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The outlook for the effort to pass an abortion rights bill in Rhode Island appeared dim Tuesday evening. That was when the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a five-to-four vote, rejected the chamber’s own version of the bill. Yet the ensuing response offered Senate leadership a glimpse of the potential fallout: pro-choice activists trailed senators as they left committee room 313. The boisterous activists occupied the Senate chamber and filled the Statehouse with chants of “Vote Them Out!” and “Send it [the bill] to the Floor!” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio got a police escort as he left his office. The abortion issue loomed as a potential political liability for senators seeking re-election last year. That was especially true for Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey of Warwick and Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin of Providence, since they are positioned to move up when Ruggerio cedes his leadership post. When the dust settled, it became clear that the House version of the abortion bill (which the Senate Judiciary Committee held for further study) is very much still in play. Ruggerio sent an important signal when he modified his public stance with a statement Tuesday: “I ask all parties to continue working together to see if amended language can be developed that will pass committee and be brought to the floor.” The trick now is creating consensus on the Judiciary Committee on the most polarizing issue in American politics, with time ticking down in the legislative session. That won’t be easy, even if abortion-rights supporters feel encouraged about the outlook.
2) Compare and contrast: On May 14, Senate Judiciary killed the Senate’s own abortion bill just to have the House version come back to life. The passage by the full RI House of Representatives was more than two months earlier, March 7, on a 44-to-30 vote. The person responsible for that was House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Yes, Mattiello voted against the abortion bill, but the legislation would not have made it out of House Judiciary without the speaker’s influence. Furthermore, the House role-modeled a better brand of legislating by showing that a significant issue can be decided in March -- way ahead of the end-of-session rush of bills. Back in May 2018, Mattiello was castigated by pro-choice advocates after famously telling The Public’s Radio why he was reluctant to bring an abortion bill to the House floor (“This is a very divisive issue on both sides,” he said. “It’s an issue that would utilize all of the oxygen in the room.”). But the speaker changed his tune by last November, when he pointed to a ProJo/The Public’s Radio/ABC6 poll showing that more than 70 percent of Rhode Islanders support abortion rights. (Mattiello has implicitly discounted opposition-backed polls showing less support for abortion.) The speaker’s critics, including the conservative Gaspee Project and Roman Catholic Bishop Thoma Tobin, are fuming. But Mattiello has proven astute at reading public opinion on issues including the PawSox while simultaneously strengthening his own political standing.
3) Meanwhile, Sens. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield) and Leonidas “Lou” Raptakis (D-Coventry) – two of the five ‘no’ votes on Senate Judiciary – cast their tallies in opposition even while insisting that they are pro-choice. That juxtaposition rings hollow for abortion-right advocates, so it won’t be surprise if there’s an aggressive search for primary challengers to run against the incumbents in 2020. (Then again, Melanie Dupont, who opposed Archambault in a primary last year, got less than 38 percent of the vote, so it remains to be seen if Archambault and Raptakis are more in line with the views of residents in their respective districts.) Meanwhile, if the abortion bill winds up not clearing the Senate, activists can be expected to run a broader effort challenging pro-life lawmakers. Asked about the potential fallout, Barth Bracy of Rhode Island Right to Life told me on Tuesday, “The reality is, elections have consequences. We engage in the elections. Some years we perform well against Planned Parenthood, some years they perform well against us. I think the needle swings back and forth, but we’ll be prepared for the 2020 elections, as I’m sure they will.”
4) WPRI-TV Channel 12 is assigning Steph Machado to cover Providence City Hall following the recent departure of Dan McGowan for The Boston Globe. Machado has excellent instincts and will work as part of the Target 12 investigative unit. Meanwhile, fomer Providence Business News reporter Eli Sherman is joining WPRI.com as a digital reporter. "We are excited to have Eli Sherman joining our Target 12 team as we continue our commitment to providing in-depth content on WPRI.com as well as on air,” News Director Karen Rezendes tell me. “Investigative journalism is at the core of what we do at Eyewitness News, and we will have more to announce in the coming weeks." Sherman, who is coming from a job as an investigative and in-depth reporter for GateHouse Media newspapers in eastern Massachusetts, formerly reported for Providence Business News. Like Machado, he’s a fine reporter and will make for a strong addition to RI’s media corps.
5) The word from Cranston is that former councilor Maria Bucci, a Democrat, could be a big factor in the mayoral race to succeed Allan Fung next year. Bucci could not be reached for comment. A source familiar with the outlook said she is seriously considering running and could have a significant financial advantage over other candidates. With an open seat, there could be a big field. The candidates are expected to include Council President Michael Farina, a Republican.
6) From an NPR interview with Eric Johnson, president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, who wrote the bill in that state that imposes a sweeping ban on abortion: “If we are saying that the unborn child is a person, then he, like you and I who are walking around people, if we are killed, it's murder. And so we treat it the same way. We're consistent that the penalty for rape is not as much because you're not killing a person. But if the U.S. Supreme Court determines Roe was incorrect in that the unborn child is a person, then that person should be entitled to all the protection of law. And so when you take this life, you pay the penalty for it. That also, with that kind of a penalty, will stop there from being the back alley abortions, as they say, because the deterrent will be significant.”
7) With the state Budget Office reporting an estimated year-end $24 million surplus, will the House include Gov. Raimondo’s top spending priorities, including universal pre-K and an expansion of the RI Promise program to Rhode Island College, in the legislative budget? “I don’t have any reason to believe he won’t support them,” Raimondo told me Wednesday, two days after she met with Speaker Mattiello for dinner at the Capital Grille. “He’s never told me he wouldn’t. I think he, like I am primarily focused on creating good jobs, maintaining economic prosperity and it’s just a fact that the most important thing we can do to increase wages and attract companies here is invest in a workforce, in a talented workforce. As we do every year, we’ll sit down and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to come out with a budget that is pro-jobs and pro-education and pro-job development.” Yet Mattiello is remaining more opaque on the question, as seen by this statement: “I am committed to enacting a budget that serves our citizens and the business climate well and is conducive to job creation. That is challenging this year. At this point, as I have said previously, it looks like adding any new programs will be extremely difficult.”
8) Did Gov. Gina Raimondo do enough to put her support behind the abortion issue? Asked about this during an unrelated news event on Wednesday, she said she had. In a statement, Friday, Jordan Hevenor, co-director of The Womxn Project, an activist group, expressed a different view: “The fact is that either you SPEAK OUT for the right to abortion and be a leader in the efforts to protect our rights or you are standing in the way. We cannot wait any longer. The governor needs to take action to get this done this year.” Bishop Tobin responded by tweeting, “Governor Raimondo has done the right thing in not pushing this very extreme abortion legislation, in not imposing it on our state. The governor is allowing the normal due process to continue in the GA. Rhode Islanders appreciate that.” On Friday, Raimondo told reporters that she has “been as strong and steady as possible on this issue, beginning with my State of the State ..Right now it is up to the Senate to find a path forward.”
9) Womazetta Jones, Gov. Raimondo’s nominee to lead the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, was welcomed to Rhode Island this week with an acknowledgment that crises and tragedy can come with the work overseeing human-service agencies with difficult missions. At the same time, Raimondo said HHS doesn’t always gets its due for such accomplishments as helping to reduce opioid overdose deaths and extending health insurance coverage to 100,000 additional Rhode Islanders.
10) Fishermen in Rhode Island and Massachusetts remain alarmed about the potential effect of wind turbines on their catch, as my colleague Nadine Sebai has reported. While New Bedford’s port is a key economic generator for the city, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said he’s far more concerned about the impact from turbines in waters off the New York coast. “Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management released a study about a year ago or so ago that showed there are about 16 times as much fish landings in those New York areas as there as in the Massachusetts area – a huge, huge difference.” Mitchell said on Political Roundtable this week. “And so what we’re trying to do is focus our attention on that area.”
11) Mayor Mitchell, who was first elected in 2011 and easily won re-election in 2017, remains coy about whether he will seek re-election later this year. (The filing deadline is August 16.) Asked why he’s reluctant to show his hand, Mitchell said elections in New Bedford are typically a sprint. “We’ve been able to accomplish a lot and so, it’s never been a question of ok, well, am I going to get elected or not next time?” he said. “That’s not the primary question. The primary question is, am I getting done what I sought to get done and is the city in a better position.”
12) With Rhode Island’s healthcare landscape poised for possible changes, someone is in the field with a poll testing questions mostly about Care New England and Lifespan.
13) Will an envisioned Mashpee Wampanoag casino move ahead in Taunton, and if so, how much of a hit will that represent for Rhode Island’s third-largest revenue source.
14) Almost 60 percent of Massachusetts adults know someone struggling with opioid addiction.
15) With more states legalizing marijuana, there’s concern about increasingly potent kinds of pot.
16) Stephen Laffey, the former Cranston mayor who left Rhode Island for Colorado some years back, hasn’t won an election in well over a decade. (His last Ocean State campaign came in 2006, when he lost a GOP primary to then-U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee.) Be that as it may, Laffey is set to headline an event for the Rhode Island Republican Party on Sunday, June 2.
17) Via Bloomberg: “Private Equity Sees Opportunity in Getting Naked With Strangers” Fortress Investment Group, which has an affiliate that externally manages New Media Investment Group, the parent of ProJo-owner Gatehouse Media, is one of the funds “spending billions to tap into the appeal of traditional inns amid a tourism boom that’s ramping up ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics. The big funds are moving in as centuries-old spas, many of them still family-run, struggle to find successors in an aging country where small towns and villages are losing young people.”