Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Oct. 11

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column here on WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Mark your calendars: WPRI 12 and The Providence Journal will release a new exclusive Campaign 2014 poll next week. We asked Rhode Island voters whom they’re supporting for all five statewide offices on the ballot next month: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and general treasurer. We’ll release the first results live on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com Tuesday at 5 p.m. Tune in!

2. Things got pretty chippy pretty fast on Friday when Democratic incumbent Peter Kilmartin and Republican challenger Dawson Hodgson met up on Newsmakers for their first TV debate in the race for attorney general. Hodgson was aggressive from start to finish, questioning Kilmartin’s handling of everything from 38 Studios and Deepwater Wind to the “thrill killer,” and trying to get under the AG’s skin by turning responses into direct exchanges (“Peter, you should have,” etc.) Attack dog isn’t always a natural fit for the somewhat soft-spoken Hodgson, but he clearly wanted to use the opportunity to throw as much as he could at the incumbent and see what sticks. Kilmartin, though, came prepared for the onslaught and kept his cool, rattling off lists of first-term accomplishments and pledging to continue on a steady course if he wins again. He also came armed with some attack lines of his own, seeking to link Hodgson with the National Rifle Association and the unpopular General Assembly (of which, ironically, Kilmartin was a member before he took office). Kilmartin and Hodgson both have the money to compete, and next week’s poll results will indicate whether Hodgson stands a chance in heavily Democratic Rhode Island. The AG’s team remain confident he can fend off his challenger, but as the only incumbent on the ballot for any of the state’s five general offices, Kilmartin faces the most risk if voters are in a “throw the bums out” mood.

3. President Obama will visit Rhode Island on Thursday to talk about the economy, a White House spokesman tells Tim White. The president has been mostly on the sidelines of this year’s midterm campaign thanks to his poor approval ratings, but Rhode Island likely remains about as safe a place as he could visit in these difficult days.

4. Two days after Gina Raimondo won the Democratic primary for governor, a Washington Post columnist declared that she “will now almost certainly defeat her Republican opponent in November.” Local observers, however, assumed the outcome of her race against Allan Fung wasn’t quite such a foregone conclusion – and so far that looks to be correct. The latest round of New York Times/CBS News/YouGov polling shows Raimondo at 41% and Fung close behind at 38%, mirroring last month’s Rasmussen survey. As John Robitaille mentioned recently, citing his own experience in 2010, the Republican Governors Association keeps close tabs on the polling in a race before deciding whether to invest cash – and though the competition for those dollars is fierce nationwide, the RGA is far more likely to help Fung if he keeps things tight. RGA Chairman Chris Christie did his best to keep that possibility looking alive while he was in Johnston on Friday, telling reporters: “This is my first visit – I’m going to have more visits to Rhode Island between now and Election Day.”

5. The silver lining for Gina Raimondo in Chris Christie’s visit was the sharp display of on-message unity it elicited from her allies in the Democratic Party, who linked the fiscal problems New Jersey has faced under Christie’s administration to Allan Fung’s opposition to paying the 38 Studios bonds and his failure to make full contributions to Cranston’s pension fund. Privately, they also suggested a disconnect between Fung attacking Raimondo for being close to the banking sector and investing in hedge funds while he simultaneously campaigns with Christie, a Wall Street favorite, and Mitt Romney, a famed financier. Fortune’s Dan Primack, thinking along the same lines, tweeted: “Bizarre that @MayorFung is attacking @GinaRaimondo for pension deals w/ hedge funds. At same time, he’s campaigning with @GovChristie.” (He was alluding to this Jersey controversy.) Such are the strange politics of Rhode Island this year: a Democrat emphasizes fiscal prudence and faces opposition from public-sector unions, while a Republican emphasizes distrust of the financial sector and opposes a key Chamber of Commerce priority.

6. One Democratic group that wasn’t quite on message: the Democratic Governors Association, which made a McLaughlin-esque reference to “Studio 38” in its Christie/Fung press release.

7. The race for lieutenant governor remains, perhaps fittingly for the office, rather quiet. Catherine Taylor continues to rack up a large number of union endorsements for a Republican candidate, this week adding AFSCME Council 94 and the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers to the list. Meanwhile, Democrat Dan McKee has been tweeting about grabbing #39CupsofCoffee, one in each municipality, to highlight his focus on small businesses. Taylor has a three-to-one financial advantage over McKee at this point, but the unknown in the race is whether a lot of outside money will come in to support him again as happened in the Democratic primary.

8. Few Rhode Island politicians have seen a more striking shift in circumstances this year than Nellie Gorbea, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. Down by double-digits in our August WPRI 12/Journal poll and outspent roughly 3-to-1, Gorbea’s victory Sept. 9 was the most surprising of the night. A month later Gorbea finds herself as the overwhelming favorite to win the job, with an extraordinary 495-to-1 financial advantage over little-known Republican John Carlevale. In theory Carlevale seems to have an opportunity – there is a clear distinction between him and Gorbea on voter ID, an issue the average citizen can understand. But with so many competitive campaigns this year and so little cash, it’s going to be hard for him to break through.

9. The race for general treasurer bears watching. Independent Ernie Almonte made a bet that he couldn’t win a Democratic primary but could pull of a November victory against the eventual nominee; now he’s testing that hypothesis against Seth Magaziner. Like Carlevale, Almonte faces a disadvantage in trying to get Democratic-leading Rhode Island voters to look past party labels during a very busy year; unlike Carlevale, Almonte has the money to make people notice him, and he’s been using it with a blitz of television advertising. Magaziner has clearly been devoting a lot of energy to replenishing his campaign war chest, pulling in more than $100,000 over the last month, though Almonte is trying to make that an issue in the race by asking where Magaziner got the $550,000 he plowed into his campaign last month. (Perhaps Almonte should call for more robust financial disclosures in Rhode Island, a la those filed by members of Congress.)

10. Keep an eye on the U.S. House race in Massachusetts’ 9th Congressional District, which covers the easternmost part of the state, including New Bedford, Cape Cod and the Islands. Republican John Chapman had a 5-point lead over Democratic incumbent Bill Keating in a new WGBH/Emerson poll out this week, which came fast on the heels of a Boston Globe story noting rising interest in the race among politicos. Another headache for the DCCC (and the Massachusetts Democratic Party).

11. “Paradoxically, the best way to win in politics may be to tell everyone you are on the verge of losing,” argues Brendan Nyhan.

12. “Caps on money probably hurt challengers in both parties more than they hurt either individual party,” argues Lynn Vavreck. “A large amount of money in campaigns, often deplored, may actually hurt incumbents by helping challengers compete effectively.”

13. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “This weekend marks a key milepost in the race for Providence mayor: the Columbus Day weekend festival on Federal Hill, where for the first time since 1994 city voters will still have a real decision to make about who should lead the capital city. As RIPR’s Scott MacKay accurately points out, we’re again looking at an ‘old Providence versus new Providence’ narrative, only this time the old Providence is represented by the most polarizing politician in Rhode Island – as opposed to a little-known member of the City Council – and the new Providence is represented by a newcomer who is only just now beginning to build momentum as a candidate. That’s the reason Democrat Jorge Elorza says he represents ‘honest leadership for a new direction’ several dozen times each day, a phrase that is usually followed by criticism of his 73-year-old opponent, independent Buddy Cianci. For his part, Cianci isn’t shying away from the ‘old Providence’ tag either, although his telling of city history generally omits the two felony convictions that ended each of his previous tenures in City Hall. Cianci is out with a new commercial that depicts Elorza as tied to the same leaders who have been responsible for some of the city’s financial woes over the last 12 years. The unanswered question for Cianci is whether enough Providence voters – not just the legions of Cianci sycophants who support him but live outside the city – believe his version of history. The growing consensus among City Hall observers is that turnout will be a key indicator; if the election sees closer to 40,000 voters than, say, 32,000, that could mean Cianci has convinced enough drop-off voters to show up at the polls in a non-presidential election to pull off the win. If turnout is lower, though, it’s widely believed that Elorza will have enough loyal Democratic support to win the race. This weekend will add another chapter to the story: old Federal Hill was once Cianci country, but Elorza won the neighborhood in the primary. Expect plenty of ‘take back the city’ talk from Cianci supporters and ‘honest leadership matters’ rhetoric from Team Elorza.”

14. How much will money matter in the mayoral race? The knock on Jorge Elorza has long been that he doesn’t have enough cash to compete with Buddy Cianci; it’s often pointed out that Elorza has never aired a TV ad, while Cianci has been on the air for weeks. To the extent campaign cash will be a major factor in the race, Elorza remains at a disadvantage: Cianci had nearly twice as much money on hand as of Monday, $302,000 to $160,000, and that’s after Cianci already bought significant TV and radio time. The Elorza campaign acknowledges the gap and maintains that the Democrat is working hard to raise the money he’ll need to win. But Elorza spokesman David Ortiz argues that something much harder to quantify – the ground game – is just as important and will make a big difference for his candidate. “The Elorza campaign has been steadily growing its field operation,” he told me. “This weekend we’ve got more than a half-dozen canvasses touching every corner of the city.” Elorza himself will be out campaigning over the weekend on the South Side, which he lost to Michael Solomon in the primary, alongside Sabina Matos. Cianci, of course, is seeking to counter that using the networks of loyalists that his own supporters have throughout the city.

15. An interesting read from The Boston Globe’s archive – why Charlie Baker pulled Harvard Pilgrim Health Care out of Rhode Island in 1999.

16. Moody’s offered a solid summation of the state’s economic woes in a new analysis out Monday: “Rhode Island’s small and narrow economy has generally underperformed the nation as well as its New England neighbors for decades, as its manufacturing base eroded and the state has struggled to generate substitute sources for economic growth.” Another interesting tidbit from Moody’s, which was mostly upbeat about the Chafee administration’s financial management practices: Nevada is the only state that gets a bigger chunk of its revenue from gambling than Rhode Island does.

17. Brown University’s Marc Dunkelman and I had a great conversation on this week’s “Executive Suite” about his new book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” Dunkelman argues the huge changes in American life in recent decades, particularly the rise of digital communications, has changed who we interact with in ways that are rewiring the nation. It’s a really interesting argument. Check out our interview here.

18. Read Arlene Violet on Gina Raimondo, Bishop Tobin and La Salle Academy.

19. The news that the Providence Phoenix will shut its doors next week came as a very sad surprise. While the Boston Phoenix closed last year and money was obviously tight, the idea of a Providence without its alt-weekly is still hard to accept. I started reading the Phoenix when I moved to Providence in 2007 and learned a lot about the way the city really works from its pages and its archives; RIPR’s Ian Donnis was a must-read for me long before I got to know him as a friend and mentor, and his successors Dave Scharfenberg and Phil Eil have both done a terrific job continuing to write stories you just wouldn’t find anywhere else, on topics from the future of the Projo to the mysterious ways of Alex + Ani. Don’t kid yourself: the loss of the Phoenix, coming soon after the umpteenth round of Journal layoffs, is yet another blow to the state’s beleaguered press corps. There are undoubtedly fewer reporters working in Rhode Island today than there were a decade ago. There probably isn’t less corruption and incompetence, though – there are just fewer of us left to dig it up.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – an hourlong debate for attorney general between Peter Kilmartin and Dawson Hodgson. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Brown University’s Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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