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

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Did anything happen this week not involving the New England Patriots and deflated footballs? Indeed. So read on, dear reader, and thanks for stopping...

Did anything happen this week not involving the New England Patriots and deflated footballs? Indeed. So read on, dear reader, and thanks for stopping by. As always feel free to share your tips/thoughts at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea was walking her "frozen children" into her Statehouse office on inauguration day when she "got the notice that we've been served papers." The documents were from businessman Michael Corso, taking issue with the unregistered lobbying claim pressed against him by Gorbea's predecessor, Ralph Mollis, in connection with 38 Studios. Meanwhile, in related news, a judge on Thursday fined Mollis' lawyer on the Corso case, Mark Welch, $18,000 for filing a legally flawed petition. In the midst of all this, not to mention former AG Patrick Lynch returning fire at critics like Arlene Violet, how is Gorbea going to improve oversight of lobbying and lobbyists? During an appearance on this week's Rhode Island Public Radio Political Roundtable, Gorbea declined to outline specific reforms, or to say whether she agreed with Mollis' finding that Lynch did not take part in unregistered lobbying. "There's been a lot of concerns shared about that particular case and lobbying in general, and I share peoples' concerns," Gorbea said. "We have a system that definitely needs simplifying, needs clarification, and we need to make sure that there aren't any loopholes. That's a lot of time that I'm spending in the first few weeks, is listening to people, good government groups, listening to lobbyists who are very upset about their own profession being demonized, because they're doing it the right way, they're reporting, they're being upfront." While Gorbea calls transparency about lobbying and lobbyists vital, she's not yet ready to unveil her proposed fixes for the types of concerns exposed over the last year.

2. The 2015 fundraising season got going in earnest Wednesday, when a Providence Marriott time staged by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello brought in more than $100,000 in political contributions, RIPR has learned. More than 500 people attended the "uncomfortably crowded" function at the same venue where Mattiello consolidated his support last March. A very long line of attendees (considered the most at a legislative fundraiser in many, many years) snaked around the exterior of the Marriott, waiting to get inside. The guests included Governor Gina Raimondo and each of the state's other general officers, except for AG Peter Kilmartin, who was out of town, and representatives for each of the state's four members of Congress. Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung made the scene, as did an unusual amalgam of labor and chamber of commerce types. Visitors took part of a buffet that included carved roast beef and turkey, made-to-order pasta, and of course, an open bar. The fundraiser was the first for Mattiello since he won his full two-year term as speaker, in a formal vote earlier this month.

3. A growing fight over school funding is shaping up as one of the top battles at the Statehouse this year, starting with a meeting Friday afternoon of a special legislative commission studying the education funding formula's method of funding charter schools. "If charters are in our future to stay, then we really need to have an honest discussion about the true cost of removing a child from a classroom," Cumberland Town Councilor Arthur Lambi told RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison. "Because you still need a teacher in a classroom. You need an assistant principal and a principal, and a school nurse, and the janitors and buses and utilities." Moody's has called charters a serious credit challenge to school districts in economically weak urban areas. Yet charter supporters think concerns from the other side are overstated and more likely an attempt to squelch the charter school movement. 

4. File under: you think politics makes strange bedfellows? Back around 2009/2010, then Secretary of State Ralph Mollis brought Indiana congressman Todd Rokita to testify on Mollis' Voter ID bill in the House Judiciary Committee. (Before becoming a congressman, Rokita was the Indiana secretary of state who pushed a groundbreaking Voter ID bill all the way to the US Supreme Court.) Fast forward a few years. Paul Caranci, a former North Providence councilor, deputy secretary of state under Mollis, and a key cooperating witness in a North Prov corruption case, is now heading constituent services for Congressman Rokita.

5. Close political/media observers are familiar with a key contradiction of the contemporary landscape: although the Internet leaves a wealth of information just a few key strokes away, relatively few people avail themselves of what it takes to be a well-informed citizen. Now comes former Brown University professor Jennifer Lawless, along with fellow George Washington University professor Danny Hayes, with research on how the decline of local news is affecting citizen engagement. While they based their findings on newspaper coverage of congressional races in 2010, Hayes offers this more sweeping takeaway: "To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system, the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable."

6. In the annals of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's attempts to focus attention on climate change, the past week marked a particularly unusual juncture. "Republicans outfox Democrats on climate votes," Politico headlined a story detailing how "the new [GOP] majority party split up the votes that Democrats had hoped would force the GOP into an awkward roll call on whether they believed in the science behind climate change — just hours after President Barack Obama slammed Republicans in his State of the Union address for dodging the issue." But some other sources, including NPR, characterized the 98-1 vote as a victory for science, since it marked Republicans recognition that climate change is real, even if,  they said, it's not caused by people.

7. My ongoing look at the freshman class of 18 new lawmakers continued this week with state Representative Aaron Regunberg. Regunberg cites one of his inspirations, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, for making an impact in the Senate without getting co-opted. So the freshman lawmaker's approach bears watching as he tries to advance a progressive agenda in a chamber where the Democratic politics tend to run more conservative.

8. Not surprisingly, Nellie Gorbea's political profile -- as the first Hispanic elected statewide in New England -- has grown outside the region. In November, the National Organization of Latino Elected Officials paid to fly Gorbea to Washington, D.C., for NALEO's 10th annual institute for newly elected officials (Gorbea spokesman Gonzalo Cuervo said she paid for the rest of her expenses). In speaking to the audience at the NALEO institute, Gorbea said her November election sends a positive message about Latinos in the Ocean State. "I was able to talk about how Rhode Island is the kind of state where we are not only a part of the demographic fabric of the state," Gorbea said this week on RIPR's Bonus Q+A, "but we are part of the leadership of the state. I think that speaks well of our community and what a wonderful place Rhode Island is.”

9. The Raimondo administration has lured Gabe Amo, a Wheaton College alum and Pawtucket native, back to Rhode Island from the White House. He starts Monday as director of public engagement.

10. With New York Speaker Sheldon Silver jammed up in New York, what's the word on the inquiry involving former House speaker Gordon Fox? "We have no comment," says Jim Martin, spokesman for US Attorney Peter Neronha.

11. Recent highlights from my colleagues at Rhode Island Public Radio: Elisabeth Harrison on the push to teach students how to "code like a girl;" Elisabeth also spoke with Elizabeth Burke Bryant about how Rhode Island has the highest childhood poverty rate in New England; Scott MacKay reports on how Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan will talk in Providence next month.

12. The Center for Public Integrity has a good read on "12 ways 'Citizens United' has changed politics."

13. The concern about the possible departure of the Pawtucket Red Sox stands in sharp contrast to the skepticism that greeted the construction of McCoy Stadium more than 70 years ago. As David Borges writes in his history of the PawSox, "McCoy Stadium had a hard time getting off the ground. In fact, it nearly sank into the ground. It was built on a swamp called Hammond's Pond, and during construction, the City of Pawtucket had to replace 60 massive concrete pillars that sank into the swampy quicksand beneath the stadium. Many did not want the stadium built at all. When Mayor Thomas P. McCoy began building the project in 1938, opponents decried the millions of dollars in contracts awarded to the mayor's allies. Its $1.5 million cost supposedly exceeded that of the Rose Bowl, and the new stadium was dubbed 'McCoy's Folly.' " The rest, as they say, is history, with the PawSox coming into being in 1970.

14. City Haul: Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has picked Michael Borg to lead the Providence Emergency Management Agency & Office of Homeland Security. Borg will take over for Peter Gaynor, who left to become state Emergency Management director. Borg is a senior adviser to the US Naval War College in Newport .... Elorza also appointed Nicole Pollock as Providence's first chief innovation officer. Pollock previously worked at DEM. So what does a chief innovation officer do? According to a City Hall release, "As Chief Innovation Officer, Pollock will serve on the Mayor’s senior staff and will be tasked with working with department directors and city employees to find areas for efficiency in city government and improve the delivery of services throughout Providence. The CINO will also implement and oversee a system to measure and report on the effectiveness of City services. She will look for opportunities to reduce costs and improve service for residents, developers and business owners."

15. Attempts to cut the interest charged by payday lenders have gone nowhere in recent legislative sessions. It helps Advance America to have a well-connected lobbyist such as former House speaker William Murphy. Yet the company's senior VP for public affairs, Jamie Fulmer, also operates from a strategy that the best defense is a strong offense, as evidenced by his presence in forums like The New York Times.

16. Clay Pell and Michelle Kwan have been celebrating their anniversary in the Azores. So there's no immediate word from the former gubernatorial candidate on whether he might be interested in succeeding Deborah Gist as Rhode Island's education commissioner. Yet Pell has spoken with Governor Gina Raimondo on more than one occasion about the possibility of joining her administration, so his consideration for the post (if it becomes open) could be in the cards. 

17. FWIW: Politico ranks Rhode Island 28th strongest among the 50 states -- far better than some of the business-climate rankings that frown on the Ocean State.

18. TGIF would be remiss if we closed out this week's column without a reference to the all-consuming #Deflate-gate. As it happens, references to the controversy were absent when state Senator Paul Jabour (D-Providence) introduced a resolution Thursday, congratulating the Patriots on their AFC title win over the Colts and wishing them well in the Super Bowl showdown with the Seahawks. Jabour then rose in the Senate to describe how he was at the game with the Colts, and "I did not see any deflating of the balls." Despite the welter of drama created by Deflate-gate, the resolution passed unanimously. But this is New England, where some gridiron fans were raised on the New York Giants' older franchise tradition. A case in point is Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston), who said that because of his enthusiasm for the Giants, he supported Jabour's resolution reluctantly.

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