STORY OF THE WEEK: Election denialism is no longer shocking or even surprising. Some contemporary conspiracy theories are so ludicrous that they induce laughter, even if the underlying facts involve …
STORY OF THE WEEK: Election denialism is no longer shocking or even surprising. Some contemporary conspiracy theories are so ludicrous that they induce laughter, even if the underlying facts involve matters of life and death. And while American voters repudiated election deniers running for office in many states last November -- in some cases by narrow margins – Donald Trump’s latest campaign makes the issue of election denialism more relevant. In the aftermath of 2020, some polls showed a large percentage of Republicans buying into Trump’s false narrative of a stolen election (although some people called the findings inflated). My inquiry into the extent of election denialism in Rhode Island (https://thepublicsradio.org/article/ri-website-offers-a-portal-into-a-world-of-conspiracy-theorists-and-election-deniers) found that it isn’t widespread, although an online rabbit hole is populated by people including a guy who calls himself the Lone Raccoon and MyPillow Mike Lindell, whose Missouri summits asserting widespread election fraud have attracted attendees from the Ocean State. Secretary of State Gregg Amore is among those touting the quality and transparency of elections in Rhode Island. Amore told me he considers Trump’s repetition of false information about the 2020 election the most serious threat to the nation – more than China, inflation or terrorism.
GOING MOBILE: There’s a chasm between how Peter Alviti describes the work of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and how his critics see it, with not much love lost between the two sides. The critics see Alviti as dismissive, while he questions where they get their information. Part of the issue is the presence of two competing visions. Some transit advocates want a big increase in non-car related modes of transportation. Alviti counters by saying how cars remain far and away the most prevalent way of getting around the state. “For the densest state in the country, we've got maybe a 3% usage rate of our transit system here in Rhode Island,” Alviti said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “So that's a symptom of a much bigger problem that I think should be addressed. But they need to talk to RIPTA about those issues.” (During Roundtable, we also included audio from some of the critics who sounded off during Alviti’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Finance Committee this week.) Alviti’s tenure as the longest serving cabinet member in Rhode Island appears certain to continue, since he has firm political support. At the same time, Gov. Dan McKee and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi have shown no public signs of rallying around Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s recent call for RIDOT to gain control of RIPTA.
CD1: The initial frenzy following U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s blockbuster news that he will be leaving Congress has subsided, resulting in a quieter phase, with House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, Helena Foulkes, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and White House staffer Gabe Amo as some of the biggest names considering a run. “These opportunities don’t come up every day, and I think I owe it to myself to look at it,’ Shekarchi said last week, adding that his timeline is “maybe a month” and the decision is “much more personal than it is political.” While the speakership is often considered the most powerful post in Rhode Island, Shekarchi’s comments make clear how seriously he is weighing a CD1 run. The race offers a way for Foulkes, a potential candidate for governor in 2026, to raise her profile. Matos also appears to be actively weighing a congressional campaign, although various factors, including her modest campaign balance of $488, lead some observers to suspect she will not run.
HOUSING: A 14-bill package unveiled last week by Speaker Shekarchi underscores a continued focus on the housing issue. The overarching idea appears to bring more efficiency to the process, thereby catalyzing the private sector. Government spending – including the $170 million approved last year for housing production – can only go so far in addressing the state’s decades-long housing crisis. That’s why encouraging a reversal of a long-running slump in housing starts is a smart focus. Still, the state’s housing problems have taken a long time to develop -- and broader economic conditions remain a strong influence -- so digging out is likely to be a slow process even under the best outlook. Meanwhile, Shekarchi’s most colorful response came when Ted Nesi asked if the package had been watered down due to concerns among local officials in some rural communities. “I had a woman from Glocester call me up, hysterical that … I was going to put a Chad Brown in the middle of Harmony,” the speaker said in part. “I don’t know where this idea – it’s a false narrative, it’s deliberate misinformation and it caused a lot of angst in a lot of communities.”
GINAWORLD: Sure, Gina Raimondo was an out of town media darling for a lot of the time when she was governor in Rhode Island. But that doesn’t hold a candle to Raimondo’s surging prominence within the Biden administration. As she marks her second anniversary as Commerce secretary, the former governor is the point person for the administration’s $52 billion initiative to build semiconductors in the U.S. That’s significant in itself. As The New York Times reported, new disclosures “show that the Biden administration is also keen on using federal dollars to reshape corporate America” – in part through preferences for firms that will not pursue stock buybacks and requirements for those seeking $150 million or more to offer quality child care. At the same time, Raimondo remains in the spotlight of the intersection of issues involving foreign policy and global trade. National security concerns “aren’t just limited to TikTok,” she told Bloomberg in an interview. “If what we’re worried about is Chinese-backed companies being on tens of millions of American phones, including members of the military and privacy concerns, data concerns, misinformation concerns - it doesn’t just apply to TikTok.” And, yes, Raimondo may travel to China this year.
If the idea of a Rhode Islander pursuing the presidency still seems like a long shot, Raimondo is nonetheless building the kind of portfolio that could enhance her prospects.
GREAT NORTH: It remains to be seen how lawmakers will alter Gov. Dan McKee’s proposal to make the first in what is intended to be a series of trims to the state sales tax, initially going from 7 percent to 6.85 percent. A new plan from McKee’s Massachusetts’ counterpart, Maura Healey, includes increasing a rental deduction, raising an annual tax credit for a qualifying dependent from $240 to $600, and hiking the point at which the estate tax kicks in from $1 million to $3 million.
CIVICS: The Media Education Lab at URI has launched Courageous RI, “an initiative to provide interactive, hands-on training that counters disinformation, enhances civic participation, and improves media literacy. Funded with a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Courageous RI was the only New England grant recipient in this national effort to prevent violence and extremism …. Courageous RI is a three-part, two-year initiative that begins with Courageous Conversations, a series of free, online workshops that engage the public in examining media messages and building media literacy skills for a lifetime. These sessions offer structured small-group and large-group discussions of topics including propaganda and disinformation, hate speech, and media regulation.”
MEDIA NEWS I: States Newsroom, the national nonprofit set to launch an online news outlet focused on state government in Rhode Island, has fleshed out its hiring, snapping up Nancy Lavin – who has done a lot of excellent work at PBN – along with former ProJo scribe Kevin Andrade, Chris Shea from Dartmouth Week, and of course, fearless leader Janine Weisman. More details – including a possible launch date – are expected next week. An office in Olneyville and an official mascot are already in place.
MEDIA NEWS II: Ocean State Stories, the new long-form journalism initiative from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University, can now be found online. The project is led by longtime former ProJo stalwart and author G. Wayne Miller. Here’s more detail via a recent news release: An ad-free non-profit media outlet, oceantatestories.org is devoted to issues that matter to all of Rhode Island. Content is being published in English and Spanish—and by the platform’s print newspaper partners, including the Warwick Beacon, the Cranston Herald, and the Johnston SunRise, which will bring Ocean State Stories reporting to an even broader audience. ‘I’m thrilled that this platform will allow for a deeper dive into issues I have explored as a journalist for four decades in Rhode Island,’ said Miller, who along with local freelancers will report and write the stories. ‘I’m really looking forward to showcasing the work of local freelance journalists as we expand this initiative in the weeks and months to come.’ ”
TAKES OF THE WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders
State Rep. BARARA ANN FENTON-FUNG (R-Cranston): Recently, news outlets have highlighted how domestic violence rates have been skyrocketing -- it's been the number one felony charge in the state over the past three years. This year, bipartisan legislation led by myself has been introduced to allow victims of stalking, domestic violence, or sexual assault to be able to get out of their rental leases after an order of protection has been issued, removing themselves from danger. Common sense bills like these can protect the nearly one in three women and one in four men who statistically will become victims in their lifetime escape even greater harm, & I look forward to getting this over the finish line.
PATRICK CROWLEY, secretary-treasurer of the RI AFL-CIO: The week after the winter break in the General Assembly always seems to be like the first week of the regular season in baseball. There are a number of new bills that will continue to push the state forward to reaching the goals of the Act on Climate, but I’m very excited to see Rep. Art Handy’s bill, H-6008, introduced. It would require all public schools in Rhode Island to be carbon- neutral by 2035. It is another chance to combine the power of the labor movement and the environmental movement to make meaningful progress on decarbonizing the Rhode Island economy.
State Rep. BRIAN C. NEWBERRY (R-North Smithfield): In the past week both the U.S. Department of Energy and the FBI, to varying degrees of confidence, have concluded -- like noted arch-conservative talk show host Jon Stewart before them -- that Covid-19 may have originated in a Chinese virus lab close to Ground Zero. This should surprise exactly no one. Yet for a time, even suggesting that obvious possibility was enough to get one ridiculed on network TV and banned from social media networks. Similarly, many other shibboleths have proven false, such as that Hunter Biden’s laptop was a “Russian plant” or that the Covid-19 vaccine prevented transmission of the disease, two other things that got people who questioned them mocked and silenced. All of this dissent to the public narrative relentlessly spread by the national press corps -- always running in one political direction it seems -- was constantly referred to as “disinformation” by the powers that be. “Propaganda” and “disinformation” are real to be sure, but they emanate from all quarters of the political spectrum. Worse, given that they are often in the eye of the beholder, those terms are increasingly being used to silence anyone who questions “conventional wisdom” as set by the government and an increasingly supine national press corps often more interested in pushing personal viewpoints, appearing on TV and selling books then actually reporting the truth. Beware those who claim a monopoly on the facts yet refuse to engage in actual debate with dissenters or even acknowledge their own errors.
State Sen. VICTORIA GU (D-Charlestown): I’m glad to have House and Senate leadership that takes the rising cost of housing seriously. Our towns in South County have not made much progress toward the goal of having 10 percent of our housing stock be affordable, and while the towns bear some responsibility for that, it’s worth noting that we have only one nonprofit developer in the area (South County Habitat for Humanity), and Washington County Community Development Corporation is defunct. So even with the $166 million RFP released this year for affordable housing construction, we lack developer capacity. That’s a shame because our town councilors and residents here have many ideas. A South County approach to housing will mean 1) tackling our severe shortage of year-round rental housing, through accessory dwelling units and regulations on Airbnb 2) repurposing land we have already developed: old commercial buildings, motels, etc. 3) putting in more infrastructure (septic, water) and public transit to support affordable housing 4) building for climate resiliency, planning for sea level rise, and minimizing the degradation of our groundwater, wetlands and salt water ponds. I’m glad that some of these ideas are in the housing bill package that Speaker Shekarchi announced on Thursday. In the coming year I will make sure to advocate for resources and technical assistance to help our towns carry out their ideas for affordable housing.
State Rep. DAVID MORALES (D-Providence): Earlier this week, there was an unprecedented presence at the Statehouse: dozens of renters hosted a press conference to share their horrifying experiences of being forced to live in deplorable housing conditions because of our state’s lack of tenant protections and lack of urgency to enforce existing laws. While sharing their experiences, this passionate group of tenants also presented an array of policy solutions that they called on our state Legislature to pass. Most of these bills were actually heard Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee, such as legislation to prohibit rental application fees, a 120-day notice for rent increases, limiting rent increases to once per year, and limiting the use of credit and background checks for housing. And unlike previous years where these committee hearings were dominated with corporate lobbyists representing property management companies and landlords, this hearing had a strong presence of renters in between struggling families, seniors, and tenants sharing their hardships. While the discussion about our state’s housing crisis is generally centered around the need to build new, affordable units, we also need to ensure that we’re prioritizing the needs of current renters who are struggling with housing insecurity.
LOYAL OPPOSITION: Back in 2010, Gio Cicione, the chairman of the RI GOP at the time, told me he thought the party would benefit from a shift in the national mood and the emergence of conservative groups such as the Tea Party: “These are grassroots movements that create transformational change. We saw that a bit with Obama’s campaign, and I think we see it dramatically this year with regular folks that are showing up. These are not, you know, 100 percent Republican loyalists. They are people that may not even care for the party label one way or another, but really just want to see some change. We’re presenting ourself as a vehicle for that change.” Thirteen years later, with Republicans holding nine of 75 seats in the RI House and five of 38 in the Senate, the local GOP is still facing an uphill slog. Cicione, who was succeeded by Ken McKay in 2010, is considering running for GOP chair in an upcoming election. For now, the only announced candidate in the race to succeed outgoing Chairwoman Sue Cienki is Joe Powers, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate last year.
KICKER: Even amid the uncertainty facing the Red Sox in 2023 (and dubious moves by the team’s management), there’s something nice about the return of baseball, the longer amount of sunlight in the afternoon, and the crispness of the light when the sun shines in March.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com