The out-of-town frame on the CD2 race is mainly about how a potential win by GOP candidate Allan Fung in a Democrat-leaning Rhode Island reflects a tough national outlook for President Biden’s party. Let’s unpack that a bit.
The president’s party typically loses congressional seats during midterm elections. More to the point, persistently high inflation has put Democrats in a defensive posture, since voters often judge the ruling party on the economy, even if the pandemic and other factors contributed to the situation.
That explains why the CD2 race has attracted coverage from such outlets as The New York Times (“Democrats, on defense in blue states, brace for a red wave in the House”) and First Lady Jill Biden visited Rhode Island this week in an attempt to boost enthusiasm among Democrats. Still, it’s worth remembering that Seth Magaziner predicted a close fight from the time when he got into the race in January. That was based on the more conservative lean of CD2 voters and Fung’s profile as a longtime former mayor with considerably deeper roots in the district.
Magaziner’s campaign responded with a shotgun approach – TV commercials about abortion rights, the lean of DC Republicans, and the threat posed by election deniers to democracy. Now, with less than two weeks until the election ends on Nov. 8, Magaziner and other Democrats are refocusing on a populist economic message, as seen by a new campaign spot out last week.
Faced with questions about strengthening a House GOP caucus in which Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and more than 130 members voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, Fung has consistently shifted his responses to inflation and the cost of living. The Republican has held a small lead in a series of polls, although the main takeaway could be that CD2 voters, like the nation as a whole, are closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. Spending in the race has topped an eye-popping $8 million.
One wild card is the independent campaign of Bill Gilbert, who although he has done virtually nothing to promote his run, could draw in the low-to-mid single digits based on his ballot identification as a “Moderate.” If that’s the case, Magaziner or Fung could win with roughly 47% of the vote.
THE SMITH HILL CONNECTION: An investigation by WPRI-TV’s Tim White, Eli Sherman and Ted Nesi reveals how a top Statehouse aide, John Conti, who quickly resigned, was linked to an organized crime associate, and how they were clandestine business associates in an illegal marijuana business. The story underscores concern about insiders wiring the lucrative new industry of recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.
As I reported earlier this year, despite a stated commitment to boosting people hurt by the war on drugs, questions remain about whether the reality will live up to rhetoric. Meanwhile, since Conti was senior deputy chief of staff for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, Common Cause of Rhode Island is calling for Gov. Dan McKee to reject Shekarchi’s suggested nominees for the state’s yet-to-take-shape Cannabis Control Commission.
“The revelations in the Channel 12 reporting about John Conti reveal why the legislature should not be involved in the day-to-day regulation of Rhode Island’s newly legalized recreational marijuana market,” Common Cause Executive Director John Marion said in a statement. (As TGIF reported on Oct. 7, McKee has yet to nominate members for the Cannabis Control Commission, although the deadline for doing so under the state’s legalization law was July 4.)
GOV RACE: Republican Ashley Kalus is hoping to leverage dissatisfaction with the status quo to score an upset win over Democratic Gov. Dan McKee. Kalus used an extended ad this week to tick off a list of grievances – cost of living, multi-million-dollar subsidies for the Superman Building and Pawtucket soccer stadium, and the ILO Group probe – while vowing to make Rhode Island a better place to live and work.
McKee has pounded the carpetbagger charge against Kalus, who is facing more scrutiny about her record before moving to Rhode Island, while also emphasizing abortion rights. McKee, an early supporter of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, also got cheers this week from Jill Biden.
TAXING MATTERS: There was a rising tide of debate in the General Assembly last year about the upper tax bracket change championed and signed into law by former GOP Gov. Don Carcieri. Supporters cite it as an incremental step to improve R.I.’s business climate, while opponents maintain upper-income Rhode Islanders should pay more in taxes as a matter of equity.
Now comes word that Rhode Island has fallen back into the bottom 10 of states in a ranking by the Tax Foundation. Another aspect of this debate is playing out in Massachusetts, where voters will decide next month to approve or reject Question 1, which would hike taxes for people who earn more than $1 million a year.
Many of the arguments are familiar to those who have followed the issue in Rhode Island. Some cursory TV viewing suggests opponents – using ads to play on doubts about the ability of politicians to responsibly use a windfall of tax dollars – may be making the loudest argument.
TAKE OF THE WEEK: The weekly view from a mix of Rhode Islanders …
CORTNEY NICOLATO: “One of the most impactful parts of my job is having the opportunity to meet with corporate CEOs, nonprofit leaders, community advocates, and elected officials on the most important issues facing our state. When asked about their respective pain points, they all say the same thing: Housing. Our corporate CEOs cannot find housing for their workforce, which prohibits them from growing in Rhode Island. And our community leaders are trying to find a safe place for many to rest their head at night, to no avail. We must look at housing not as a specific issue for one group of Rhode Islanders, but for all of us. It affects our essential workforce, our children and aging adults, our neighbors …. and those we love. Housing is a crisis, an economic crisis, a healthcare crisis, and an education crisis. It is also a major opportunity. We are at a moment in time when we can make real, transformative change. And thanks to our elected officials, we have tools we never had before. But those tools need to be linked by collaboration and a willingness to think creatively. I am committed to this work, alongside many, many others.”
STATE REP. DAVID MORALES: “As there continues to be scrutiny around the delayed release of the annual RICAS score (which is justified), there has not been nearly enough discussion around the specific investments and policy reforms needed to help improve our public education system. Even without the release of this year’s RICAS scores, we’ve known for years that our students are struggling, especially within the urban core (Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls). However, just recently, as part of the RI Department of Education’s agency budget request to the Governor’s office, RIDE submitted a much-needed proposal to reform our state’s education funding formula. Instead of simply depending on “free and reduced lunch” data to measure poverty, RIDE would shift its measures of poverty to further focus on student homelessness, and additional funding would be directed to school districts with the greatest concentration of poverty. Although improving our education system will take a lot more than just allocating further funding, this is an important step. We should all applaud RIDE for submitting this request and hope that the Governor’s office adopts this reform in its January budget proposal. As for how these additional funds should be invested, that’s another discussion, though. I’d urge school districts to seriously invest in mental health services.”
KEN BLOCK: “A cheap method of polling (free, in fact) is looking at the actions and events that campaigns are doing at the tail end of the race to get some visibility as to how close the race might be. I see Jill Biden's appearance Wednesday on behalf of Gov. Dan McKee and other Democrats at the top of the ticket as telling. The races might be much closer than we know based on the fact that the First Lady is expending precious time and political capital in Little Rhody. Will the First Lady’s appearance here move the needle in terms of Democratic turnout?”
ROBERT A. WALSH JR: “Isak Dinesen famously said, ‘The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea,’ and that is our touchstone for interpreting election night returns a week from Tuesday in the hotly contested Second Congressional District. Of course, when the polls close at 8 p.m., the election is over, but the order in which results are reported, absentee and early votes are tallied, etc. give us a few hours of drama and the feeling that the race is still being contested in real time. Campaign supporters will be sweating out the results as they are reported, but watching early numbers can help predict the outcome (with the reminder that absentee ballots will favor the Democrats). Interestingly, of the 21 cities and towns in CD2, 10 of these border on the ocean or the bay. Let’s set aside Cranston (although water’s edge Edgewood should be Seth Magaziner territory). If early results show Allan Fung winning any other community bordering salt water, he will have a good night. And if Magaziner prevails anywhere inland, Fung supporters may be in tears (come on, Johnston!) The fact that the next full moon will occur an hour before the polls open has nothing to do with my prior prediction that the momentum of the rising Democratic tide will carry Magaziner to victory.”
MATT JERZYK: “With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a new Covid lockdown in China ratcheting up inflation (nationally and internationally) yet again, national Democrats are scrambling regarding a three-to-five -point national polling shift toward Republicans in key Senate and House races. Should they have taken a page from Rhode Island Democrats’ playbook and focused on housing and the economy? Take the 2022 legislative session as a prime example. Speaker Shekarchi, President Ruggerio, Gov, McKee and Lt. Gov. Matos championed a state budget that included an historic $250 million investment in housing, as well as a restructuring in state government to create a new secretary of Housing, Josh Saal, and infrastructure to align housing related staff and programs. Ten more bills made into law streamlined development to help municipalities meet affordable housing goals from the House Low-Moderate Income Housing Commission chaired by Rep. June Speakman. The result of this strong economic message? A super-majority of leadership-backed legislative candidates won their primary elections and look set to win re-election in the general election. Big challenges remain to translate these housing investments into actual change. HousingWorksRI’s brand new 2022 Housing Fact Book noted that, “[c]reating lasting and local solutions requires the partnership of municipalities and revised local land use regulations.” In other words, there may be new state leadership, state money and state willpower, but unless cities and towns support the construction of new housing, the state’s critical housing crisis will go unaddressed. Stay tuned, however, as another commission, chaired by long-time planner Thom Deller and focused on land use and zoning, may take aim in the 2023 legislative session at the persistent issue of local red tape.”
BACKLASH: Via statement, state Rep-elect Enrique Sanchez said he believes his opposition to the Superman Building tax deal explains why the executive board of the RI AFL-CIO rescinded an endorsement for him: “I demonstrated opposition to this tax break for this private developer because I have a commitment and loyalty to my constituents and to the people of Providence. This TSA would cost the city $220 million over the long run and private developer High Rock would benefit from $26 million in tax breaks. Providence and all across the state, our communities are suffering from a housing crisis due to rising costs of living and lack of more low-income /affordable housing developments. Where are the tax breaks for working people across our city? Why are we handing out corporate welfare to wealthy private developers during economic instability? I believe I made the right choice and stood by my convictions and morals. This corporate handout would directly impact my community and worsen the homelessness crisis.” Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the RI AFL-CIO, declined a request for comment.
THE CONNECTION: Talk-radio host John DePetro helped make it possible for Dr. Michael Fine, a former state Health Department director, to offer his medical skills on the Ukraine border in the early phase of the war. As Fine wrote in an essay for The Public’s Radio, “Whenever anyone asked how I got to Ukraine, I told the whole story, naming names and giving thanks. I actually thought it was a good story in itself. One person usually thought of as conservative and a little provocative helps out another person who is usually thought of as progressive and a little provocative, in support of the Ukrainian people and democracy itself. Americans weren’t fighting with one another for once. We connected as people, and used our connection as people to do something, however small, for the greater good, exactly the story we want to tell about ourselves as Rhode Islanders, as Americans, and as one people.”
KICKER: With Classical alum Jeremy Peña, 25, leading Houston into the World Series, it’s hard not to root for the Astros in their clash with the Phillies. “Jeremy is exactly what you see,” Classical athletic director Bobby Palazzo told Mike Szostak of The Public’s Radio. “He’s a great young man. Well brought up”
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com