The General Assembly session is over, the budget is signed, yet politics never takes a holiday. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and your can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. Can Republicans use fall elections to gain even a few legislative seats? The challenge is more difficult due to the exit of incumbents like Reps. Daniel Reilly of Portstmouth and Joe Trillo of Warwick, and Sen. Edward O'Neill of Lincoln. Yet GOP candidate Steve Frias' challenge to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) will certainly attract a lot of attention. As a sharp contrast to Mattiello, Frias hopes to become a vessel for the dissatisfaction of voters statewide. "I do hope so, obviously," Frias said in an interview. "I mean, the speaker is the most powerful person in the Statehouse. And what I hope is that people rally around my effort to try to bring change, and if you want to bring change in one race, and dramatic change potentially, it would be in the speaker's race, in his own district." Frias, a lawyer at the Boston firm Keegan Werlin and a past op-ed contributor the ProJo, said he's running due to his frustration with the Statehouse, particularly the tolls in RhodeWorks and the controversies involving former Finance chair Ray Gallison and Rep. John Carnevale: "When you put it all together, I said this state is on the wrong track, we really need a change, and I said, well, I guess I'll step up and try." Frias said he's loaning his campaign $25,000, and plans to aggressively court voters with a message emphasizing ethics and fiscal conservatism. He calls for rescinding truck tolls (and finding money to pay for bridge improvements elsewhere in state spending); reducing state taxes to below the level in neighboring states; and imposing legislative term limits. Frias also describes Mattiello as an out of touch pol who praises the state's condition at a time when Rhode Island shed almost 4,000 jobs in April and May, and still ranks toward the bottom in national business surveys. The speaker calls the criticism off-base. "I've always said we need to improve, we're not doing good enough," Mattiello said during an appearance on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "That's one of the reasons I ran [for rep] 10 years ago, because I thought that we needed to improve our economy. What I have indicated is that things are moving in the right direction. The tax-cutting that we've been creating, lowering the corporate tax rate, reducing costs on businesses, eliminating sales tax on utility costs for businesses, lowering the cost this year of the unemployment tax -- it's a $30 million savings for business." Mattiello points to General Electric's decision to launch a new office in Providence as a sign of confidence in the state. (The speaker can also point to his support for eliminating the master lever and his post-Gallison move this year to significantly strengthen the Ethics Commission.) Nor does it hurt the speaker that his deputy legal counsel, Matt Jerzyk, and his consultant Jeff Britt are among the state's savviest campaign strategists.
2. While the pending exit after the legislative session of Governor Gina Raimondo's chief of staff, Stephen Neuman, was something of an open secret within state government, the exit of communications director Joy Fox came as a surprise. Fox has been with Raimondo since the governor took office as treasurer back in 2011, and she seemed a quintessential loyalist. Still, some mid-term turnover is not unusual, particularly considering the governor's reputation as a demanding a boss, with senior staffers routinely having to sacrifice part of their weekends. A Rhode Islander through and though, Fox will remain based in the Ocean State while working as a senior adviser for former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, one of the founders of The Hamilton Project, an economic policy project housed at the Brookings Institution. Neuman, meanwhile, is off to Michigan to take a lead role in Hillary Clinton's campaign there. A tireless advocate for Raimondo, Neuman kept his humor intact despite sometime-tough sledding on Smith Hill.
3. Legislative leaders and Governor Raimondo took a victory lap Friday for a budget that they say will move the state forward. While Republicans called for sharper tax cuts and reduced spending, Raimondo labeled the spending plan "terrific." The governor acknowledged that Rhode Island's economy still has a serious need for improvement. “But this budget reduces our structural deficit, involves no broad-based tax increases, reduces key business taxes, and makes record investments in education, workforce development and economic development," she said. "It is an expression of our priorities.”
4. Raimondo on the move by UK voters to leave the European Union: "In many ways, it's not that different from what you see in America. People are frustrated, people are expressing their frustration and anger, and so we're just going to have to see how this plays out. Obviously, it's very destabilizing and I share the concern that it's destabilizing." Raimondo, who studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, said she remains in touch with British friends who were split on the vote. "Certainly, I have concerns of what this will do to the economy, but no one really knows."
5. Heather Hudson, most recently a policy advisor to Governor Raimondo, is becoming the interim director of the Governor's Workforce Board, the state's main policy-making board on workforce development. DLT Deputy Director Lisa D’Agostino had filled the director's role on an interim basis for two months. That came after Rick Brooks moved in April to head up a healthcare workforce initiative for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Before coming to Rhode Island and working in the general treasurer's office, Hudson was a grants manager for a civil rights nonprofit in Seattle and worked at a small housing complex helping low-income students with academics. The salary range for her new post is $88,798-$103,109.
6. Speaker Mattiello on whether he expects a voter backlash over truck tolls: "No, I am not. I think the average folks understand it for what it is. We're doing what other states do. I've always said, you don't want to be an outlier, you want to be competitive. States are moving in this direction. It's a political, but I hope he's [GOP rival Steven Frias] able to tell regular folks that he would put the burden on them rather than the trucks that are causing the damage. That's a debate I'm very happy to have. It's fair, it's equitable, it's moving our state in the right direction. You cannot have a vibrant economy without an appropriate infrastructure. Infrastructure has been a problem for far too long." Frias contends the money to pay for bridge improvements can be found elsewhere within the state budget. “I don’t believe the problem is that the government’s not getting enough money," he said. "I think the government is getting enough money to fix its roads and bridges, it’s not using them well. We spend $43 million, about, on the General Assembly’s budget. That’s a lot of money. And when you look at another state like New Hampshire, about the same population, a little bit bigger, they only spend about $18 million."
7. Providence College alum John Bisognano is leading the New Hampshire Democratic Party's coordinated campaign.
8. If nothing else, Congressmen David Cicilline, Jim Langevin, and the other representatives who staged a House sit-in this week focused more attention on the debate over gun violence. Republicans panned the demonstration as a publicity stunt. Here's how Cicilline summarized what happened: "Over 26 hours, House Democrats sat down in order to stand up, and changed the tone of our country’s debate over gun violence. Republicans can no longer ignore the voices of millions of Americans who are demanding commonsense legislation to address this epidemic. And I am sure they will hear loudly and clearly from their constituents over the next two weeks. It is shameful that Speaker Ryan, using a procedural maneuver, adjourned the House in the dark of night, shortly after his party voted for another Wall Street giveaway, so that Republicans would not have to address the very real impact of gun violence. This isn’t Wall Street’s House – it’s the People’s House – and it’s time Republicans start acting like it by addressing the important issues facing American families. When the Speaker calls the House back into session we will continue to stand up once again for our constituents who are demanding we take action to reduce gun violence in our country."
9. While progressive reps like Teresa Tanzi and other gun control advocates were left aghast by the House passage of a concealed carry bill during the marathon final legislative session, Speaker Mattiello defends the move. "We heard from a lot of folks who were employed as security guards, in committee, that indicated the process is slow in some communities," he said during Political Roundtable, "and they actually lose their jobs when the permits are not renewed in an appropriate time. So it was kind of a job issue for folks, a fairness issue for folks that rely on gun concealed permits for their livelihood. It really didn't expand rights. It standardized the process consistent with Rhode Island law." The measure died in the Senate; the ProJo reported that State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell lobbied against it. Asked why O'Donnell would oppose the measure if it was a matter of standardization, Mattiello said in part, "Some police chiefs do not want their authority changed or challenged in any way. They have their own unique process. They'd like to maintain their unique process."
10. It's increasingly clear why Representative Marvin Abney (D-Newport) got tapped to chair the House Finance Committee after Ray Gallison's abrupt exit. Abney is highly personable and his military experience lends weight to what he says. During her budget-signing, Governor Raimondo hailed Abney as the MVP for stepping in as Finance chair mid-session. In describing the importance of continuity, he went on to say how someone who's next to you one day in the military could be dead the next. On the slings and arrows of being a public figure, Abney shared how an old Air Force general once told him, "If you're not taking any flak, you're probably not over the target." And he said thoughts of Rhode Island kept him going when he was serving in an Afghan desert: "I thought about the ocean. I thought about the sound of the waves."
11. The House version of the budget reduces structural deficits from the spending plan proposed by Governor Raimondo (whose own budget offered improvements on earlier forecasts). For the record, returning lawmakers will face a $183.5 million deficit for fiscal 2018. Comparable figures for future fiscal years: 2019: $226.2 million; 2020: $278.9 million; and 2021: $338.8 million.
12. Speaker Mattiello said he'll end the House session in the future, rather than running the risk of having another all-night session. "At a certain time, we just call it quits. Everyone will be on notice, we got until a certain time, relatively early, and if we're not making substantial progress at that point, you have to quit," the speaker said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. Meanwhile, Mattiello said the so-called Justice Reinvestment package backed by the governor, and a career-technical education bill he favors, were not the bills that caused the session to end after sunrise. "We were negotiating and working on routine bills far too late," he said, although he acknowledged a difference of opinion on the two issues with Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.
13. General Assembly races: Former Democratic Rep. Larry Valencia hopes to win back a seat from Rep. Justin Price (R-Richmond). .... Longtime Rep. Edie Ajello (D-Providence) said she is seeking re-election .... Former Rep. Brian Coogan has joined Helder Cunha as a Democratic candidate in the race to succeed Helio Melo (D-East Providence). .... Rep. Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham) and House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) have announced re-election campaigns .... Scott Copley is running as an independent for the seat held by Sen. Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry).
14. The declaration deadline for candidates looms next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. More information for would-be candidates can be found here.
16. Kudos and congrats to Michelle Smith on her 15th anniversary in the Providence office of The Associated Press. The local office continues to cover the state while rooting out compelling enterprise stories, like Michelle's piece on women being excluded at the Westerly Yacht Club, and producing distinguished alums like John King, Eric Tucker, and David Klepper.
18. Like Providence, Rome is built on seven hills. With ruins all over the place, and widespread mismanagement and corruption, some observers give the Eternal City's youngest and first-ever female mayor, 37, slim chances of making improvements. "Rome is mission impossible," an Italian political scientist tells NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
20. People who follow my Twitter may know of my fondness for complaining about the dearth of barbecue in Rhode Island. So I was beyond honored to be asked to be a judge for the Ocean State Barbecue Festival this Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25, at the Steel Yard in Providence. Organizers hope the event will plant the seeds of a more robust barbecue landscape in Rhode Island. Godspeed, I say.