OP-ED

Grassroots pressure can reshape political landscape

Posted 9/8/21

Back in 2018, then-House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello downplayed the threat to abortion rights in the U.S., telling The Public's Radio, "Roe v.Wade is not going to be overturned. I think that's a concern that's not rooted in reality." Gov. Dan McKee,

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OP-ED

Grassroots pressure can reshape political landscape

Posted

Back in 2018, then-House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello downplayed the threat to abortion rights in the U.S., telling The Public’s Radio, “Roe v.Wade is not going to be overturned. I think that’s a concern that’s not rooted in reality.”

Gov. Dan McKee, lieutenant governor at the time, made similar remarks in 2018, telling us that he didn’t think Roe would be overturned, and he questioned the value of a state-based abortion-rights law.

Women activists had a different view. They described a present and growing threat – and it was their grassroots activist pressure that pushed a reluctant General Assembly to pass the legislation known as the Reproductive Health Care Act in 2019.

For supporters of abortion-rights, that looks prescient now that Texas, with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, has effectively banned abortions after six weeks. Where things go from here is hard to predict; Nina Totenberg, NPR’s longtime SCOTUS reporter, said the decision by the court’s conservative majority “tossed a legal bomb into the abortion debate.”

While opponents of abortion-rights are heartened, those on the other side remain alarmed by the national direction.

“These bans [like the one in Texas] don’t curb the need for abortion care, but they make it much more difficult, costly, and dangerous to obtain one,” Gretchen Raffa of Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island said in a statement.

Ultimately, there are at least two key takeaways: the most divisive issues in American culture are relentlessly persistent, even if they seem dormant at times. And as seen in Rhode Island, grassroots pressure can fundamentally change the prevailing political landscape.

***

Will Providence City Council President John Igliozzi, who has represented Ward 7 since the late 1990s, and state Rep. Ramon Perez (D-Providence) try to trade seats next year? Both men say this is possible, although they add that no final decision has been made.

Running for the House seat held by Perez would solve a dead-end for Igliozzi, part of a well-known political family from Silver Lake, since term limits preclude him from seeking re-election. (It would also require him to give up his well-paid job as chief of staff at RIDOT, since state employees can’t serve as state lawmakers.) Igliozzi tells me he’s exploring different options, including a possible run for secretary of state. (Rep. Gregg Amore, an East Providence Democrat, is expected to announce his run for that post later this month.)

Asked if he and Perez have discussed pursuing each other’s elected roles, Igliozzi said, “Those conversations are always ongoing.”

For his part, Perez – who in 2016 won the rep seat formerly held by John Carnevale and won it back last year by defeating fellow Democrat Mario Mendez – concedes that his interests align more with city-based issues than the wide variety of legislation on Smith Hill.

“I might do it,” Perez said of a run for council in Ward 7.

***

Rhode Island House Whip Katherzine Kazarian has been among the top beneficiaries of the leadership change in the House sparked by former Speaker Mattiello’s defeat in his state rep district last November. She went from the sidelines to being the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber. (In seconding Joe Shekarchi’s nomination as speaker last November, Kazarian expressed relief about how reps would, in her words, no longer be bullied or ostracized.)

Kazarian is now pursuing law school at Roger Williams University, she’s engaged, and she and her fiancé have moved into a home just a few blocks from her family’s place in Rumford.

Asked how she tries as whip to foster agreement among the different Democratic factions in the House, Kazarian said (via Political Roundtable): “I do find that no matter how members label themselves in the chambers, most of us want the same things. We want our constituents to have job opportunities, we want them to be able to afford housing, we want them to be able to send their children to great schools.”

That sounds good, but Rhode Island remains a work in progress when it comes to creating great schools, let alone a sufficient amount of housing and job opportunities. And that could help explain why, despite the new era of good feeling in the House, establishment Democrats can expect more challenges next year from both Republicans and a more muscular progressive movement.

***

After repeatedly shifting his stance last week on the development controversy involving Chief of Staff Tony Silva, Gov. Dan McKee last week announced Silva’s exit from state government.

“Right now, his situation is a distraction from the critical work we have ahead,” McKee said in a statement. “I appreciate that Tony understands the need to remove the distraction to ensure we can continue serving Rhode Islanders effectively.”

Antonio Afonso Jr., previously a partner in a law firm that paid more than $4 million in the state’s 38 Studios lawsuit, has been promoted to take over Silva’s role as chief of staff.

***

The scene on Fairview Lane in Portsmouth – which crumpled like soggy paper towels after heavy downpours last week – reflects the unpredictable fallout of climate change. Parts of the East Bay have been hit by a growing number of power outages in recent years, so that could be another harbinger.

Whip Kazarian has raised concern about the issue. “Frankly, it has gotten to the point that whenever there is a little bit of rain and wind, everyone is concerned about whether the power will stay on or not,” she said in a December 2020 statement, citing four outages in the previous eight months. “And for the amount of money we pay for power, which is one of the highest rates in the country, these constant service outages are unacceptable.”

During her appearance on Roundtable, Kazarian was asked what she has learned about the frequency of these sorts of power outages. She said getting answers has proven difficult, in part since National Grid didn’t send a representative to legislative hearings on the issue. “They weren’t there to answer our questions and really talk about the outages that we’ve been experiencing.”

Kazarian said she may look to establish a commission to delve into the outage issue.

Asked for comment, Grid spokesman Ted Kresse said via email, “We recognize Rep. Kazarian’s concerns with outages in her district and we’ve had multiple conversations with her about the issue. We’ve also shared that there is currently a study underway looking at different feeders in the East Bay area, which might identify if there are system improvements that can be made to help address any ongoing issues. The House Corporations committee ultimately recommended Rep. Kazarian’s legislation be sent for further study, and we will continue to work with her to resolve any ongoing concerns.”

***

When President Biden spoke last week on the end of the war in Afghanistan, he mentioned the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Some of the latest findings from the project: “Twenty years of U.S. increased homeland security and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since September 11, 2001 have come with a price tag of $8 trillion, including the costs of veterans’ care through 2050. The wars have directly killed an estimated 897,000 to 929,000 people – a conservative estimate, according to the Costs of War Project, which today published updates to its comprehensive and widely cited numbers on the true human and budgetary costs of the post-9/11 wars. Dr. Neta C. Crawford, co-director of the Costs of War Project, said, ‘The deaths we tallied are likely a vast undercount of the true toll these wars have taken on human life. It’s critical we properly account for the vast and varied consequences of the many U.S. wars and counterterror operations since 9/11, as we pause and reflect on all of the lives lost.’”

***

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed on the extent to which the handling of the end of the war will damage President Biden and his ability to accomplish his agenda: “I think it will complicate it significantly. I think also, too, it will depend a great deal on what happens in the next several weeks and months. If there is some cooperation from the Taliban, if [a] significant number of Afghanis are allowed to leave, if we have – and we’re building – effective ways to constrain ISIS and other radical elements, then I don’t think it will be as challenging to his administration. But if the government of Afghanistan deteriorates, destabilizes, if it spreads to other parts of the region, particularly Pakistan, and if there are terrorist incidents, I think it will be, rightly or wrongly, attributed to his decision.”

***

TGIF recently took note of a compilation by RI Rank in posing a question on what effect environmental issues will have in legislative races in the year ahead. The Environmental Council of RI reached out to indicate it is not affiliated with RI Rank and does not endorse RI Rank’s ranking of legislators. ECRI publishes its own biennial Green Report Card on lawmakers’ environmental records.

***

The 2022 election season offers an opportunity for voters to sound off on the issues – and even to consider how some current state general offices might change to take on different concerns.

Writing at UpriseRI, Andy Boardman makes the case that the general treasurer could play a valuable role by taking on economic inequality.

Excerpt: “The secret weapon is Rhode Island’s $10 billion pension fund, which invests the retirement savings of tens of thousands of public employees. At the treasurer’s lead, the pension system buys stakes in companies, private equity funds and hedge funds. These stakes translate directly into power in corporate boardrooms and, by extension, the economy at large – after all, shareholder clout is the core around which modern American capitalism revolves.”

***

The decennial process of redrawing state legislative districts in Rhode Island will kick off in earnest when the Special Commission on Reapportionment holds its first meeting this Thursday, September 9, at 4 p.m. in Room 313 at the Statehouse.

According to a legislative news release, “It will be an organizational meeting that will include the election of the co-chairs, one from the House and one from the Senate. A presentation will be made by Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Service Inc., a consulting firm from Virginia that will assist the commission. Public comment will also be taken.”

While legislative leaders talk a good game about an open and fair process, redistricting has often been used in Rhode Island to punish enemies and reward friends of leadership. The stakes are even higher this time around, given how progressives made some significant gains in the state Senate in 2020.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@IanDon). For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis

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