Talking Politics

R.I.’s race for Congress is getting national attention

By Ian Donnis
Posted 10/25/22

STORY OF THE WEEK: What’s more surprising – that CD2 Democrat Jim Langevin said nice things about Republican Allan Fung when Langevin endorsed a fellow Dem during the primary, or that …

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Talking Politics

R.I.’s race for Congress is getting national attention

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: What’s more surprising – that CD2 Democrat Jim Langevin said nice things about Republican Allan Fung when Langevin endorsed a fellow Dem during the primary, or that Langevin is taking offense now that Fung’s GOP allies are using Langevin’s words to try to inoculate Fung against the brand of congressional Republicans?

In a statement last week, Langevin responded to a Congressional Leadership Fund mailer quoting his assessment of Fung by accusing the CLF of trying to fool Rhode Islanders: “Let me be crystal clear – nice people do not support slashing hard-earned Social Security and Medicare benefits for Rhode Island seniors … Nice people do not carry water for the NRA, but Allan Fung has proudly earned an ‘A’ rating from the NRA three times. And most importantly, nice people certainly do not pave the way for Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy to bring their radical MAGA agenda to Congress, which is exactly what Allan Fung has said he’ll vote to do.”

The NRCC, the fundraising arm for Congressional Republicans, responded with a statement with the subject line “Langevin’s panic play.” And NRCC spokeswoman Sandra Bullock noted how the source for the congressman’s bluster came from his own mouth: “It doesn’t get more disingenuous than Jim Langevin trying to walk back comments he made just weeks ago because they helped make the case that Allan Fung is a great candidate and Seth Magaziner is angry he’s losing.” With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, the race is seen as a toss-up by some, while Fung has held a small lead in a trio of polls. The state Democratic Party’s concern was evident in a statement calling for Democrats to unite behind Magaziner.

The candidates went head-to-head in public events this week, a forum sponsored by The Public’s Radio and the ProJo at URI, and a debate presented by WPRI-TV at PPAC. After months of campaigning, Fung and Magaziner are at the top of their game, offering crisper, more closely focused arguments than their counterparts in the race for governor. Magaziner warned against contributing to a potential GOP majority in the U.S. House, noting how would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California is among more than 130 representatives who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election.

Fung described himself as a moderating influence and he criticized Democrats on their response to the economy. While the two skirmishes may not have changed the minds of many voters, they offered an opportunity to compare the duo on a range of issues and compete for those who are still undecided. The hard-fought battle in CD2 will continued over the weekend, when U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh campaigned with Magaziner and other Democrats, including during a rally at Roger Williams Park Carousel. After an earlier visit by Chris Christie, Fung seems certain to bring in more GOP surrogates as the race moves closer to Election Day.

HOUSING CRUNCH: “[M]any neighborhood activists harbor a kind of free-floating anxiety about how development pressure and unnecessarily rapid change could remake a number of Providence neighborhoods.” Think that headline was ripped from news this week? It’s actually from a Providence Phoenix story in 2005. The piece was motivated in part by plans for a 32-story condo tower with units going from $500,000 to $2.5 million.

As it happened, the tower never materialized, but more housing marketed to upper-income residents did get built over time. To bring things into the present, eye-popping prices made public this week for units in the ‘Superman Building’ – from $1,384 at the low end of “affordable” units to a top of $5,287 for a 3BR – did nothing to diminish concerns that the project will exacerbate Rhode Island’s housing crisis.

While the crisis has persisted for years – and efforts to address it have been a long time coming – the run-up of costs means that home ownership, or even an affordable rental, is out of reach for a lot more people. Superman supporters say there’s merit in revitalizing the long-dormant structure, bringing fresh activity to downtown, and that Rhode Island needs more housing at different price points.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Rep. Brianna Henries (D-East Providence), who was among the Rhode Island Political Cooperative-backed candidates who won seats in 2020, has hired Alex Kithes, the progressive firebrand from Woonsocket, as her campaign manager. Kithes lost a primary race to Glenn Dusablon for the seat being vacated by Rep. Steven Lima.

With Henries facing a challenge from independent Antonio Desimas, Kithes now faces the task of helping to preserve the RCP presence in the legislature, after the group’s aspirations of staging a takeover of state government fizzled during the primary.

“Brianna is a really inspiring candidate that's done a lot of good work in her first term,” Kithes said via email. “We’ve been friends for a few years, and when I found out she needed a CM, I was happy to sign on. We're feeling good about the race. She's very well-liked, and folks in the community appreciate how hard she's advocated for working people, strong public schools, quality affordable housing, and environmental justice. And her district is very much on the Democratic side. We're just working on getting out the vote leading up to the election in November!”

JAILHOUSE SUICIDE: Thomas Hodgson, the long-serving sheriff of Bristol County, Mass., rarely rejects an interview request. But he declined to speak with my colleague Ben Berke for a story on how an undisclosed suicide attempt at the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford exposes strain on the mental health system in Bristol County’s jails. Hodgson has said problems reflect the makeup of the county – a view disputed by public health statistics.

OLD VOTE/YOUNG VOTE: Different versions of the generic ballot suggest different outcomes when it comes to the control of the U.S. House of Representatives, although questions are surfacing about whether Democrats peaked too early. The consensus is that Dems need a big turnout by young voters to increase their prospects. At the other end of the age spectrum, AARP Rhode Island shared this reminder about the most reliable group of voters: “Voters age 50 and up accounted for more than 70% of Rhode Island voters in the Sept. 13 primary election, according to an AARP Rhode Island analysis of voter records from the Office of the Rhode Island Secretary of State.

“In this year’s primary 72% of voters statewide were 50 years old or older. This held true in analysis of the Congressional District 2 voters, where 72% of CD2 primary voters also were 50 or older. Municipal percentages ranged from 59% (Providence) to 87% (Narragansett). This year’s 50+ numbers increased over the last midterm election in 2018, when Rhode Islanders age 50 and over accounted for 67% of those who voted. ‘Voters 50+ consistently show up at the polls in much greater numbers than their younger counterparts – and then some,’ said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. ‘This extremely powerful voting bloc has made it clear that key issues such as protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, improving nursing home safety, achieving retirement security and providing means for people to live in their own homes with independence and dignity as long as possible are powerful motivators when they vote.’ ”

TAKE OF THE WEEK: Every week, TGIF offers takes from the extended RI political community …

Rep. Brian Newberry: “I’ve always joked that my district may not reflect Rhode Island, but it does reflect America, having voted for Obama twice by the same margins as the nation and then voting for Trump twice, less so in 2020 than in 2016. I mention this because as I speak to voters this campaign season the vast majority bring up topics that you would think would be foremost in people’s minds:  Inflation, the economy, energy costs, disgust at what is going on in DC, etc.

“I never discount any one person’s individual passion or concern, but almost no one is talking about what Democrats are running on. More pro-life people have brought up abortion, for example, than pro-choice people but few raise the issue at all. January 6 is another topic that almost no one brings up. Not one person in favor of gun control has brought it up. I sometimes wonder what I’m missing here, because an entire political party, the Democrats, top to bottom is talking about things that, I dunno, maybe 5% of my district thinks are of first rank importance.

“It’s like gross political malpractice is being committed in front of the whole world – or maybe the Democrats have been such failures over the last two years they really have nothing else to run on. I guess we will know soon.” 

Sen. Tiara Mack: “The Superman Building hearing was held in Providence City Hall this week to approve a 30-year TSA – a move that will cause future financial strain on the city. The rates for the 20% deed-restricted ‘affordable housing units’ displayed just how out of touch and misinformed leaders are at every level in our state, using state and federal dollars to address the housing crisis.

“At this hearing, there were many representatives of the building trades and they showed support for this $223 million project that will create 1,600 jobs in their industry. But they seemed hostile to anyone against this project. Anyone should be concerned about the numbers for this project. It does not address our current housing crisis or proposed ‘mission’ to increase affordable units and it uses monies earmarked for creating truly affordable housing for units that are out of the price range of the majority of people needing housing in Rhode Island.

“The idea that critiquing a project that clearly misses the mark on addressing top issues in our state is anti-union or at odds with building trades is a misstep. I want more quality jobs for our working class, but not at the expense of addressing the housing crisis. Massive investments in housing are clearly possible in our state, but our resources are being funneled into projects that won’t have a sizable impact in relation to the scale of our current housing crisis.”

Pablo Rodriguez: “Now that the Hispanic Heritage Month is over, there has been increasing talk about the impact of Latinos in the upcoming elections. Is it Latinos or Latinx? The confusion seems to be among non-Latinos/xs since a survey by Bendixen & Amandi showed that only 2% of Latinos self-identify as Latinx, and a full 40% feel offended by the term. The poll also showed that 30% of Hispanics voters overall (24% Democrats and 43% of Republicans) are less likely to support a politician or political organization that used Latinx. The gender-neutral term is popular with academics, progressives and younger people, but not by the majority of those who will vote in November, nor by leading Latino organizations like LULAC, the largest and oldest Hispanic membership organization.

“The Royal Academy of Spanish Language has its hair on fire because of the unacceptable use of the term in Spanish, which is a fully gendered language. These are confusing times when it comes to pronoun preferences but for Latinos, the choice is clear. Call me by my name or ethnicity, if you want my support.” 

Sen. Jessica de la Cruz: “The stonewalling by Governor McKee on the release of the RICAS scores is perplexing. We all know the scores will not be good, but we must see where our children are underperforming.  Governor McKee should understand this better than anyone since, although he refuses to admit it, he was once an advocate of public school choice in the form of public charter schools.  Sunshine and transparency should never be a political issue, especially when it comes to understanding and analyzing student performance.”

Rich Luchette: “Hey Folks, long time, no talk. It’s been a little over a year since I hung up my flak jacket, stopped writing tweets, and forgot how to pronounce ‘Pawtucket.’ I’d love to catch up, but I have to audition for Jeopardy! (true story), so I’ll keep this take short and sweet. If Rhode Island sends Allan Fung to Congress, it will be the biggest mistake since letting Rick Pitino leave PC for the New York Knicks. Fung's personal politics don’t matter – the only thing that matters is the R next to his name and the fact that he would be a vote for the MAGA Republican agenda.”

EDUCATION: Michael DiBiase, president/CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council – which last week released a new report about the state crisis in public education – sees an ongoing need for more urgency on the issue.

“I haven't seen the signs of it yet,” DiBiase told me during an interview this week on Political Roundtable. “But I am optimistic that with this report — and we're going to take this on the road and try to get stakeholders to move this up their priority ladder — we think that this is doable. One of the things that the report does is for the first time — we don't think it's ever been done before — it tracks what we've done in education reform since the 1980s. And it shows that we've actually done some good things, lasting things that have improved the system. There's other things that we haven't stayed with. And there's other things that we just haven't had support for that would have been more helpful.”

LIFE SCIENCES: Like improving public schools, building a stronger biotech-life sciences sector has been the subject of a lot of talk in Rhode Island for a long time. Now, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is putting some support behind a plan to create a quasi-public state agency (price tag: $50 million for the first two years) to propel the effort. In related news, Brown is moving ahead with plans for a life sciences building in the Jewelry District, and Gov. Dan McKee and other state officials took part in a groundbreaking for the new state lab in the I-195 District.

COOL MOOSE: A new biography of the late Robert “Cool Moose” Healey – the man who Charlie Bakst said was a haircut and a shave away from the governor’s office – has been written by Lawrence W. Verria, chair of the social studies department at North Kingstown High School. Verria contends that Healey, next to Buddy Cianci, was the best-known RI pol of recent history. While others also come to mind, there’s no doubt that Healey was a memorable figure who injected lots of humor into politics – and helped Gina Raimondo win her first run for governor by nabbing about 21% of the vote while barely spending any money in 2014.

According to a news release about the book, “From 1982 to 2016, Healey’s unconventional appearance, head-turning campaigns, and candid informative commentary drew inquiring looks, incited spontaneous laughter, and ultimately caused political and personal reflection. Though he lost almost every political contest he entered, he drew wide attention and conveyed a core message that resonated with parties across the political spectrum. Robert Healey made people think -- and challenged them to act.”

KICKER: a new state e-bike rebate program was named this week in a fitting tribute to honor our late friend Erika Niedowski, the former AP reporter and environmental advocate, who died from an illness in 2020. As Gov. McKee said in a statement. “Erika was an inspiration to all who knew her. She was brilliant, talented, thoughtful, and her commitment to promoting clean energy solutions will positively impact Rhode Island for generations to come. We are honored to be able to name this new program in her memory/ Electric bikes have become a popular way for Rhode Islanders to commute to work, travel across town or enjoy our state’s beautiful bike paths. Every bicycle on the road takes us another step toward reducing our carbon emissions and increasing our air quality.” 

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

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.