Talking Politics

Five-way governor’s race took a curious turn last week

By Ian Donnis
Posted 8/29/22

STORY OF THE WEEK: With less than three weeks until Rhode Island’s Sept. 13 primary, the five-way Democratic race for governor took a curious turn. Nellie Gorbea’s campaign aired an ad …

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Talking Politics

Five-way governor’s race took a curious turn last week

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: With less than three weeks until Rhode Island’s Sept. 13 primary, the five-way Democratic race for governor took a curious turn. Nellie Gorbea’s campaign aired an ad meant to spotlight unflattering headlines about the ILO Group educational consulting contract controversy that has cast a bit of a shadow on Gov. Dan McKee. Problem was, the ad leaned on an article (about an entirely different subject) written for the conservative National Review by Mike Stenhouse of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity.

The backlash was swift. Considering Stenhouse’s rightist political profile, former National Education Association Rhode Island executive director Robert A. Walsh Jr. tweeted, “For @NellieGorbea to quote him in her negative campaign ad is indefensible. Say it isn’t so, Nellie, say it isn’t so.”

Gorbea’s campaign scrambled to edit the ad and said the intent all along was to highlight the ILO Group issue. Given months of news stories on this topic, an eventual attack ad was easily anticipated. Yet Gorbea’s stepping on her own message was a gift for Team McKee, which didn’t squander the opportunity.

“Nellie Gorbea’s decision to spread right wing propaganda in a Democratic primary shows how desperate her campaign is,” said McKee campaign spokeswoman Alana O’Hare in a statement. “It’s not surprising that the only people running negative ads now in this race are Republican Ashley Kalus and Nellie Gorbea.” McKee’s campaign faulted Gorbea for moving too slowly to replace the initial ad, and generated its own attack-rebuttal as a result.

The kerfuffle added to the perception that McKee (who has been neck and neck with Gorbea in a trio of public polls) has an edge as the Democratic primary races to the finish. Gorbea’s move to go on attack reinforces that view. Rival Democrat Helena Buonanno Foulkes avoided wading into the scrap and her campaign staged a few low-profile events through the week.

McKee, meanwhile, has had the clearest, most coherent advertising in the race for governor. While public speaking may not be McKee’s strong point, his focus on the issues and relatability has resonated with voters – including the heralded spot with Willa, his 94-year-old mom, and two issue-based spots in which he speaks directly to the camera on issues such as abortion and gun safety.

If McKee winds up winning the primary, it will reflect an accumulation of advantages, including incumbency, broad union support, and a well-timed campaign strategy. But polls have become increasingly unreliable in the iPhone age, and voters – like jurors – are not wholly predictable.

Sure, Gorbea’s unforced error on the campaign ad dominated RIPoli Twitter for the day – and her team probably wishes it could have a do-over. But tweetland is not real life, the ground game will be significant in the outcome of the election, and voters will have the ultimate say next month.

SHEKARCHI: The joint state-federal investigation into a mysterious May 2021 fire at the Warwick law office of House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains ongoing, and Shekarchi – who talked this week with the state Fire Marshal’s office – said on Political Roundtable he’s been asked by investigators to not discuss further details.

 

WEIRD YEAR: Count Speaker Shekarchi among the seasoned observers who think this has been an unusual campaign year, marked by questionable public interest and far fewer campaign events than usual: “I think there’s a lot of voter apathy … I attribute it to coming out of COVID. I think people have been focused in the house, watching TV, reading the newspaper, reading the media, and finally after two-plus years of near-hibernation, people got out. And this summer, they were not interested in listening to politicians.”

 

SHEKARCHI SHORT TAKES: The Warwick Democrat and I discussed a range of issues during Political Roundtable. Here are some highlights:

 

WHY GOV. McKEE HASN’T HIT 30% IN PUBLIC POLLS: “I don’t really know the specifics of his internal polling and what it’s showing … [being lieutenant governor] is a very low-profile office and it doesn’t really generate a lot of headlines. He’s only been the governor, the acting governor, for a year and a half.”

 

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE TRUST FUND: Ken Block used a thread this week to criticize state officials for allocating $100 million – rather than the full $270 million in obligations – for the UITF, leaving the balance on the backs of business. Shekarchi doesn’t dispute the numbers, but he defends the stance taken by state officials: “I think businesses are coming back stronger. They will slowly start to replenish that. But we wanted to make sure we had enough resources in there [in case an uptick in COVID requires more spending] … I wish we could have done more, but we had other priorities, and it was about balancing it. And I will point out that both RIHEBC [the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation] and the Manufacturers Association applauded the General Assembly for making that [$100 million] investment. That was the amount that both had requested.”

 

WHETHER ELECTED OFFICIALS SHOULD HAVE MORE SKIN IN THE GAME ON IMPROVING PUBLIC SCHOOLS: “ … I’ve always been a little bit cautious because there are so many outside factors that can go into the results … I feel quite frankly that the General Assembly has done its part and continues to do its part. We’re very much in tune with the voters. We go for elections every two years and I think there’s a certain accountability [in facing voters] …”

 

ABORTION: Shekarchi has previously said his membership did not support extending abortion coverage for women on Medicaid or who receive the state employee health plan. I asked him whether he should have pushed the issue forward anyway. You can listen for his full answer. He said, in part, that the result would have been the same because the Senate was on record as not backing a vote.

 

CUERVO GOLD: The Sept. 13 primary will decide Jorge Elorza’s successor as the mayor of Rhode Island’s capital city. Elorza last week offered his endorsement for Gonzalo Cuervo, one of three Democrats seeking the job.

Angel Taveras, who, like Elorza, was popular on his way out of City Hall, was also on hand at Dexter Park in the Armory District to back Cuervo. While all three candidates – Cuervo, Brett Smiley and Nirva LaFortune – have smarts and a blend of government and personal experience, Elorza cited Cuervo as the most well-rounded. The choice was all the more interesting since an endorsement from Smiley helped put Elorza over the top in the 2014 primary, in the face of the last attempted comeback by Buddy Cianci. 

https://thepublicsradio.org/article/cuervo-wins-endorsement-from-elorza-and-taveras

 

CHIP YOUNG: Long before Twitter and Ted Nesi came on the scene, Phillipe & Jorge’s Cool, Cool World was the influentially outsized local must-read, in Providence’s scrappy alt-weekly newspaper. Getting scorned or sent up by P&J was a rite of passage for a generation of Rhode Island politicians, who were bestowed with evocative nicknames – Ed “Gerber Baby” DiPrete, Joe “Prince of Darkness” DeAngelis, “Milkshake Matty” Smith, Sheldon “Sherbet Whitebread” Whitehouse, Bruce “Captain Blowhard” Sundlun, and so on.

Every week, for a long run stretching back to 1980 (first with the Providence Eagle), insiders and roustabouts would eagerly flip to the column in The Providence Phoenix; the only thing worse than getting a barb from Phillipe & Jorge was going unmentioned. Motif, which has published P&J in recent years, reports that Chip Young, aka Phillipe, died this week. (The other half of P&J, Jorge, aka Rudy Cheeks, aka Bruce McCrae, is very much still with us.)

I first met Chip during a brief stint at Prov AP in 1988, not half-suspecting I’d later edit him for many years at the Phoenix. He was a live wire, an ardent environmentalist, and someone quick to laugh or call out what he saw as hypocrisy. Chip came to the Biggest Little state from Connecticut, and was a standout soccer player at Bruno Uno (Brown University, in P&J-speak).

Chip’s bio at Brown University’s Athletics Hall of Fame reveals how he overcame a congenital heart defect (and had open heart surgery at age 9) to become an outstanding athlete (and a man about town as well as a RI celeb for years later): “Without the operation, ‘I would not have been able to even participate in gym class by my teens, and probably wouldn’t have lived past my twenties.’ ”

The world is a little less bright without Chip; may his memory be a blessing.

  

KICKER: With the Sox muddling through what Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy aptly calls a forgotten year, we can turn our attention elsewhere. One case in point is a new podcast based on Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Base’s Longest Game, former ProJo scribe Dan Barry’s classic bit of Rhode Island history.  

Ian can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon

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