TALKING POLITICS

Patronage at the State House, the pandemic’s fiscal fallout and more

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If reformers want to improve state government in Rhode Island, would patronage hires be a good place to start? It’s a pertinent question following the news that Eddy Herrera, the son of Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), recently got a $49,000 a year job at the Statehouse. The usually voluble Williams declined requests for comment, and the precise details of how Herrera landed the job as a legislative aide on the operations side remain a mystery. But it’s no secret that the Statehouse is rife with patronage; last year, I reported on how legislative hiring from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s Cranston district has almost tripled since he became speaker in 2014. This kind of hiring reinforces legislative leaders’ power and boosts the ability of incumbents to retain office. And it flourishes since the hundreds of General Assembly employees are hired on an at-will basis, without the Civil Service and/or union protection found in the executive branch. Efforts to reform state government have focused on other areas – creating the Ethics Commission, downsizing the legislature, creating four-year terms for general officers, instituting separation of powers, eliminating the master lever, and so on. Changing the way that legislative employees get hired is the third rail of Statehouse politics. Changing it would be extraordinarily difficult, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, given how the speakership is often called the most powerful post in state government, can more parity really be brought to RI’s body politic without addressing a key source of legislative leaders’
political might?


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Amid an ongoing uptick in infections, Gov. Gina Raimondo stepped up a series of warnings last week about adhering to the state’s guidance on COVID-19. The governor also announced a heightened State Police role in trying to root out large social gatherings. State Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) was among those offering a critical response. “When a leader sets up ‘snitch lines’ to encourage people to ‘rat’ on their neighbors for having too many people at a BBQ while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that mass public protests are blatantly violating all of her edicts, that trust evaporates,” Newberry tweeted. Polling shows Democratic governors still enjoy strong support for their response to the pandemic. At the same time, in an example of the prevalence of the virus, the number of legislative staffers at the Statehouse is being limited until Aug. 17, according to House spokesman Larry Berman. That move came after a House operations employee tested positive. Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said there have been roughly five cases over the last three weeks involving people who work at the Statehouse.

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From March to May, 46 of the 50 states saw revenue drop compared with the same period last year. That’s among the findings of a detailed NPR by public radio reporters across the country, including yours truly. (Yes, I wrote that budget deficits in Rhode Island are as common as the quahogs in Narragansett Bay.) And although House Minority Leader Blake Filippi made this statement way back in April, it remains a valid observation for what will happen 1) if more federal help doesn’t materialize or 2) if feds don’t grant more flexibility in the $1B+ already delivered to the state: “I don’t think anything is going to escape the hatchet.”


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Related: The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, the lobbying group for municipalities, is warning of a “COVID trifecta”: “The Trifecta includes: 1) None of Rhode Island’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund ($1.25 billion) has been allocated to local communities; 2) The State of Rhode Island is withholding millions in lump sum budget allocations required by state law; and 3) Municipalities have been warned to expect long delays with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursements for COVID-19 disaster relief.” In a League statement, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung added, “Cities and towns have been working day and night to provide public safety services, enforce state guidelines and keep local government running, yet they have received none of Rhode Island’s $1.25 billion. Now the state is withholding funds that communities were counting on. It is unacceptable that cities and towns have been left to fend
for themselves.”


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Admired by critics of President Trump and reviled by the president’s defenders, The Lincoln Project has gained a lot of attention for its ads attacking Trump’s suitability as president. Now, the group Meme 2020 – whose chief of staff is Rhode Island native Ryan Patrick Kelley – is partnering with The Lincoln Project on a campaign using Instagram to target young voters. “Meme 2020 is laser-focused on building out this new medium that has been largely undeveloped in political advertising,” Kelley told The Hill. Meme 2020 was previously lauded of helping to raise the profile of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential run, before Bloomberg went into a tailspin.


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The convergence of the presidential election and projections that Democrats could retake the U.S. Senate is bound to fire up speculation about U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. Every four years or so, talk ramps up about Reed as a prospective secretary of defense in a Democratic administration. Yet Reed, currently the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will move up to chairman if his party takes the Senate. And Rhode Island’s senior senator appears intent on remaining in that chamber.


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Early reports suggested that about a third of the 113 seats in the General Assembly would go uncontested this year. But the proportion of races where incumbents have a free ride is edging down, due to how a series of would-be challengers have dropped out. A case in point is House District 31, where independent Gregory Ferland said he’s ending his challenge to Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-North Kingstown). Ferland cited the unexpected challenges of campaigning during the pandemic. Yet he works at the RMV, and classified state employees are prohibited by state law from running forthe legislature. (Other candidates who now lack opponentsinclude Reps. ChrisBlazejewski, D-Providence, and Karen Alzate, D-Pawtucket, and District 17 Democratic candidate Jacqueline Baginski.)


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Steve Frias, historian and the RI’s GOP national committeeman, took note of a TGIF item last week on Speaker Mattiello’s “rainyday fund” proposal. As it turns out, Cranston voters are set to vote on a “rainy day fund” amendment this November. It would require the city’s fund to equal at least five percent of Cranston’s annual operating budget. The proposal surfaced through a Charter Review Commission chaired by Frias and it gained support from Mayor Allan Fung before the pandemic. The upshot, Frias notes, is how “this November, in Cranston, voters may vote on a state ‘rainy day amendment proposed by Mattiello and a city ‘rainy day fund’ amendment proposed by me (and Fung).”


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The question of how Black Lives Matter-related activism finds its way into politics is something that bears watching here in Rhode Island and across the nation. In one such manifestation, my colleague Alex Nunes reported on how one activist, 26-year-old Julius Dunn, is running against Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (RWesterly.) Dunn is running on a write-in basis, due to how he misunderstood the rules for getting on the ballot. Yet he believes he’s sparking more awareness of important issues just by running: “Even if it’s me every couple of years campaigning and not getting elected, but just going out there and having the issues that need to be brought to the table brought to  the table – I’m happy with that,”  Dunn said.

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A statue of Ambrose Burnside sits in Burnside Park, leading passersby to think about sideburns and perhaps the Civil War. Less well known is how Burnside was the first president of the NRA, which maintained a long identity as a sporting/gun-safety organization before later morphing into a very powerful lobbying group. Now, New York Attorney General Letitia James, citing alleged abuse and fraud by NRA executives, is suing to dissolve the organization. The NRA, which spent millions in support of President Trump in 2016, filed a counter-suit. With 2020 shaping up as a possible watershed on issues of race, will the same be true regarding the potency of the NRA?


Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio,
Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit thepublicsradio.org. You can sign up for weekly email
delivery of Ian’s column each Friday by following this link:
www.lp.constantcontactpages.com/s
u/PriKkmN/TGIFsignup.

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