STORY OF THE WEEK: How about that GOP outsider who pledges to shake up the state for the better? Back in 2002, Don Carcieri was the political newcomer who campaigned on a theme of change and reform – and he wound up winning two terms as governor. Now, Ashley Kalus is the Republican hope in the race for governor. She’s stepping up her campaign with a significant ad buy for the first TV commercial in the race. The spot sums up Kalus’ self-description as a fighter who will try to make Rhode Island a more affordable place to live, work and build a family. Asked for specifics during an interview on Political Roundtable on how she would achieve that, Kalus focused more on the “what” than the “how.” On making the state more affordable, she said in part, “We need to fix the education system … the other thing is that we need to be more competitive overall, so we need to have a more competitive business environment …” Pressed on what she would do differently from Gov. Dan McKee or Gina Raimondo to make more progress in improving public schools, Kalus said, “We need to have high standards, right? We need to make sure that a quality education is a constitutional right. We need to look at the way that we have schools or have schools governed and involve parents.” As a first-time candidate, Kalus faces growing media scrutiny, as with Ted Nesi and Eli Sherman’s report on her clash with the state over a $7.9 million COVID testing contract. To stand a chance in November, Kalus – who registered to vote in Rhode Island earlier this year -- needs to expand her recognition and support beyond the small pool of GOP voters here. The good news for her is that she has the money to broadcast her message and, without a well-known primary rival, a few months to hone her skills as a candidate. But the race for governor seems detached from the favorable national climate for Republican candidates, and Rhode Island hasn’t elected a GOP governor since 2006, when Don Carcieri narrowly won the last of his two terms, with the debacle of 38 Studios yet to emerge.
TAXING MATTERS: The richest of the rich in America are able to avoid paying income taxes by borrowing against their investments – a practice known as “Buy Borrow Die.” President Biden wants to change this by taxing billionaires’ unrealized gains, a proposal with no political prospects. Nonetheless, with ongoing concern about growing income inequality among Americans, debates about tax policy continue to flare in Rhode Island and elsewhere. Asked if it’s fair that the wealthiest of the 1% can avoid paying income taxes, Ashley Kalus told me she’d have to look into it. She cited the challenge faced by people with modest resources, adding that she didn’t see a problem with borrowing against one’s own money and she then concluded with this: “Are you saying that those [richest] individuals are not paying their fair share? If that’s what you’re saying, then, no, that’s not fair. We all have a responsibility to contribute to the state and to the community.” Regarding the proposal to raise taxes on the most affluent Rhode Islanders, Kalus said the proposal requires more consideration.
CD2 BUZZ, PART I: Can David Segal emerge as the top Democratic primary rival to General Treasurer Seth Magaziner in Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District? That question came into sharper relief when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – an icon for progressives across the U.S. – endorsed Segal last week. As I reported, the competition involving Magaziner and Segal reflects a division between the Clinton and Sanders/Warren wings of Democrats. Magaziner has far and away the biggest campaign account in the CD2 race and more than a dozen labor endorsements. At the same time, Warren’s endorsement could boost Segal’s fundraising and he won’t lack for committed volunteers as part of his ground game. Five other Democrats are competing in CD2, and at this stage, Sarah Morgenthau and Joy Fox will also have enough money to air TV ads ahead of the September 13 primary.
CD2 BUZZ, PART II: As Blake Hounshell notes in a NYT story on political carpetbaggers, Sarah Morgenthau has an impressive background on paper, although “[n]one of it might matter if Morgenthau can’t answer that question — Are you really from here? — to the satisfaction of Rhode Island voters.” …. Democrat Omar Bah, with a compelling personal story and a sparse campaign account, has slated a formal launch for 6 pm on May 12 at the Cranston Portuguese American Club.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Back in 2020, Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) scored an overwhelming primary victory over Ward 5 City Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan, garnering 72.5% of the vote. That was a noteworthy win for Bell, the vanguard among the outspoken progressives who have multiplied in number in the state Senate since he first won election in 2018. Now, Bell faces another challenge, this time from term-limited Ward 14 City Councilor David Salvatore. Salvatore boasts close to $120,000 in his campaign account (compared with about $25,000 for Bell) and Senate District 5 was changed through redistricting to include a solid chunk of Salvatore’s council ward. In the roll out for his campaign, Salvatore said he would emphasize public safety, education, and holding the line on taxes. Bell boasts strong support from like-minded progressives and a detailed website, although he’s also a lightning rod for such measures as his proposal to fine unvaccinated Rhode Islanders. Ahead of the announcement by Salvatore, government affairs director for the RI Association of Realtors, Bell offered this comment on the potential challenge: “I have worked hard to take on the power of State House corporate lobbyists. I am honored that they consider my work so effective that one of them is floating running against me.” Salvatore was coy when I first asked about his Senate run a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, he is the first out of the chute among the multiple Providence city councilors who can’t seek re-election due to term limits.
The Rhode Island House of Representatives is set to resume its conventional three day-a-week schedule when the chamber resumes action this week. For now, the state Senate will continue the COVID-era schedule of meeting twice weekly. The return after spring break signals the approach of the end of session, with the state budget and legalizing recreational marijuana among the major things still on tap.
MUNILAND MISCELLANY: Warwick is considering adopting a four-year mayoral term, a move taken up in East Providence after Townies backed the creation of a strong mayor position …. In related news, Warwick and East Providence are each proposing a delay in the decennial process of revaluing homes for property tax bills – a move that requires General Assembly approval. To read local papers in the two communities, public opinion is split between those who think this is a good move to shield taxpayers from possibly overheated property values or a bad move to attempt to insulate local pols by delaying an inevitably bigger bite from local taxes.
LOCKED UP: Former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia will now have to work on his legal appeals from a federal prison in New Hampshire. As The Public’s Radio South Coast Bureau reporter Ben Berke reported, Correia reported for prison Friday after exhausting his legal options to remain free on bail.
MASKING: The national debate about masking entered a new phase when a federal judge ruled against a mask mandate on airlines. Confused about what to do on different modes of transit? This story covers some frequently asked questions. Meanwhile, a new Kaiser Family Foundation study finds that about 234,000 COVID deaths since June 2021 could have been prevented through vaccines.
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker came to nearby Dartmouth last week to endorse Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. It’s a curious pairing, considering how Hodgson remains an enthusiastic supporter of former President Donald Trump and how the threat of a primary challenge from a conservative Republican was a subtext in the decision by Baker, a Trump critic, to not seek re-election. This is not the first time Hodgson was helped by a moderate Republican; the four-term sheriff was initially appointed by Gov. William Weld in 1997. Regardless, Baker and Hodgson share common ground on a few issues, and the sheriff declared a bit of distance from Trump.
KICKER: One benefit of Rhode Island’s emergence from the depths of the pandemic is the prospect of improvement in civic life and the food scene around the state. Following an approval from the Capital Center Commission, the state’s first food hall – a 30,000-square-foot production of Marsella Development – is now slated to open in the spring of 2023 in former restaurant space at Union Station in Providence.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. To read a longer version of this column or to sign up for email deliver
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