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. Merry Christmas!

2. To the surprise of just about nobody, Gina Raimondo jumped into the race for governor this week; to the apparent surprise of some, she did so as a Democrat. Her announcement video was highly polished but slightly stilted – luckily for her Angel Taveras and Clay Pell aren’t exactly Obama-level orators themselves. We still know next to nothing about what policy proposals Raimondo (let alone Pell) will run on. But we do know something about where their campaigns start financially: Raimondo has $2.3 million, Taveras has less than $800,000, and Pell has nothing. Moreover, as Scott MacKay astutely notes, starting Jan. 1 Raimondo can go back to her sizable network of donors and ask every one of them to give her another $1,000, while Pell is thought to have plenty of money in his own bank account to pour into a campaign. That leaves Taveras as the odd man out, possessing neither a large personal fortune nor a vast fundraising network to counter his rivals. The Taveras camp’s deep concern about that was on vivid display in an email he sent Friday with the stark subject line “3:1” – a reference to Raimondo’s financial advantage. “This is a campaign based on Main Street values,” the mayor wrote his supporters. “But we need to make sure we have the resources to make sure our story and vision can be heard. Can you help us get the word out by donating $35, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford before our Dec. 31 deadline to make sure we have enough?” Nobody can accuse Taveras of sugarcoating: the email republished Raimondo’s first attack on him and MacKay’s doubts about his fundraising. Still, money isn’t everything; National Journal’s Karyn Bruggeman noted this week that Rhode Island’s last three gubernatorial winners – Chafee, Carcieri ’06 and Carcieri ’02 – were all outspent.

3. For a lesson in the power of policy entrepreneurship, look no further than the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. The conservative advocacy group, founded in 2011, has gotten real traction in its push to scrap Rhode Island’s 7% sales tax. The proposal spurred Democratic legislative leaders to create a special commission, and reporters are forcing Governor Chafee and Speaker Fox to defend their positions on the possibility. Does that make a 0% sales tax likely anytime soon? Probably not. But has it shifted the Overton window in this state? Absolutely. On Newsmakers, for example, Allan Fung said he opposes eliminating the sales tax but wants to see “a gradual reduction” in the rate – and the center soon offered up a compromise proposal for lowering it to 3%. Liberals underestimate the appeal of this proposal at their peril: Rhode Island’s sales tax is heavily regressive, and getting rid of it would put nearly $1 billion back into the pockets of consumers – rich and poor alike – each year.

4. Book recommendation: “Slow Getting Up” by former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson. An entertaining, bracing, well-written account of life in the modern NFL when you’re not Tom Brady.

5. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision this week to sign legislation that grants in-state tuition to undocumented residents is already making waves as he eyes a presidential run in 2016. But if Rhode Island’s version of the policy has proven anything, it’s that without offering some form of financial aid, the cost of attending a public college remains too steep for many. That financial barrier gets most of the blame for the fact Rhode Island has enrolled just 74 undocumented students – all but three of them at CCRI – in the first year after the former Board of Governors for Higher Education approved the policy. The next challenge, according to University of Houston Law School professor and immigration law expert Michael A. Olivas, is twofold: Convincing states to offer some form of financial aid to undocumented students (as happens in California, Texas and Illinois), and loosening a stipulation that requires the student to have lived in the state for three years (legal U.S. residents are usually eligible for in-state tuition after 12 months of living in a state). But achieving either of those goals, even in non-border states like New Jersey or Rhode Island, is easier said than done. The New Jersey legislature removed language from the bill that would have granted financial aid in order to appease Christie, and Rhode Island still has never even brought in-state tuition to a vote. ‘We had the votes in the House last year, but I’m not sure about the Senate,’ Michelle DePlante, the director of community relations at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, told WPRI.com. Lawmakers say they’ll consider holding a vote on the legislation in 2014.”

6. Nick Mattiello may have the inside track to succeed Gordon Fox as House speaker.

7. Remember Rhode Island’s congressional delegation? The state’s four Democratic lawmakers get less coverage than ever now that there are no D.C.-based reporters covering them, but they’re still keeping busy. This week’s headline-grabber was U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who managed to get a Republican cosponsor – Nevada’s Dean Heller – and White House backing for his bill to extend emergency unemployment benefits for another three months. Reed spokesman Chip Unruh tells me the senator also has a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to have a vote on the bill once the Senate reconvenes Jan. 6, though it’s unclear what the Republican-controlled House will do. “4,900 Rhode Islanders and their families need this vote and Senator Reed is doing everything he can to make it happen,” Unruh said. “The Senate can either do the right thing for jobseekers and economic growth or it can ignore the advice of economists, bipartisan precedent, and the reality that right now there are nearly three unemployed workers for every job opening.” … Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has reason to be optimistic about the prospects for his bipartisan prison reform bill, a collaboration with Ohio’s Rob Portman. Roll Call reported recently that the bill could pass the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Obama himself sounded a supportive note this week, saying: “In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress.”

8. Fun fact: the Rev. Victor Silva of St. Anthony’s Church in West Warwick was an executive assistant to Governor Almond before entering the priesthood. That’s one way to atone for a career in politics.

9. Speaking of church, one of the most dominant businesses in Rhode Island is one you’ve probably never heard of: the Smithfield-based Cavanagh Company, which has basically cornered the market on making – of all things – altar bread for communion. Founded after World War II and now run by a fourth generation of Cavanagh family members, the company reportedly supplies a whopping 80 percent of all the communion bread used at Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Southern Baptist services in the U.S., leading The Boston Globe to dub Cavanagh “the Microsoft of altar bread.” And it’s not the only local company that specializes in religious goods: Tally’s Church Supplies is still going strong in Cranston 134 years after steamship agent Patrick Tally began selling prayers books and rosary beads to the Irish immigrants he helped come to Rhode Island. Patrick’s great-great-great grandson, P.J. Tally, joined me on this week’s Executive Suite to talk about the company’s unique business model.

10. One last item on the Catholic beat: Professor James Keating, a papal expert at Providence College, says he’s as surprised as anybody by the whirlwind start to Pope Francis’s pontificate – and he agrees with those like John Allen who think it may impact headline-grabbing Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin. “I think it has to,” Keating said on this week’s Newsmakers. “Francis has made the determination that the church needs a change of tactic, because the church had become really associated with the ‘No’s’ on these controversial issues – which Francis believes are central but not essential, in the sense that you don’t always have to talk about them. They’re not the priority – the priority is a message of God’s forgiveness and love, which is the heart of the gospel. … Bishop Tobin has made a few statements that have gotten him into a little bit of hot water and, you know, he’s a smart man. He can figure out which way the winds are blowing, and change a little bit. Maybe not change completely, but a little bit.”

11. A bonus Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “With Providence mayoral candidates raising money and dropping policy proposals, it’s easy to forget that there are still two big names who haven’t made up their minds about entering the race: state Rep. John Lombardi and former mayor-turned-felon-turned-mayor-turned-felon-turned-talk show host Vincent ‘Buddy’ Cianci. Lombardi told WPRI.com on Friday that he had a ‘very successful’ fundraiser earlier this month – attended by at least five City Council members, he noted – but said he is now planning to wait on making a final decision about his campaign until March. Lombardi said he still believes he has a path to about 7,000 votes, and he isn’t sure any other candidate can match that total; most experts believe turnout will be between 22,000 and 26,000. Of course, that assumes Lombardi wouldn’t lose any votes from his failed 2010 campaign despite the fact that he and City Council President Michael Solomon have similar bases. As for Cianci, there is no timetable, but there is a question of whether he actually wants to throw his hat into the ring or if former mayor and well-known businessman Joe Paolino just wants him to do so. Either way, Cianci’s response remains the same: ‘Never say never.’”

12. Loyal Saturday Morning Post reader John Marion of Common Cause flags a great lineup of speakers coming to Roger Williams School of Law this spring, including The New York Times’ Joe Nocera and Harvard Law’s Randall Kennedy. As some readers may know, Nocera is a native of Rhode Island – check out my 2011 Q&A with him about Providence, print, paywalls and more.

13. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items we published this week: Providence’s weightlifting firefighter John Sauro finally lost his tax-free disability pension … a former Cranston cop got an accidental disability pension for stressBrett Smiley proposed a 10% surtax on gun sales … unemployment dipped to 9% … HealthSource RI extended the sign-up deadline again, this time to Dec. 31 … hospital finance expert Rob Lazerow explained how to fix Lifespan … a Providence panel proposed changes to property revaluations … and Capitol TV is going HD.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Richard Land, court-appointed receiver for 38 Studios, on the effort to sell its unfinished game; Dr. James Keating, associate theology professor at Providence College, on the first nine months of Pope Francis. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – a look at the new ProvSmart online-permitting system with Jeffrey Lykins, director of the Providence Department of Inspection & Standards, and John Sinnott, Rhode Island distract manager for Gilbane; plus P.J. Tally on the 134-year-history of Tally’s Church Supplies. 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 ( 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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