Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Aug. 6

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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

1. Are too many Rhode Islanders too negative about Rhode Island? Or is the problem that Rhode Island leaders want to ignore what’s negative about Rhode Island? Democratic Party Chairman Joe McNamara and his GOP counterpart Brandon Bell tangled over the question on this weekend’s Lively Experiment, riffing off Bell’s high-profile RNC indictment of Democratic elected leaders. They both make a case: McNamara says it’s bad form and bad PR to badmouth your state out of town; Bell says Democrats want to focus on state pride to distract from Gordon Fox, Ray Gallison, John Carnevale and other scandals. To be sure, Rhode Island is hardly the only place where negativity runs high; as the FT’s Janan Ganesh once wrote, “Cynicism verging on nihilism is the closest thing modern Britain has to a national ideology.” And before you start flaming me on Twitter, don’t misunderstand: nobody should bury their heads in the sand about bad decisions, let alone corruption. It’s more a question of balance. Intensely negative feelings about Rhode Island sometimes seem rampant on social media; does that attitude blind people to the state’s strengths, or lead them to throw up their hands and withdraw? How do you balance honest skepticism with an appreciation for the positive? I don’t have the answer. Perhaps the media, with a default focus on bad news, bears some blame. But it’s a matter worth pondering some sunny August day when you’re sitting by a beautiful Rhode Island beach – one you probably arrived at after driving over a crumbling bridge.

2. Speaking of Brandon Bell, the GOP’s recent success in keeping the heat on legislative Democrats has some wondering whether he’ll seek a second two-year stint as the party’s unpaid chairman when his current term expires in March. For now, Bell tells me, he hasn’t made up his mind. “I’d say right now it’s 50/50,” he said. The pros: Bell is a happy warrior who clearly enjoys his work helping to build a stronger opposition party. The cons: it’s a huge time commitment that takes him away from his law practice and his family. “It goes back to organization,” he said. “If we had a good organization the chairman could be more of a ceremonial-type position. So I really would like to work for that and then maybe I would stick around.” Bell has plenty of time: a new chairman election won’t happen until next March.

3. News flash: Gina Raimondo is going to have a lot of money to spend when she seeks re-election in 2018. The governor brought in about $521,000 from April through June, the third-biggest fundraising quarter of her political career, which left her sitting on a $1.45 million war chest. Her expenses included $5,858 at White Elephant on Nantucket, where she attended the Democratic Governors Association’s summer fundraising retreat in late June, and $4,922 with David Ziff Cooking in Manhattan earlier that month. (She spent money in Rhode Island, too, from $3,443 with Blackstone Caterers to $32 at Gregg’s.) That growing pile of cash could give second thoughts to would-be Raimondo challengers, though without a strong approval rating to go with it, she’ll remain an appetizing target for ambitious pols. Some on the left remain as anti-Raimondo as ever: just look at the scorcher of a statement issued by the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats after the governor was named a DNC co-chair by Hillary Clinton. Their much-retweeted assault led others to come to Raimondo’s defense. “To say that Gina Raimondo is not progressive ignores the very meaning of the word,” Rep. Deb Ruggeiro argued in an email, describing her as “laser focused on moving Rhode Island forward and making progress on issues that are important to working families.” Veteran activist Kate Monteiro added that Raimondo has been “quite good on LGBTQ issues – particularly the transgender part.” Raimondo’s new team is trying to fashion an image for her as a progressive capitalist, a woman of the left who prioritizes economic growth. But in the era of Bernie Sanders, is that what Democrats want?

4. Even an indictment wasn’t enough to convince Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson to file his campaign finance reports on time.

5. Add Dawson Hodgson to the growing, bipartisan list of critics who say Attorney General Peter Kilmartin should reverse his decision to seal all the documents generated during the four-year 38 Studios criminal probe. Hodgson, a former prosecutor who’s kept a lower profile since losing to Kilmartin in 2014, joined me on this week’s Newsmakers to make his case. “There’s a huge amount of information that can be released in between his position and a position of somebody that says everything has to come out,” he said. Hodgson also indicated he doesn’t think documents will be released  without the support of Kilmartin (or his successor): “I think he needs to reverse course, because the attorney general is so powerful that the courts won’t overturn him on this position. It’s very unlikely that a public records request is going to be granted over his objection. He has this discretion. It’s an extraordinarily powerful office. I hope the people of Rhode Island pay attention to this.”

6. So will Dawson Hodgson be on a ballot again anytime soon? “I can’t say that I’ll never run for office,” he told me. “At this point I have no specific plans. My decision-making process for attorney general or any other race won’t start until 2017. But I’m passionate about the state of Rhode Island. I just don’t know if I’m passionate about the consequences of standing up for what you believe in in this state, because the retribution of the political system is quite severe. That’s one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me much.”

7. Also on Newsmakers this week: Joe Paolino, Frank Caprio and Richard Weiner share their memories of the late Mark Weiner. Richard, Weiner’s youngest, is already following in his father’s footsteps: he’s co-hosting a fundraising event with Tim Kaine in Newport next Saturday. A more intimate, higher-dollar event at Paolino’s home is also on Kaine’s itinerary.

8. Speaking of AG Kilmartin, 38 Studios isn’t the only transparency fight his office is having right now. Will Wray, founder of the Federalist Society’s Rhode Island chapter and an adjunct legal scholar at the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, has filed suit to seek the release of documents related to AGs United for Clean Power, a coalition committed to investigating fossil-fuel companies along the lines of what Sheldon Whitehouse has long advocated. Opponents argue such efforts are a threat to free speech. Kilmartin spokeswoman Amy Kempe dismissed the new suit as “politically motivated” and describes it as “yet another means for which climate-change deniers, big oil, and those they convince to do their bidding for them, are trying to forestall a legal and legitimate inquiry.”

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9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “We now have a good idea who will be on the team that leads Mayor Elorza into the final two years of his first term in City Hall. Replacing Tony Simon as chief of staff is Nicole Pollock, who previously served as Elorza’s chief innovation officer. Pollock is beloved by the majority of the mayor’s staff and has credibility at the State House, but will need to prove she has the political instincts that some believe the administration has lacked over the last 19 months. Although the mayor isn’t hiring another chief operating officer to replace Brett Smiley, he is expected to announce Robin Muksian-Schutt as his director of administration as soon as next week. Muksian-Schutt comes directly from the school department, but previously worked as Mayor Fung’s administration director in Cranston. She is credited with having a ‘tell it like it is’ approach – something Elorza desperately needs. It appears finance director Larry Mancini and operations director Alan Sepe will also see their responsibilities increase to fill the void left by Smiley. In other moves, Courtney Hawkins has been named the city’s policy director after serving as the head of the Providence Talks program for more than a year. Hawkins is considered one of the brightest minds in City Hall and has long been considered a leading candidate for a promotion. Meanwhile, Kristen Dart, the mayor’s well-respected legislative liaison, expects to have a little more independence when it comes to her relationships with the City Council and General Assembly. One area where you won’t see changes: communications, where Evan England and Emily Crowell have run one of the more stable offices in the administration.”

10. Something to keep an eye on: the fight over National Grid’s proposed LNG project in Providence, which has the makings of another Burrillville-style battle. Grid’s Tim Horan argues the project will improve the energy supply and is working to secure approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But city lawmakers are getting an earful about the project from their constituents and are now rising up in opposition. Their target: Mayor Elorza, who’s in talks with Grid about a tax-stabilization agreement. “We need the City of Providence to join us,” Rep. Aaron Regunberg wrote in an email to supporters this week. “Sadly, so far Mayor Elorza has refused to speak out against this project.” Elorza spokeswoman Emily Crowell argues the focus should be on Providence’s commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and says city leaders “will provide no subsidies if the project moves forward.” This one could heat up in the coming months.

11. Good economic news for Rhode Island in this new study? Harvard’s Dale Jorgenson “anticipates a boom in low-skilled work that rekindles economic growth to the tune of 2.49% a year from now till [2024], a little above the 2.34% experienced from 1990 to 2014. Those workers will fill service jobs in a growing economy, he suggests.”

12. Bad economic news for Rhode Island in this new study? “Economists have long expected an aging population to hamper growth for the simple reason that it means a smaller labor force. But new research has identified a potentially more powerful impact: Rapid retirements deprive companies of critical experience and knowledge, which undermines productivity across the entire economy.”

13. The disclosure that Rhode Island’s pension assets fell by $467 million in the 2015-16 budget year has set off new alarm bells about the solvency of the fund. It’s worth taking a closer look at what caused the decline: more than 90% of the fall – $440 million – was due to withdrawals for pension payouts, not investment losses. The culprit is the fund’s negative cash flow, currently running at 6%, though that’s projected to improve in the coming years as the 2011 overhaul’s structural changes take root. Not to say the state’s investment performance couldn’t stand to improve – it was down 0.3% in 2015-16, versus a median gain of under 1% nationally; the asset-allocation study Treasurer Magaziner is releasing next month will give him an opportunity to consider changes. As for the 7.5% assumed rate of return, keep an eye on the State Investment Commission as it prepares to decide whether to lower that number next spring. The longer it looks like interest rates will stay this low, the harder it will be to argue that’s reasonable.

14. Tim Kaine, like many Catholic Democrats before him, has struggled to reconcile his party’s support for legal abortion with church teaching on the issue. The clash was highlighted last month when the 2016 party platform adopted at the DNC added new language calling for repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions; Kaine says he disagrees with running mate Hillary Clinton and still supports Hyde. That puts him in the same position as Congressman Jim Langevin, one of the few pro-life Democrats left in Congress. Asked about the new platform plank, Langevin’s office told me: “The congressman continues to support the Hyde Amendment standard to provide some assurance that taxpayers who oppose abortions are not inadvertently funding these procedures, except in the extraordinary cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.” If Langevin and David Cicilline wind up facing off for Rhode Island’s sole House seat in 2022, abortion could be a flashpoint in the primary.

15. The hottest topic this week among Rhode Island’s political and media insiders was Projo management’s unexpected decision to take Kathy Gregg off the State House beat temporarily. Gregg has been covering Smith Hill since 1986 – longer than some reps and senators have been alive – and even those who’ve clashed with Kathy have trouble imagining life in McKim, Mead & White’s marble palace without her. Journal management isn’t commenting on the decision, but this appears to be another example of how executive editor Dave Butler is shaking up the paper on orders from new owners GateHouse, as circulation continues to slide. Gregg’s many fans made their displeasure clear on social media, and they’re presumably communicating that to the paper’s leadership. Yet Butler seems unlikely to change his mind.

16. Congrats to Mayor Grebien and Pawtucket’s leaders on their latest bond upgrade, no small feat five years after the city was flirting with bankruptcy. One warning in Fitch’s analysis is worth highlighting, not just for Pawtucket but all cash-strapped Rhode Island municipalities: “Fitch could foresee budgetary challenges during a downturn and a notable lead time until the city would achieve a full recovery, based on the city’s experiences in closing a deficit in the school fund a couple of years ago.” Or as Warren Buffett once put it, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

17. America’s young men are trading paid employment for video games.

18. Don’t miss Tim White’s great interview about “Last Great Heist” on Sue O’Connell’s NECN show this week. And if you want to hear more about the book, Tim will be at Barnes & Noble in Warwick this Friday at 6 p.m. for a book-signing event.

19. Frequent password changes may actually be bad for security.

20. Washingtonian offers its take on what to do when you’re in Providence.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersJoe Paolino, Frank Caprio and Richard Weiner remember Mark Weiner; Dawson Hodgson discusses the 38 Studios documents. This week on Executive SuiteThomas Tanury, chairman, Tanury Industries; Karl Guggenmos, founder/CEO, Culinary Solutions International. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sunday nights at 6 on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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