The Rhode Island General Assembly is starting its week-long winter break, but hot legislative topics continue to percolate. 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) A number of opponents of abortion-rights mustered a quiet show of force at the Statehouse on Thursday, displaying signs with their messages, even though the legislature was not in session that day. Barth Bracy, the executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, called it a reflection of the prevailing public opinion on the issue. Where, Bracy asked me, were the supporters of abortion rights? This was the same week that a new group affiliated with the Gaspee Project, Citizens for Life RI, released a poll. (“Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly oppose unrestricted abortions,” was the headline used by the group in touting the findings.) This comes after a poll done for The Public’s Radio, The Providence Journal, and ABC6 found last year that 70 percent of Rhode Islanders support preserving abortion rights in Rhode Island. The two different sides in this debate criticize each other’s findings as inaccurate or deceptive. The intensifying battle on Smith Hill brings to mind words expressed last year by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello: “I just remind folks that this is a very divisive issue on both sides, and it's an issue that would utilize all of the oxygen in the room, and we have significant budget challenges.” During that May 2018 interview, Mattiello described codifying Roe v. Wade in RI as irrelevant because, he said, he didn’t expect it to get overturned. But the progressive caucus in the House has grown in recent election cycles, meaning that abortion could remain a perennial issue in future sessions. Will Mattiello, who personally opposes abortion, support a narrow codification of Roe v. Wade, in part to take the issue off the plate and due to pressure from the female reps who support him? Will abortion rights opponents mobilize enough people to shift the dynamic? The answers to these questions should become clear in the months ahead.
2) Ten years after Rhode Island closed a loophole that allowed prostitution to flourish indoors, Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence) is leading an effort to spark a dialogue about whether laws outlawing sex work are too punitive. To some, this represents a slippery slope, with Rhode Island expanding gambling and perhaps legalizing marijuana. Yet Williams’ resolution asserts that women, transgender individuals and people of color bear the brunt of the current approach on prosecution. Some advocates assert that decriminalizing sex work is better for public health and public safety.
3) The three gun bills backed this week by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Attorney General Peter Neronha appear to face an uphill fight in the General Assembly, since Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have declined to support similar measures in the past. Gun rights supporters are an organized group and they can be counted upon to express opposition. Yet Raimondo said public opinion is on her side and that legislative leaders should heed that sentiment.
4) U.S. Sen. Jack Reed on whether he’ll run for a fifth term next year: “I’m very privileged to be able to represent the people of Rhode Island, and I hope I can continue to do that. And I hope that I still can contribute to not only the public debate but also to the benefit of the people of Rhode Island.” Looking farther into the future, Reed will be 76 in 2026, when he would next face re-election (if he maintains his Senate seat until then). So does he hope to remain in the Senate as long as he has good health? “I hope to serve in the Senate as long as I feel I’m contributing to the Senate,” Reed told me with a laugh earlier this week. “It’s not a question so much of health, although that’s a factor. But it’s more or less whether you’re getting up and working as hard as you can every day for the people of Rhode Island and the nation. And there is a benefit I think having served and learned lessons, having been able to accomplish some things, but also to have things that it takes more time than you expect but you’re still working on it, hope to accomplish. So I think it’s less a question of sort of health. It’s more of a question of continued ability.”
5) R. David Cruise, formerly a senior adviser and legislative affairs director for Gov. Raimondo, has picked up a $5,000 a month lobbying gig for Twin River Management Group. Cruise left the Raimondo administration early last year for a job with Nixon Peabody, but he's no longer with that firm.
6) State Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-North Kingstown) is among the new wave of progressive female lawmakers who won election last year to the General Assembly. (She defeated Republican Dana Gee, the wife of departing Sen. Mark Gee, by a margin of 1,039 votes.) Valverde, a Connecticut native, said she was inspired to run in part by her mother, “who held local office in my hometown. She served on the school board. And I saw how she was able to make such a great difference in our community by working together with other community leaders.” During a Political Roundtable appearance on The Public’s Radio this week, Valverde said, “As I got more involved here in Rhode Island, with advocacy around reproductive rights and gun safety, and spent a lot of time up at the Statehouse I saw how important it was for us to have more diverse voices in our legislative body. We need more women, more progressive voices, and in my district in particular, we needed somebody who was more in line with the public’s views on things than we had previously.”
7) Valverde was one of the figures involved in Democratic endorsement controversies last year. Before a backlash that caused the RI Democratic Party to pull its backing, the party had endorsed her Democratic primary opponent, a former state senator with a criminal record. As that story was unfolding, Valverde said, “[I]t's clear that some in party leadership would rather just silence women's voices than take our concerns seriously.” Now, though, Valverde, describes the situation differently. “I don’t know if it says anything in particular about the Democratic Party.” Asked on Bonus Q&A if legislative Democrats adequately represent the views of Democratic voters, she said, “I think that in any party there are going to be diverse voices. I think that we do a good job of representing Rhode Islanders. However, I think there are legislators who could do a better job of listening.”
8) Three to read on media: 1) Wired: “Journalism Isn’t Dying. It’s Returning to its Roots” 2) recode: “The alternating to your dying local paper is written by one person, a robot, and you”; 3) Business Insider: “Local newspaper giant GateHouse Media laid off at least 60 journalists around the US after a $30 million acquisition.”
9) The plot continues to thicken in the story involving Laufton Ascencao, a one-time rising star in the progressive wing of RI Democrats. An audit by the state Board of Elections found this week that Ascencao, in his former capacity as treasurer of the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club, diverted or expended Sierra Club funds to pay rent for the benefit of the RI Working Families Party and to pay expenses for a candidate-related event by the party. The matter has been referred to Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office.
10) Progressive Democrats like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren are calling for super-wealthy Americans to pay higher taxes, in some cases at much higher rates. Sen. Jack Reed agrees that the ultra-rich should pay more, although he’s steering clear of specifics for now. “We should have a progressive tax system, and it’s not as progressive as it should be,” Reed told me in a wide-ranging interview earlier this week. “I think drawing a line is something that, if you sit down and look at what’s fair – and we’ve seen over the last decade or more a huge shift of wealth from working families to not just the rich, but the super-super rich, the .1 percent of Americans. So I think you can in fact and should have a much more progressive tax system.”
11) If you ever ponder how fortunate we were to avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, give a listen to this conversation with the New York Times’ David Sanger (author of “The Perfect Weapon”) about the threat posed by cyber-warfare, China’s dominance of the emerging 5G network, and China’s unprecedented level of cooperation with Russia.
12) With President Trump pressing the case for his promised border wall – and with Democrats agreeing about the need for better border security – Providence-based Daniel Denvir believes that Democrats should move in the opposite direction. Denvir used a NYT op-ed this week to contend that tighter border security is not needed, and that the justifications for the wall don’t hold up. “Democrats have for far too long let their political opponents define the terms of debate,” he writes. “Now they’re doing it again: House Democrats’ proposal heading into the negotiations with Republicans didn’t include funding for new physical barriers or additional Border Patrol agents, but it did offer significantly increased funding for ‘border security technology.’ That’s not only bad for immigrants who, as a result of militarized borders are more likely to be kidnapped, violently assaulted and driven to cross via the lethal desert. It’s also bad for Democrats, who are handing ammunition to the nativist right at a time when Republicans are on the back foot and polls show that Democratic voters are moving decidedly leftward on immigration and the border.”
13) Revelations about the poor service delivered to vulnerable Rhode Islanders by state contractor MTM represent the latest case in which the state is paying out big bucks for a less than satisfactory return on taxpayer dollars. Governor Raimondo said the company has hired more front-line workers and will hold the company accountable. Via Raimondo spokesman Josh Block: “The issues Rhode Islanders are experiencing with MTM’s service are unacceptable. This program is a vital link to care, meals and social supports, and the administration will stop at nothing to ensure MTM delivers the high-quality service Rhode Islanders deserve.”
14) Via The Boston Globe’s Jon Chesto: “The high-stakes Corporate Incentive Game just became tougher to play. Two of the most prominent headquarters deals of this century took major turns Thursday, twists that will influence the ways in which many state and city leaders handle public incentives for years to come. First, the New York headline: Amazon bailed on its HQ2 plans for Queens amid an uproar over a roughly $3 billion package promised by state and city officials. The Seattle-based retail giant will go ahead with the other half of HQ2 in the D.C. area, put more jobs in Nashville, and expand other outposts. (Boston is among the cities that could be poised to land more Amazon jobs.) Then, the Boston bombshell: General Electric made public its decision to sell its future headquarters property in Fort Point, and scale back its plans for the site. Instead of 800 jobs, there will be around 250. No shiny, 12-story waterfront tower — at least not for GE. Instead, we get a more modest headquarters on the Channel: The industrial company will lease space in two brick buildings, and move in this summer from temporary offices nearby."
15) Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea this week unveiled her legislative proposals for 2019. She wants to allow early in-person voting on the Saturday and Sunday before Election Day; to move Rhode Island’s primary to the third Tuesday after the first Monday in August; and to allow unaffiliated voters to remain unaffiliated after voting in a primary without needing to complete a disaffiliation form.
16) Here’s a revealing story about the tiny town of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which captures global attention for casting the first votes in the historic Granite State primary every four years. As Casey McDermott reports, the town is now under scrutiny for its election procedures.
17) Steve Frias’ view on the long slog to improve public education in Rhode Island: “Massachusetts only spends a few hundred dollars more per student than Rhode Island. The poor performance of Rhode Island students on the RICAS is not due to a lack of funds, but a lack of accountability in our school system. One way to bring more accountability to our schools is to adopt high-staking testing as Massachusetts did. Within five years after the MCAS was first given, it became a graduation requirement in Massachusetts. The same should occur in Rhode Island. Once there are consequences for not passing the RICAS, school districts will have the impetus to make the necessary changes, including to their curriculums, to meet these high standards. Unless there are consequences for failing to meet high standards, these standards can be ignored.”
18) Overly optimistic or just a fresh perspective? “In Rhode Island, we have been provided a blank canvas, through which we can build a more beautiful world; one that’s creative, resilient, and accessible.”