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TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

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Baseball is back, and the contact sport of politics continues unabated. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments...

Baseball is back, and the contact sport of politics continues unabated. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. In a year of anti-establishment sentiment among voters, can a first-time candidate use shoe leather and an anti-incumbent message to oust the long-serving state rep who also serves as chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party? That's the question raised by David Mastriano's forthcoming challenge to state Rep. Joe McNamara (D-Warwick), a popular vote-getter who has served in the House since taking office in 1995. A West Warwick native, Mastriano, 46, said he moved to Warwick in 2005 and works as the environmental health and safety director for nursing home in North Kingstown. He said he was tempted to move South because of Rhode Island's business climate, but decided to stay, because, "you know something, we need to fight back." A self-described conservative and leaner toward Ted Cruz, Mastriano said he plans to run as an independent because of his distaste for both political parties. He said he's disappointed McNamara voted for the truck toll law after he and other constituents asked him to oppose it. "These lifetime politicians, they need to go," Mastriano said. Pointing to RI's bouts of high unemployment and the state's economic struggles, he said, "These guys who've been in for 15, 20 years, they're not doing their job." Mastriano said he plans to officially launch his campaign in two to three weeks, and expects to walk the district four times. McNamara hasn't had a serious challenge in many years; he was unopposed in 2012 and 2014, and easily beat Republican opponents in 2010 and 2008. Asked for comment on the latest challenge, McNamara said, “I will be running for re-election on my record of accomplishments for Warwick, Cranston and our state. I am proud of authoring legislation creating a medical tourism industry that has led to a $43 million development and 400 new jobs expected in Warwick. On the education front, I have worked hard to make more college courses available for high school students and to make college more affordable for all Rhode Islanders.”

2. While #CoolerandWarmer was blowing up last week, an important story was getting a lot less attention: the deaths of infants in state care. RI Public Radio's Elisabeth Harrison followed up this week by looking at the response of state officials. Jamia McDonald, Governor Gina Raimondo's pick to overhaul the troubled Department of Children, Youth and Families told Harrison that many of homes hosting 320 foster children are in the process of being licensed. Excerpt: " 'We are not concerned right now that children aren't safe in those settings,' " McDonald told RIPR. 'Being in a kinship home is still the best for a child.' However, McDonald said the agency is working to streamline the licensing process for those families. 'It's making sure that our processes are moving as quickly as the placements are.' Under McDonald, DCYF has been working to address problems like over-worked caseworkers, outdated computer systems and a large number of children in group homes. But the report suggested concerns about oversight of foster families, finding that in at least one case, the agency missed signs of domestic abuse and other problems that might have contributed to the child's death."

3. By week's end, Rhode Island seemed to be edging away, at least a bit, from the #CoolerandWarmer fiasco, although not before The New York Times caught up with the story, and local reporters/writers pressed for more answers. To cite one example, Justin Katz asked why the Commerce Corporation was being coy about the timeline for the initiative, particularly when clues were lurking on Capitol TV.

4. Jeff Britt said the path to his being hired by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was set in motion when he ran into Leo Skenyon, Mattiello's chief of staff, earlier this year. More than a half-dozen breakfast meetings with Skeyon followed in which we "talked more macro strategy, rather than specific races," Britt said. Mattiello's hiring of Britt is smart politics, as the ProJo's Kathy Gregg notes, since it denies the strategist's services to the speaker's opponents, in what promises to be a lively election year. Yet Britt maintains he's focused on crafting a broader strategy and messaging, not on potential challenges to Mattiello. As an example, Britt points to RhodeWorks, the controversial truck toll initiative that emerged from the governor's office. While Republicans hope to exploit the issue this fall, Britt points to how Mattiello cut back the number of gantrys and the cost of tolls. In the past, Britt helped a move to topple former speaker John Harwood; served as the liaison to "dissident Democrats" under Don Carcieri; directed Mark Binder's sharp challenge to Gordon Fox in 2012; and managed Ken Block's gubernatorial campaign in 2014. In a statement, Mattiello said Britt "is under retainer as of March 31 by the Fund for Democratic Leadership. He will provide strategy and assist me in promoting issues to best serve the citizens of Rhode Island. He will be available for hire by myself and other House Democrats. He has already proven to be a valuable asset to our team and he will continue to assist us when this contract expires."

5. On a related note, one thing to watch in the remainder of the House session (as we've noted before) is whether Speaker Mattiello tries to burnish his good government credentials by passing an ethics bill in 2016. Ethics legislation hasn't cleared the House since way back in 2010 -- one year after the state Supreme Court stripped the state Ethics Commission of its ability to police most core legislative functions. Now, though, Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said a late April hearing is expected for an ethics bill being developed by the speaker's staff. As it stands, Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) has introduced the House version of the ethics bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward O'Neill (I-Lincoln) -- the one backed by good government groups like Common Cause of Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Sen. James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) is using a radio ad on WPRO, a FB page, and a web site to promote his preferred compromise. (Sheehan, however, might not have much legislative traction after sending a letter in February describing an alleged threat by Mattiello.) While the speaker has made clear in the past that strengthening the Ethics Commission was not among his priorities, an ethics bill and the 2014 elimination of the master lever could make their way into campaign talking points for House Democrats.

6. While Governor Raimondo would have loved to land General Electric, and it would have translated into a huge PR coup for Rhode Island. Still, if worth nothing how some reconsideration is being aired in Boston about the incentives used to lure GE to the Hub. Take it away, Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung (Headline - "GE is a $145M bet. How will we know if Mass. won?" Excerpt: "[T]he topic of whether the city and state will ever recoup their investment in GE is a serious one. It’s the reason why a few dozen protesters braved a wintry mix standing outside the press conference to question why a company that generates $117 billion in revenue needs a penny from the government .... The upshot is that scores of studies have been done on whether corporate tax incentives are worth the investment, and the results are all over the map. Just take a look at the state’s $1 billion biotech initiative. A 2014 Northeastern University study credits the program with helping to create 11,300 direct jobs. Meanwhile, Pioneer Institute, a fiscal conservative think tank, released an analysis calculating that the initiative produced 571 direct jobs, and that the industry would have thrived without the money because of the existing cluster of biotech startups, research universities, and teaching hospitals. But this much is indisputable: The headlines generated by the $1 billion package got the word out that Massachusetts wants to be a player. However we got there, the region is a go-to place for life sciences with almost every major drug company now having a presence here. You could even argue the strength of the sector is a major reason why GE is putting down roots."

7. The Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders fight is finally heating up in Rhode Island ahead of our April 26 presidential primary. Clinton opened her Providence office Thursday, and (update) in a nod to the importance of Latino voters, is opening a Central Falls office this week. The Sanders campaign is opening its office at noon Sunday, 500 Broad Street, Suite 1, in Providence, with a mystery guest and comments by the campaign's RI political director, Joe Caiazzo, one day after a canvass kickoff there. While Michelle Kwan has gained attention for her campaign work, her husband, former gubernatorial candidate Clay Pell, also remains active in supporting Clinton. "They've hosted seven events for Hillary's campaign in Rhode Island, including with [US] Rep. Joaquin Castro [of Texas] last week," a campaign source told TGIF. "Clay is on a number of national committees and is a leader in helping elect Hillary in the Ocean State."

8. On the Republican side, John Kasich, may have the tougher road among the GOP candidates, but Kasich and his supporters are pushing yard. The Republican's campaign released a memo this week, entitled, "The Nomination Contest is Wide Open," due to Donald Trump's stumble in Wisconsin and the belief that Trump and Ted Cruz won't collect enough bound delegates ahead of the RNC. A pro-Kasich PAC also announced the opening of an office in North Kingstown, and one of the candidate's supporters, Dawson Hodgson, said he expects a Kasich visit to RI ahead of April 26. "The plan for Kasich is to win the state," Hodgson said. That's probably a tough climb when Trump has such deep name recognition, even if his negatives are sky high. Still, Hodgson points to a fluid race and the belief that Kasich has the record and temperament to unite Republicans. Other supporters of Kasich in RI include Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, Gary Sasse, and Sen. Nicholas Kettle.

9. As in other states, Trump supporters in RI point to economic concerns and the belief that he has the business experience to make an important difference. If you missed it, listen to my story outlining why local Trump supporters like the guy.

10. State Rep. Karen MacBeth (R-Cumberland) and I caught up at the Statehouse earlier this week to talk about her campaign in Rhode Island's First Congressional District. While the conventional wisdom suggests MacBeth has an uphill fight in vying to take on an incumbent like David Cicilline, a Trump presidential campaign (if such a thing exists past the Republican National Convention) could pull more Republicans and independents to the polls in November. You can listen to the conversation with MacBeth here.

11. When push comes to shove on the future of the 6/10 Connector, what will happen? Check out James Kennedy's description of why the issue reminds him of Buddy Cianci. Meanwhile, in an interview set to air next week on RIPR, DOT Director Peter Alviti said a boulevard concept offers the most public benefit, although he prefers "[something] a bit more centrist in its approach" for the connector's future. "We're not there yet, but we're moving in certain directions and trying to combine the views of the various stakeholders -- not just the boulevard people, not just the City of Providence, not just the commuters, 100,000 a day, that use this facility, and not just the businesses that count on this as an important transportation delivery system," Alviti said. "We're trying to look at all of the various values, and it's not an easy task. We can't polarize to either one or the other. But we need to pick out a solution that we think will satisfy as much of the various interests as we possibly can, and create the best benefit for the least cost." 

12. Last Sunday, The Providence Journal published a short, relatively inconspicuous article about the Providence Newspaper Guild's effort to raise attention about some changes under GateHouse Media's ownership of the statewide daily. The mere publication of this three-paragraph story marked a big shift from how A.H. Belo, the ProJo's former owner, handled news involving the newspaper. Back in 2003, Rhode Island's leading news organization didn't publish a single word about how a boisterous protest of about 200 people extended into the Journal Building. That was further evidence of a withered commitment to self-scrutiny under Belo. Media organizations face many challenges, and observers continue to highlight other concerns about GateHouse. Yet there's certainly value when an important local news source doesn't rule itself out of bounds for coverage.

13. On a related note, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent out a memo this week (h/t Dan Kennedy) calling for the news organization to rethink everything it does. Excerpt: "There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff in the right way? Should we remain in the current print format that we have now, same size, same sections? Do we have the right departments? Is our beat structure outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week? Do print and digital relate in the right ways? The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still." Meanwhile, the conversation continues on Facebook.

14. Anya Rader Wallack, Kate Coyne-McCoy, Colleen Murray Coggins, Tom Sgouros, and EMILY's List are hosting an April 29 fundraiser at Rader Wallack's Providence home for Vermont gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter. (Suggested contribution levels range from $100 to $2,000.) Minter, a Mose Brown grad who was formerly transportation secretary in the Green Mountain State, is running as part of a Democratic primary field that includes Peter Galbraith, the son of the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

15. Raising legislative pay, adding staff, and expanding the General Assembly session are not the kind of ideas that win much public support. Yet as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux notes on FiveThirtyEight.com (h/t Sam Howard), there's a connection between those factors and the efficiency of a legislature. Then again, New York lawmakers are highly compensated, and the Empire State legislature makes RI look almost saintly by comparison.

16. With public opinion in Burrillville running against a proposed natural gas-fired plant, it was not very surprising to see state Rep. Cale Keable (D-Burrillville) and Sen. Paul Fogarty (D-Glocester) come out against the project, even as Governor Raimondo remains a supporter.

17. The Arcade gets prime time in this MarketWatch look at the appeal of micro-lofts in a macro-world.

18. The flouting by candidates of campaign finance fines imposed by the state Board of Elections has been a staple of Rhode Island's political scene for years. Yet John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said BOE plans an amendment that would preclude candidates with outstanding fines from running for office. "It would create some due process for these people who are accused of this," Marion said on this week's RIPR Bonus Q&A, "but ultimately it would allow the board to go before a judge and not allow [candidates] to file nominating papers, which we think is a necessary step." (Of course, whether the General Assembly will pass this bill is another question.) Marion also joined us for this week's RIPR Political Roundtable.

19. The Statehouse library is featuring a series of artifacts from the Dorr Rebellion (1841-42), "a part of Rhode Island's history that mirrors the public frustration seen in the 2016 Presidential election," according to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office. She offers this pocket recap: "Spurred by their growing frustration over outdated suffrage laws, members of the Rhode Island Suffrage Association drafted a People's Constitution in 1841. In a statewide, extra-legal election the following year, they elected Thomas Wilson Dorr as their Governor. At the same time, supporters of the established 'Law and Order' government re-elected Samuel Ward King as their Governor, leaving Rhode Island with two competing governments. With neither side willing to compromise, events soon turned violent, and Thomas Dorr was eventually imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement." The RI State Archives on Westminster Street is also featuring  a more in-depth Dorr exhibit, through May 27.

20. Is the generally disappointing performance of the Red Sox in recent years the main reason why attendance has trended down at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket? That's probably part of it, but minor league baseball is also competing with soccer, lacrosse, video games, and Instagram and Snapchat -- among other things -- for the attention of young people. That's why the PawSox, after taking a lot of PR hits last year, are attempting to battle back with a flotilla of new initiatives and promotions. The idea of even considering a move out of McCoy is off the table for now, officially at least. "I don't think you can have a conversation about the long-term future until you demonstrate you are a community conscious franchise," PawSox President Charles Steinberg told Scott MacKay in an interview this week. (Scott has some more thoughts in his weekly column.) Steinberg pitches McCoy as a place where people can enjoy the pastoral pleasures of baseball, and where parents can bond with their children, all at reasonable prices. Steinberg has been known in the past for choreographing the pre-game magic for key Red Sox celebrations at Fenway Park. This season will shed light on whether he can cast similar spells in Pawtucket.

21. As Red Sox Nation watches and waits to find out if this will be a season more of delight or despair, one thing is certain: beer prices will likely keep going up at Fenway.

22. Hi Neighbor! Years after talking up plans to do so, 'Gansett is bringing part of its brewing operation back to Rhode Island, Pawtucket to be specific. Even better, as Gail Ciampa reports, is how the RI brand remains among the nation's top craft beer producers.

TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media