STORY OF THE WEEK: Every now and then, the tectonic plates of Rhode Island politics shift, as campaign season fades and a fresh batch of leaders takes on new roles. We’re seeing that to some …
STORY OF THE WEEK: Every now and then, the tectonic plates of Rhode Island politics shift, as campaign season fades and a fresh batch of leaders takes on new roles. We’re seeing that to some degree heading into 2023, with Gov. Dan McKee having won a term in his own right, Seth Magaziner landing the job as the new congressman in CD2, Sen. Ryan Pearson moving up as RI Senate majority leader, Brett Smiley getting set to be mayor of Providence, Gregg Amore and James Diossa signing on, respectively, as secretary of state and general treasurer, and Xaykham “Xay” Khamsyvoravong ascending as mayor of Newport.
Some of these folks have been on the scene for a long time – ranging from McKee as the former mayor of Cumberland to Khamsyvoravong as a precocious campaign manager for Frank Caprio in 2006. The approach of a new year nonetheless brings the prospect of potential renewal and opportunity. It also raises the question of whether Rhode Island’s leadership can make more progress than their predecessors on the state’s thorniest issues – the related challenges of sparking broader economic growth and improving under-performing public schools.
The good news is how the state, amid national uncertainty on the economy, is heading into 2023 with a $610 million projected budget surplus. But if Rhode Island’s top challenges were easy to address, more progress would have been made by now.
After the holiday lull, the calendar will turn to January, and the current leadership class will face the task of moving the ball forward during an era of declining confidence in government.
MEGABUCKS: The big surplus gives Gov. McKee a lot of latitude for his next budget release in January. Here are initial reactions, via statement, to the windfall. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi: “I am proud of our record of thoughtful, long term strategies for improving the lives of all Rhode Islanders and remain mindful of the need to address current economic realities with a close eye on the looming recession.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio: “The report of a significant surplus for the current budget year is welcome, and I am encouraged that the downturn that had been forecast has been slower to take hold than anticipated. Nevertheless, out-year growth is modest, inflation is a major concern, and economic advisors caution that a recession remains likely. As we did with our federal stimulus funding and prior surpluses, I believe that one-time investments in areas such as infrastructure, addressing learning loss, mental health and human capital, and other urgent needs should be our priority for surplus revenues.”
BUDDING PROSPECTS: While the merger between Lifespan and Care New England was flatly rejected by Attorney General Peter Neronha earlier this year, RI’s two biggest hospital groups have found other ways to pursue increased collaboration with each other and Brown University. This week, the three entities announced the signing of an agreement to align their research operations.
Under the agreement, according to a joint statement, “the health systems agreed to align their research operations with Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine, which includes the Warren Alpert Medical School, and the Brown University School of Public Health, in a unified enterprise that will leverage the distinctive strengths of each institution. The agreement will help Brown, Lifespan and Care New England compete for larger funding opportunities by combining strengths in state-of-the-art research infrastructure, core facilities and specialized equipment. And that cooperative strength will provide new opportunities for clinical trials, allowing Rhode Islanders more access to cutting-edge therapies locally.”
This is the latest example of how Brown has steadily ramped up its commitment to research under President Christina Paxson.
In related news, Christian Cowan has been appointed as the first full-time executive director of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation. (In other Lifespan news, John Fernandez was announced as its new president/CEO, starting in early 2023. He is currently president of Mass Eye and Ear and Mass General Brigham Integrated Care in Boston.)
STATE OF THE NATION: Developer Jerry Zarrella, who co-chaired Trump’s RI campaign in 2020, announced this week that he’s leaving the RI GOP to become an independent – a measure of the fatigue surrounding former President Donald Trump. Zarella shared the news in an email to state GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki: “After a few days of thinking over my political support and ambitions and after 50 years of being in politics and making friends on both the Democratic and Republican sides and working hard to get the candidates I have supported elected, I find the current state of local and national politics to be in total disarray. The Democratic Party is way too left and the Republican Party is going way too right … I would like to consider myself old school who is forced to accept the new way of doing things. Way back when, when we ran and lost, we did not blame it on anybody … My thought process is you make your political enemies your friends, but it seems today people are making their political friends their enemies … It was a pleasure to host both President Clinton and President Trump in Rhode Island. Those memories will always be with me.”
THAT’S AMORE: Secretary of State-elect Gregg Amore’s priorities include getting a non-voting member from his staff on the Board of Elections – a move, he said, that could help prevent some of the voting machine snafus evident this fall – and advocating for a new home for the state archives. Amore likes the idea of a state museum, possibly at the site of the parking lot next to Veteran’s Auditorium, and said voters could potentially get the chance to decide funding for this through a ballot question in 2024.
He favors moving Rhode Island’s primary to June, and the East Providence Democrat said he supports decentralizing voting – allowing voters to cast their ballots in communities other than the one in which they reside.
As to how tens of millions voted for election deniers in midterm elections, Amore said during a wide-ranging interview on Political Roundtable, “I think we have challenges because of the way our populace gets information. It's disturbing to me. But I also believe that, you know, what we saw after this election with most of those candidates that were defeated, is they conceded. And that's significant because a lot of the denialism is based on the fact that folks believed in President Trump, they have followed his lead. He is … the United States former President, and the misinformation was coming from the highest levels. And that's going to have an impact. And I hope that over time … we start to move away from that.”
TAKE OF THE WEEK: Various views from Rhode Islanders.
Blogfather, lawyer and soccer enthusiast Matt Jerzyk: “Many people accustomed to seeing Patriots jerseys and Sox-Yankees rivalries would be surprised to learn that the Providence metro area has consistently been at the top of the list nationally for watching soccer. That is one of the cited reasons for the Pawtucket soccer ownership team – led by Brett Johnson and Cranston native and former U.S. star Michael Parkhurst – starting a second-tier professional soccer team in Rhode Island. That new team, kicking off in early 2024, revealed their name and logo this week: Rhode Island FC (https://www.rhodeislandfc.com/. They will play in a brand new 10,000-seat stadium on the western bank of the Blackstone River across from Festival Pier and right off I-195, and in close proximity to the new Pawtucket-Central Falls train station. RIFC built quick momentum announcing Brett Luy, an experienced USL soccer executive, as club president, and selling nearly 2,500 season tickets in the first few days.
“These same world football fans are giddy with excitement with the World Cup kicking off Sunday and lasting for the next month. The USA will be in the tournament for the first time in eight years, and played Wales on Monday, England on Black Friday, and Iran the following Tuesday. Locals can join the Providence branch of American Outlaws at the Brass Monkey, a watering hole for all things soccer. Other watch parties will be at the Black Sheep in downtown Providence, and the Guild in Pawtucket.
Notably, the selection of Qatar (https://sports.yahoo.com/welcome-to-qatar-the-most-controversial-world-cup-host-ever-200014327.html), allegations of corruption, and the following 12 years of stadium construction and worker deaths have clouded this unusually timed World Cup. But Rhode Island fans with ancestry from Portugal, Mexico, Germany, Ghana, Poland and France, will enjoy the beautiful game and root on their teams. I am all in on the young USA squad, especially our goalkeeper Matt Turner, who developed locally at the New England Revolution! ¡Viva el juego bonito!\”
RI Senate GOP Leader Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield: “The 2022 elections are now in the rearview mirror. I’ve listened to and read local media call the elections a ‘blowout’ or ‘shellacking’ for RI Republicans. I disagree with that assessment. Although Republicans were not able to capture any statewide seats, we were able to maintain the same number of Republicans in the Senate – including a Warwick seat we haven’t held for at least 30 years – and nine of 10 representatives in the House.
“Although it was disappointing that Republicans were unsuccessful in increasing our numbers in the General Assembly, we are already looking toward the 2024 elections. Nothing is forever in politics, and history teaches that the excesses on one side will eventually be reversed by a swing in the other direction. Aside from the excesses of the RI Democrat Party, we are encouraged by the quality of the Republican candidates who ran this cycle. Several candidates have already committed to running again in 2024.
“History also has taught us that many successful candidates ran several times before they were ultimately elected. President Ronald Regan, who won RI in 1984, said it best: ‘Progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress. … I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”
State Rep. David Morales (D-Providence): “Traditionally, when the General Assembly passes legislation to raise the minimum wage, any further discussion about raising the state minimum wage is tabled for a few years. In 2021, we passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. With that said, debate and serious discussions to raise the minimum wage should NOT wait until 2025. The Economic Progress Institute this week released its annual RI Standard of Need Report, which highlighted the following: RI’s current minimum wage is not enough to support the basic expenses of individual adults or families; RI is trailing our neighboring states in terms of increasing wages; and had the federal minimum wage kept up with worker productivity over the last 50 years, wages would be $23 per hour.
“In between these findings and the increasing cost of living, it is imperative that our state legislature prioritize increasing the state minimum wage and phasing out the tipped minimum wage this upcoming session.”
RI House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale of Foster: “Now that it is clear the U.S. House will be led by a Republican majority, it is time for the divisive tactics of the past six years to stop. Let’s drop the partisan pretexts that have been so destructive to the soul of our nation. It’s time everyone worked for the betterment of all – not just ‘their side’ or fringe special interests. The choice is simple: carry on in dangerous division or step up and work collaboratively, despite our differences.”
State Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence): “Recently Mayors Taveras, Elorza, and Paolino wrote a letter to incoming Mayor Smiley pushing for what they claim is a ‘bold’ approach to education reform in our city: switching to ‘all public charters.’ This is a reckless claim that counters the ideals that are foundational to our country – free public education for all.
“While public charters do operate with public dollars, they have often led to a decrease in investment for our traditional public schools, where a majority of our students still attend. Our solution for getting our schools back on track and delivering the promise of quality, free public education to families in our state should be better and more consistent funding.
“Our school buildings have been neglected for generations. Now, thanks to ARPA funds and newly passed bond measures, we have allocated millions to address some of the structural needs of schools across the state.
“Our school funding formula needs updating, and the state budget passed annually by the House and signed by the governor needs to be held accountable for intentionally building support for recruiting high-quality teachers, improving access to 21st-century tools and resources, and increasing opportunities for all students to engage in real-world learning and enrichment.”
MEDIA NOTES: Cheryl Hatch, who I’ve known since we were both fellows years ago in a program at the Arizona Republic, is signing on as the Newport reporter for The Public’s Radio. Cheryl is wonderful, and her wide-ranging resume includes work for Time and the NYT, so she’ll be an excellent addition to the team. … Congrats to Peter Kadzis as he steps back from full-time work as politics editor at WGBH in Boston. Peter for years was editor of the Boston Phoenix; I’ll be forever grateful for his support in hiring me as news editor of the Providence Phoenix back in 1999. (As fate had it, I started two weeks before the FBI raided City Hall in the Plunder Dome probe.) Peter is a polymath with a sweeping knowledge of politics and literature; it was difficult to move in his Phoenix office on Brookline Avenue due to the stacks of books crowding out available space. … Gannett, which owns the ProJo as well as papers in Newport, Fall River, New Bedford and Worcester, has indicated more layoffs are coming. … The Boston Globe has named Nancy Barnes, the leading news exec at NPR, as its first female top editor.
NEW BEDFORD: My colleague Ben Berke has a knack for digging out interesting stories, and a political battle over the future of New Bedford’s waterfront is no exception. As Ben reports: “The pier offers a convenient location for offshore wind contractors seeking space on an industrial waterfront near the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind farms. But the pier is also coveted by other industries because of its location at the intersection of a waterfront highway and Union Street, a cobblestoned gateway to downtown New Bedford and its growing restaurant and nightlife scene. On summer weekends, thousands of passengers visit the pier to ride the ferries to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cuttyhunk. The ferries dock next to police boats, colossal cargo ships bearing fruit from overseas and fishing vessels from the East Coast’s largest commercial fishing fleet. Still, much of the pier remains a patchwork of empty parking lots.”
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com