The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

Welcome to another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow me on Twitter: @tednesi.

1. Oy Christmas tree. Governor Chafee’s noble impulse to respect all Rhode Islanders regardless of their faith certainly reflects the state’s long history of religious tolerance, as well as his interpretation of church-state separation. Still, a large lighted indoor spruce festooned with ornaments in December is a Christmas tree, whether the governor calls it a holiday tree or a hippopotamus; the same will be true if he calls a menorah a “holiday candelabra.” And as Bishop Tobin pointed out to my colleague Steve Nielsen, “It’s not just about the name of the tree; it’s about American culture and traditions that are very important to a lot of people.” Moreover, this is a governor whose approval rating has never topped 38%. Every time he fights one of these principled but Quixotic battles – whether it’s the holiday tree or Jason Pleau – he uses up political capital he doesn’t have to spare. Pleau is life and death; the holiday tree is not. The media undoubtedly fanned the flames this week, but that’s no surprise, and an effective governor deals with the media environment he has, not the one he wishes he had. Does Chafee lack the discipline to do that?

2. Gov. Philip Noel created the R.I. Department of Economic Development in 1974. William Parsons went to work there the following year. During the subsequent four decades Rhode Island has gone through multiple economic crises, and the department itself has been remade into the quasi-public R.I. Economic Development Corporation. And through it all – recessions, reprimands, rebukes, reorganizations – Parsons has remained. On Thursday the governor named him to succeed Keith Stokes as its executive director – what luck that the most qualified person in the country to lead the EDC had already been working there for 37 years.

3. Via Tim Britton, Fangraphs has a fascinating side-by-side comparison of all 30 Major League Baseball teams’ TV contracts. The value of the Dodgers’ new deal could reach $7 billion.

4. New York Times Magazine chief political correspondent Matt Bai was in Rhode Island this week preparing a story on the 38 Studios fiasco, but it’s not his first time zeroing in on the state or its chief executive; back in 2003 Bai wrote a terrific, tough profile of then-Senator Lincoln Chafee. An excerpt: “Two theories took hold and are often repeated: either the younger Chafee is a few votes short of a quorum or he’s actually cagier than anyone realizes and enjoys being inscrutable. In fact, after you spend some time with Chafee, neither analysis seems right. He’s not dim, nor does he have much capacity for guile or irony. He is, instead, a slow starter who learned early in life to ask questions, persevere and wait his turn. ‘He’s not a giver-upper,’ is how his mother described him to me.”

5. Speaking of the United States Senate, the 2014 elections could have a major impact on U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, and not just because he’s up for re-election. National Journal reports it’s possible both Michigan’s Carl Levin and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson could retire rather than run for another term. Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Johnson chairs the Senate Banking Committee; Reed is second in seniority on both panels, meaning he’s next in line for both chairmanships. Since he can’t have both jobs, Reed would probably take the gavel of the powerful Armed Services Committee should both senators step aside.

6. And speaking of Reed, he has a fan in Anne-Imelda Radice, who now heads the American Folk Art Museum in New York but was formerly the director of the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under President Bush and President Obama. “He was very helpful,” Radice told me. “Senator Reed is really the hero of libraries. The arts need a hero like Senator Reed. He is a tremendous person.” She added, “You’re very fortunate to have him as one of your senators.”

7. Tim White’s stories this week about the looming early release of convicted “thrill kill” murder Alfred Brissette – which is off for now due to Tim’s reports – could lead many to take a closer look at how the Rhode Island Parole Board does business. “They’re making what should be a well-established, standardized, transparent process seem willy-nilly and opaque,” Wakefield lawyer Jon Pincince tweeted.

8. Last week I offered two optimistic takes on the future of the American economy. This week, a more sober view from famed investor Jeremy Grantham: “On the Road to Zero Growth” [pdf]. Grantham, by the way, is also a key financial supporter of URI’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting.

9. This week U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse renewed his call for Congress to pass his Paying a Fair Share Act, better known as the “Buffett Rule” bill, and his timing coincided with a New York Times op-ed from Warren Buffett himself urging a 30% minimum tax on millionaires. However, The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews pointed out a little-discussed effect of Whitehouse’s bill: it would send marginal tax rates on capital gains income sharply higher from $500,000 to $1 million. “Ideally, you don’t want the capital gains tax to deter investment,” Matthews writes. “But there’s no good reason why we should encourage investments for earners making under $200,000 or so but discourage them for earners making above that. It makes sense on progressivity grounds, but not as a growth policy.”

10. If the Providence police union approves the negotiated pension settlement and remaining nonprofit holdout Providence College agrees to make larger payments in lieu of taxes, Mayor Angel Taveras will have secured basically everything he sought to close the $110 million structural deficit left behind by the Cicilline administration.

11. Providence Phoenix scribe Dave Scharfenberg has Rhode Island’s chattering class talking about his big story on what The Providence Journal should do next, an illuminating read. Also on Fountain Street, longtime Washington reporter John Mulligan is leaving the paper, while longtime State House reporter Kathy Gregg has been making her presence felt on Twitter.

12. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Central Falls mayoral candidate Joseph Moran and RIFuture.org’s Bob Plain on his “Homeless Like Me” project. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Shawmut Design and Construction’s Ron Simoneau and the R.I. Christmas Tree Growers Association’s Eric Watne. Watch Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or 6 a.m. on Fox). Most importantly, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WPRI 12. 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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