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Britt trial offers a political drama

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As the week began, it was unclear how Superior Court Judge Daniel Procaccini will come down on a motion that could scramble expectations for Rhode Island’s most anticipated political trial of the year.

The motion, filed last week by Jeff Britt’s lawyer, Robert Corrente, called the case against Britt overcharged and argued for the dismissal of the felony count of money laundering. If Procaccini goes along with that request, it would simultaneously help two antagonists, House Speaker Nicholas Mattielo and Britt, the storied operative who worked on Mattiello’s 2016 campaign and maintains he’s being used as a fall guy for the speaker.

The case in Kent County Superior Court has started, and the prosecution will present its case before Procaccini considers the motion to dismiss. If the judge goes along with the motion, Britt would face just a misdemeanor and a prison sentence would be off the table.

A dissolution of the felony count would also help Mattiello, since the trial comes as the powerful speaker faces a spirited challenge for his state rep seat in Cranston from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the wife of the city’s well-liked mayor.

Pre-trial motions are common, so it’s impossible to know what will happen with Corrente’s. Suffice it to say that if the felony count remains in place against Britt, the trial could have a significant impact on Mattiello’s hopes of maintaining power at the State House.

In particular, the case could expose contradictory statements related to the speaker’s 2016 campaign and how it helped pay for a mailer endorsing Mattiello by former rival Shawna Lawton. Potential witnesses include Mattiello, his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and others who’ve been in the speaker’s orbit.

Meanwhile, in Cranston …

GOP challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung and Speaker Mattiello are ramping up their messaging as the calendar moves closer to Nov. 3.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, Mattiello continues to emphasize his signature phase-out of the car tax – an initiative launched in the face of a GOP challenge in his 2016 state rep race. “A vote for Nick Mattiello is a vote for a $0.00 car tax bill,” the speaker’s campaign said in a mailer last week. The piece goes on to assert that a vote for Fenton-Fung “is a vote for a more liberal, tax-happy Speaker of the House.” That’s a bit of a curious assertion, since the arguable favorite to succeed Mattiello as speaker if he loses his state rep race is his top deputy, House Majority Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick), not exactly an uber-progressive. (Mattiello’s piece also mentions how Fenton-Fung, if successful, would be a back-bencher amid a small GOP presence.)

In her own mailer last week, Fenton-Fung, after previously drawing attention to serial controversies involving Mattiello, strikes a more positive note. She describes herself as “an adventurer, a world traveler and a community leader.” Fenton-Fung also vows to fight for progress on education, healthcare and state government, in part by backing term limits and a line-item veto.

History lesson

One overlooked factor in the showdown between Speaker Mattiello and Fenton-Fung: Mattiello is the first speaker in more than a half-century to face a challenger in his rep district for at least three consecutive election cycles. Historian Steve Frias, who came close to defeating Mattiello in 2016, said Harry Curvin of Pawtucket faced a state rep re-election opponent as speaker every two years from 1942 to 1962.

“His opponent from 1952 through 1962 was Eli Abrams, a Republican,” Frias tells me via email. “In 1954, the year the McCoy machine collapsed, Abrams came the closet to beating Curvin. Abrams came within about 5 percent of beating Curvin. Since RI legislators began being elected every two years in 1912, the only other speaker challenged in 3 consecutive elections was Roy Rawlings (1928 through 1932). Rawlings won in 1932 by about 7 percent.”

The successive challenges against Mattiello, who ascended to the speakership in 2014, speak to two things: how a purple place like District 15 can be a tricky spot for a Democratic legislative leader, and how political life tends to get more difficult the longer a legislative leader is in power.

Gorbea on the election

During an interview last week, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea expressed confidence about the state’s preparations on a range of election fronts, from mail ballots to potential hacking attacks. With both parties making moves in case the election is thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives, I asked Gorbea whether she considers that a real possibility. Her response: “It’s hard to say. This has been a very unpredictable year and you know, resilience of our democracy depends on all of us in elected office, making sure that we’ve made plans for every single eventuality that can take place. So I’m glad that that’s being looked at. I know that here in Rhode Island, we’re making sure that we have alternate plans for every single piece of the election system.”

Insight from a Providence teacher

State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a teacher at E-Cubed Academy in Providence, is currently on quarantine because a teacher at her school tested positive for COVID-19. She’s been teaching from home and said she feels well.

But Ranglin-Vassell, speaking on Political Roundtable, said some schools were in rough physical shape and had mold issues well before COVID. She credited maintenance crews with doing an excellent job in the current moment. “But let me tell you I am very afraid,” she said. “I am very afraid to go back in the building next Monday. I am afraid because, one I take care of my mom and she is 92 years old, and I don’t want to get COVID and then she gets it.”

One more from Ranglin-Vassell: She said her students told her after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd that they were really scared. “I’ve had students say to me, ‘Miss, I’m really scared walking from Branch Avenue to school,’ which is just a block away. My student, a young lady, 14 years old, she said, “Miss, I’m worried that I’m going to be shot by the police.’”

These kinds of concerns notwithstanding, Ranglin-Vassell is not a supporter of calls to defund police. “I do believe there are amazing police officers in the Providence police force,” she said on Roundtable, “but we do have some bad cops that need to be weeded out. The officers there know who the bad cops are and they should really let us all know who they are.”

Rhode Islander in DC

Ian Prior (who grew up in RI and ran Brendan Doherty’s GOP campaign against U.S. Rep. David Cicilline way back in 2012) is now working with Mike Davis (former chief nominations counsel for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa) and the Article III Project, one of the outside groups pushing for (and against) the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior previously worked in the U.S. Justice Department for the Trump administration.

Via Politico: “The Article III Project’s mission is to defend Barrett from Democratic attacks. Davis said he plans to bring up comments made by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) during Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing that ‘the dogma lives loudly within you’ – which which Republicans have denounced as anti-Catholic – and some Democrats’ push to add more justices to the Supreme Court every change he gets. ‘We’re not changing hearts and minds,’ he said. ‘Our job is to confirm the president’s Supreme Court nominee.’”

Is ‘free college’ all that?

Is ‘free college’ everything it’s cracked up to be? The New York Times highlighted a study in which one group of high school students received generous scholarships and another group did not.

The result: “The results are fascinatingly nuanced. The scholarship did appear to lift graduation rates: Among students who planned to attend a four-year college, 71 percent of scholarship recipients graduated within six years. Only 63 percent of students who didn’t get a scholarship graduated. The gains were largest among nonwhite students, poor students and students whose parents had not attended college. All of that supports the arguments of free-college advocates. But not every result did. The scholarship had no evident effect on graduation rates at community colleges. That’s a sign that educational quality is a bigger problem at many two-year colleges than tuition bills.”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit www.thepublicsradio.org. Follow Ian on Twitter lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/PriKkmN/TGIFsignup.

Britt, politics

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