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

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Ken Block says he’s leading in the Republican primary for governor – and he’s got a poll to prove it. A survey of 300 likely Republican primary voters commissioned last month by Block’s campaign puts him on top at 46%, with Allan Fung at 37% and 16% undecided. The poll was done by the respected Florida firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates. “What we really wanted to know was, is what we have been doing working? Is it being received by the voters well inside the Republican primary?” Block said on this week’s Newsmakers. “And the answer to all those questions is a really resounding yes.” The Block campaign’s previous internal poll last October put Fung at 53% and Block at 25%, so the new poll represents a 37-point swing in Block’s favor. These are internal surveys, though, and the Republican primary electorate is notoriously hard to poll. Fung campaign manager Patrick Sweeney dismissed Block’s findings, saying in an email: “Our internal polling shows Republicans are rejecting Ken Block because he supported Obamacare and voted for President Obama twice.” (Fung, unlike Block, isn’t releasing his internals.) We’ll see who’s right. But if the GOP primary is as competitive as Block argues, the first TV face-off between the pair June 17 on WPRI 12 is looming as a big moment.

2. The latest issue of Architectural Digest says Providence is the country’s best small city. Agreed!

3. The news this week that Barry Fain, Buff Chace, John Howell and Matt Hayes are leading a local group trying to buy The Providence Journal has fueled new speculation about who else is in the hunt, and whether any of the other bidders are from Rhode Island. One person who isn’t showing his cards: Alfred Carpionato, the 71-year-old Cranston developer. Asked this week whether Carpionato had put in a bid for the newspaper, spokesman Gregg Perry told me: “Carpionato Group is going to decline to comment as it is the company’s policy to not discuss potential business acquisitions.” Fair enough. A key question going forward is whether any major newspaper chains like GateHouse and Gannett are interested in the Projo, and whether they’d offer more than a local group. Also, will the headquarters at 75 Fountain St. be part of the deal?

4. In other Providence Journal news, the paper has found a replacement for Phil Marcelo in its three-person State House bureau: Jennifer Bogdan, who currently covers casinos at the Atlantic City Press – a big beat down there, I’d imagine. Welcome, Jennifer!

5. The Rhode Island Constitution is pretty clear on the subject of borrowing money: “The general assembly shall have no powers, without the express consent of the people, to incur state debts to an amount exceeding $50,000, except in time of war, or in case of insurrection or invasion; nor shall it in any case, without such consent, pledge the faith of the state for the payment of the obligations of others.” Yet Rhode Islanders are frequently told they must pay unavoidable debts – $90 million for 38 Studios, $4 billion for pensions, $234 million for capital leases, and so on – that they never agreed to by referendum. Dismiss Andrew Morse as naive if you wish, but he raises valid questions about whether that’s kosher – questions that should be answered by those who are adamant that the 38 Studios bonds must be repaid. That constitutional provision was clearly aimed at limiting the unilateral power of state lawmakers to incur debts without voter approval (and it looks wiser than ever in the wake of the 38 Studios debacle). Does that mean Rhode Island should refuse to pay the 38 Studios bonds? Probably not – the potential collateral damage, financial and reputational, may be too great. But the entire affair shows the dangers inherent in state leaders’ wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to debt.

6. Speaking of debt: young Americans’ $1.1 trillion in student loans may be holding back the economy.

7. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from reporter Dan McGowan: “Speaker Mattiello poured cold water on legislation that would stop the state from using standardized-test results as part of its high school graduation requirements, but that doesn’t mean the Senate bill is dead on arrival in the House. Mattiello cited the various options for granting a waiver that school superintendents across the state can use if they believe a student is deserving of a high school diploma, but those close to him say he wasn’t pleased with the process after it was explained to him by state education officials. That’s not necessarily a sign that he’s backtracking on his opposition to the bill, but it is safe to say he may gave it an extra look. Robert Walsh, the executive director of National Education Association Rhode Island, took to Twitter to say he believes there is still hope for the legislation, writing: ‘Do not panic – I remain optimistic that House leadership will weigh the evidence and see fit to stop the Gist/NECAP academic death penalty.’ Mattiello is considered a friend to the business community and many of the more outspoken members of that group – including the Greatest Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association – oppose the legislation. Yet if the bill were to make it to the House floor it would likely pass with overwhelming support, as evidenced by the 53 representatives who supported a resolution last year that asked the board to reconsider the testing portion of the graduation requirements.”

8. Seems to me the upcoming Citizens Financial Group IPO, and what it means for the bank’s future more generally, should be bigger news in Rhode Island. (Here’s my explanation.)

9. Rhode Island got some decent economic news this week. The April jobs report showed unemployment falling to 8.3%, down from 9.2% in January, and this time it’s falling for the reason you want it to – 10,000 more Rhode Islanders are working now than at the start of the year. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to trust the monthly jobs numbers after the disappointing revisions to last year’s data; are we getting fooled again? It’s also a contrast with the separate survey of Rhode Island employers, which shows little change since January. So caveat emptor. The other piece of positive data came from the R.I. Department of Revenue, which reported income-tax withholding payments are 2% higher than expected through the first 10 months of the 2013-14 fiscal year. That suggests either more people are working or those who are working are getting paid more compared with expectations.

10. Will a bold-faced name be the next CEO of Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island?

11. Ralph Mollis may not have garnered the best headlines in recent weeks, but his campaign for the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination got a boost Friday with the announcement of its third union endorsement, as Mollis picked up the support of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers to go along with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328 and the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. RIBCO’s decision comes as the lieutenant governor field remains unsettled, with Frank Ferri thinking about challenging Mollis and Dan McKee. While Ferri would stand a strong chance of winning support from the more progressive unions backing Clay Pell for governor (NEARI, UNAP), Mollis is getting some labor traction of his own; the secretary of state is a survivor, and he shouldn’t be underestimated. Still, McKee has by far the most cash. That race remains a bit of a puzzle.

12. Writing in the FT this week, Brown University’s Ashutosh Varshney described Narenda Modi’s smashing victory in India’s election as “an electoral revolution.”

13. In a week where the issue of female newsroom leadership is making big headlines, it’s worth noting how many of Rhode Island journalism’s top decision-makers are women today. Examples: The Providence Journal’s executive editor is Karen Bordeleau, WPRI 12’s news director (and my boss) is Karen Rezendes, the AP Providence bureau’s top reporter is Michelle Smith, Rhode Island Public Radio’s news director is Catherine Welch, WLNE’s news director is Nicole Moye, Rhode Island Monthly’s editor is Sarah Francis, and the Newport Daily News’s executive editor is Sheila Mullowney. Additionally, the top executive at WPRO-AM is Cumulus Radio’s Rhode Island general manager, Barbara Haynes, and for many years our rivals in Cranston were led by Lisa Churchville.

14. Interesting read – Ted Siedle, Michael Oliver Weinberg, Connie M. Razza and Nicole Gelinas square off in a New York Times Room for Debate forum about pension investment transparency.

15. Thank you to loyal Saturday Morning Post readers Dave, Barbara and Kathryn for providing an important correction to last week’s item about the “2 Broke Girls” Rhode Island episode. Turns out a Hope resident wouldn’t have attended Ponaganset High School, as our original tipster thought; they’d likely go to Scituate High School, since Hope is a village there.

16. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the Cumberland Democratic Town Committee endorsed Gina RaimondoDan McKee, Guillaume De Ramel and Frank Caprio … the Sprinkler Fitters, Local 669 union endorsed Gina Raimondo … James DoyleJamie Doyle and two-thirds of the Pawtucket City Council endorsed Angel Taveras … the Scituate Republican Town Committee endorsed Allan Fung … the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791 endorsed Seth Magaziner … Providence’s Ward 9 Democratic City Committee endorsed Michael Solomon … and Linda Kushner endorsed Aaron Regunberg.

17. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items we published this week: an interview with S&P’s Rhode Island analyst about the 38 Studios bonds after it threatened a downgradeClay Pell backs paying the bonds … Gordon Fox’s lawyer disclosed a grand jury probe at a 38 Studios legal hearing … the AG hired an outside counsel to deal with Fox’s subpoena … the Providence Teachers Union candidates shared their perspectives … and Rhode Island police seized more than $15 million in assets over the last decade.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Santander Bank executive Michael A. Lee; M.R.T. Jewelers vice president David Audette. 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

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