Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Sept. 19


Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. With the 38 Studios court documents finally set to be released next week, it’s a good time to step back and consider what might actually make news. One of the first questions that will be answered: who got deposed? A court spokesman confirmed Friday that 66 depositions are going to be released, and we already know some familiar names will be on the list: Don CarcieriLincoln ChafeeGina RaimondoGordon FoxRose GalloglyKeith Stokes, etc. Will there be any surprises when it comes to who got questioned? Apart from that, I’d expect potential revelations about two time periods – the beginning and the end. As Tim White and I reported last month, lawyers say Gordon Fox played an earlier role in getting the ball rolling for 38 Studios than he ever admitted. What else will we learn about the actions of Fox and his associates, as well as other leading lawmakers (past and present)? It won’t just be those who put the deal together under the microscope, though – there will be additional scrutiny of Chafee’s decision-making in the company’s final months. Much of the money went out on his watch – what safeguards for taxpayers did he put in place once he took office? Was he warned the company was on the rocks? Did he and the EDC board do anything to mitigate the collapse? Suffice to say that quite a few people could see their reputations tarnished in the coming weeks.

2. Kathy Gregg’s dogged pursuit of documents from inside the R.I. Department of Transportation yielded gold this week with the release of a consultant’s 29-page draft report on the agency’s many problems. The study was commissioned by ex-director Mike Lewis, and it contains a host of facts and figures that shed light on RIDOT’s operational issues. (You can read the whole thing here.) RIDOT Director Peter Alviti told my colleague Perry Russom the report shows he inherited a “broken” agency, and argued his team is moving to turn things around. Governor Raimondo has both a big opportunity and a big challenge at RIDOT. The opportunity is obvious: the state’s approach to transportation is a mess, and if Rhode Islanders eventually see tangible signs of improvement, the political rewards could be significant. Yet there’s a reason RIDOT is notoriously problem-plagued; its millions in lucrative contracts offer a juicy wink-wink reward for political donations. And hiring Alviti – a former official at the same Laborers union that has been among Raimondo’s most loyal supporters and whose members want jobs from RIDOT – raised eyebrows. The governor’s handling of the agency could wind up saying a lot about her approach.

3. Former Rep. Lisa Tomasso, a Coventry Democrat who was on Speaker Mattiello’s leadership team until her unexpected defeat last fall, will seek a rematch against Republican Sherry Roberts. And she’s not wasting any time: the Kent County Daily Times reports Tomasso held a well-attended fundraiser Sept. 10, more than a year before the election. “We are getting an early start because campaigns are always marathons and I’m a runner,” Tomasso told the paper. Presumably she’ll have strong support from House Democrats’ campaign machine.

4. It seemed like the PawSox owners were finally having a quiet week until Speaker Mattiello made headlines late Friday by saying talks between the team and the state have stopped. While that didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention in recent weeks, it’s further evidence that Jim Skeffington’s original proposal for a ballpark on the I-195 land is, if not dead, on life support. That’s left Larry Lucchino and his co-owners huddling to figure out their next move. With Victory Place seemingly off the table, there could be more pressure on them to reconsider McCoy Stadium, not only from Mayor Grebien but from Governor Raimondo, too. So would critics who’ve been railing against subsidies for a stadium change their tune if the subsidies are spent in Pawtucket rather than Providence? Sam Bell, chair of Stop the Stadium Deal, left the door open to that. “We don’t think spending public money on McCoy is a very good idea, but our focus is on stopping the main deal,” he said. “If public money is going to be spent on McCoy, we would hope that PawSox owners will pay the state back over time.” (Of course, Ben Mondor never did.)

[4a. Update – the PawSox have pulled the plug on the 195 proposal.]

5. The University of Massachusetts’ endowment has reached a record high of $768 million. To put that in perspective, URI’s endowment totaled just $110 million as of last year. (UConn’s is over $400 million.)

6. David Preston’s New Harbor Group is out with its biennial report on campaign donations in Rhode Island, and once again it paints an illuminating picture of how the state’s top business leaders do and don’t engage. (Preston defined those leaders as “the 253 people who served on the governing boards of the four largest chambers of commerce and RIPEC” in 2014.) New Harbor finds 55% of the business leaders contributed to a campaign during the 2014 cycle, up from 47% in 2012. It also finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gina Raimondo was far and away their favorite: she raised $60,855 from them, six times more than Allan Fung. As for General Assembly races, just 1% of the $2.7 million that legislative candidates raised came from the business leaders – and most of that money went to incumbent Democratic leaders. Preston suggested it all may have a ripple effect at the State House, saying: “In politics, groups that fill the vacuum with support for candidates who share their views will likely carry the day, while groups that don’t participate effectively are often disappointed.” (The report was compiled by New Harbor interns Nathan McGuireKate Mancosh and Matthew Romano.)

7. Rhode Island’s Iran divestment law has cost Rhode Island more than Iran, Ian Donnis reports. And now Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, a vocal proponent of the legislation, won’t even talk to Donnis about it.

8. The announcement that the South County Independent and its sister weekly will merge got me thinking about the oft-noted success of The Valley Breeze, Tom Ward’s 19-year-old free weekly in northern Rhode Island. The Breeze distributes more than 62,000 papers a week and has a market penetration rate of 87% in its top two communities, Cumberland and Lincoln, so I asked Ward for his take on the future of community news. “I think The Valley Breeze is unique because, as a free paper that is not mailed, it has to have a solid and important news presence in the community,” he said in an email. “What we save at the post office can be put into writing and reporting local news. When we do that, residents go out of their way to get The Valley Breeze each week.” Ward said his paper – ably led since its start by Marcia Green, and boasting reporters with statewide influence like Ethan Shorey – isn’t immune to digital disruption, and is working to adapt. “Our future is challenged by the internet and Facebook,” he said. “If all of our advertisers ‘get their heads turned’ by those platforms, or colorful and pretty free monthly magazines with little serious readership, our future and efforts will dim.” But he emphasized: “We are nowhere near that day.”

9. A tribal casino in Taunton just came a big step closer to reality.

10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Notably absent from the ongoing dispute between Mayor Elorza and the Providence firefighters has been the City Council, a conscious decision in part because the legislative body had no way to block the mayor from moving from four platoons to three. But the 15-member, all-Democratic group broke its silence in a big way Thursday, unanimously approving resolutions to hire an outside lawyer to give them a ‘second opinion’ on the legal fight between the city and the union and to urge the mayor to hire a new class of firefighters as soon as possible. Neither decision suggests outright opposition to the mayor’s attempt to curb overtime costs in the fire department, but it is a clear sign that the council is struggling to support the plan. To date, no member of the council has publicly endorsed the decision; privately, most have expressed strong skepticism. So does that lack of support really matter? Not initially. The truth is the council has the advantage of having no role in the initial changes, allowing them to remain friendly with both sides. But now that they’re seeing the union score a big initial victory in court and nearly half of the entire $5-million callback budget eaten up in the first five pay periods of the fiscal year, they’re feeling the need to take action. If they don’t begin to see savings and Elorza doesn’t move forward with a new class of firefighters, the next step could be to pass a resolution that is critical of the changes. That’s something no one wants, in part because a public spat between the administration and the council could set off alarms on the state level, where officials are already concerned about Providence’s shaky finances. For now, the council is making it clear it’s monitoring the situation. Council President Luis Aponte told me he expects to bring in a lawyer in the next two weeks.”

11. Check out McGowan’s terrific overview on the Elorza-firefighter battle.

12. Also on the firefighting front, this Washington Post op-ed on why America has fewer fires but more firefighters is an interesting read. The International Association of Fire Fighters published its response here.

13. While much attention has been focused of late (and justifiably so) on the roundly criticized Don Lally hire, Governor Raimondo and her aides say they’re continuing to work on changing the state’s business climate. They got a shot in the arm with a glowing profile of the governor in the new Fortune magazine, an opportunity for Raimondo to pitch Rhode Island – and herself – to the national business elite. More substantively, they rolled out a new Business Navigation Center they hope companies will use, and they held an event to help employers who want to win the new Real Jobs RI training grants. The latter effort has a big fan in Max Brickle, president of his family’s eponymous Woonsocket textile company, who is part of a group that wants to train manufacturing workers. On this week’s Executive Suite, he described Real Jobs RI as a “phenomenal” initiative and said the governor and Commerce RI are doing “an excellent job” reaching out to manufacturers. He also praised Lou Francis, who leads Commerce RI’s procurement-assistance arm, and said he’s working with Commerce Secretary Stefan Pyror to lure an existing manufacturer and its 150 to 200 jobs to Rhode Island.

14. Speaking of Fortune, don’t miss the magazine’s profile of CVS Health executive Helena Foulkes, a Providence native widely seen as a likely successor to CEO Larry Merlo. (Her name is also likely to pop up when the 38 Studios documents are released; she was Lincoln Chafee’s top appointee to the EDC board until she abruptly resigned due to differences with him about how to handle the company’s crisis.)

15. Ariana Grande is my new hero.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Brickle Group President Max Brickle; Moran Shipping Agencies principal Gavin Black. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sunday nights at 6 on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. 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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