STORY OF THE WEEK
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, or so the saying goes. That spurred thoughts on two different events this week. In DC, U.S. House Republicans were unable to elect a speaker through an extended series of votes, the first time this has happened in 100 years. Closer to home, former GOP Gov. Lincoln Almond, who epitomized political moderation after first winning office in 1994, died at age 86. Almond was a first-ballot Rhode Island Hall of Famer – the first URI grad to serve as governor, an incorruptible and tough-minded prosecutor, someone who loved the state, moved the ball on economic development, had a winning laugh and didn’t take himself too seriously. (As one former aide, Joe Larisa, tweeted, Almond was more comfortable at Gregg’s than the Capital Grille.) Although Don Carcieri went on to succeed Almond as governor in 2003, setting the stage for 16 years of uninterrupted GOP rule in Rhode Island, Republicans have been locked out of the state’s top job since while struggling for relevance. That’s why it’s worth remembering that Newt Gingrich’s self-styled revolution also unfolded in 1994, based in significant part on demonizing political opponents, creating a harbinger of our current moment. In Washington, House Republicans are in disarray. And in Rhode Island, the GOP was without a gubernatorial candidate last year until settling on Ashley Kalus, whose appeal – despite being energetic (and having the wealth to spend $5 million on her run) -- was limited by how she had spent little previous time in the state.
Gov. Almond developed an impressive record during his tenure, and he had the fortune of serving during a good economy, from 1995 to 2003. On the other hand, like almost everyone else on the planet, he lacked the charisma of Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci Jr., who occupied an outsized place in Rhode Islanders’ consciousness during Almond’s tenure. In fact, even in the run-up to the Plunder Dome trial that resulted in a federal prison sentence for Cianci, the Providence mayor’s approval rating was almost 30 points higher than Almond’s. As Brian C. Jones wrote in a 2002 classic, “Linc: better than you think,” in the Providence Phoenix: “Lincoln Almond's status as the un-politician of Rhode Island politics certainly hasn't helped his public standing. Although intelligent and genial in one-on-one conversation, the 65-year-old governor is one of the worst orators in Rhode Island history, speaking in a molasses-like monotone that has his listeners glued to their watches. Almond moves his 6-foot-6-inch frame in such a shuffling way that just his exit from the [State House] in time for supper stokes rumors that the governor is not only dull, but lazy. [And] the governor often seems to have a tin ear when it comes to the symbols, and sometimes the substance, of politics.”
Tributes flowed for Almond, including this one from U.S. Rep. David Cicilline: “Lincoln Almond was a dedicated public servant and principled leader at the federal, state, and local levels. As Governor, his focus on the needs of the working class led to expanded child health benefits, key economic development – particularly of Quonset Point, and job creation to help all Rhode Islanders get ahead. Today, we mourn the loss of a true public servant and thank him for his contributions to our state. My thoughts and prayers are with all his loved ones as they grieve his loss.” This remembrance is particularly gracious since Almond, during his long run as Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney, tried jailing Cicilline’s father, John F. “Jack” Cicilline, who was known for representing organized crime figures. In 1985, a U.S. District Court jury acquitted the elder Cicilline of obstruction of justice and conspiring to have a witness give false testimony for mobster Frank “Bobo” Marrapese. It says something about Almond that, as the ProJo reported at the time, he approached Cicilline and shook his hand after the verdict.
Gov. Dan McKee had a three-part message during his inaugural ceremony Jan. 3, held at the RI Convention Center (a good thing, as it turned out, due to steady rain). He celebrated the importance of family, in part by giving a shout-out to his now-famous mom, Willa, and recalling lessons taught by his late father. McKee cited three goals for his administration: raising the income of Rhode Islanders, boosting students’ performance to Massachusetts-level by 2030, and making the state healthier, with less chronic illness and better health outcomes. The governor also called on citizens to be part of moving the Ocean State forward, although he didn’t elaborate beyond asking people to stay on the sunny side of life. “We want to look for the best in this state,” McKee said. “We want to look for the best in our fellow Rhode Islanders. And sometimes, looking for the best and seeing the best in what’s around us is half the battle. One thing is clear to me as I look out into this room today: we have a tremendous opportunity to build a new Rhode Island.”
NOW AND THEN
During his inaugural remarks, second-term Attorney General Peter Neronha renewed his call for long-term thinking on Rhode Island’s hospital landscape. It’s a crucial issue, he said, since if the financial challenges in the local healthcare industry are not resolved, the hospitals that Rhode Islanders rely on could cease to exist. This has been something of a mantra for Neronha, considering his past calls in interviews for the state to move past a transaction-by-transaction approach on hospitals. The prosecutor also noted his mother’s observation that his term-limited status imposes a looming finality on his time as AG. Yet it’s never too early to start thinking about 2026, so speculation is already brewing about whether Neronha – who is known for relishing his prosecutorial work – may pursue a gov run down the road.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
Rhode Island has struggled for years to address its housing crisis. (As I reported in December 2021, millions meant to address the situation remained unspent at that time, and an earlier Carcieri-era attempt to raise the focus on housing fell short.) Now, after lawmakers last year approved spending $250 million on an array of programs, implementation is dragging, raising questions about Josh Saal’s tenure as housing czar. Growing impatience could be seen in this opening day salvo from Speaker Joe Shekarchi: “Our lack of affordable housing has been exposed in recent months. There can be no doubt – we have a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis. As long as there are people without safe and permanent housing, our work is not done."
State Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland), 34, was elected by his peers in November as majority leader, the number two post in the chamber. This makes Pearson well positioned to one day succeed the dean of the Senate, Dominick Ruggerio, as Senate president. Pearson joined me for a Political Roundtable interview this week. A few highlights:
Why revisiting the education funding formula is not a peripheral issue, given the generally poor returns for massive spending on public schools: “[T]he formula has, you know, been around for over a decade, I think a little over 12 years. And we haven't meaningfully adjusted it for the times and what's changed. And while we spend a lot, we don't spend a lot in every community per student, and so the statewide number can be deceiving. And we spend a lot more in some communities than we do the others.”
On potentially unwinding the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, 17 years after it was touted as a better way to do things: “I think we want to look at a blank canvas and see what's really going to allow us to meet the healthcare goals for Rhode Islanders.”
Committee chairs: Pearson declined to confirm that Sens. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Dawn Euer (D-Newport) are poised to get the nod as the new respective chairs of Senate Finance and Senate Judiciary.
On potentially revising healthcare reimbursement rates: “One of the things that we don't like to talk about is that when the state doesn't invest in Medicaid, that doesn't mean that those residents aren't showing up for health care. And that doesn't mean that those costs aren't being borne. All it does is it actually creates a hidden tax in private health insurance premiums. So by the state investing and paying providers what they should be paid for Medicaid, it will relieve private healthcare costs, provide better services to Rhode Islanders and also better stabilize the hospital systems.”
Speaker Shekarchi (D-Warwick) won his second term as speaker this week with 64 votes. Eight of nine Republicans voted for GOP Leader Mike Chippendale of Foster. Reps. Enrique Sanchez (D-Providence), Brianna Henries (D-East Providence) and Jennifer Stewart (D-Pawtucket) abstained … the local chapter of DSA said it was considering expelling Rep. David Morales (D-Providence) after he voted for Shekarchi. That was reminiscent of how the RI Political Cooperative ejected Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Cranston) after he backed Shekarchi at a 2020 caucus … House Whip Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence) introduced a bill to extend abortion coverage for women on Medicaid and the state employee health plan.
TAKES OF THE WEEK
Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.
State Rep. Jennifer Stewart (D-Pawtucket) on why she decided to abstain from the House vote for Speaker Shekarchi: “As a new representative, abstention was a difficult decision. In the last two years, there have been successes that finally happened after many years of struggle, like new gun regulations and driver’s licenses for undocumented Rhode Islanders. I thought about the voters who shared with me their worries about remaining in their apartments due to rising rents that outpace their wages and their skepticism that the system could be responsive to their concerns. Ultimately, I abstained because of the conversations I had with my neighbors who were disappointed that issues they cared about, like the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act and Percentage Income Payment Plan to help low-income Rhode Islanders access more affordable utilities, failed to move out of committee whereas a plastic burning bill, despite later being pulled, was slated for a floor vote. Nonetheless, as I begin my term, I am optimistic about continued movement to pass more legislation that helps the people in my district and working-class Rhode Islanders.”
Entrepreneur, community leader and ProJo alum Alisha Pina: Most research affirms it takes 21 days to change a habit, and about two months (66 days) before a new behavior becomes automatic. Leaders claimed equity was a priority well before the murder of George Floyd Jr. on May 25, 2020 -- two years and seven months ago. Reversing decades of well-known institutional racism isn’t like adding a glass of water to your morning routine, so maybe it is an unfair comparison, but we must address with action and community input the many equity gaps plaguing our Rhode Island cities and towns. So if you are a leader, new or returning, and equity wasn’t mentioned in your inauguration speech or listed as 2023 priority, please recalibrate.
RI Senate GOP Leader Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield: Today it's fashionable to criticize and deconstruct our past, but my recent time in Israel reaffirmed why we must remember and even celebrate our history. Israel has preserved its identity as a people through its rich traditions. More recently, Israelis excavated and preserved countless historical sites and memorialized the horrors of the Holocaust. Through it all, Israel has remained incredibly resilient, and its people are forging a stronger and brighter future because of it. Rhode Island has its share of problems that other state leaders and I have spent countless hours working to address. But we also have a unique heritage of which we can be proud. We were founded on the idea of religious liberty -- that an individual is entirely free to worship according to their conscience. That idea has found its way into America's Constitution as the First Amendment. Our unique idea has attracted Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others from around the world who have added their own experiences to Rhode Island's. However you chose to celebrate your holidays, I hope we can all choose to celebrate our heritage.
Physician, community activist and OG of Latino politics Pablo Rodriquez: My grandmother used to say: ‘It is much different to summon the devil than to see it appear.’ There is little doubt that the GOP has been summoning the devil for the last six years and finally it is here. How else could you explain the implosion experienced by this party in the last three months, at a time when every analyst looking at presidential approval, the price of gas, inflation and the wreck at the border predicted a red wave that was going to sweep Congress and usher in a new era of Republican leadership? Not only did Democrats hold the Senate, but even the minuscule advantage in the House of Representatives created the debacle this week with the struggle to elect a speaker. When was the last time you saw a minority party as joyful, and a majority party in the house of pain? Even with a laser shooting out of his eyes, Trump has not been able to control the monster he created by supporting the most extreme elements of the party, who turned against his handpicked candidate for speaker. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yet the worst is yet to come.
Regardless of the outcome of this week, the GOP will be engaging in a civil war with itself for the next two years. Now that all the moderate voices have either retired or been defeated, what remains is the most dysfunctional ruling party in the House, with the sword of Damocles hanging over whomever is elected speaker. If the Democrats are smart, they will diligently build coalitions with Republicans not wearing tinfoil hats and deliver for the American people a functional government. Immigration reform, crime, guns, and reproductive rights should be on the agenda, because those are the issues people most care about. Let the extremes argue over who can pee where and whether chocolate milk should be part of the school menu. Those salivating at the prospect of interminable investigations of the investigations, Hunter Biden’s laptop and most laughable, arguing in defense of the January 6th insurrection, will find themselves in the trash heap of history, and the topic of late-night show comedians, forever. Shakespeare was right: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
Public affairs consultant and former political staffer Cara Cromwell: Observers of politics will disagree about the exact week when the Republican centrist became extinct, but I could make a strong case for this one. The split screen of American politics showed Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker making the so-called “lone walk” (accompanied by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and their spouses) and leaving office as the most popular governor in the country while Congressman Kevin McCarthy repeatedly
placated his right-wing colleagues in a desperate effort to become speaker. As that battle raged on in DC and set the tone for this Congress, it would appear that the GOP has taken the final step towards being more “right” than relevant.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
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