STORY OF THE WEEK
Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has moved quickly in the early stage of his administration to fill two key public safety positions, appointing Oscar Perez as police chief and Derek Silva as fire chief, picks that seem to favorably meld politics and policy. Unlike predecessor Jorge Elorza, Smiley does not face a steep learning curve whean it comes to city (or state) government. During an interview on Political Roundtable, Smiley said his top long-term goal is fostering growth in Rhode Island’s capital city. “But we need to facilitate that growth in a way that maintains the character, and the history and the culture of Providence,” he said. “I think we can do that.” There’s reason to think the city could be more populous; back in 1940, Providence had more than 250,000 residents, although the current population hovers around 190,000. Adding residential density would seemingly improve Providence’s economy and give the city more verve. Still, some familiar challenges – particularly the complex challenge of improving underperforming public schools – complicate the outlook. For now, Smiley’s short-term focus includes getting more city revenue from nonprofit universities and hospitals in Providence. The mayor’s newly announced legislative priorities include getting nonprofits that own commercial property to pay commercial property taxes and enabling cities and towns to get part of the payroll tax from newly created jobs.
The way in which Superior Court Judge Richard Licht, a veteran of Rhode Island politics, was struck by a vehicle last week while attempting to cross Smith Street near the State House, underscored concerns about pedestrian safety. (“He has come through emergency surgery well and is resting and in the capable hands of a team of physicians at RI Hospital,” his family said in a statement.) Critics say the volume of incidents in which pedestrians and cyclists are injured or killed by people driving cars calls out for attention. At the same time, there’s a generational divide on such issues as bike lanes and traffic humps between old-school and new-school residents in Providence.
Mayor Smiley does not seem to be a fan of the bike lanes ushered in by Mayor Elorza. Asked how he will thread competing views on traffic calming, here’s part of Smiley’s response on Roundtable: “[T]he transit master plan includes not just a conversation about bike lanes, but also a conversation around pedestrian safety, safe crossings. And that's where my focus is. So things like what they call bump outs where the sidewalk juts out a little bit so that the crossing is actually shorter, are time tested and proved and good safety measures. Proper striping, proper timing of the crosswalks, there are certain crosswalks where the light doesn't stay white long enough so that a pedestrian can safely cross that will be my priority and to try to not expend a disproportionate share of energy debating bike lanes, but rather to think about safety for pedestrians, and everyone who uses our roads.”
The dismissal of the lawsuit brought by former RI House Minority Leader Blake Filippi offers a window into the influence of personality and personal approach in politics. When Filippi brought the lawsuit in 2020, he was frustrated by how he was often on the outside, looking in, during Nick Mattiello’s tenure as speaker. The possibility of a resolution came into view when Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung defeated Mattiello later that year, and then Filippi surprised colleagues last year with his decision not to seek re-election. The new powers in the House, Shekarchi for the ruling Democrats and Chippendale for the nine Republicans, appeared more willing to commit to a fresh start. At the same time, Shekarchi is enough of an institutionalist that preserving the House’s three to two advantage on JCLS was important to him. Smart observation via Twitter from John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island: “It doesn't get more inside baseball than how the JCLS functions, but the power behind the power is incredibly important. Will be interesting to see what issues (contracts? personnel?) come before the body when it starts meeting.”
Monday marked a grim anniversary in Rhode Island – the passage of 20 years since the Station fire disaster in West Warwick. One hundred people died, and more than 200 were injured in the conflagration. A lack of sprinklers, highly flammable soundproofing foam, and Great White’s use of pyrotechnics combined to trigger one of the worst nightclub disasters in U.S. history. The calamity raised a focus on fire safety, particularly for nightclubs. Yet as Antonia Farzan reports in the ProJo, inspections remain inconsistent for other entities and fire prevention generally takes a back seat to other demands for local fire departments.
THE YOUNG AND RESTLESS, THE SEQUEL
The rising crop of young RI Democratic activists back in 2005 included the likes of Tony Simon, Paul Tencher, Matt Jerzyk, Cara Camacho, Ed Pacheco, Meghan McBurney, and Chris Bizzacco, and Seth Magaziner, among others. So with the RI Young Democrats poised for their latest revitalization, one executive board member is already well known: RI Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson. Keep an eye on the rest of this crew: Sam Ackerman (president of YDRI) and executive board members Cecilia Marrinan and Noah Rosenfeld – respective president and VP of the Brown University Democrats -- Secretary-Treasurer Robert Craven, Mary-Murphy Walsh, Lloyd Ocean, Lauren Call, and Anthony Cherry.
State Rep. Enrigue Sanchez (D-Providence) has crafted a profile as a bold progressive since joining the House. That’s why it was interesting to learn that he asked to have his name removed as a sponsor on the bill from Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington) to ban new sales of military-style semiautomatic rifles. Sanchez tells me his request was based on a few decisions, including wanting more time to read the bill and a potential concern about the penalty for violation. At the same time, he said that restricting gun rights is “a big no-no on the extreme left,” including some of those who identify as communists, anarchist and socialists, and that this stance overlaps with conservative support for gun rights. Sanchez added that he supports efforts to get guns off the street and may still vote for Knight’s bill.
The Public’s Radio is pleased to announce that Olivia Ebertz will be joining the station as our metro desk reporter in early April. Oliva is joining us from WNYC, where she has been an assistant producer for Morning Edition. She has also reported for KYUK in Alaska and speaks multiple languages, including Spanish, Italian and Norwegian. Olivia’s focus will be the diverse communities in the Providence area, and we’re excited to welcome her.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, who now lives in New Jersey, is among those commenting on U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania’s public battle with depression. “When I sought treatment for addiction while in office, I felt I had to hide under the cloak of night,” Kennedy tweeted. “After it became public, I faced some calling for my resignation. But in actuality, it made me a stronger leader and politician for my constituents. We've come so far in destigmatization of these brain illnesses, but we still have so far to go. In the midst of our national mental health crisis, Senator Fetterman's leadership by example, may just be lifesaving for many other Americans.”
From my colleague Ben Berke: Joseph Michaud, one of three judges that hears eviction cases in the Southeast Housing Court, has received a public reprimand from Massachusetts’ highest court for his social media activity during the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Michaud shared a series of highly politicized Facebook posts that criticized Democratic politicians and spread false claims about widespread voter fraud, which were screenshotted and reproduced in a report unsealed by the Supreme Judicial Court last Friday. The Commission on Judicial Conduct, which referred the matter to the Supreme Judicial Court, found that Michaud’s posts also “contained content that gave the appearance of bias based on gender, ethnicity and immigration status.” The Supreme Judicial Court’s public reprimand of Michaud will have no effect on his judicial responsibilities, according to a spokesperson for the court. Michaud will continue to hear eviction cases in cities like Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton and Attleboro. The reprimand is not the first time Michaud has drawn criticism from state officials. Legislators from Fall River and New Bedford convened a meeting with the Housing Court’s leadership in 2021 after an investigation by The Public’s Radio found that Michaud’s court was evicting tenants at twice the rate of its sister courts. Between October 2020 and September 2021, while a federal eviction moratorium was in place to reduce displacement during the coronavirus pandemic, the investigation found that Fall River experienced more evictions than Boston, a city six times its size. The same is true of New Bedford. Michaud has apologized for his social media posts in a letter to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
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