STORY OF THE WEEK: With Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos having announced a run in CD1, the race to succeed U.S. Rep. David Cicilline is approaching a more active phase. All eyes are on House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, the prohibitive favorite should he decide to run. The Warwick Democrat tells me he will make his decision within seven to 10 days. Like Matos, Shekarchi does not reside in CD1. But his political assets include labor support, strong communication skills and almost $2 million in his campaign account (which could be refunded to contributors and potentially redirected to a federal campaign). While Gov. Dan McKee gave Matos her statewide stripes when he picked her to be lieutenant governor, a Shekarchi endorsement by McKee is not out of the question. For the speaker, a key question is whether Shekarchi wants to cede what is often called the most powerful public office in Rhode Island to become the 435th member of the U.S. House. Democrats are in the minority in the chamber and gaining seniority would take years. Still, the speakership is considered a terminal office in Rhode Island, and congressional openings are few and far between, so Shekarchi may want to seize the rare opportunity as the capstone for his decades in public life. A number of other potential candidates are still eyeing a possible run, including Helena Foulkes, Gabe Amo, and Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, among others, with the likely-decisive primary in August or September.
ON THE RISE: Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera is set to celebrate her birthday on Wednesday, March 15, with a fundraiser at Sharks Peruvian Cuisine on Broad Street. The host committee is a who’s who encompassing all five state general officers, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and many others. The broad support reflects how Rivera has emerged as a well-liked up-and-comer known for compassion and a close connection with her constituents. If she wins a second term next year, Rivera can run for a statewide office in 2026 without jeopardizing her post at City Hall. When she first ran for mayor in 2020, Rivera wrote to voters that her job with the state Department of Human Services showed her how families can be affected by a job loss, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and other challenges. She doubled down on the importance of housing before that emerged as a statewide issue. While it remains to be seen if Rivera will do more than kick the tires on a CD1 run, it’s probably a matter of time until she aims higher.
UNDERCOVER VIDEO: The death last week at age 94 of Frank Corrente, a former top aide to Buddy Cianci, offers a reminder of how an explosive piece of evidence can have unexpected fallout. The video footage of Corrente accepting a bribe from businessman Tony Freitas, who was working with the FBI, was broadcast by WJAR-TV’s Jim Taricani in 2001. It rocked Rhode Island since it was graphic first-hand evidence of corruption at Cianci’s City Hall – and it foreshadowed Cianci’s conviction a year later, albeit on a single count of racketeering conspiracy. Federal prosecutor Richard Rose got fined after screening the video for visitors at his home. And Taricani faced a contempt proceeding for being unwilling to identify the source of how he got the tape. In an unusual twist, Taricani unwittingly revealed his source to Dennis Aiken, the lead FBI agent in the case against Cianci, during what may or may not have been a chance encounter at a coffee shop near the federal courthouse and the U.S. attorney’s office in Providence.
AUCHINCLOSS ON THE ISSUES: U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Newton emerged from a big Democratic field to win in 2020 the Fourth Congressional District seat vacated by Joe Kennedy. Auchincloss is just 35, and he won re-election last year without a primary opponent so he has a long potential runway in Massachusetts politics. Here are some excerpts from an interview last week on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio.
Does the U.S. have an effective strategy to counter China’s rise as an economic/military superpower? “Well, we're, we're working on that … But there is some clear indications one, we have got to prepare for an Indo-Pacific conflict, whether it's on the straits of Taiwan, whether it's South China Sea, whether it's in Southeast Asia, the Chinese navy has grown massively in the last 15 years, they have adopted a precision-guided missile regime that makes our own bases and assets vulnerable, we have got to adapt.”
How can Democrats win back more white working-class voters, after a report found the party’s brand is “pretty damaged”? “Costs, crime, and classrooms. We have to speak in specific, actionable terms about how we are going to improve education, how we are going to ensure public safety and how we are going to lower costs, particularly in housing and health care.”
Is there any accountability for taxpayers on projects like the Littoral Combat Ship, which didn’t work and was canceled by the Navy after billions was spent on it? “The military needs to spend smarter, not bigger. They create these contracts …. that basically make an incentive for contractors to drag out the process and deliver over-budget and late. Whereas if they could amend [that] … to just pay for performance, like most business does, where you say, here's a problem. If you solve it, you get paid. If you don't, you don't get paid. It sounds obvious. Unfortunately, it's taken a long time to sink that in, depending on bureaucracy, but … we are making progress.”
LEFT OUT IN WOONSOCKET: As my colleague Nina Sparling reported this week, Woonsocket residents don’t have access to protection against sales taxes offered in every other municipality in the state. The situation is due to how Woonsocket charged Rhode Island Housing, the state housing finance agency, tens of thousands in unexpected tax bills. As a result, Nina found, dozens of homeowners have been blocked from using protections enshrined in state law. Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt defended the city’s approach, saying it’s treating RI Housing like any other tax lien buyer.
CHARIHO CLASH: The Rhode Island Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments soon in a case that could influence the director of the Chariho Regional School District. As my colleague Alex Nunes reports, the case involves the question of who should get a vacant school committee seat – the second-place finisher in an election or the pick of the GOP majority on the Richmond Town Council: conservative activist Clay Johnson, known statewide for his advocacy and sharp rhetoric through the Gaspee Project.
MEDIA I: The Rhode Island Current, the online state government-focused nonprofit news source from States Newsroom, is set to debut March 15. “We are excited to expand Rhode Island’s news ecosystem and provide a steady stream of accurate and thorough reporting on what’s happening at the State House in Providence and all along our 400 miles of coastline,” editor Janine Weisman said in a news release. The site will not accept ads or erect a paywall on its website. The Current will share its content with other outlets under a Creative Commons license.
MEDIA II: Reporters at the Providence Journal continue to produce valuable journalism of statewide interest. Axios’ big picture look at Gannett, which owns the ProJo, as well as papers in Newport, Fall River, New Bedford and Worcester, is eye-opening. It shows how Gannett has cut nearly half its workforce since merging with GateHouse in 2019, a transaction that carried an enormous amount of debt. As Joshua Benton writes, Gannett is not the biggest villain in the newspaper industry. “But ‘we’re better than Alden!’ has its limits as a brand promise, and Gannett’s most recent annual report drives home the fact that no company has done more to shrink local journalism than it has in recent years.”
Takes of the Week: various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.
State Sen. MEGHAN KALLMAN (D-Pawtucket): Good public transportation will make Rhode Island an even better place to live, work and play, and we get there by thinking big. Rhode Island could have a state-of-the-art transit system; the fact that we have a statewide bus system already puts us at a big advantage. Given that, it's a shame that we move people around by overcrowded roads, crumbling bridges, and spend so much time arguing about parking. We already have a plan for a world-class, statewide public transportation system complete with frequent buses and light rail. Another piece of the puzzle is what's called "transit-oriented development" -- planning for dense, walkable, affordable housing and business development around transit hubs, which makes it easier for people to get around easily without having to drive. We need to fully fund our transit master plan, make all buses free, and recognize that good transit makes us more economically competitive, more resilient, and more efficient. Good transportation is key to economic justice, to meeting our climate goals, and to making our state more inviting. This is the year to be bold.
RI Senate GOP Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ: In 2021 the General Assembly passed the Act on Climate with the stated noble goal of making Rhode Island carbon-neutral by 2050. After much thought and concern for the environment and the children and women currently being exploited for their labor, I've authored Senate Bill S-0499 to amend the Act on Climate. If enacted, my amendments would mandate the disclosure of human rights abuses in nations that mine and manufacture carbon-free technology. It would disclose any negative impact of mining minerals needed for renewable energy. It would document the long-term health effects of decommissioning and the disposal of carbon-free technology products. If passed, solar permits would only be permitted once the installers have also committed to a plan to decommission newly installed solar panels. It would also prohibit using materials derived from slave or child labor. For too long, we've exploited the environment and people in other parts of the world to meet our aggressive goals to be carbon neutral. We can no longer ignore the harm that the "Big Green" industry has inflicted on other parts of the world. Let us pursue a greener Rhode Island while adhering to the highest ethical standards.
WEAYONNOH NELSON-DAVIES, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute: Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, our communities and elected leaders are realizing what Black and Brown Rhode Islanders have known to be true, that access to basic economic and health care needs has not been equitable. Our state budget and how we use our economic resources reflect Rhode Island's values. When 77,000 Rhode Islanders on Medicaid, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are excluded from abortion coverage our values are on display. Passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act will be a step toward a more equitable state, because a right without access is not a right at all. I am encouraged by a set of recently introduced bills that will align the policymaking and budget processes with our state's values by applying an equity lens, in part modeled on Connecticut’s recent example.
ROBERT A. WALSH JR., former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: In chapter six of The Princess Bride, author William Goldman explains his epiphany, and the book’s central message -- that life isn’t fair (they left that part out of the excellent movie adaptation -- read the book!) A few dozen potential Democratic candidates for Rhode Island’s First District Congressional seat, and their most ardent supporters, may soon have the same revelation, even though most would serve our state well in Washington. When analyzing potential candidates’ chances of success in this unusual special election, the three major factors are funding, institutional Democratic Party support and external organizational support/opposition. As of now, only one potential candidate, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, can claim high marks in all three categories. Shekarchi is already known as a prodigious fundraiser. A few million dollars will be more than sufficient to stand against an opponent with external independent expenditure support or who could self-fund their own campaign. The Democratic Party endorsement is determined by the Democratic State Committee, whose members are elected by state representative district, and Speaker Shekarchi has a natural advantage. The party endorsement allows many elected officials to “hit the easy button” and support the endorsed candidate. Finally, the largest source of external organizational support will come from organized labor, where the speaker has enjoyed good relationships throughout his tenure. And while no one candidate can please all Democratic Party constituencies, Shekarchi’s support for a range of progressive priorities makes it hard to envision an external coalition developing that could overcome his many noted advantages. This does not mean other candidates will not run and have their own sources of support -- just that the playing field could be tilted heavily in one direction! If Speaker Shekarchi does not run, I will have to return to this space to analyze how the factors I noted above come into play in what is likely to be a wild multi-candidate race. While that would be a fascinating exercise, I am not sure I’ll have the opportunity to undertake it.
HERE & THERE: Former Raimondo comms director Mike Raia is expanding his strategic consulting shop, Half Street Group. It has opened a Providence office on South Main Street, near the Mike Van Leesten Memorial Bridge, and staffed up with Elizabeth Wales, a Connecticut College alum who worked on Helena Foulkes’ campaign last year, and URI alum Kevin Chenard, who most recently worked in higher ed admissions …. Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has named Cassandra Thomas as the city’s director of economic development. Her resume includes serving as federal disaster recovery officer for FEMA … Senior IT Executive Brian Tardiff is moving up to become chief digital officer/chief information officer for RI’s Division of Information Technology. According to a state Department of Administration release, “As CDO/CIO, Tardiff must plan and direct the work of a 200-person team of professional, technical and support staff to serve more than 13,000 state employees. He is responsible for the implementation of all state technology infrastructure projects and upgrades with the goal of increasing government accountability and efficiency.”
ART MARTONE: An inaugural scholarship dinner, to benefit Cranston students’ interest in journalism/multimedia and named for former ProJo sports editor Art Martone, is set for April 14 at Cranston Country Club. Speakers will include two former colleagues of Martone, Sean McAdam of Boston Sports Journal and Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston. Tickets for the event are $75. (Martone died last year, at age 66.) For more information, visit https://tinyurl.com/ArtMartoneScholarshipDinner.
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