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TGIF: Ian Donnis' Politics/Media Roundup For February 8


It’s almost time for spring training, and politics never takes a holiday. 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.

The number of voters in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s Cranston district who work at the General Assembly has climbed almost three-fold during the course of Mattiello’s time as speaker. That’s the finding of my story for The Public’s Radio this week. Mattiello declined interview requests, and his office downplayed the finding, pointing to how about a third of the jobs involve part-time or summer positions. Yet critics say patronage – along with legislative grants, control of committee appointments, and restrictive House rules – is one of the ways in which a speaker reinforces his own iron control of the chamber. “If you have about 25 or 30 people in your district that work for you, are at-will employees of you, that’s a good vote base," said Cranston Republican Steve Frias, who narrowly lost a 2016 state rep challenge to Mattiello. "Because as James Michael Curley, the Rascal King, once said, for every government employee that is beholden to you, there’s five votes to that.” In a statement, Mattiello said the people hired from his district to work on Smith Hill “are hard-working people who I know and trust and they are doing a good job on behalf of the taxpayers.” Meanwhile, the speaker continues to have effective control of the hiring and spending arm of the legislature, the Joint Committee on Legislative Services. Back in the 1990s, a patronage scandal helped bring down RI Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fay. But there’s no active move to reduce patronage in Rhode Island, and the practice is so deeply rooted that any change appears unlikely.

2) The 2016 election was arguably a key turning point in Mattiello’s speakership. Frias points to the number of legislative employees and their relatives who live in House District 15 as a difference-maker in his 85-vote loss to Mattiello that year. Whether that’s the case is impossible to say. That was the year when the speaker embraced what has become his legislative signature – the ongoing phaseout of the state car tax – and it appears his stance against a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket had already hardened. By 2018, Mattiello managed his own re-election run and his 329-vote victory margin over Frias was more than three times greater than in 2016. In the time since, fissures have grown among the 66 Democrats in the 75-member House, with the 19-member ‘Reform Caucus’ pushing for changes in the chamber. Yet Mattiello won re-election as speaker in January with 47 votes, he’s got a strong hold on power, and supporters call him as a pro-business Democrat. Barring surprises, Mattiello may be able to mostly write his own ticket until he decides to sign off as speaker.

3) Rhode Island political history offers examples of gubernatorial candidates who won (Bruce Sundlun) and lost (Myrth York) on their third attempt, so will Cranston Mayor Allan Fung take another shot at governor in 2022? “Certainly, my career in public service isn’t over yet,” Fung said on Political Roundtable this week on The Public’s Radio. “Who knows what the future’s going to hold, but I certainly enjoy and we’ll see what the future holds. I’m not closing the door on anything.” Meanwhile, on Bonus Q&A, Fung didn’t rule out a possible effort to succeed him in the mayor’s office by his wife, Barbara Ann Fenton. “I don’t know what she wants to do,” Fung said. “No matter what she will be fantastic at it, if that’s what she decides, and obviously I’ll support her. But she’s got a lot that’s going on right now between her working career and doing what she’s doing on a lot of boards and commissions, helping our community.” Cranston City Council President Michael Farina is expected to run for mayor in 2020; Fung said it’s too early to say if he will support Farina. 

4) Back in 2016, when some people criticized the projected cost of energy from Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm, company CEO Jeff Grybowski defended investing in wind power and he said it wasn’t realistic to project the costs of it years forward. “No one can predict the future,” he told me at the time. “I know what the cost of the Block Island wind farm will be, because I can predict that going forward. But where the rest of the market is, is completely unknown today – and it’s unpredictable. So those projections of what an over-market cost might be are simply speculation at this point.” Now, a contract announced this week for a 400-megawatt Revolution Wind offshore wind farm is being hailed as an increase in green energy that will lower ratepayer costs. According to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office, the “levelized price of electricity generated by the Revolution Wind project [originally developed by Deepwater] will be just over 7 cents per kilowatt hour for twenty years, within one cent of the proposed 800-megawatt Massachusetts Vineyard Wind project.” “We're keeping our promise to Rhode Island to bring down the cost of offshore wind in a big way," Grybowski, now co-CEO of Ørsted US Offshore Wind, said in the release. "Revolution Wind will save ratepayers money and help Rhode Island make major progress on its clean energy goals. This is the start of an exciting next chapter for offshore wind in the state that pioneered this new U.S. clean-tech industry.”

5) Mike Raia, formerly Gov. Raimondo’s communications director, has signed on to lead a new strategic consulting/PR outfit for Providence-based NAIL Communications. “This is an exciting opportunity to bring NAIL’s creativity, design and social savvy to public relations,” Raia said in a statement. “NAIL[PR] will apply the tactics, structures and attitude of digital-first political campaigns and communications operations to help brands tell their stories.”

5A) Nora Crowley, spokeswoman at the RI Department of Labor and Training, is moving over to become interim executive director of the governor's Workforce Board. (Heather Hudson left that role late last year for personal reasons.) Angelika Pellegrino, who had been aiding DLT director Scott Jensen with special projects, will serve as interim spokeswoman at DLT.

6) If you’re the PawSox, how do you make lemonade from the lemons of trying to draw fans while at the same time getting ready to leave Pawtucket for Worcester? Here’s how longtime team exec Mike Tamburro put it during a press event Monday: “I think there are two paths. We either can play out the string, mail it in, do our time, or we can embrace the community the way we always have. And in true, PawSox fashion, we want to sprint to the end, we want to do it right, we want to make this city and this state proud of us to the very end.” The PawSox’ ‘Celebrate Rhode Island’ initiative includes free tickets for kids 12 and under for weeknight games in April and May; a vow to show the flag throughout the state; and other efforts.

7) As a divisive figure, can President Trump make a credible call for political unity? Here’s Mayor Fung’s reaction to Trump’s lengthy State of the Union address earlier this week: “Well, I think you have to give him a chance,” Fung said on Roundtable. “The one thing that I’m glad to hear, a bipartisan call, a unity call – because I think that’s the right tone the country needs and especially down in Washington, D.C. But as well all know, the devil’s going to be in the details, and it’s going to be actions that have to speak louder than words, ‘cuz what we’ve seen from the president is … and his speech highlighted some great accomplishments that have happened, from the criminal justice reform, or even ideas that he wants to tackle, from the opioid crisis, that are really impacting people in their backyards. But we’re going to have to wait and see because he could go – certainly an unconventional president – go one day, set a Dumpster fire by going on Twitter or saying what he does … We’re going to have to wait and see.” …. Democrats such as U.S. Rep. David Cicilline were far more critical of Trump’s SOTU speech: “The president’s speech was long, self-absorbed, and divorced from reality,” Cicilline said in a statement. “It was short on details but long on hypocrisy. The American people deserve better. Regardless of the President’s speech tonight, I will continue to fight for the priorities of Rhode Islanders – cracking down on corruption in Washington, raising wages by rebuilding our infrastructure, lowering healthcare and prescription drug costs, ending the epidemic of gun violence, and taking on the challenge of climate change.” 

8) An APRA request reveals that Robert Donovan, the longtime former director of the Rhode Island Health and Education Building Corporation, got a final payment of $68,740 while leaving RIHEBC last December, for unused vacation time and 50 percent of his unused medical leave days. The payment, in keeping with RIHEBC’s HR policy manual, was approved by the agency’s board last month. That meeting on January 9 included the following agenda item: “vote to seal executive minutes.” Donovan’s successor as executive director, Kim Mooers, offered this explanation for the vote to seal the executive session minutes: “We held the discussion in Executive Session with Bob’s permission (which is required) only because the discussion could have involved sensitive comments about his performance.”

9) An annual update, via WPRI-TV’s Tim White, on some of the highest-paid employees in state government: “Figures show 2,336 state workers took home six-figures in 2018, up from 1,936 in 2016 and 1,453 in 2014. Those employees accounted for nearly $304 million in state spending, up from almost $248 million in 2016 – a 23% increase. (The payroll figures don't include the cost of benefits like health care or payments into the retirement system.)”

10) The ‘Green New Deal’ proposal from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts faces questions about its practicality and political prospects. Here’s an in-depth look at the plan, including an interview with AOC, via NPR.

11) Speaking of the environment, Cranston City Council Majority Leader Chris Papluaskas has a proposal billed as a way to significantly reduce the amount of plastic headed into Rhode Island’s second-largest city. Mayor Fung isn’t a fan of the concept, though, because he said it will have a negative impact on businesses, including small businesses. Asked what he would do about the issue, Fung said, “Obviously, there’s different ways to do it, but a ban like that I don’t think is the appropriate answer,” he said. “Encouragement of use of those recyclable bags – I was handing those out, the Fung [for] governor bags, and people love those.” 

12) U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was the first guest on a new podcast – Panda Pod – launched by the World Wildlife Fund. (H/t to one the senator’s former staffers, Seth Larson, who now handles media and external affairs for the WWF)

13) The Consumer Protection Bureau is looking to roll back a rule on payday lending: “The rule would have required lenders to determine whether customers could pay off their loans. It would also limit payday lenders to only two attempts to withdraw money from borrowers' accounts, a move designed to target the fees that payday lenders charge.”

14) Nevada has become the first U.S. state to have a female majority in its legislature. FWIW, both the Rhode Island House and Senate have a higher percentage of women than most U.S. legislatures. Via NPR’s Leila Fadel: “ ‘Women hold fewer than 30 percent of state legislative seats across the country, fewer than 25 percent of congressional seats, so getting to 50 percent in any one place is something significant,’ says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. ‘So we still have a lot of progress left to make across the country to have women equally represented in our legislative institutions,’ she says. In fact, in Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana, women make up about 15 percent of state lawmakers. Even in the ‘year of the woman’ — as 2018 was regularly called — it's obvious that progress has been slow. In 1992, also a breakthrough year, women made up 20 percent of representation across the country. This year, as 2018 winners take office, it's 28 percent.”

15) A thought-provoking read: “Inflation changed how Americans thought about their economic relationships to their fellow citizens — which is to say, inflation and its associated economic traumas changed who we were as a people. It also called into question the economic assumptions that had guided the country since World War II, opening the door for new assumptions that have governed us ever since.”

16) “More than just blocking Facebook – can we live without Big Tech?

17) Rest in Peace, Frank Robinson, a superb ballplayer and pioneer.

18) Check out these predictions Bill Gates made back in 1999.


TGIF: Ian Donnis' Politics/Media Roundup For February 8
TGIF: Ian Donnis' Politics/Media Roundup For February 8