TGIF: 20 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

TGIF: 20 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media #834

Did Rhode Island’s primary election on Tuesday reflect a repudiation of the status quo or a reinforcement of political norms? A fair bit of each, as it turns out, dear reader. So consider the evidence presented below, feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and stay tuned on the twitters for more of my dispatches as we move toward November 4. 

1. As expected, Gina Raimondo‘s decisive primary victory boosted her already considerable national profile, and it’s being hailed as evidence that a Democrat can cut pension benefits and live to win higher office. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Matt Miller argues that Raimondo’s primary win could transform the debate on progressivism: “Raimondo has been that rare public servant who wants to use her office to actually solve major public problems — as opposed to just pretending to solve them, which is, sad to say, what most of American politics amounts to nowadays.” Closer to home, Young Democrats of RI president Mark Gray used a post on the liberal RI’s Future blog to assert, “Gina Raimondo is our friend.” Gray writes about his belief that Raimondo is good on social and economic issues, and that the progressive view of her as a “conservative wolf in Democratic sheep’s clothing” is based mostly on the prevalence of public-sector unions in RI’s liberal/progressive sphere. Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this is how Raimondo, during her run for treasurer in 2010, was completely upfront about her plan to pursue a pension overhaul. As I wrote at the time, Raimondo’s speech to the AFL-CIO stood out because she fused FDR-style Democratic idealism with a sober analysis of Rhode Island’s economic woes and clear to-the-point messaging …. Raimondo told her union audience she won’t take part in anti-state worker rhetoric, but she also indicated that she won’t mollycoddle public employees. Due to the need to straighten out state finances she told me subsequently, “You can’t be a progressive and be opposed to pension reform.” [Emphasis added]. As far as what that reform should consist of, Raimondo says, wide options need to be considered, including a hybrid plan.

2. Last week (#3), Robert Walsh of the National Education Association Rhode Island predicted a tight win for Clay Pell. This week, says the NEARI remains undecided about who it will back in November, although he calls support for Republican Allan Fung highly unlikely and expects more unions to follow the United Food and Commercial Workers into Raimondo’s camp. “I can tell you that Allan Fung, being pro-right-to-work, as he articulated during the debates, and thinking that all new workers shouldn’t even have a pension; they should have a 401(k), and some other issues …. is not by any stretch of the imagination a labor guy.” Walsh said.

3. Walsh rejects suggestions that the NEA is responsible for Raimondo’s primary victory, since Pell cut sharply into Angel Taveras‘ support. “I take responsibility for supporting someone who was clearly the best candidate on labor and education issues,” Walsh says. “Our differences with Gina on the pension issue were very well known; I’m surprised people don’t also focus on our differences with the mayor of Providence on education issues, starting with firing the teachers; continuing through his embracing the mayoral academy model of charter schools; and continuing on to his opposition to binding arbitration. We had one very good choice in the race, and we made it in getting with Clay Pell, and we’re proud to have done it, and we’d make exactly the same decision based on exactly the same set of facts.”     

4. Jorge Elorza‘s 1,180-vote victory over Michael Solomon shows how the prosperous East Side remains the kingmaker in Providence mayoral elections. Solomon won a whopping 11 of the city’s 15 wards (including most of the South Side, where predominantly black and Latino voters demonstrated their willingness to support a white Lebanese-American.) Yet the race moved in Elorza’s direction when Brett Smiley pulled out of the race precisely three weeks ago and threw his support to Elorza. The overall turnout in Providence (22,712 votes) was less than the figure from 2010 (24,500), and Solomon (9,869) still got more votes in the capital city than Taveras (9,414). Dominicanos USA — a group backed by one of the Dominican Republic’s most powerful families, took credit for helping register 10,800 new Dominican voters in Rhode Island. Yet as shown by the vote count in Providence — where Raimondo (9,688 votes) outpaced Taveras — the effort didn’t do much to boost the Providence mayor.

5. Allan Fung beat Ken Block on a margin of about 3,100 votes — a difference that can be attributed to Fung’s endorsement by the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee. Politics makes strange bedfellows, right?

6. With Fung’s GOP primary victory, a special election to pick a new mayor in Rhode Island’s third-largest city will come up quickly — like next February or March.

7. Seasoned political operatives were stunned by how the three statewide candidates endorsed by the Rhode Island Democratic Party — Ralph Mollis, Frank Caprio, Guillaume De Ramel — all went down to defeat Tuesday. Yet there were separate explanations for each of these outcomes. Frank Ferri siphoned liberal votes away from Mollis, helping to elevate Dan McKee (who was also helped by an independent expenditure ad funded by a Walmart heiress, #2) in the race for lieutenant governor. Caprio was seriously wounded by the beach-concession bidding controversy involving his brother, former state Democratic chairman David Caprio. And though De Ramel remained the favorite heading into Tuesday, an aggressive late push and a better command of the issues fueled Nellie Gorbea‘s upset win.

8. In legislative primary races, it was generally a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello succeeded in vanquishing Rep Maria Cimini, other House incumbents won most of their races, and Rep Spencer Dickinson, a thorn to Mattiello and Gordon Fox before him, got unseated by Kathleen Fogarty, thanks to mail ballots.

9. Newport casino opponents were quick to attribute the defeat of incumbent state Rep Peter Martin Tuesday to his support for the casino at Newport Grand, even though Martin wasn’t a casino supporter. Legislative observers point to more typical reason for Martin’s defeat, including an uninspired campaign in which he decided against knocking doors, raised little money and got called out in the local media for refusing to debate his rival, the energetic and well-liked Clean Water Action activist Lauren Carson. Martin’s House District rejected the casino proposal in 2012 by a much larger tally than the razor-thin margin city-wide. But with both Martin and Carson both opposed to the casino, the margin of victory came down to election fundamentals: boots on the ground. This is best indicated by the famous 5th Ward in Newport, which voted overwhelmingly against the casino in 2012, but backed Martin on Tuesday on a margin of 55 percent. Ultimately, Carson ran a much better campaign, taking the four other precincts, and she won with 53 percent of the vote. Speculation that anti-casino fervor toppled Martin or will impact Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed may be more heat than light. (Paiva Weed’s district includes the more pro-casino parts of Newport, along with Jamestown.) Meanwhile, her GOP rival, Mike Smith,has a fundraiser Tuesday, from 7-9 pm, at the Fifth Element in Newport. His invitation cites in part what he calls “Paiva Weed’s casino scheme.”

10. First-time candidate Matt Fecteau ran a low-budget campaign ($5,000, about 26 cents per vote, he says) against US Representative David Cicilline, and he still got 37 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary — about 7 percentage points more than the far higher spending Anthony Gemma in 2012. “It is all about personal contact and accessibility,” Fecteau says via email. “I couldn’t afford ads so I had to go to high-profile events and talk to everyone under the sun. My message was simple: I am a proud Democrat, but not like the other RI Democrats.” Asked for his takeaway, Fecteau, who might return to Army service, says, “We need some serious change. Career politicians are not getting the job done. This is a very winnable race for [Republican] Cormick Lynch, and Congressman Cicilline and his team underestimated me. Lynch needs to get out there everyday or he will lose.” For his part, Cicilline didn’t acknowledge Fecteau in a post-primary statement (and he declined the opportunity to make further comment): “I am grateful to the voters of the 1st Congressional District for their continued support of my work to bring jobs back to Rhode Island, raise the minimum wage, ensure equal pay for equal work, make college more affordable and strengthen the middle class. I look forward to continuing to fight for Rhode Islanders and the values we share.” Were voters just blowing off steam to express anti-incumbent sentiment, or does Fecteau’s run (with strong support in suburbs outside Providence) show vulnerability for his opponent? Back in 2012, Cicilline scored a larger-than-expected victory over Republican Brendan Doherty in 2012. This time around, given the primary results, the congressman is likely to push hard for every vote in November.

11. GateHouse Media’s new management team at the Providence Journal held its first negotiating session Friday with the Providence Newspaper Guild. Guild president John Hill says the union’s top concern is how New Media Investment Group intends to lay off as many as 40 additional employees, as part of a move to consolidate copy-editing and page production at a hub in Texas. That would follow 22 recent job cuts, including metro columnist Bob Kerr. Hill says the two sides plan to continue talks and that the Guild hopes to preserve jobs on Fountain Street. “We’re really concerned about the layoffs,” Hill says, adding that a total of 60 lost jobs would represent about a third of the workforce that puts out the ProJo. With the possibility of Texans editing stories with particular Rhode Island details, “We just don’t know how that’s going to get done.”

12. Blackstone Valley’s legislative delegation will become more diverse if Colombian-American Carlos Tobon, Guatemalan-American Shelby Maldonado and Cape Verdean-American Jean Philippe Barros overcome independent challengers to win November elections for House seats in Pawtucket and Central Falls. On a related note, Nellie Gorbea could make history as the first statewide Latina elected official in New England., if she beats Republican John Carlevale for secretary of state in November. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa was also among the primary winners, contributing to victories for Gorbea, McKee, CF Rep Betty Crowley, and in Pawtucket, Sandra Cano was the top vote-getter as she became the first Latina to win election to the city council.

13. Running as an independent candidate isn’t easy. Just ask Ethan Gyles, the independent candidate running for the House seat being given up by Gordon Fox. Following Tuesday’s some media outlets, including RIPR, initially treated Aaron Regunberg‘s Democratic House District 4 victory as the clincher. So I asked Gyles to share some thoughts on why he’s running and how he plans to win the race: “I’m running because our neighborhoods deserve a truly independent legislator who is not tied to special interest money or lobbyists and won’t be hushed by entrenched party leadership. It’s time to turn over a new leaf in Rhode Island, and I will relentlessly pursue ethics reform, a regionally competitive economic climate, a sane tax structure, and world-class city public schools and public colleges. I helped my company start up its first Rhode Island office, and I know from experience how important it is to relieve the tax and fee burden on small businesses and lay the groundwork for quality job growth by bringing our permitting process into the 21st century ….I may be vastly outspent, but I plan to win over voters by putting in the hard work to meet folks door-to-door and share my non-partisan, solutions-oriented plans for the future of the city and state I love. I will walk every street in the district this fall.”

14. As my colleague Scott MacKay likes to say, you can leave Rhode Island for 20 years and walk right back into the same conversation. There’s Buddy Cianci running for mayor, for starters. And Robert “Cool Moose” Healey is carrying on the mantle of the Moderate Party with his latest gubernatorial run. I spoke with Healey as part of this 2002 Providence Phoenix story on the challenges facing third parties, and his points offer some insight into the Cool Moose’s distinctive approach: The party’s apex came in 1996, when about 20 candidates ran for General Assembly (none were elected), and a handful of others gained local office, including two slots on the Hopkinton Town Council. But although Healey attracted seven percent of the gubernatorial vote in the 1998 election, enthusiasm for being a part of the party essentially dissipated. “I think a lot of the third political parties are people who like to rail against the system and have no idea of how to govern or would have a limited ability of how to actually govern,” Healey says. “It’s not that they’re doing something that’s futile. They’re doing something that serves a valuable purpose, as long as they recognize what that purpose is. Third-party politics is fraught with delusions of grandeur. As long as you can put that into perspective, you understand what third-party politics is all about. It’s about being outside the mainstream, being able to challenge the status quo. As one person said to me, `You can’t beat City Hall, but you can piss on the steps.’ ” 

15. Campaign finance notes: 1) Being a champion fundraiser is part of what makes Gina Raimondo an effective politician, but it’s hardly the whole thing. Frank Caprio was the top fundraiser back in 2010, and he finished third in that year’s gubernatorial contest. Raimondo is poised, she had a clear message, and she surrounded herself with a strong team, in both her office and her campaign; 2) Don’t miss Ted Nesi on how Clay Pell spent $111 per vote (still a lot less than the $102 million dropped by Michael Bloomberg in 2009) and how Raimondo’s victory was more costly than Martha Coakley‘s; 3) Lawrence Lessig

16. Here’s some additonal analysis from Common Cause of Rhode Island’s John Marion on campaign finance in RI’s primary election:

Money was a big factor, but not the only factor in the gubernatorial primaries. On the Republican side, Ken Block outspent the winner, Allan Fung, although neither spent a large amount compared to the Democratic primary participants. In that race the candidate who spent the most, Gina Raimondo, won, but the second-highest spender, Clay Pell finished third. Clearly money mattered, but it wasn’t everything. Of course Todd Giroux, who seemed to be included in most of the debates and was treated as a credible candidate by the media spent a de minimus amount and his vote total reflected that. It seems that a large amount of money was necessary to get you in the game, but using it wisely is important. It’s worrisome that the price of admission to be a viable candidate for governor seems to be going up. Another interesting development this cycle was the large number of self-funded candidates; we saw five—Block, Pell, Magaziner, Caprio and De Ramel—who primarily self-funded this cycle. Only one of those candidates prevailed, which is in keeping with what research suggests about self-financed candidates.

We’re proud, of course, of the People’s Pledge among the three leading Democratic candidates for governor, limiting outside spending.  The Pledge was deemed a success by Public Citizen this week. Although there was a violation in the final days, Rhode Island did not see a single television ad by an outside group in what was likely the most expensive primary in Rhode Island history.  

By contrast down ballot there was a significant injection (no. 2) of money for other candidates, including an astounding $75,000 outside dump into a state Senate race. A preliminary tally of filings by Common Cause shows that organized labor, particularly public sector unions, made the largest number of independent expenditures in the primaries and supported candidates from Pawtucket School Committee to governor.  In contrast two largely single candidate entities, American LeadHERship PAC (pro-Raimondo) and the Connecticut-based Moving Rhode Island Forward (pro-McKee and -Heather Tow-Yick) together totaled more than all of labor’s reported spending. Of course, organized labor does not have to report money spent to speak to, and turn out, its own members. Outside spending will be an important variable to watch in the run up to the general election.

17. GOP AG candidate Dawson Hodgson is out with a two-minute-plus biographical video that also focuses on Rhode Island’s persistently underperforming economy.

18. Seth Magaziner, who will square off against independent Ernest Almonte in the November race for state treasurer, was the guest this week for RIPR’s Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A. In the latter segment, Magaziner said he supports resuming negotiations over the state’s pension dispute. Excerpt: “Both the taxpayers but also the folks in the system need to have some certainty about what the future is going to look like, so I’d like to get back to the table, I’d like to get a deal. I was supportive of the proposed settlement earlier this year. It was a good deal that maintained 94 percent of the savings of the reform.”

19. This from the estimable William Greider: “Do not be misled by White House double-talk: the United States is embarking on another Long War in the Middle East. This one will belong to Barack Obama, and it may extend beyond his presidency.”

20. What better way to close a Listicle than with another Listicle?. Courtesy of former Brown University political science professor Darrell West, author of a new book about billionaires, Ten Facts About Billionaires.

For more details, visit