Happy Saturday! Welcome to our jam-packed pre-election edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.
1. There’s plenty at stake for Rhode Island in Tuesday’s election – whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becomes president, obviously, or whether U.S. Sen. Jack Reed becomes the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. Locally, though, no question looms larger than whether Steve Frias will upend the State House status quo by defeating Speaker Mattiello. The David-and-Goliath metaphor is hackneyed, but this one fits the bill. Mattiello has spent $186,000 since July 1, about $17 for every voter in Cranston’s District 15. Not only is that six times more than Frias – it’s nearly three times more than Gordon Fox had spent fighting off Mark Binder at this point in 2012. Yet Mattiello has good reason to hedge his bets: if the race is a referendum on whether voters like Smith Hill, he’ll lose. He represents one of the state’s most Republican-friendly districts in a politically polarized year. He was at the center of two recent debates, over the PawSox stadium and truck tolls, that left a sour taste in many mouths. Scandals involving his allies Ray Gallison and John Carnevale were all over the news in recent months. His campaign has been marred by multiple negative stories, notably the Shawna Lawton controversy. And while Frias may not be a natural politician, he’s quick on his feet and stays on message, as he demonstrated in their Newsmakers debate Friday. Still, the debate also let Mattiello reinforce his closing argument: he may be a Democrat but he’s no progressive, he brings home the bacon, and he’s going to slay the hated car tax. Keep in mind, too, that Mattiello could still win even if a majority of District 15 voters choose someone else, because independent Patrick Vallier will also be on the ballot siphoning off some votes.
2. The big chatter among some state reps now is about who’ll replace Speaker Mattiello if he loses, and the general consensus is that there’s no consensus. For one thing, most of the talk is happening sotto voce since nobody wants to anger Mattiello in case he’s going to be back. The big exception is Providence Rep. John Lombardi, who’s open about his desire to succeed John DeSimone as majority leader and could obviously upgrade that into a campaign for speaker should the opportunity arise. Indeed, one reason there’s such uncertainly about what a post-Mattiello House would look like is because there’s no clear heir apparent since DeSimone lost his seat (barring a shock write-in victory). Among the names mentioned most often as possible speakers, apart from Lombardi: Cale Keable, Joe Shekarchi, Chris Blazejewski, and Stephen Ucci. Others who come up include Jay Edwards, Mike Marcello, Charlene Lima and Bob Craven. Most of them are also in the mix as a potential for Mattiello’s next majority leader if he prevails, as is Kenneth Marshall. Each candidate has pros and cons, and they appeal to different factions. Something else to consider: with no obvious contender the way Mattiello was in 2014, it’s unclear if the race would be over quickly as it was then or drag on longer this time.
3. Former Democratic Rep. Spencer Dickinson was a thorn in Gordon Fox’s side when he intervened in Fox’s tough 2012 re-election race by sending voters a letter making the case against Fox. Now Dickinson is at it again against another speaker, spending more than $3,000 to urge Speaker Mattiello’s constituents to elect Steve Frias. The four-page letter offers a bill of particulars against Mattiello touching on legislative grants, 38 Studios, truck tolls and more. “You have a choice,” Dickinson writes. “If any of this makes sense to you, take responsibility for what happens in District 15, Cranston. Send us a new representative.” The speaker’s team will argue Dickinson’s last-minute intervention is sour grapes – he lost a comeback bid in September against Mattiello-backed incumbent Kathy Fogarty – but it could stand out amid the flood of glossy mailers on voters’ doorsteps.
4. Kim Kalunian reminds us that Mattiello and Frias have to knock on fewer doors than other legislative candidates, because some of their constituents don’t have doors – they’re behind bars.
5. With so much attention focused on the Mattiello-Frias race, the other 112 General Assembly seats (some uncontested) have gotten relatively little attention. Party strategists privately estimate between 14 and 22 of the House’s 75 seats are competitive, with Cale Keable, Pat Serpa, Deb Ruggiero and Lauren Carson among the Democratic incumbents seen as at risk. With four of 12 incumbent House Republicans retiring, and uncertainty around whether the party can hold their seats with new candidates, the GOP may need to win elsewhere to maintain or grow its ranks. The Senate side is sleepier, with little more than a half-dozen of the 38 seats generating much buzz. Retiring GOP-aligned independent Ed O’Neill’s seat could go to the Democrats, who have a familiar name on the ballot in Jina Petrarca-Karampetsos. That would boost the Democratic caucus’s ranks to 33, unless Republicans can knock off one of their incumbent targets like Ryan Pearson, Hanna Gallo or Cindy Coyne. And that assumes Democrats can’t turn the tables and pick off GOP incumbents like Elaine Morgan, Nick Kettle or John Pagliarini. Many races in both chambers are being buffeted by a significant infusion of third-party spending, totaling about $211,000 at last count.
6. Will any of Rhode Island’s former Republican governors vote for Donald Trump for president? As of mid-October, it was still unclear. While Don Carcieri didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, his predecessors Linc Almond and Ed DiPrete both told me when I reached out that they still weren’t sure what they’d do. “I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not voting for Clinton,” Almond said. “It’s very depressing. Both candidates are bad. Both parties have not fulfilled their obligations. The candidates I would have liked to have seen running are not running. I think we could have done much better.” Almond, 80, said he would vote for either Trump or Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, whom he knew when they were both serving governors. DiPrete, 82, did leave the door open to voting for Clinton – even though he said he’s voted for every Republican nominee since Ike. Asked about Trump, DiPrete let out a sigh. “Trump is not the candidate or potential candidate I would have chosen,” he said. As for Clinton, he recalled spending time with her when he and Bill Clinton were both serving governors, and “liked her very much. … I’m not at all hostile toward Hillary.” However, DiPrete said, “she’s coming across a little bit harder, with more aggressiveness, if you will, than I remember her back 25 or 30 years ago. … Hillary is not the Hillary I knew.” (As for the state’s two living former Democratic governors, Linc Chafee has already endorsed Clinton, while Phil Noel didn’t return a call.)
7. “It’ll all come down to turnout.” There’s a reason the old line is such a cliché. So who’ll show up Tuesday in Rhode Island? Our political analyst Joe Fleming expects voter turnout of roughly 60%, on par with the 2012 presidential election, which drew 450,000 voters for an official statewide turnout of 62%. The mood of those who come out could matter a lot for incumbents – the Rhode Island electorate remains grumpy, with only 36% saying the state is heading in the right direction. Will they take it out on General Assembly incumbents? And what effect will Donald Trump’s unorthodox candidacy have?
8. R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell is hoping his headline-grabbing convention speech will have a galvanizing effect on conservative voters in the coming days. Bell is using an excerpt from the speech in a 30-second radio spot that started airing Friday morning on WPRO. It will run every 30 minutes, 15 hours a day, through Tuesday night.
9. Lo and behold, the Rhode Island Democratic Party quietly adopted an updated policy platform last month. The platform takes different tacks on two hot-button issues that divide the party locally, abortion and guns – the platform is firmly pro-choice but silent on guns.
10. If it were up to Rhode Island, President Obama might be on the ballot Tuesday rather than Hillary Clinton. That’s because Rhode Island is among the handful of states that never ratified the 22nd Amendment, which blocked future presidents from following FDR’s example and seeking a third term; the amendment went into effect in 1951 after 36 other states approved it. (Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts did hold a ratification vote on the amendment – and lawmakers there rejected it.)
11. Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold hopes to defeat Republican Ron Johnson on Tuesday and thus, according to Larry Sabato & co., “become the first former senator to win back his old seat against the candidate who beat him” in 82 years. The last one to do so? Rhode Island’s own Peter Gerry, a Democrat who lost his Senate seat to Republican Felix Hebert in 1928 only to win it back in a rematch in 1934 (the year of the Democratic landslide that led to Rhode Island’s “Bloodless Revolution”). Peter Gerry was the great-grandson of the Founding Father who gave “gerrymandering” its name, Eldridge Gerry, and married into the Vanderbilt family.
12. Governor Raimondo is escalating her fight with HP Enterprise CEO (and prominent GOP Hillary Clinton supporter) Meg Whitman as they battle over the notorious DMV computer project. Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz confirmed Friday night that administration officials may not renew a separate, $130-million contract with HPE that expires next year because of their unhappiness over the DMV mess. Meanwhile, Kim Kalunian found six other states who say the company didn’t deliver.
13. Providence has a $9.5 million surplus. Here’s what that actually means.
14. The Kevin Jackson recall campaign gets a green light.
16. Make sure you watch this weekend’s Executive Suite for the stories of two cool local manufacturing companies – Warren-based WaterRower, which makes those exercise machines from “House of Cards,” and Providence-based Greycork, which is positioning itself as an Ikea alternative for Millennials. WaterRower CEO Peter King’s interview includes some frank comments about why it doesn’t really make sense for the company to remain in Rhode Island, and how elected leaders could help change that.
17. If you’re reading this, you care about civic life in Rhode Island. Well, if you have a good idea for how to improve it, Rhode Island Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg and his colleagues want to shower you with Letitia and John Carter’s money. This year’s version of the foundation’s innovation grants program, which offers $300,000 to recipients with big ideas, is looking for proposal that will “increase or improve civic engagement” in the state. Applications are due Dec. 16, and there’s an informational meeting Nov. 14. More information is available here.
19. Ethan Shorey on a Pawtucket church adopting Syria refugees.
20. Let’s close out this week with a remembrance. Harry Baird, a prominent member of Bruce Sundlun’s administration, died last week in Florida, and the Sundlun diaspora spent the past several days sharing stories about his influence and example. “Harry was extremely smart, coolly decisive, and dead honest,” recalled U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, another Sundlun alum. “He was sort of our elder statesman among Governor Sundlun’s young staff team. I will miss him.” David Preston, who was Sundlun’s communications director, sent in this recollection:
Bruce Sundlun hung up the phone, let out a loud, gleeful yelp and danced a little jig.
“Harry’s in!” he said in the closing days of the 1990 gubernatorial transition.
Like the governor, Harry Baird was of a breed now largely extinct – a successful businessman who succeeded in government by adapting to the culture and thriving in the give and take. As Sundlun’s director of administration, Harry understood that if you skated on the State House ice you were going to get checked, but he didn’t mind. A Marine Corps veteran, he could dish it out, too.
It could be said that the timing of Sundlun and Baird’s arrival in late 1990 was almost Providential for Rhode Islanders. Without them – along with Sheldon Whitehouse, Nic Retsinas and the late Maurice Paradis – 300,000 credit union depositors might never have seen their money again, never mind in the mere 18 months it took to pay everyone back. (Baird and Sundlun were actually at the main post office on the night of June 30, 1992, stuffing envelopes into bins in order to make sure the state met the Governor’s July 1 payback deadline.)
Harry and the governor had made things happen before. Harry had succeeded Sundlun as president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce before leaving for New York City to engineer the transformation of accounting firm Peat Marwick into what today is the international giant KPMG. The credibility, stature and relationships Harry brought from New York helped save the RISDIC depositors.
Sundlun would present the plan and Harry – smart, savvy, experienced and resilient – made it happen. Ten years younger than Sundlun, Harry was a great role model and sometimes a generational bridge for younger staff, who were 40 years younger than the governor, or more.
Baird adapted well to politics. One year, at the end of the legislative session, House and Senate leaders stopped speaking to each other. Harry saw an opportunity and offered to “mediate”, shuffling between the two sides on the third floor of the State House. By the time the legislators figured out what he was up to, the budget looked remarkably close to what Sundlun was aiming for.
As staff would say, Harry Baird was “the other governor,” someone who provided invaluable, sometimes heroic, service at a challenging and historic time for Rhode Island.
21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a House District 15 debate between Democrat Nicholas Mattiello and Republican Steven Frias. This week on Executive Suite – WaterRower CEO Peter King; Greycork CEO John Humphrey. 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.