DiPrete, both as an individual and though a string of corporations he controlled. More recently, in 2014, Baccari was acquitted of bribing three town councilors in North Providence. Paul Caranci, the cooperating witness in the North Providence case, has said the finding didn't make sense to him. US Attorney Peter Neronha was so disappointed by the verdict that he issued a sharply worded statement, saying in part, "There is no reason that Rhode Island has to be a pay to play state. When a developer or other private citizen is approached to pay a bribe, there is only one acceptable response: refuse to pay and go to the authorities. When you pay, you are part of the problem." Yet this week, as Baccari announced he's stepping down as president and CEO of Churchill & Banks, he used a statement to put out his own take. It called him "one of the state's most successful developers," someone who rose "from humble beginnings in Providence to the driving force behind some of the state’s most significant residential and commercial developments," including the T.F. Green Airport parking garage; the Lincoln Mall; various condominiums and shopping centers, a 1.3 million-square-foot Stop & Shop distribution center in Assonet, Massachusetts, and many Shaw's and Stop & Shop markets in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

15. Lawyer and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig will speak at Roger Williams University on Monday, February 23 (7:30 pm), on how American candidates finance their campaigns. Lessig, a leading critic of the status quo on campaign finance, has called for a constitutional overhaul to change the "economy of influence." While the pols who benefit from the current approach are loath to upset the apple cart, Lessig's lecture should make for a compelling presentation.

16. Whether it's Lenny Bruce or Sarah Silverman, the best comedians have been known for pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable commentary. On a related note, Salve Regina has a provocative event set for 7 pm Wednesday, February 25, entitled, “You’ve Crossed the Line: Comedy, Diversity and Freedom of Speech." According to a release, the free performance "will feature comedians of all persuasions, races, colors, and religions, including Rain Pryor (bi-racial/Jewish), daughter of the legendary comedian Richard Pryor who, along with George Carlin and Lenny Bruce repeatedly crossed the traditional comedy line, redefining the genre and bringing it into an entirely new realm of what was acceptable joke material. Other comedians performing Wednesday will include co-executive producer Deb Farrar-Parkman (African-American), Ilene Fischer (Lesbian/Jewish); Tissa Hami (Muslim); Wes Hazard (African-American); and Raj Sivaraman (Indian-American)."

17. A programming note: I'm taking next week off, so TGIF will return -- hopefully with some slightly less biting weather -- on Friday, March 6.

18. Followers of my Twitter have grown accustomed to occasional bleats about the paucity of barbecue in Rhode Island. So the brisket pan of injustice overflowed when the Food Channel's Diners, Drive ins, and Dives recently highlighted a gas station in Scottsdale, Arizona, that serves killer 'cue. As it turns out, more and more gas stations are adding tacos, barbecue, and gastro pub fare, since the margin on petrol sales is relatively thin. So, please, Rhode Island, how about a chance to fill up with a side of sauce-slathered ribs?

TGIF: 18 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 18 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media