NEWS

Judicial picks highlight competing dynamics

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 12/16/20

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo

 made a legacy move last week with a slate of judicial nominations that appear bound to give the state Supreme Court its first-ever female …

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NEWS

Judicial picks highlight competing dynamics

Posted

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo made a legacy move last week with a slate of judicial nominations that appear bound to give the state Supreme Court its first-ever female majority.

The presence of two openings on the high court made things a lot easier for the governor, since she was able to pick both Erin Lynch Prata, the outgoing chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Superior Court Melissa Long, who is poised to be the first person of color on the Supreme Court.

Bolstering her record for promoting diversity on the bench, Raimondo also nominated Linda Rekas Sloan, expected to be the first Asian-American Superior Court judge in the state, and Elizabeth Ortiz, who would the state’s first Latina Family Court judge.

Still, it’s impossible to take the politics out of judicial nominations. Most notably, Lynch Prata was seen as ticketed for the Supreme Court from the time when she revealed her interest. And Richard Raspallo, formerly legal counsel for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, got a nomination to step up from magistrate to Superior Court judge.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, summed up the competing dynamics when he called the governor’s picks historic while also pointing out some concerns: “[L]et’s not lose sight of the fact that the revolving door is dead and the magistrate loophole remains. Also worth noting that Raimondo sat on two of these lists for 18 months and got one of them last night. That’s not a sign of a healthy process. Many lawyers had to wait a year and a half to discover their fate, and one who made last night’s list likely wasn’t even interviewed."

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If you think the reach of COVID-19 is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, you’re not alone. Many of us know a friend, relative or neighbor who has tested positive. That was the case last week for Brett Smiley, director of the state Department of Administration, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Department of Health. Attorney General Peter Neronha tested negative, although he was in quarantine since a member of his household tested positive. Gov. Gina Raimondo has also quarantined after Alexander-Scott’s positive test. In New Hampshire, the death of the recently elected speaker of the House was attributed to COVID. This growing reach isn’t surprising, given spiking infections and warnings of how things will get worse this winter before they get better. But the stress and frustration continue to rise, due to the widespread impacts from the pandemic.

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With a new General Assembly session set to start next month, how much will things really change? Will the election of more progressive lawmakers and the emergence of a new leadership team in the House spark some dramatic differences to a tradition-bound legislative culture? Those are some of the questions I examined in a story last week for The Public’s Radio. A few things are clear so far: Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s leadership is tacking to the left on some progressive concerns, and Speaker in waiting Joe Shekarchi’s affable temperament is welcome after the mercurial tenure of outgoing Speaker Mattiello.

 A significant signpost of where things are headed will come when the two chambers establish their rules early in the new session.

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As Common Cause’s John Marion notes, the biggest gripe on Smith Hill is how power is too concentrated in leadership, with the speaker and Senate president deciding which bills emerge from committee.

One of the most dramatic episodes illustrating this came in 2013, when then-Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill  upset the apple cart by engineering a House Judiciary Committee vote on a stalled ethics bill. Observers called it an example of democracy breaking out on Smith Hill, and then-Speaker Gordon Fox  was initially flummoxed, but he regrouped. A day after the unsanctioned committee vote, the House leadership declared the vote null and void.

It took a change in House leadership, another three years and more unflattering headlines about state lawmakers before Speaker Mattiello  put his support behind allowing voters to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly.

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The drumbeat of 2022 Democratic gubernatorial candidates road-testing their messages will only get louder in the year ahead. Watch for Lt. Gov. Dan McKee  to tout his advocacy for small business, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea to highlight election security, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to mention improvements in the capital city’s financial standing.

For General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the narrative flows from his top responsibility – managing the state’s $8 billion pension fund.

“Last year, we outperformed 87 percent of other large public pension plans around the country in our investment performance,” Magaziner said on Political Roundtable this week.

Of course, not all is so rosy with pensions in RI. Magaziner’s office has documented, for example, how locally administered pension plans face more than $2 billion in liability, and many are severely underfunded.

“The answer is, it takes political courage for leaders in those communities and the unions that represent the employees to come together and make tough decisions,” the treasurer said. “In many cases, the complicated part of solving these local pension problems is not the math or the financial side, it’s the politics.”

Magaziner points to how the state took over Central Falls’ pension plan as a success story. But that example is the exception to the rule – and that underscores how solutions remain elusive for the wider problem.

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The $12.7 billion budget passed this week by House Finance – set for a 3 p.m. vote Wednesday when the House meets at Veterans Memorial Auditorium – includes $400 million in proposed borrowing, mostly for higher education, housing and transportation. Voters will decide in a special election tentatively planned for March 2 whether to support that debt.

For his part, Treasurer Magaziner calls the borrowing an important part of the state’s post-pandemic recovery: “We need economic stimulus, so we can have a strong and broad recovery,” he said on Roundtable. “Through the use of state bonding, we can put Rhode Islanders to work on projects that will create jobs in the short term but also help our economic productivity over the long term … This level of bonding is not necessarily something that would be appropriate every year, but in a recessionary environment like we are in now, we have to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that when the economy reopens there are jobs for people to go back to.”

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Rhode Island poli-media people on the move: Nora Crowley got named this week as policy advisor in the Rhode Island Senate, succeeding Kate Bramson (who did a great job on the business beat in her previous incarnation as a ProJo reporter). Bramson indicated she is looking for new opportunities …. Lauren Clem  is moving up as deputy editor at The Valley Breeze …. Stephen Neuman, a former chief of staff for Gov. Raimondo who ran six states for the Biden campaign, got promoted at American Airlines, VP of global government affairs … Last but certainly not least, Patricia Socarras  is moving from her role as press secretary for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to a new gig as deputy communications director for Treasurer Magaziner.

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Universal basic income – the idea popularized by Andrew Yang  during the Democratic presidential primaries – continues to gain attention. Last week, Providence Mayor Elorza  joined Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI) when the group received a $15 million grant to launch or expand UBI efforts in Providence and other cities.

Since the pandemic is blamed for worsening already significant problems with income inequality, I asked Treasurer Magaziner whether he supports UBI and what steps he advocates to counter inequality. His response on Roundtable: “We need to make sure that working people can keep more of the wealth and income that they generate … Certainly, at the state level, as the economy reopens, we should look at raising the minimum wage, we should look at expanding the earned-income tax credit, so that working families can keep more of the money that they earn. And the universal basic income concept, I think, is an interesting one. I don’t think it’s necessarily affordable at the state or local level, but I do think it’s a conversation at the federal level that’s worth having.”

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Attorney General Peter Neronha last week unveiled a civil rights team and a new approach to investigations.

“While increasing and expanding civil rights work has been one of my top priorities, our goal is to build and embed an approach that lives well beyond my administration,” Neronha said in a statement. “We adopted this new structure after reviewing similar models in other states for best practices and engaging in many conversations with advocates, community organizations and elected officials. The public should know they have a place to go with their concerns. If you have allegations concerning civil rights matters, we want to hear from you. We want to know about them. And if there is action to be taken, we will take it.”

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We send out our condolences to Peter Baptista, no stranger to Rhode Island politics, and his family on the loss of Ernie Baptista, who, as his obituary noted, was “an advisor, confidante, and sounding board to politicians near and far. Closer to home, Ernie was a high school classmate and friend of U.S. Senator Jack Reed, and he served as the campaign treasurer for U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Both men were among Ernie’s close friends; he treasured their relationships. Ernie also created his own so-called political kitchen cabinet through regular lunches and daily phone calls with his dearest friends: Ed McElroy, Joe Walsh, Don Sweitzer, Joe Shekarchi, Joe Paolino, and the late Mark Weiner.”

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Via Politico, a Wisconsin Democrat on why Democrats keep losing rural counties like his. Excerpt: “Why did Trump do so well with rural voters? From my experience, it’s not because local Democrats failed to organize in rural areas. Instead, after conversations with dozens of voters, neighbors, friends and family members in Dunn County, I’ve come to believe it is because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences. The pain and struggle in my community is real, yet rural people do not feel it is taken seriously by the Democratic Party.”

15) Just when you think you know most of the big names in RI political history, along comes G. William Miller, native Oklahoman who later worked for Textron and became the first person to serve as both U.S. Treasury secretary and chairman of the Federal Reserve. The ever-alert Scott MacKay  piped up about Miller after Ted Nesi wrote about the question of the last Rhode Islander to serve in a presidential cabinet. To bring the story up to the present with a Rhody twist: while about 15 performers belong to Club EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), President-elect Biden’s choice to lead Treasury, Brown alum Janet Yellen, is the economic EGOT, with past experience leading the Fed and the Council of Economic Advisers.

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If you haven’t check out Mosaic, the immigration podcast from The Public’s Radio, take a listen – I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The latest episode delves into history, looking into who killed powerful Rhode Island mill owner Amasa Sprague in 1843.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

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