Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Oct. 29

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. There’s been a lot of mudslinging already in the House race between Nick Mattiello and Steve Frias, with more sure to come in the final week as both sides claim they’re doing what it takes to win. But the daily back-and-forth has obscured an interesting debate inside the GOP over the wisdom of taking on Mattiello, with the argument against being that he is the most conservative speaker the House Democratic caucus is likely to elect. “If the state ends up with a liberal at the helm, I think it could be a disaster,” GOP Rep. Joe Trillo told the AP’s Matt O’Brien earlier this month. “And if Frias were to beat him that could happen.” Shawna Lawton, who just gave Mattiello an eyebrow-raising endorsement despite her bid for the GOP nomination in District 15, made a similar point. Those who share their view cite Mattiello’s positions on issues such as guns, taxes, illegal immigrants and abortion. But state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell thinks Trillo is wrong (and Lawton is “a sellout”). The Republicans “have to hold people accountable, and this is a referendum on the state,” Bell argued on Newsmakers, adding: “This aura of this conservative speaker is ridiculous, and I’ll tell you why: he is the one that brought us tolls, tax-and-spend tolls, so how can you now say that this is a conservative idea?” Privately, some Republicans also suggest the Mattiello challenge is actually a win-win for the GOP – either they defeat the speaker, rocking Smith Hill Democrats and bolstering conservative morale, or they force a re-elected Mattiello to follow through on campaign pledges they agree with, such as a new round of tax cuts.

2. Sitting next to Brandon Bell for that exchange on Newsmakers, Rhode Island Democratic Party special adviser Bill Lynch could hardly contain himself. “It’s got to be your worst nightmare as Republican chair – we’ve been here for 10 minutes and you’ve recognized two Republicans who are now supporting Speaker Mattiello for re-election,” Lynch said. Of course, the flip side there is that some of the House speaker’s positions are out of step with a significant slice of his caucus, not to mention many national Democrats. Both the NRA and Rhode Island Right to Life, for example, say they’re spending money to assist him. “We’ve had, for as long as I’ve been involved in this, we’ve had those differences within our party,” Lynch said. “Our platform is pro-choice, but we have many Democrats in Rhode Island who are conservative and who are not pro-choice but are pro-life, including Nick Mattiello. So we’ve always had a big tent and people who don’t agree on every issue across the board.” Bell shot back: “What you’ve got is an identity crisis in your party here in Rhode Island.” (When Lynch soon pivoted to a critique of Donald Trump, Bell noted: “Nick Mattiello has a lot of Donald Trump supporters in his district.”) Successful political coalitions have to manage tensions, and Rhode Island Democrats’ ability to do so has allowed them to dominate the state’s legislative branch since World War II. Can that continue in this increasingly polarized era?

3. Will Brandon Bell run for attorney general in 2018? “I would never rule out anything,” he told us after the show.

4. One of Speaker Mattiello’s big advantages over Steve Frias is money: as of Oct. 10, Mattiello had $283,000 on hand while Frias had $18,000. That’s allowing Mattiello to spend a lot more on paid media – including TV ads, a highly unusual move in a legislative campaign. Mattiello adviser Jeff Britt confirms the speaker’s campaign has bought time to air commercials over the next week on a “smattering” of cable channels, including Fox News and MSNBC. (The ad itself is a 60-second version of this 90-second video released by Mattiello’s team earlier in the week.) With only 10,693 registered voters in District 15, buying TV time would seem poorly targeted, but Britt insists cable carriers can narrow the audience down enough to make it worthwhile. He declined to say how much is being spent on the cable buy, but with ad rates being what they are, it’s likely the equivalent of a few mailers.

5. The Rhode Island Democratic Party is trying to make an issue out of spending by “outside groups” – basically, anyone who isn’t a candidate or political party – in this year’s legislative races. The numbers can be a little challenging to track, but as of Friday at least $150,000 in third-party spending on legislative races had been reported to the Board of Elections. About two-thirds of the money is primarily helping conservative candidates, but a closer look complicates the picture a bit. While much of that money is from Mike Stenhouse’s Gaspee Project and Dan Harrop’s Roosevelt Society, it also includes an eye-popping $23,000 dropped Friday against House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Cale Keable, a Burrillville Democrat, by Alan Hassenfeld’s RI for Gun Safety group. That will presumably have the effect of helping Keable’s GOP opponent, David Place, but the real aim isn’t conservative policy – it’s to get the Judiciary gavel out of the hands of a pro-gun legislator. (Another gun-control group, Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown For Gun Safety Action Fund, says it qualifies as an exempt nonprofit and doesn’t need to disclose its political spending to the BoE.) Among Democratic-leaning groups, Planned Parenthood ($26,000) and the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers ($9,000) have spent the most so far, though the latter’s money is partly going to Woonsocket City Council races.

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6. With a number of conservative-leaning independents running for General Assembly this fall, there’s been some speculation that if a number of them win, their votes could have an impact on the choice of House Minority Leader Brian Newberry’s successor. According to Newberry, however, the rules only allow representatives who are Republicans to vote for minority leader – independents can caucus with the Republicans if they want, but they can’t participate in the vote for caucus leader. Only seven of the 11 current House Republicans are seeking new terms, so under those rules as few as four votes could select the new leader unless the party holds or picks up other seats. The GOP is fielding Republican candidates in 25 of 75 House districts (including the seven incumbents), as well as 13 of 38 Senate districts.

7. Vin Marzullo, the independent trying to unseat GOP Rep. Patricia Morgan in West Warwick, took an interesting tack in a news release this week: “Marzullo Questions Morgan’s Support for Tolls.” Say what? Few lawmakers have been more vociferous than Morgan in opposing truck tolls, after all. But Marzullo was making a different argument: “In the last legislative session, Pat Morgan co-sponsored H 7340, a bill that would authorize the state of Rhode Island to surrender its roads, bridges, airports, parking lots, and other critical transportation infrastructure to private, for-profit ‘development entities’ with full authority to level tolls.” As evidence, he pointed to the private Indiana Toll Road, which filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Morgan did not reply to a request for her response.

8. The ACLU’s critique of Rhode Island car tax methodology is worth reading.

9. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House on Nov. 8, attention will quickly turn to whom she’ll appoint to serve in her administration. Most of the local speculation has centered around the possibility of a job for Governor Raimondo, who says she isn’t interested. But it also wouldn’t be surprising if the “Great Mentioner” puts forward the names of Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, even though they’re quite unlikely to leave Congress. Worth recalling, then, that the General Assembly changed state law in 2010 (over Governor Carcieri’s objection) to require that U.S. Senate vacancies are filled by special election rather than the governor.

10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from Dan McGowan: “The rumors that a group of Ward 3 residents on Providence’s East Side might attempt to recall Councilman Kevin Jackson have been circulating ever since he narrowly defeated write-in opponent Marcus Mitchell two years ago, but they never materialized until late last month. Now, with Jackson’s attorneys objecting to dozens of signatures the group turned in to launch their recall effort, there’s a chance they might miss their best opportunity to collect the 2,000 new signatures they need to force an up or down ballot question on Jackson’s political future early next year. The reason is simple. Ward 3 will likely see the highest turnout of any ward in the city on Election Day and considering 1,900 voters wrote in Mitchell over Jackson 2014, it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to obtain all the signatures they need by standing in front of polling places. But if Jackson can successfully delay the recall effort until Nov. 9, the group’s prospects become more difficult. With Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas all coming quickly, who wants to knock on doors collecting signatures – especially when it’s unlikely Jackson will even seek re-election in 2018? We should get a better idea of where things stand Monday when the Providence Board of Canvassers meets to discuss the objections filed by Jackson late Friday. No matter what happens, you can bet the two sides will be appearing in front of judge again before Election Day.”

11. Providence isn’t the only cash-strapped Southern New England city where some leaders are studying the feasibility of a bankruptcy filing – Hartford is, too. So Rhode Islanders may want to read some of recent coverage about the debate over a Hartford bankruptcy and the lessons learned from Detroit’s Chapter 9 filing.

12. Did you know Providence had an election this week? Dan McGowan reports.

13. Two reactions to our story on HealthSource RI refusing to sell two low-cost plans. From Kaiser Health News senior correspondent Jay Hancock: “What the hell? Rhode Island kills low-cost Obamacare plans because they would have cut premium subsidies. Perverse incentives.” From former Elizabeth Roberts aide Dan Meuse: “Disagree. It’s that, because of the Affordable Care Act’s structure, too many low-cost plans could actually increase enrollee’s costs.” There’s a real policy debate to be had on this one.

14. Lifespan isn’t reopening merger talks with Care New England (yet).

15. Brown professor Glenn Loury figures in a new New Yorker feature on what the presidential election tells us about American society. Loury expresses concern about the changing politics of race (and racial resentment): “As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone.”

16. Former Rhode Island Economic Policy Council chief Rob Atkinson on the limitations of infrastructure spending.

17. Kim Kalunian has 22 local Halloween displays you should go see.

18. A source familiar with the matter reports Governor Raimondo will hand out Milky Ways, Hershey bars and Kit Kats (her favorite) on Halloween night.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell and R.I. Democratic Party senior adviser Bill Lynch. This week on Executive SuiteCharlie Kroll, founder of Andera. 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 Sundays at 6 p.m. 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