Welcome to another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. One of the surprises about Brendan Doherty’s campaign so far is his emphasis on federal issues. Obviously those are going to come up in a congressional race, but the 1st District’s default position is heavily Democratic – a generic Republican would lose. The only reason there’s an opening for the GOP this year is because David Cicilline himself is so personally damaged. While wonks may wish for a high-minded, Lincoln-Douglas-style campaign, this is a place that’s elected liberal Democrats reliably for 18 years. On top of that, speaking fluently about policy is one of Cicilline’s strengths; defending himself isn’t, particularly when the discussion turns to Providence. In the August debate with Anthony Gemma, for instance, Cicilline’s weakest moment was when he refused – repeatedly – to provide a word other than “excellent” to describe the city’s actual financial condition circa 2010. That’s still his Achilles heel. Can Doherty exploit it?
2. Doherty supporters disappointed by this week’s new WPRI 12 poll should take heart by recalling what happened two years ago. The September 2010 WPRI poll put Republican John Loughlin at 29%; a month later, the October WPRI poll put him at 42%, while Cicilline’s support was unchanged at 48%. Loughlin gained 13 points over four weeks as voters saw debates, TV ads and heavy news coverage of the race. The same two polls similarly recorded a surge for Republican John Robitaille, who jumped from 19% to 26% in one month. Robitaille continued to gain support right through Election Day, when he took 33% of the vote to Lincoln Chafee’s 36%. True, that wasn’t a presidential year, but Doherty is already at 38% with 10% undecided – if he can keep Cicilline around 44% and convince a lot of Obama backers to split their tickets, he could win.
3. The new poll’s findings on legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island (56% in favor, 36% opposed) are higher than might have been expected, which could give Governor Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox a boost as they ramp up the pressure on Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed to allow committee and floor votes on the issue. The electoral downside could be minimal, particularly if it’s taken up early next year, nearly two years before the 2014 elections.
4. I’m old enough to remember last December, when Cicilline and Jim Langevin had a battle royal over a draft redistricting map aimed at bolstering Democratic turnout in Cicilline’s 1st Congressional District. The final version was less drastic, but it still moved about 74,000 voters to aid Cicilline. With that in mind, don’t let Langevin’s big lead over Michael Riley fool you: our poll offers plenty of evidence that the changes created a significantly more conservative 2nd District. In the 1st, 12% of voters are Republicans; in the 2nd it’s 22%. Mitt Romney and Barry Hinckley poll 13 and 10 points higher, respectively, in CD2. Langevin’s own approval rating in his new district is only 39%, and Obama’s is 47% (versus 58% in CD1). Only 19% of 2nd District voters think Rhode Island is going in the right direction, compared with 28% in the 1st. The new 2nd District is one where a Republican like Scott Avedisian or Allan Fung could put together a winning coalition.
5. The newish Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity just unveiled a cool-looking website, RhodeIslandVotes.org, that compiles information on state lawmakers’ votes and other legislative activities. I haven’t had a lot of time to play around with it, but on first glance it looks user-friendly and helpful. Head over to the site and search for your local lawmaker to see how many bills he or she introduced and how they voted. The Assembly itself deserves some credit for putting more information online of late, particularly committee votes, but it’s still hard to navigate for the average citizen.
6. Did you know Jack Markell, the 51-year-old governor of Delaware, is a Brown University alum? He was in the Class of 1982 (a year ahead of David Cicilline, actually). There are three sitting U.S. governors who graduated from Brown, and they’re a bipartisan bunch: a Democrat (Markell), a Republican (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) and an independent (Chafee).
8. Plenty of pixels have been spilled this week critiquing PBS mainstay Jim Lehrer’s performance moderating Wednesday night’s presidential debate, so I asked Rhode Island’s best debate moderator - my pal Tim White – what he thought. Tim agrees with the 78-year-old newsman’s bosses that he’s getting a bad rap, particularly from those who think the questions were too simplistic. “Lehrer had a broad interest in mind: people who are just now tuning into the presidential campaign. For many of the 67 million people who watched the Denver duel, this was the first time they were going to hear from the candidates about exactly where they stand on the economy, Medicare, taxes and so on.” That said, there were a few times Tim thinks he could have jumped in more forcefully. “Both candidates took advantage of his hands-off approach and if Lehrer had set the tone early, he might have been able to cover more ground in that 90 minutes.” Then again, “I can only imagine how nerve-wracking moderating a presidential debate is. (I’m nervous leading up to any debate I referee.) It’s not about the number of people watching, it’s about the responsibility – the moderator plays such a key role in helping voters learn where someone stands on the issues important to them.” Tim laughed when I asked if he’d do it: “Despite the pressure (and sleepless nights leading up to the debate) I would jump at the opportunity to moderate ‘the big one.’ But sadly, candidates from both sides of the aisle don’t pay much attention to Rhode Island.”
9. Congratulations to Citizens Bank Chairman and CEO Ellen Alemany, newly named the fourth most powerful woman in banking by American Banker. (Alemany was fifth most powerful last year; at this rate she’ll be the most powerful woman in banking by 2015.) The magazine’s editors also said Alemany has “put new emphasis on steering women up through the management ranks” and recognized its team of 22 women executives as a Top Team in Banking. Political types will recognize at least one name on the Citizens team: Executive Vice President Barbara Cottam, who in a previous life was spokeswoman for Bruce Sundlun, Joe Paolino and Joe Garrahy.
10. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had a good week below the radar. The WPRI 12 poll showed Whitehouse with a 26-point lead over Barry Hinckley, a good way to start October even if the race tightens a bit. He got the first Ocean Leadership award (which made me picture him as King Triton from “The Little Mermaid”). He was one of five senators to get an A+ from the liberal Institute for Policy Studies on its Inequality Report Card. (Jack Reed got an A, while Langevin and Cicilline both got a B+.) Also, National Journal anointed him leader of “a new generation of campaign finance reformers” who are following in the footsteps of Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold. It will be interesting to see how Whitehouse handles his Oct. 23 debate with Hinckley – incumbent senators wait even longer between debates than presidents do.
11. Attention, fellow journalists! There’s still time to sign up for this Friday’s free daylong Peter B. Lord Seminar on the impact of climate change in Southern New England, which is being held at URI’s Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. I was a Metcalf fellow back in 2009, and it was a formative journalistic experience for me. Don’t miss out. … Also, a programming note: I’ll be on “A Lively Experiment” this Sunday at noon on Rhode Island PBS along with Rob Horowitz, Maureen Moakley, Lisa Pelosi and guest host Jim Hummel. Tune in!
12. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Tim White hosts a political roundtable with Joe Fleming, Cara Cromwell, Ian Donnis and me. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Vibco’s Karl Wadensten on his vision for the Rhode Island economy and why he was the EDC board’s only “no” vote on 38 Studios. Watch Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.