Will Trump trial(s) only strengthen his campaign?


STORY OF THE WEEK: If you want to give Democrats agita, look no further than a New York Times/Siena College poll pointing to a potential neck-and-neck rematch between Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. Three indictments of Trump have not changed his frontrunner status on the GOP side of the presidential race. You know we’re living in unusual times when former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, who tilted sharply against the status quo during his meteoric rise in Rhode Island, is the most outspoken Republican with local ties willing to criticize Trump. “I don’t care if you call this a witch-hunt or hoax, the mere suggestion that a presidential candidate attempted to steal an election in our country should be more than enough to get them disqualified and removed from the upcoming general election,” said Laffey (whose own presidential bid has gained little traction), via statement. But Trump is a sui generis figure in politics, someone whose mythology gained unusual and sustained vigor from years as the central figure of a reality TV show. The conventional wisdom holds that Biden’s approval rating will improve in the months ahead with positive economic indicators and fading inflation. We can only wonder how a possible Trump trial (or trials) next year, and the coverage of it, will affect voters’ attitudes. For now, many Americans appear unenthused about picking between Trump, 77, and Biden, 80, even as Trump’s critics warn about what they call a threat to democracy. Back in 2016, Trump’s vow to shock the system won a lot of support even in traditionally Democratic Johnston, and he beat Hillary Clinton there by 14 points. Former state Rep. Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston) was part of a coffee klatch at the time with some Trump enthusiasts. Ucci now tells me he thinks that while many supporters will stick by the former president, others see a need to put the country first and move on in a different direction. But former state Sen. Edward O’Neill, an independent from Lincoln for most of his time in the chamber, sees the outlook differently. O’Neill, an early Trump supporter who now resides in North Carolina, takes a dim view of cases made against the former president by what he calls “the Department of Injustice.” “Democrats are trying to destroy [Trump],” O’Neill tells me. “I think they’re strengthening him.”

 HEALTHCARE: Could a “public primary medical school” solve the shortage of primary care doctors in Rhode Island? Dr. Michael Fine, a former state Department of Public Health director who is now a health strategist for the City of Central Falls, pitches the concept this way: med students could attend the school for free, but they would be obligated to work as primary care physicians. There appears to be little support for the idea, given the primacy of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. But Fine said the roughly $100 million cost of establishing a public primary medical school could help to reduce $8 billion in annual healthcare spending in Rhode Island. Fine and Christopher Koller, who served as the nation’s first health insurance commissioner, joined me on Political Roundtable to discuss healthcare spending, takeaways from the pandemic, the downside of not having a permanent director at DOH and more.

CD1 STATE OF PLAY: With a bit less than four weeks until the Sept. 5 primary, the campaign to elect the next member of Congress from Rhode Island’s 1st District is heading into a crucial stretch. Outside independent expenditures have started to pour money into TV ads in Rhode Island – and they could play a significant role in raising or lowering voters’ views of various candidates. Key questions: Can Sabina Matos bounce back from the signature controversy? Can Aaron Regunberg reap the benefits? Can Sandra Cano sneak past other Democrats on the basis of a strong ground game? Is there enough time for Gabe Amo and/or Don Carlson to raise their recognition among voters? Can other candidates exceed expectations?

THE PROCESS: With the signature-gathering controversy in CD1 still drawing attention, the state Board of Elections put out a new statement this week. To critics who thought the BOE was punting by referring Sabina Matos’ nomination papers to Attorney General Peter Neronha, the board said it faced a time crunch due to the need to print military and overseas ballots. The board said information from local canvassers indicated 728 valid signatures for Matos. “What is clear, at a minimum,” the BOE added, is that the time between certification and the printing of ballots is insufficient to address any potential irregularities in nomination papers. The Board of Elections in the 2023 General Assembly session introduced legislation (House Bill 5957 / Senate Bill 0844) that would give the board a 7-day period from the last day that nomination papers are due, to then be submitted to the Secretary of State’s office.” But the board may not be done with Matos. The BOE on Friday said in a statement it would meet again Aug. 8, when “the Board may discuss the ongoing investigation in connection with the nomination papers submitted on behalf of United States Congressional candidate Sabina Matos, and may vote to commence further investigatory actions in this matter.”

In related news, Secretary of State Gregg Amore indicated he will back legislation next year that will require an automatic BOE review if information from cities and towns “suspect forgery or other intentional misrepresentations on nomination papers. “As I have previously stated,” Amore added, “I believe the Board of Elections already has the power to conduct an independent signature review, but the codification of a strong, standardized process to address challenges or suspected issues as they arise would leave no question that the Board of Elections is authorized to act in such a situation.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.

WEAYONNOH NELSON-DAVIES, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute: “Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour arrived at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, and it was phenomenal! She wrote the Renaissance album during the pandemic, “giving [herself] permission to focus on [her] joy,” and a desire to be a part of nurturing the renaissance from isolation that was emerging. In Rhode Island, we have unique opportunities to work together and nurture our own economic justice renaissance movement. As many of us spend the summer months recharging and planning, may this album and tour remind us that despite pandemics, the latest Supreme Court decisions, and policy setbacks, we can still have dreams, dance, joy, and hope. And there is nothing that gives me more joy and hope than hearing my 7-year-old, who did not go to the concert, singing, “you won’t break my soul.” 

Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: “There are over 10,000 Latino voters in the 1st Congressional District who voted in one of the three 2022 elections.  With turnout not expected to exceed 40,000 and 3 Latina candidates in the race, the impact of this electorate could be significant. But the Democratic Party has a bigger problem on their hands: Latino voters are slowly and steadily moving towards the Republican Party. National polling after the 2022 mid-terms showed a 5% swing for Latino voters from voting Democrat to voting Republican. In the 2020 election, Donald Trump picked up an 8% increase in Latino support from 2016. The trend can be seen locally where Trump's support at the heavily-Latino Alvarez School precinct went from 13% in 2016 to 21% in 2020. There are many explanations for this shift: differing social and cultural values, the role of Christian evangelical churches, a Republican focus on economic policies, targeted social media Spanish-language strategies and the influence of certain Latino voters such as those from Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico. It is essential to note that the Latino voting bloc is not monolithic, and its preferences can vary significantly depending on factors such as age, country of origin, region, and socio-economic background. Democrats, however, are not as loud as they used to be in calling for a pathway for citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Sen. Ted Kennedy was a passionate advocate for immigrants' right for a pathway. The hotel workers union organized a national Freedom Ride to Washington DC calling for a pathway. And, at President Obama's urging, the U.S. Senate actually passed a pathway with 68 bipartisan votes in 2013, only to be killed in the John Boehner House. The executive actions by Presidents Obama and Biden to protect DACA Dreamers has helped nearly 700,000 young people, but failed in efforts to expand to the tens of millions of undocumented adults. Turning back to the CD-1 race, with tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders trapped in a system where their status cannot be legalized, here's hoping that the candidates publicly champion a pathway to citizenship both in the election and in the halls of Congress. As President George Washington famously stated, ‘The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges’”

RI Senate GOP Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ of North Smithfield: “It is now three weeks since the discovery of the submission of fraudulent nomination signatures by Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos' CD1 campaign. At her recent press conference, Matos stated that her scandal ‘is a learning opportunity’ and how it worries her ‘that voters may not have faith in the democratic process.’ I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments. So what have we all learned and how do we restore faith in the process? Rhode Islanders have learned, amid the finger-pointing and blame game, that we need to modernize and ensure accountability in our ballot access and electoral process.  Therefore, next session I will submit and work to garner bi-partisan support for legislation to trigger an automatic BOE review and re-verification of all of the signatures on a candidate's nomination papers if fraud has been detected or suspected.  The legislation will also build in an extended timeframe in the ballot access process to perform such verification. Rhode Island also needs to explore the use of signature-matching technology as an addition to the local board of canvassers' validation process for nomination papers. Additionally, the voter rolls must eliminate ineligible voters, and the legislature needs to repeal the misdirected 2022 law which removed the notary and witness requirements on mail ballot submissions. This is how we can restore trust in the process.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

politics, Donnis, op-ed


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