Happy New Year! Thanks for reading and listening to our work here at RIPR, and best wishes for 2016 -- a time, no doubt, when Rhode Island politics will remain the gift that keeps on giving. As usual, you can share your tips and thoughts via email, and follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. With the dawn of a bright shiny new year in Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo continues to draw sharply different impressions from different people. To a large part of the state's business community (and other supporters), she's the long-sought champion energetically trying to move forward this perennially under-performing corner of New England. Yet critics perceive Raimondo as just another tone-deaf pol who says one thing and does another while remaining chiefly concerned with her own political fortunes. This duality (an echo of her time as treasurer) seemingly helps explain why the governor's approval rating checked in at a less-than-stellar 46 percent in the only such public evaluation so far (way south of the pace-setting 74 percent approval enjoyed by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker.) This is why 2016 is a key year for Raimondo; while her administration asserts positive momentum, a single year is hardly enough time to make significant economic changes. Yet two years is a better paradigm for measuring progress, and as we've noted before, the governor's prospects will rise or fall on her ability to improve the economy. In the interim, watch for more media bouquets from Raimondo's admirers ("She has demonstrated a willingness to take on Big Public Labor to improve her state, and should serve as a model for all state-elected officials," the Waterbury, Connecticut, Republican-American editorialized last week), even as critics keep scorning her and sending up red flags about the Ocean State's persistent hostility to business. (To hear Raimondo in her own words, check my two-part year-end interview with the governor, here and here.)
2. What's to explain Governor Raimondo's disappearance from Institutional Investor's annual list of the 40 most impactful players on pension politics and policy? Raimondo made a cover appearance in the publication in 2013, and she placed 11th in Institutional Investor's pension Top 40 that year ("Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo dared to touch the third rail: pension reform"). By 2014, Raimondo placed 14th in II's annul rundown, as the state's newly elected governor. This time around, she didn't make the 2015 list, although Raimondo supporters John and Laura Arnold ranked second, and a leading Raimondo critic, Edward "Ted" Siedle, moved up a notch to #32. The editor who compiled Institutional Investor's latest ranking didn't respond to an inquiry, so we can only wonder about reason for the gov's no-show on II's list of the nation's top pension players; in all likelihood, it may just be the passage of time since Raimondo spearheaded the state's high-profile pension overhaul way back in 2011. (Those with a more caustic view may cite less-than-stellar returns in Rhode Island's pension fund, or the growing struggles of hedge funds. Then again, RI's pension shortfall is shrinking faster than expected.)
3. As Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza wraps up a sometimes bumpy first year in office, he's underscoring the need to focus on the capital city's long-term future. "When I leave office, knock on wood, seven years from now, I want to leave behind a very stable foundation that the next mayor can take advantage of, and build off all of our resources and assets," Elorza said during an interview on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A. Combined with his Political Roundtable appearance, the mayor repeatedly touted a $250,000 grant from the National Resource Network as a way to tackle budgetary and other challenges, with fresh findings expected in late February or early March. In the present, though, Elorza had no real answers for how the city will wipe out the $13 million+ cumulative deficit flagged as a worrisome concern by the state auditor general. He pointed to his effort to reel in firefighter overtime spending as evidence of a focus on Providence's fundamental problems. (At the same time, Elorza struck a conspicuously conciliatory tone toward city firefighters, emphasizing the need for a negotiated solution to the overtime battle, and the former Roger Williams University Law School professor didn't directly answer when asked why Local 799 has run the table in a series of court decisions.) Returning his focus to the long-term, Elorza spoke of a day when Providence's economic climate will spark growth and help attract new businesses. Yet the outlook remains mixed for now: there's progress on South Street Landing (where construction on a new 744-space garage will start this week) and momentum for Wexford Science & Technology's I-195 District proposal. On the other hand, Neighborhood Health Plan is leaving Providence, and Citizens Bank may well take its main Rhode Island presence out of the capital city. Meanwhile, Elorza called it too early to say, although a property tax hike appears increasingly likely to be a part of the mayor's next budget.
4. Did you know state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has a Republican legislative opponent who signaled his challenge last March? Anthony Spiratos hasn't updated the news section of his campaign web site since then, although he has been active on Facebook, opposing the truck-toll plan supported by Paiva Weed and standing against admitting Syrian refugees into Rhode Island. According to his bio, Spiratos works in real estate -- something that "has taught me exactly what we need to create jobs and how to do it. Our leadership in our General Assembly is out of touch with the business community." The young challenger had a bit more than $3,000 in his campaign account of as of the last quarter, and he's got an uphill battle in taking on one of the state's longest-serving Democrats (Paiva Weed won election as Senate president in 2009 -- back when Don Carcieri was still governor, and William Murphy was speaker; She beat her last GOP opponent, Michael W. Smith, by 10 percentage points in 2014.) While speculation continues about how long Paiva Weed hopes to remain Senate president, she has not publicly displayed interest in moving on (and said in a recent interview she hopes to land another term in the chamber's top job in 2017.) Back in 2014, Paiva Weed's stance on the contentious Newport casino issue was a moving target. Yet thanks to Twin River, Newport's no longer in play for expanded gambling, basically eliminating what could have been a more prominent campaign issue.
5. Michael Schroeder, the new owner of the Block Island Times, answered his own phone at his Connecticut office when my colleague Elisabeth Harrison dialed him earlier this week. Schroeder declined comment on allegations that he wrote a story with plagiarized sections under a fake byline, and somewhat distanced himself from his role in casino titan Sheldon Adelson's controversial purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal (which will continue to be operated by GateHouse Media, the owner of the Providence Journal). As far as the Block Island paper, "I’ll be a very active publisher," Schroeder told RIPR. "I’m coming out on Sunday and spending the first week there, and then I’m going to be there regularly." For a different perspective, check Dan Kennedy's account of how a Connecticut reporter helped unearth some of the key details on Schroeder's involvement. Elsewhere, some observers say the Review-Journal's sale raises serious questions that extend far beyond Nevada. As Arkansas Business editor Gwen Moritz wrote in a biting critique, "GateHouse isn't just the company that is willing to do Adelson's dirty work in Las Vegas in exchange for an obscene amount of money. It's a company that owns scores of newspapers all across the country."
6. Watch for revisions to Governor Raimondo's bridge-improvement plan to dominate attention for at least part of the General Assembly session beginning Tuesday. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello continues to outline his support for an approach that, at minimum, sharply cuts borrowing as part of the infrastructure proposal, while maintaining tolls. By late January, some attention will shift to Raimondo's second budget proposal. Through the discussion of other issues, lawmakers will try to avoid controversy before turning their attention to seeking re-election.
7. Susan Cicilline Buonanno tells me she's "really torn" about whether to stage another run against Rep. Carol McEntee (D-South Kingstown) and thinks about it often. McEntee, a lawyer, emerged as the winner of a special election last year to fill the House seat vacated by Don Lally, beating Cicilline Buonanno by less than 100 votes. Cicilline Buonanno, the sister of US Representative David Cicilline, said the loss was a tough blow after her previous consistent success in municipal elections in Narragansett. In terms of a rematch in 2016, "every other day, I go back and forth," she said, adding that she might not make a decision until spring on whether or not to run.
8. Speaking of legislative races, Democrat Jim Seveney of Portsmouth and Republican John Pagliarini of Tiverton will square off on Tuesday -- the same day as the start of the General Assembly session -- in a special election to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Christopher Ottiano. Ted Nesi was kind enough to ask me to join him for a discussion with the two candidates on this week's WPRI-TV's Newsmakers. Among the questions I asked the two rivals (paraphrase): does the legislature really need another Democrat? And considering how Republicans have held the governor's office for more than 20 of the last 30 years, where were they on raising an alarm on the sorry state of Rhode Island's bridges? Despite some sharp differences, the two candidates were united in opposing the legalization of marijuana and the granting of driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
9. Mayor Elorza appears leery of saying anything critical about the Providence City Council, in a reflection of the dynamics between the mayor's office and Council President Luis Aponte. Asked if he sees anything wrong with how former city councilor Balbina Young can increase her pension benefits, now that she's a City Council employee, Elorza said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A: "You know, that's a decision that the City Council made. They handle their portion of the budget and they're free to do that. In terms of the mayor's office portion of the budget and the rest of the city and school side of the budget, we make sure that, number one, we bring in people who are qualified for the job and that are going to be responsive to the needs of the community. That's the criteria that I use in every one of my hires and I hope that that's the criteria that's used by the City Council as well." Elorza was non-committal on backing David Salvatore's ordinance to stop the spiking of municipal pensions.
10. Matt Burgess, who was the spokesman for Matt Brown's ill-fated US Senate campaign back in 2006, has joined Planned Parenthood as the national organization's senior political strategist. After leaving Rhode Island, Burgess went on to work for EMILY's List and to run campaigns for Al Franken and Maggie Hassan. In announcing his new gig on Facebook, he said in part: "It's going be an incredible and busy 2016 and Planned Parenthood is going to be right at the center of so many important races across the country. I'm thrilled about the opportunity to work with the many talented folks at PP and with all of you over the next year."
11. Speaking of changes, former ProJo reporter Dan Barbarisi details on FB how he's leaving his gig covering his beloved Yankees for The Wall Street Journal, to write non-fiction books: "I have a book deal in place with Touchstone Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, for my first project, and I’m very excited to get started in earnest (Details to follow at a later date on exactly what said project is). My last day at the WSJ will be December 31 – and as a result of this change, I’m finally able to move up to Boston to live with my lovely wife, and be, y’know, regular people. Weird!" Barbarisi, who is married to Boston Globe sportswriter Amalie Benjamin, was a stellar writer during his time in RI and he got shifted somewhat precipitously to cover the Red Sox in 2008. We wish him luck with his new pursuit.
12. The top 10 Rhode Island stories of 2015, as selected by the RI Public Radio newsroom.
13. Morning Consult had quite the glum note on the recent past. Excerpt: When the cultural history of the last ten years is written, when weightier matters like war and recession are perhaps behind us, we may recall this as the decade when Americans lost trust — not just in our politicians, but in virtually every institution that plays a major role in society. This is the decade of scandal, the decade in which abuse allegations against the Catholic Church became major news. This is the decade in which Barry Bonds was indicted, when Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles. The recession itself was exacerbated by Wall Street traders playing ratings agencies for fools with complex financial instruments, and no one went to jail. It is a decade of declining trust in media, a phenomenon concurrent with the rise of purely partisan outlets on the right and the left. The divide between Americans’ perceptions of how they are treated versus how they think powerful interests like the police, big business and political insiders are treated has never been wider. And that’s before we get to the scandals that rocked Washington beginning in 2006, and the poisonous mistrust between party faithful on both sides. It is easier, political professionals have discovered, to play on mistrust than to inspire trust, hence the proliferation of negativity and hyperbole in politics.
14. Then again, it could be worse. Imagine taking office as governor, as Bruce Sundlun did 25 years ago today, with the the state banking crisis about to become a very public crisis Former Sundlun aide David Preston recalled that time in a piece he wrote for Rhode Island Monthly 10 years later, in 2002, and he's reprised in on his blog at the New Harbor Group. Excerpt: "I trudged back to the transition office and wrote a brief new paragraph for the inaugural address alluding to the 'problem.' Then I looked up a copy of Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to the nation after he declared a bank holiday in 1933 following panicky wide-scale bank runs. From that, I drafted a statement for the governor to give the following day. Toward the end of the draft remarks, seeking to strike an FDR-like tone, I wrote for Sundlun the line, 'I am confident' that the crisis will be resolved quickly, and handed the pages to the governor. In the entire three-page, double-spaced text, Sundlun made only one change. He crossed out the words 'I am confident' and penciled in the more tentative 'I hope.' "
15. Transportation blogger James Kennedy has 10 Providence urbanist resolutions for 2016. It says something that improving public bathrooms in and around downtown comes in at number 2.
16. Former gubernatorial candidate/citizen activist Ken Block on his plans for the new year: "38 Studios remains a strong area of concern for me and I believe for Rhode Island as we move into 2016. Serious mistakes were made, huge amounts of money lost, and no official accounting has been produced of what went wrong and why. Rhode Island needs to professionalize its government -- and hiding or ignoring the bad things that happen does not help us move forward in any way. WatchdogRI is deep into a technical and contractual review of Rhode Island’s massive UHIP project. UHIP consists of the replacement of many of Rhode Island’s social services computer systems as well as HealthSourceRI – Rhode Island’s Exchange. We are concerned that a state that butchered a $5 million DMV computer upgrade may have serious issues successfully managing this massive high tech project, whose costs have exploded from $105 million in 2013 to $380 million today."
17. Back in Pawtucket, the city has a snazzy new Web site.
18. Rhode Island hasn't had a crisis involving police-community relations since the friendly-fire shooting death of Cornel Young Jr. in 2000. That helps explain why USA Today used Providence as the backdrop for a story this week on the fallout from the kind of problems seen in Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore. In the story, Providence Chief Hugh Clements cites "an uneasiness among the boots on the ground,'' he said. "Everything we do now can be called into question. Everything is a delicate balance. Whether it happens in California or Texas, leaders in our community want to know what we think of it and what we are doing about it. This is a transformational time in law enforcement; I don't think we know where it will end.''
19. You know all those savvy veterans of RI politics who say signs can't vote? It turns out they're right -- mostly. An academic study cited by Politico found that lawn signs increase voter share by 1.7 percentage points.
20. PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino will keynote the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner on February 9, at the Twin River Event Center in Lincoln. This seems part and parcel of the PawSox' effort to rebuild community ties after a difficult 2015.
21. Only 95 days until Opening Day.