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 For quick hits all week long, follow me on Twitter: @tednesi.

1. I know you’re expecting me to lead with the poll, but first let’s revisit the Target 12 investigation Tim White and I put out Monday examining how cities and towns invest their independent local pension plans. (Investment returns play a crucial role in determining a plan’s financial health.) While you can play with our interactive chart to see how your city fares, my biggest takeaways from the story were that (a) there’s little rhyme or reason to the different ways each municipality handles millions in investments and (b) many municipal officials aren’t keeping close tabs on them in the first place. It wasn’t easy to track down this information: individual requests had to be made with each of the 24 cities and towns, and in many cases it took weeks or months of back-and-forth to get answers. More than one community sent us seemingly random pension-related PDFs that didn’t actually answer our quite specific questions. And sometimes obtaining the correct data just raised new questions. For instance, Warwick has its municipal side manage four of its five local pension plans, but the school department manages the fifth – and the school one gets markedly lower returns on its investments. Do Warwick taxpayers, who are on the hook for all five, actually think it’s best to manage the school plan separately? Still, at least Warwick could provide all the data we sought – some places could not even say how their investments performed over the last 10 years, let alone a longer time horizon. Some enterprising state rep or senator should pass a law mandating regular, thorough financial reporting by municipalities about their investment track records, so that taxpayers and other officials can see whether they’re getting bang for their buck.

2. And while they’re at it, lawmakers should force all those special districts to file annual audits, too.

3. The new WPRI 12/Journal poll released this week provides a useful reminder: conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Angel Taveras has a strong approval rating (57%), particularly among self-identified Democrats (67%). Gina Raimondo is in solid shape, with strikingly similar approval from all three groups of partisans (Democrats 51%, Republicans 52%, independents 51%) but she trails Taveras inside their party. Lincoln Chafee’s public standing hasn’t really improved (30% approval). Clay Pell starts with surprisingly high name recognition (40%). None of that is a huge surprise. The Republican numbers were a bit more interesting (with the huge caveat that it’s a tiny sample): Ken Block has a much higher favorable rating among Republicans than the general electorate, suggesting he could get traction in the GOP primary against Allan Fung, whose approval among members of his party mirrors Raimondo’s, not Taveras’s. Voters say they’re going to be worried about the economy when judging candidates for governor next year, and nobody has a huge advantage on that issue as yet.

4. is rebroadcasting the original 1963 CBS News coverage of JFK’s assassination. Check it out.

5. Could the campaign for attorney general be the sleeper race of 2014? It’s certainly possible. State Sen. Dawson Hodgson, the North Kingstown Republican who is mulling a challenge to incumbent Democrat Peter Kilmartin, has been a relentless critic of the 38 Studios deal and continues to push for the creation of an independent commission that would bring the full story to light. No surprise: the idea looks like a nonstarter with General Assembly leaders. Kilmartin, meanwhile, was a member of House Democratic leadership who voted to create the 38 Studios loan program in 2010, and it seems clear the public desire to see someone punished for the $75 million flop is still strong. Could Hodgson capitalize on that issue and ride it to victory, arguing that Kilmartin hasn’t done enough to go after his former pals in the Assembly? And is the state’s Republican Party capable of seeing – and seizing – the opportunity?

6. As Ian Donnis notes, Hodgson’s idea for a special commission to do a full accounting of what happened with 38 Studios echoes Bruce Sundlun’s decision to force a similar examination of the state’s banking crisis shortly after he took office in 1991. (Here’s the PDF.) I asked David Preston, who was a top Sundlun aide, to explain the story behind that. Here’s Preston’s recollection, special to The Saturday Morning Post:

Governor Sundlun aggressively pursued the formation of the RISDIC Commission in the wake of the credit union collapse for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, as a former federal prosecutor and businessman, Sundlun was absolutely appalled at what had transpired, both in the context of terrible business practice and in the resulting violation of trust. He came from an old-school political culture where hearings and commissions – Watergate, Iran-Contra, Senate Rackets – were “how it was done” when sorting out a mess like RISDIC. He used to say, “I want it all out there!”

The governor also had very big plans for Rhode Island, and the fact that his administration had to spend so much time, energy and money resolving the RISDIC issue – which was practically all-consuming – made him viscerally angry.

These was a political angle, as well. Since he wasn’t responsible for the collapse of RISDIC, Sundlun sought to minimize the political fallout for him from the pain that Rhode Islanders were then starting to feel in earnest. He certainly wasn’t going to allow himself to be seen as party to any kind of “cover up.” (His conversations about that possibility are almost completely unprintable.) Sundlun also understood that the hearings would help put some of the other political and policy challenges he faced in a context more beneficial to him.

The General Assembly leadership was less enthusiastic about the hearings. Here, Sundlun crafted a brilliant compromise that would have been hard for them to refuse. The governor’s legal counsel Sheldon Whitehouse negotiated an agreement where the leadership agreed to hire two prosecutors of national stature as outside special counsel. Both were known for their independence and tough questioning. Then, Sundlun agreed that Rep. Jeffrey Teitz of Newport, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, would be the chair of the commission. Teitz was the perfect choice – a savvy elected official with a brilliant legal mind coupled with a judicious approach and demeanor. He had distinguished himself a few years before with what was largely perceived as a fair, even-handed approach in high-profile hearings on another issue. Both Sundlun and the Assembly leadership respected Teitz and trusted him. Meanwhile, the two outside counsel were Sundlun’s insurance against the reality, and the perception, that any stone had been left unturned.

7. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from reporter Dan McGowan: “Mayor Taveras has largely had a successful first term in office using a strategy of under-promising and over-delivering. But United Providence (UP), the nonprofit labor-management partnership designed to overhaul three struggling schools, is one notable exception. Taveras and the school district rolled out the red carpet for their experiment, holding a lavish kickoff event and earning praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Governor Chafee. In an interview this week, Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi and Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith – who co-chair the UP board – said the idea behind the ‘big start’ was to help increase awareness and hopefully raise money, but acknowledged they weren’t necessarily prepared for all that goes into starting a nonprofit from scratch. Now UP is going through a large restructuring after losing its top two employees and two school principals in its first year. Lusi said her hope is that the organization has at least learned from its initial mistakes. ‘It’s like we moved from our parents’ basement to the dining room,’ Lusi said. But the startup organization has a long way to go before it moves out on its own. The rest of the school year is going to be about improving its relationship with teachers while also convincing other stakeholders that UP is still a risk worth taking. ‘We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,’ Smith said.”

8. Brian Azar, Santander Bank’s region president for Rhode Island, was my guest on Executive Suite this week to talk about why the lender got rid of the name Sovereign after 111 years. The question most people told me to ask Azar: how exactly do you say “Santander,” anyway? The answer: sawn-tawn-DARE. It’s the name of the town in Spain where the bank’s parent company began.

9. WhaleRock’s Bob Cusack and my colleague Pete Lucas both passed along this story about Bryan Berard, the Woonsocket native who played pro hockey for 10 years with the Bruins and other teams. It emerged this week that Berard had helped law enforcement nab two Arizona men for allegedly conspiring to steal $15 million from NHL players – including as much as $6 million from Berard himself. “This pro athlete learned it the hard way,” Cusack tweeted. “Now others can benefit. It need never happen again.”

10. A bonus dispatch from my colleague Dan McGowan: “The endorsements are already rolling in for mayor of Providence, with state Rep. Grace Diaz throwing her support behind City Council President Michael Solomon and Victor Capellan, the well-respected former deputy campaign manager for Angel Taveras in 2010, backing Jorge Elorza. As we first reported in a Saturday Morning Post last month, even Buddy Cianci already has a fan in former Mayor Joe Paolino. This week, former Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley picked up some notable backers when revered former Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst and his wife Elizabeth co-hosted a meet-and-greet for the 34-year-old on the East Side along with Dr. Andrew and Tina Miller. The event was held at the Millers’ home. ‘He impresses me as a very bright guy, knowledgeable on the issues, with a strong grasp of the players in and dynamics of the political system,’ Bakst told in an email. ‘I’d say that’s a promising start!’ Although Smiley has already stated his intention to run, look for him to formally enter the race early next month.”

11. Rhode Island PBS was kind enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Maureen Moakley, Don Roach and Tony Affigne. Topics include the WPRI/Journal poll, the state budget, municipal pension plans and JFK. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.

12. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the items we published this week: our exclusive poll revealed local leaders’ approval ratings, opposition to paying the 38 Studios bonds and a divide over Obamacare and guns … the candidates for governor say they’re pleased with the poll results … Rhode Island cities and towns spent more than $6 million on pension investment fees in 2011-12 … Jorge Elorza kicked off his bid for Providence mayorClay Pell formed an exploratory committee … Providence is trying to strip weightlifting ex-firefighter John Sauro of his disability pension … our interactive chart shows which local school districts have declining enrollments and crumbling classrooms … and Rhode Island unemployment rose to 9.2%, second-worst in the nation, as the labor force shrank.

13. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable breaks down this week’s WPRI 12/Journal poll results: Tim White, Joe Fleming, Ed Fitzpatrick, Arlene Violet and yours truly. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Brian Azar, region president of Santander Bank. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( ) covers politics and the economy for and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect location for the Brett Smiley event.

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

  1. Ted how about an update on the mediation proceedings on the state pension reform plan…the parties were supposed to meet with the judge on Thursday morning and there has been no mention anywhere about that meeting…the scuttlebutt was that both sides were close to a mediated settlement…(the state and the union representing the retirees)…you usually are the first one to report on that…so I depend on you for my information…….Thanks

  2. Rich, Ian Donnis and Kathy Gregg reported via Twitter that the pension mediation meeting Thursday with Judge Taft-Carter resulted in “the status quo.” No new meeting time has been set.

    • Thanks for the info….although I know what status quo means….(I took Latin in high school)….just what does it mean? Are negotiations continuing?…or will the case go to trail….if it does …the plaintiffs should surely win…so why are we waiting? Time is passing and we have a broken contract at hand……we need to show gina that she is not above the law…a contract is a contract…they can change the pension for the workers who are not vested…(to my chagrin)…but you can’t just go around breaking contracts…we are….or were… a country of laws.

      • I had the same reaction to the phrase “status quo.” Does it mean they have come to a settlement, but aren’t ready to make it public, so putting out there the phrase “status quo” gets the reporters off their back? It is odd, especially when each and every time the two sides meet in court, a new date is set immediately. Honestly, I’d rather take my chances in court. This thing needs to be settled by the courts or else the GA will assume it can continue to cut benefits at will. If we lose, we lose (I doubt it), but I would like closure to this, not a half-baked settlement that gets Raimondo off the hook and eases her way into the Gov’s office, while impairing at least some of our brothers and sisters in the pension system.

  3. Nice job overall, Ted Nesi. And thanks for pointing out what a mess it is to let towns run all these little pension funds, tho it does make it seem like we ‘ll never fix this without a financial dictator being brought in! That was a lot of hard , time-consuming work.

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