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

The political season keeps zipping along, with the calendar turning toward May. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, you can share...

The political season keeps zipping along, with the calendar turning toward May. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, you can share your tips and comments, and follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Even if many observers expected Bernie Sanders to triumph over Hillary Clinton in the days ahead of Rhode Island's primary, the margin of his victory still came as a surprise. Sanders' 55 percent-to-44 percent victory was remarkable, considering Clinton's traditional popularity in the Ocean State and institutional advantages wielded by the Democratic establishment. But timing is an even more precious political commodity than money, and that explains why Bernie blew out Hillary in Rhode Island. Eight years have passed since Clinton walloped then-Senator Barack Obama by 18 points in Rhode Island in 2008 -- an eternity in politics. Sure, Bill Clinton came in twice, Hillary stumped in Central Falls, and you could count on one hand the number of state lawmakers openly backing Sanders. There was nonetheless a mailed-in sense about Clinton's RI campaign, and the enthusiasm deficit was driven home when Sanders attracted an impressive crowd of 7,000 supporters to Roger Williams Park two days ahead of the election. In the aftermath of the results, some framed Clinton's setback as a rebuke to Governor Gina Raimondo and other ruling Democrats. But Rhode Island's primary pitted the Democratic status quo against a message of change -- and Sanders was clearly the candidate of change. With 90 percent of the delegates, Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Yet in contrast to the expectation of her ostensible inevitability, Rhode Island showed how in politics -- as in life -- the narrative sometimes takes an unexpected turn.

2. There were no signs of Donald Trump toning down his rhetoric when he spoke Monday in Warwick, and his supporters loved what amounted to a greatest hits collection from Trump's campaign. A few common answers turn up when Rhode Islanders are asked why they support Trump: they see him as being outside politics; they like his business experience and believe in his negotiating ability; they appreciate his bluntness, along with his insistence on doing something about immigration, trade, and keeping potential terror threats out of the US. Still, even with Trump scoring his best percentage-wise win in Rhode Island, it's worth remembering that his vote total (39,059) paled in comparison to the number received by Hillary Clinton (52,493) and Bernie Sanders (66,720).

3. If Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are flip sides of the same coin -- showing how voters are upset with the establishment and want something different -- what does it mean for General Assembly elections later this year? For now, one clear takeaway is that progressives and conservatives think the legislature is falling down in not adequately representing their views. Writing on the Facebook page of state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), David Ellison pointed to how Regunberg was among the very few lawmakers backing Sanders: "The rest of the 'democrats' in the state all endorsed Hillary. Something doesn't seem right when the voters then overwhelmingly select Bernie Sanders. I think we have a problem with who is representing us in the state house. So maybe it is time Rhode Islanders really start paying attention to who we are electing locally." Bob Plain amplified the same theme at the liberal web site RI Future: "[B]y pulling off a convincing victory in Rhode Island, a state dominated by neo-liberal leadership, Sanders sent a strong message that Rhode Islanders want progressive change." At the conservative Ocean State Current, Marc Comtois longs for a big shakeup of the Smith Hill apple cart, but he isn't overly optimistic. Not a big Trump fan, Comtois writes, "[T]his may be the last, best (and only?) chance for the new RI GOP, the Trumpublicans of RI, to make their move. Can they build off the anger and passion and really shake up the Rhode Island Democratic establishment? Unless they translate their Trump-inspired energy into actual victories for local candidates, the RI Trumpublican movement will be nothing more than what I and others suspect – a cult of personality that looks to the Big Man to fix our problems from Washington, D.C. (Yeah, I know, 'But it will be better because our guy is in charge!' OK, Princess – keep hoping for Prince Charming) by essentially keeping the status quo…with a few tweaks and a lot of heated rhetoric ('and put downs, don't forget the put-downs!)'  In the end, it will be no different than any other variety of Republicanism that has been tried in Rhode Island."

4. Patrick Quinn, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare1199NE, served on Governor Gina Raimondo's transition team. So during an appearance on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, we asked Quinn about Brown University's finding of a 31 percent approval rating for Raimondo: "I think [approval rating is] down mostly because she created higher expectations and said, 'well, I can turn this around' and told people, 'I can turn this around.' And it's a long difficult slog to get the economy turned around. Some of it is like the weather, you can't change it immediately. You've just got to get an umbrella and a coat." In terms of the governor's standing with Rhode Islanders, the controversial hiring of Don Lally, the dreadful rollout of "Cooler & Warmer," and Raimondo's unapologetic approach to doing some things differently have also had an impact (and it has been years since any RI governor topped a 40 percent approval rating in a Brown poll). Yet as Quinn notes, Raimondo is a very hard worker; if she can get the General Assembly to pass a far-reaching pension overhaul, getting Rhode Islanders to evaluate her more favorably should be within her grasp. 

5. Speaking of Brown's poll, Jim Morone from the Taubman Center said he regrets that the findings released two days before Rhode Island's primary were not more accurate, but he maintains the poll had useful information. Brown's poll showed Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders, 43 percent to 34 percent, with 16 percent undecided. The poll also depicted Donald Trump with 38 percent of the support on the GOP side, when he wound up winning with 64 percent. Out of state polls got closer to the final results. Nonetheless, in an interview, Morone said. "If you dig into the entire poll, not just the final numbers, you see a lot of interesting information, and you can see particularly the Sanders' surge right in our poll. Just look at the number of undecided, and the number of independents who were undecided. Look at how the independents are breaking hard for Sanders. When these numbers first came out and we were really looking at them, we thought, Wow, Sanders is surging. The headline looks bad, don't deny that. If we had pushed harder, we probably would have gotten that, but you see them in the numbers." In hindsight, Morone said he wished that Brown had over-sampled independents, and pressed undecided voters to choose a candidate. (Related note, Morone is slated to take a sabbatical in about a year to write a book on partisanship in American politics. He said it's not clear who will fill in for him, although he expects to return as head of the Taubman Center for American Politics & Policy.)

6. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has made clear how he wants his legacy to be moving Rhode Island's capital city beyond its persistently serious fiscal woes. During his budget address on Wednesday, Elorza appealed to city councilors' sense of destiny, asserting that looming term limits offer city leaders a limited window of opportunity: "We have a great opportunity before us to blaze a new trail," he said, invoking a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Council President Luis Aponte "has pointed out, in seven years, assuming we all win re-election, there will be a new mayor and 12 new city council members. What kind of a city do we want to leave behind for them?" That's a good question, although the outlook for making progress ranges from uncertain to very difficult. Elorza signaled his intention to seek more money from nonprofits like hospitals and universities, and to seek help from city unions and retirees. For now, the tension-filled standoff with the firefighters' union remains the defining story of Elorza's early tenure at City Hall. Without progress in addressing Providence's longstanding revenue shortage, the city risks continued fiscal uncertainty.

7. With Donald Trump winning 38 of Rhode Island's 39 cities and towns, how will the Trump factor play in the race between state Rep. Joe Trillo (R-Warwick), the honorary chairman of Trump's RI campaign, and Democratic challenger Evan Shanley? Trump performed phenomenally throughout Warwick's nine precincts, ranging from a low in support of 61 percent to a high of 74.1 percent. Trillo has gained exposure as the face of Trump's campaign, and he's had a good working relationship with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Then again, there were 10,132 votes cast for Democrats in Warwick, compared to 6,418 Republican tallies. As previously reported here, Shanley raised just under $30,000 in Q4 of 2015, and Trillo vows to have a well-stocked campaign account, so this race promises to be competitive and hard-fought.

8. Back in February, when most observers still thought Donald Trump would crash and burn, longtime local numbers-cruncher Ted Hahn told Arlene Violet, “Trump has a walk in the park.” (Hahn was among a small group of people who turned out Tuesday night for Trump's primary watch event at Chapel Grille in Cranston.)

9. For years, Republicans have run as Democrats because of the belief they could not win General Assembly election under the GOP banner, leading progressive to complain about the volume of DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) roaming the Statehouse. Yet an incipient shift may have started, with Karen MacBeth becoming a Republican ahead of her congressional run, and state Sen. Edward O'Neill of Lincoln shedding his status as the only Independent in the Senate to become a Republican. O'Neill, a big Trump supporter, told RIPR that Trump's campaign "has opened a door" for more people to join the GOP, and that that was one of a number of factors influencing his decision (of course, he ran and won election as a Trump delegate; "You can't go to the convention if you're not a member of the party").

10. Ken McKay has come a long way since he was shooing reporters away from Sue Carcieri during her husband's long-ago stick-a-fork-in-Guy Dufault news conference. Considering his success in twice getting Don Carcieri elected, including during a tight re-election fight in 2006, McKay offered the prospect of boosting local Republicans when he took on the role of state GOP chair in March 2011. But he bolted to DC just eight months later, in a move to bolster his professional prospects. McKay went on to work for Senator Ron Johnson, a Tea Party Republican from Wisconsin; the Republican National Committee; and Chris Christie's presidential campaign. This week, McKay joined Donald Trump's team as a senior adviser. Politico offered this quote from Trump on the hire: "Ken has a proven track record in winning state political races,” Trump said in a statement. “He will support our delegate operations team and bolster our ground game efforts. He brings tremendous experience to the job, and I know he is up to the task of working with my team.”

11. SEIU Healthcare1199NE's Patrick Quinn contends that something resembling a military-base closing commission should be used to evaluate Rhode Island's shrinking hospital landscape, in view of Care New England's moves at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. "We all agree we have too many [hospital] beds, but nobody wants their hospital to close," Quinn said on RIPR's Bonus Q&A. "So we have to figure out a way to do that. The communities that are affected, the workers that are affected need some assurances and protections that they can move to the new jobs that are growing, as the old jobs shrink, and they can be trained and given opportunity to learn new sets of skills that will be needed in a new healthcare environment, which will be more community-based and less hospital-based." On a related note, check Kristin Gourlay's update on what hospital consolidation means for Rhode Islanders.  

12. Vice reports on "The Strange Case of Rhode Island's Voter-ID Law," talking with the ACLU's Steve Brown and former state Rep. Jon Brien, among others. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea -- who as a candidate in 2014 said she wanted to repeal Voter-ID -- is talking about the issue differently now. "I am in the process of studying the impact of the statute," Gorbea said during an interview last week at RIPR. "I've said before that without data on what is the effect really here, it's just your statement or my statement against somebody else's. So I am seriously having conversations with academics who look at elections to see whether there's been a negative effect here in Rhode Island, and if so, then we can that information to push for its repeal."

13. General Assembly: Alex Marszalkowski, 29, a lawyer and fourth-generation farmer from Cumberland, has announced his candidacy as a Democrat for the House seat being vacated by state Rep. Karen MacBeth as she runs for Congress. In a news release, Marszalkowski said he is a 2012 graduate of Roger Williams University School of Law and the general manager of Adams Farm, which consists of more than 200 acres. In a statement, he said, “I have a tremendous passion for serving the public and giving back to my community. Running for office is a natural extension of my upbringing on a family farm where I understand the value of hard work and helping others .... I am running for office because I am steadfastly determined to make our community a better and safer place in which we all can be proud. I stayed here after law school to serve the public and the people of Cumberland." Marszalkowski already has a splashy campaign web site. The Valley Breeze has reported that Cumberland School Committee member Paul Modica may also run for the seat being vacated by MacBeth.

14. With RI's presidential primary over, and General Assembly races yet to heat up, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's re-election fight has been considered among the Ocean State's more high-profile campaigns for 2014. Yet another mayoral race is also worth keeping an eye on -- the primary between Democrats Kristen Catanzaro vs Charlie Lombardi. More on the race here from Ethan Shorey.

15. Best wishes to Alex Macfarlane, the hard-working press secretary for US Representative David Cicilline, as she leaves for a new gig as the DC-based communications director for US Congressman Raul Ruiz of California. A Utah native, Macfarlane started working for Cicilline not long after graduating from Brown; the congressman's office is posting the search for a successor.

16. While Ohio is commonly cited as a key presidential bellwether, Vigo County, Indiana, may be even better, having picked the eventual winner for more than 50 years.

17. Steve Brown, the former associate publisher of The Providence Phoenix, had a big personality, a big laugh, and a love of life. He's gone from us too soon, at age 62, as Scott MacKay notes in this nice remembrance. Steve was known to many as the business face of the Phoenix, and those of us who worked with him are deeply saddened by his passing. As Scott writes, Steve was comfortable in a variety of disparate settings: "A burly, friendly, funny and smart fellow, he was as at home dealing with the senators, governors and members of Congress who wooed him for Phoenix political endorsements as he was with the rock club and strip bar owners who bought advertising. He loved a nice lunch at Camille’s or the Capital Grille, but retreated after work for drinks at Nick-a-Nee's, a Providence dive." Rest in peace.

18. With Rhode Island's pension fund returning less than 1 percent for the first quarter of 2016, local school districts are looking at another $13 million in employer costs for FY18. As the RI Association of School Committees' Tim Duffy tweeted, that "essentially eats up" the state aid allocation for that fiscal year.

19. Congrats to Sheila Mullowney, longtime managing editor of The Newport Daily News, as she makes a change. Via her FB: "Reading the story about my departure after 17 years at The Newport Daily News is one of the more surreal things I have done in my career. Next week, I will be starting a new job as a communications specialist, writing and editing for Soundings, a monthly publication for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and Naval Surface Warfare Center, among other writing duties. It has been an amazing run, thanks to my colleagues and the community, and I leave the newsroom in good hands, as longtime copy editor Jon Zins (who started at the paper just a few months after I did!) will become managing editor of The Daily News."

20. Tom Ashbrook's On Point -- heard weekday mornings and evenings on RIPR, featured a discussion this week on The Future of the News, featuring media critic Jay Rosen, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, and Andrew Donohue, executive editor of the non-profit investigative news site Voice of San Diego.

21. Tech thinkers like Ray Kurzweil have mused for years about "The Singularity" -- the time when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. With that thought in mind, give a listen to this story from NPR: "Weighing The Good and The Bad of Autonomous Killer Robots in Battle."

22. You'll know Rhode Island's economy is humming when we experience the kind of gridlock common to Boston.

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