The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIFebruary 1st, 2014 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. So, who is Clay Pell? We know quite a bit more about him today than we did a week ago, thanks to his kickoff speech and his inaugural Newsmakers interview. He’s been a legal resident of Rhode Island since he graduated from Harvard in 2005, but his only employment in the state has been Coast Guard training in Newport. He’s in favor of binding arbitration for teachers, against standardized testing, and skeptical of charter schools. He’s not big on raising taxes. (“We have an $8.5 billion budget – I’m confident that as governor we will be able to find areas of growth in order to focus on the things we have to do.”) He opposes putting tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge. He’s pro-choice. He won’t say whether he would have signed the 2011 pension law, or whether he thinks the law is constitutional. He’s not sure about legalizing recreational pot à la Colorado. And he wouldn’t have put $12.5 million in taxpayer money into the state budget to make the next payment on the 38 Studios bonds. “This isn’t about rolling the dice,” Pell told Tim White in regards to the bond payment. “This is about taking taxpayer dollars very seriously, and not sending money in that direction when it might not be fully necessary.” Pell was understandably a bit nervous during our interview, but the career of his grandfather – famously dubbed “the least electable man in America” by JFK – suggests charisma isn’t always a prerequisite for political success. But Claiborne Pell was 41 when he won his first election; can his grandson do it at just 32?
2. One thing Pell won’t lack is money. Campaign-finance reports were filed Friday, and Pell’s revealed he had $1.1 million on hand as of Dec. 31 – a bit more than $1 million of it from a personal loan he made to his campaign. (Other Pell donors included Vicki Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, Vera Wang, Billie Jean King and Jared Polis.) That still leaves Pell with far less money than Gina Raimondo, who reported $2.5 million on hand after hauling in nearly $500,000 over three months. But it actually puts him slightly ahead of Angel Taveras, who reported just over $1 million on hand. Obviously, the pressure is on Taveras now to maintain the solid pace of cash collection he managed in the fourth quarter if he wants to keep up with Raimondo’s fundraising machine and Pell’s wealth. On the other hand, the fact that the mayor was able to stay in the game at all should quiet speculation for now that lack of funds will push him out of the primary. More broadly, this is shaping up to be a very expensive race. The three Democratic candidates finished 2013 with a combined $4.6 million on hand; how much will the winner be forced to spend by Sept. 9?
3. The Republican primary will be cheaper, though with Jeff Britt managing Ken Block’s bid it certainly won’t be sedate. As of Dec. 31, Block’s campaign had $634,126 on hand while Allan Fung’s had $384,925. But Block is relying heavily on his own wealth to fund his campaign: his cash hoard is nearly equal to the $620,000 he’s loaned his campaign since 2012. When it comes to actually harvesting contributions, by contrast, Fung’s $116,320 fourth-quarter total was four times Block’s $28,446. Yet how much will money matter in the GOP primary, which will likely have a far lower turnout than the Democratic one?
4. The three Democratic candidates for governor are playing up their differences these days, but one thing they have in common is their alma mater. They’re all Harvard grads: Taveras ’92, Raimondo ’93, Pell ’05. (Taveras and Raimondo even posed together for this Harvard Club of Rhode Island photo back in 2010 at the Hope Club.) On the Republican side, Ken Block graduated from Dartmouth College in 1987 and Allan Fung received his B.A. from RIC in 1992, making Fung the only major candidate for governor who didn’t attend an Ivy League school. There’s also an interesting generational wrinkle to the race: for the first time in many years, there’s no baby boomer running for governor. Block, born in 1965, just makes the cut as Generation X, along with Taveras, Fung and Raimondo; Pell is either a late Gen Xer or an early Millennial depending on the cutoff dates you use.
5. If you missed it, check out my late-breaking scoop on Enron alum and EngageRI backer John Arnold’s $100,000 donation to pro-Raimondo super PAC American LeadHERship.
6. Another candidate who’s feeling confident these days is Guillaume De Ramel, making his second bid for secretary of state. This week De Ramel rolled out endorsements from North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi as well as the Johnston and Charlestown Democratic committees. His campaign was particularly pleased with the support in North Providence and Johnston: De Ramel lost the 2006 primary to Ralph Mollis by just 4,953 votes after getting crushed by 4,327 votes in those two communities. Team De Ramel is also working to shore up his support among women as he squares off against Nellie Gorbea, who’s got her own broad network of backers. To that end, the De Ramel campaign has scheduled a show-of-force fundraiser at The Dorrance on Feb. 11 with an all-female host committee that includes Grace Diaz, Merle Goldstein, Edna O’Neill Mattson, Nancy Mayer, Nuala Pell, Alison Townsend and Anastasia Williams. The proceeds could help De Ramel maintain his sizable financial advantage over Gorbea: his campaign had $538,476 on Dec. 31, while hers had $129,840.
7. One person who won’t be appearing on the ballot this year: Alex & Ani CEO Giovanni Feroce. Asked about rumors he might throw his hat into the political ring, Feroce told me in an email: “No way. I have the best job in the country … and my next one will be called Retired.” It’s no surprise some have speculated the jewelry juggernaut’s 45-year-old chief might consider politics – he was a GOP state senator and lieutenant governor candidate in the 1990s, and also made a bid for Delaware’s state Senate in 2006.
9. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is 9.1%, once again the highest in the nation. And as I suggested in last week’s Executive Suite segment on the jobs crisis, the situation is arguably even worse than that. Consider this: the number of unemployed Rhode Islanders has dropped by 18,000 since February 2010, from 68,000 to 50,000. You’d figure the number of Rhode Islanders with a job has probably risen by about the same amount (18,000) since then, right? Wrong. The number of Rhode Islanders with a job has actually fallen by 4,000 since February 2010. Think about that for a minute – there has been zero increase in employment among Rhode Islanders since the jobless rate peaked at 11.9% nearly four years ago. The entire decrease in the measured unemployment rate is because people left the labor force.
10. Speaking of unemployment, Reihan Salam reports Republicans are considering a proposal to offer unemployed workers relocation loans to move to places with more jobs: “This would give workers in Rhode Island, a state plagued by a 9.1% unemployment rate, the means to move to North Dakota, where the unemployment rate is 2.6%.” (The column is even illustrated with a photo of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed.)
11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “With the second round of NECAP results released Friday, we now know that more than 1,800 high-school seniors remain at risk of not graduating because they haven’t yet earned a qualifying score on the math or English sections of the test. But Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso said the state has no plans to scrap the requirement for the class of 2014. ‘We’re not putting a hold on it,’ Mancuso told WPRI.com. ‘There’s no reason to put a hold on it.’ Mancuso said she’d rather place the focus on offering waivers to students who can’t score partially proficient after they take the exam for a third time later this month. But she may not have a say in it. That’s because of the growing sentiment among state lawmakers and municipal officials – particularly the ones running for governor – that the state can’t afford to let so many students repeat the 12th grade. State Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, has filed legislation that would put a hold on the testing component of the graduation requirement until 2019. ‘The commissioner often says if we give a student a diploma that doesn’t mean anything, we’ve closed a door for them,’ Cimini told WPRI.com. ‘If we don’t give them a diploma when they’ve spent 12 years doing what we’ve asked them to do, I think we’ve locked that door.’ For her part, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist continues to warn that now is not the time to put the brakes on high standards. ‘We cannot consign our graduates to lives of economic dependence,’ Gist said during her State of Education address Thursday. ‘We must demonstrate to our students that their hard work will pay off and that they can rise to meet a challenge. We must show them time and again that we will do whatever it takes to help them.’”
12. Don’t look now, but it’s already February.
13. The departure of George Zainyeh as Governor Chafee’s chief of staff, announced Friday afternoon, could have a quiet but substantial impact on the lame-duck administration. The choice of Zainyeh to replace Chafee’s first chief of staff, the able Pat Rogers, was seen as an effort to build bridges into Democratic circles before the governor’s since-abandoned bid for a second term; Zainyeh played a crucial role, for example, in winning Chafee his evening speaking slot during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The most likely beneficiary of Zainyeh’s exit in terms of influence is Jonathan Stevens, a childhood friend of Chafee’s who managed the future governor’s first City Council campaign back in 1986 and has been with him ever since.
14. Josh Fenton’s GoLocalProv is a polarizing topic among Rhode Island political and media types, but media analyst Ken Doctor makes a compelling case for why the GoLo experiment matters. Read it.
15. Twin River executives say they’re doing all they can to prepare for expanded gambling in Massachusetts. As Steve Nielsen reported here this week, Twin River is facing multiple threats nearby: a potential full-scale resort casino in Taunton, Fall River or New Bedford as well as a newly licensed slot parlor in Plainville or Raynham. For now, though, it’s wait and see for the Lincoln gaming facility, Rhode Island’s third-largest source of state revenue. Chairman John Taylor said two recent steps Twin River has taken – the addition of table games and the purchase of a Hard Rock casino in Biloxi – will help strengthen the company’s finances. “People aren’t going to be able to take our location away,” Taylor said on this week’s Executive Suite. “There’s a lot of talk about, oh my God, you know, these big destination casinos – I mean, the fact of the matter is we’re easy to get to and that’s not going to change. The fact that you can be on 95 or 295 and get off on 146 and literally pull into our parking lot is not going to change.” As for the idea of adding a hotel to help Twin River compete, Taylor downplays the idea, saying its market niche is as a “convenience casino” – but he doesn’t rule it out, though a change in state law would be needed.
17. It’s often remarked that Jim Langevin is a pro-life Democrat, but that doesn’t make him a certain vote for anti-abortion legislation. The latest example came this week when the House took up a Republican-backed measure to ban Obamacare subsidies for abortion coverage; six Democrats supported the bill, but Langevin wasn’t one of them. “We are deeply disappointed but, sadly, not surprised,” Rhode Island Right to Life’s Barth Bracy said. Langevin defended his vote, telling WPRI.com: “I have always supported a ban on direct federal funding of abortions and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, this bill would expand the interpretation of federal funding to include tax credits for individuals and small business.” The congressman argued that the proposal “would effectively ban thousands of individuals and small businesses from receiving health coverage in Rhode Island’s health exchange.” (All of HealthSource RI’s plans cover abortion.) “Although I would welcome abortion-free plan options in the exchange,” Langevin added, “disrupting access to coverage for thousands of Rhode Islanders is not the appropriate means to achieve this.”
18. Another interesting vote in Congress this week was on the farm bill, a hard-won House-Senate compromise that passed with bipartisan support. Democrats split on the measure, with 89 in favor and 103 against, and among the opponents were local lawmakers Langevin, David Cicilline and Joe Kennedy III. All of them cited the legislation’s cuts to food stamps to explain their votes. One interesting wrinkle: the bill saves money by closing the so-called “Heat and Eat” loophole used by Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other states, which boosts benefits for some recipients by inflating their utility costs on paper. Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, no fan of food stamp cuts, backed the farm bill despite the change. “It’s difficult to defend the practice of giving people higher benefits for supposedly paying bills they don’t, in fact, pay,” he wrote.
19. On the other side of Capitol Hill, a disappointing turn of events for Jack Reed. Simon Johnson, an economist and critic of high finance, says the $86-million Office of Financial Research that Reed successfully pushed to create as part of Wall Street reform has been a bit of a dud. Johnson blames opposition to the idea from former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, writing: “It would take a sweeping change and perhaps new leadership for the vision of Senators Reed and [Mark] Warner to become something close to reality.”
20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers - Clay Pell, Democratic candidate for governor. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Twin River Chairman John E. Taylor Jr. and CEO George Papanier. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). And don’t forget to tune into our new 6:30 p.m. nightly newscast on Fox Providence. See you back here next Saturday morning.
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