Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. We're headed toward the pre-holiday slowdown, although the political hot stove league continues to simmer. As usual, your tips and thoughts are welcome, and you can follow me on the twitters throughout the week. Here we go.
1. How does Governor Gina Raimondo grade herself on the economic-development front for her first year in office? "You know, we're hard at work at it, and I'm pleased with where we are," the governor told me during an interview in her office Friday. Raimondo said she hears regularly from business people who think the state is headed in a more positive direction. Asked why there haven't been more tangible results since she took office, the governor points to the rollout just in recent months of new tax incentives (although she also pointed to the addition of 300 jobs at Electric Boat this year). "There no silver bullet," Raimondo said. "The thing that people need to know is we're getting up every day, focused on exactly what we said would do: making it a predictable tax climate, an easy place to do business, a good place to live, tapping into the talent of our colleges and universities. We're starting to see momentum and we're just getting going."
2. After almost a year in office, Governor Raimondo said the difficulty of improving Rhode Island's economy "is about what I thought [it would be]. I would say we've been standing still for a long time. Someone the other day told me he thought I was like a can of WD-40. I wasn't quite sure how to take that. I said, 'What do you mean by that?' and he said, 'Look, Governor, this place has been stuck like a rusty chain for so long, and you're just going around putting WD-40 [on stuff] and you're starting to get the gears moving. So I took that a compliment. And that is how I view myself. We've been stuck for a long time, and we're starting to see activity and action and momentum. And I'm confident that over time that's exactly what we need."
3. So is Rhode Island in or out of the sweepstakes to land General Electric? We noted last week how Connecticut officials thought the Biggest Little was out of the mix. Then The Boston Globe this week includes the Ocean State as a possible landing spot for the corporate giant, although Massachusetts still has a seemingly stronger position due to factors including its robust tech community. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor declined direct comment when asked during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable if RI still has a shot; generally speaking, he said, premature chatter could spoil a deal.
4. Secretary Pryor points to the 30 applications filed by a recent deadline for the new Rebuild Rhode Island tax credit as a sign "that the market is responding" to the Raimondo administration's approach. (The credit offers a tax credit for up to 20 percent of the cost of a project deemed catalytic; Pryor said some credits will be unveiled in January, although some of the applications are incomplete or need additional work.) The need to deploy such incentives nonetheless points to the challenge of pursuing economic development in Rhode Island. It's encouraging, for example, that the occupancy rate for downtown Providence housing exceeds 90 percent. Yet it's telling that even that level of demand -- combined with the city's recently updated tax stabilization program -- isn't enough, so far, to spark much in the way of new housing. Similarly, while Prior and Raimondo are upbeat on the outlook for Wexford Science & Technology (and possibly the Cambridge Innovation Center) moving ahead in the I-195 District, Wexford, too, is expected to tap into state incentives. Sure, Rhode Island is hardly alone among states in using incentives in an attempt to spark growth. But it's worth drawing a distinction between incentive-based development and job growth that takes place without that kind of inducement.
5. With Donald Trump dominating public attention in the presidential race, Trump could emerge as a factor in one of 2016's most-watched legislative races. That's because state Rep. Joe Trillo (R-Warwick) doubled down on his support for the Donald this week, even as most local Republicans were castigating Trump for his proposed ban on Muslims. Even if Trump fizzles out (and who knows if he will?) Kim Kalunian got Trillo expressing his stance on videotape. That makes for an even sharper contrast between the longest-serving Republican in the RI House and his young Democratic challenger-in-waiting, Evan Shanley (for background, see #2). Trillo seems like the kind of guy who will relish a campaign battle, and he's been around long enough to have some deep-rooted support. Yet Shanley has an impressive background in his own right, the X factor of a presidential vote in heavily Democratic RI, and former Warwick rep. Robert Flaherty is expected to help advise the youthful first-time candidate.
6. Speaking of races that will be influenced by the presidential vote: former state Rep. Linda Finn (D-Middletown) is pursuing a rematch next year against Rep. Daniel Reilly (R-Portsmouth), who beat her in 2014. Finn vaulted into the House by edging Reilly in 2012. Call it the Two-Year Switch District -- at least in recent history.
7. Kate Brock recently joined Treasurer Seth Magaziner's office as the new director of member services for the retirement system. Brock comes from Delta Dental of Rhode Island, where she was director of government programs. A one-time head of the defunct liberal/labor advocacy group Ocean State Action, Brock has also worked as a political organizer for SEIU 1199 and as a policy advisor during Lincoln Chafee's time as governor. As director of member services, Brock will oversee customer service for members in the retirement system, including counseling and disability case processing.
8. Rhode Island has an outsized role as a pioneering place for Latino politicos. Juan Pichardo was the first Dominican state senator in the US. Angel Taveras was the first Dominican mayor. And now Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is getting national exposure, courtesy of NBC News, for being the lone Latina Democrat elected to statewide executive office in the US.
9. Speaking of Gorbea, her chief of staff, Steve Gerencser, is headed back to the private sector, after his initial nine-month commitment to help Gorbea get up and running got extended by three months. Taking over in the CoS role is Gonzalo Cuervo, and Nicole Lagace, formerly of HousingWorksRI, join the team as senior adviser/communications director.
10. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay's view on the war of attrition between Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city firefighters' union: Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the [Angel] Taveras playbook. Early in his mayoral administration, Taveras made a big mistake, which he later acknowledged, by become ensnarled in a rough joust with the teachers union. Yet, after he settled with the teachers, Taveras and the council were able to come to terms with other city unions and actually win some concessions that arguably saved the city from bankruptcy. How did this happen? Well, one important aspect was that Taveras forged a consensus among city council members. So far, that hasn’t happened with Elorza. City Council President Luis Aponte has not been shy about criticizing the mayor. He said recently that "we’ve created a set of circumstances that requires a steady hand and I’m not sure that steady hand exists right now.’’Maybe it’s time for Elorza to look elsewhere for some of the $5 million or so he wants to save from changing the firefighters hours. With city government living paycheck to paycheck, there must be some other belt-tightening options.
11. The question of whether President Obama moved too slowly in recognizing/countering the threat posed by Islamic State could be with us for a while. For some background, you could do a lot worse than this hard-nosed Frontline documentary last year on the rise of ISIS. While he agrees that the fight against ISIS will outlive Obama's presidency, Senator Jack Reed believes Obama will be remembered as a president who averted an even worse economic crisis, "with the stock market literally sort of falling in half ... and restoring growth. We've now had the longest stretch of month-by-month job growth in the history of the country. We've got to do it better. It hasn't been as robust as it should be. But I think the first thing they'll say is, reversing what could have been another replay of the Great Depression and starting growth again -- all too slow, but in terms of the robustness of growth, but getting it going." The senator spoke as part of a recent interview with RIPR.
12. If Obama averted a bigger economy crisis, why do so many Americans feel as if they're being left behind? For starters, middle-income Americans are no longer the majority, as Pew reported this week. And despite increased productivity, wages have been stagnant for most workers for decades. This trend -- which helped inspire the Occupy movement a few years ago -- is easy to identify. Chipping away at it is a lot harder, and could inspire more outsider campaigns in the interim.
13. With the House Finance Committee expected to begin scrutinizing Governor Raimondo's RhodeWorks plan in January, a new anti-tolls coalition, StopTollsRI, has emerged on the scene. Some members of the group include Rhode Island Taxpayers, Ocean State Taxpayers in Action (OSTPA), and the Gaspee Project. In a statement, group spokesman Larry Fitzmorris said, “We believe we need to fight this plan in rapid fashion on multiple fronts. We dispute the Governor’s contention that the tolls on trucks alone will ultimately be adequate to pay down the debt because there is so much inherent risk in the assumptions used. We plan to engage the public and take our fight to the Legislature this January so that lawmakers know their constituents are watching. While we wholeheartedly support Speaker Mattiello’s demand, and the Truckers Association’s recent request, that the gantry locations be made public, it won’t change our desire to see the plan squashed.”
14. Speaking of tolls and transportation, kudos to two of my local media colleagues: WPRI.com's Ted Nesi continues to offer some of the deepest analysis of Governor Raimondo's RhodeWorks plan, and the ProJo's Patrick Anderson keeps digging up a variety of noteworthy transportation-related stories.
15. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and state Rep. Joseph McNamara, chair of the RI Democratic Party, were part of a delegation that traveled to Taiwan this past week. Senate spokesman Greg Pare says the trip was paid for by the Tapei Economic & Cultural Office in Boston and Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Relations. Pare said the trip was intended to promote beneficial economic and cultural relations.
16. Coming & Going: Shana Autiello, formerly of Seth Magaziner's staff, is now the communications chief for PSE, a full-service marketing and sales agencies whose clients include the Dunkin' Donuts Center and the Providence Bruins .... Kim Paull, formerly of Coastal Medica, joins Elizabeth Roberts' team, as director of analytics, at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services .... Jhompy Ventura, a former senior bilingual editor/translater at CVS Caremark is the new communications chief at the state Department of Corrections .... A bunch of changes at the Department of Human Services, led by Melba Depena: Yvette Mendez started in mid-November as deputy director; Tim McMahon came to RI in late September to serve as director of operations for DHS’s field offices. He was previously undersecretary for administration at the Massachusetts Office of Labor and Workforce Development. Zulma Garcia joined DHS after as administrator for planning and training spending more than a decade at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Stephanie Terry came to DHS from DCYF in mid-November to serve as administrator of child and family services. Blair Lynch join the director’s office next week as an entry-level communications coordinator.
18. It might be a good time to revisit the speeches of FDR.
19. Sen. Sue Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown) was among the players in the clash that led the General Assembly to close with a bumpy impasse last June. The Humane Society criticized Sosnowski's stance on chicken crates, while supporters praised her. Now, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau has chosen to recognize the senator with its navigator award, for advocacy on government regulations and procedures. In a statement, Sosnowski said, “I am deeply touched that the Rhode Island Farm Bureau chose to honor me with this award. I will continue to do all I can in the State Senate to help Rhode Island farms not only survive, but thrive and prosper.”