TALKING POLITICS

Mail voting, election uncertainty, term limits and more

By IAN DONNIS
Posted 8/6/20

With fewer than 100 days left until the November 3 election, local and national forces converged this week. That was evident in how the Republican National Committee joined the RI GOP in opposing the suspension of witness/notary requirements for voting

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TALKING POLITICS

Mail voting, election uncertainty, term limits and more

Posted

With fewer than 100 days left until the November 3 election, local and national forces converged this week. That was evident in how the Republican National Committee joined the RI GOP in opposing the suspension of witness/notary requirements for voting by mail. U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy backed the move to strike the requirements. “Removing the witness and notary requirement in the midst of a deadly pandemic will protect people’s health and their right to vote,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the RI ACLU, which brought a lawsuit in the case. “It was the right thing to do.” The RI GOP sees the situation quite differently – “The ACLU’s lawsuit is not about protecting public health. It is about undermining the integrity of our election” – and the RNC is appealing McElroy’s decision.

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A must-watch recent PBS Frontline documentary shows how Alex Jones, Roger Stone and President Trump brought conspiracy theories into the American political mainstream. The Census Bureau is cutting short critical door-knocking efforts as part of the 2020 Census, a step that may not help Rhode Island as it tries to retain two congressional seats. And the possibility of a contested election has a bipartisan group of people who game out such things warning of the possibility, as The Boston Globe reported, of “street-level violence and political impasse.”

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Back on Smith Hill, Democrats maintain an iron grip on power. So maybe it’s not surprising that Justin Katz, in a report for the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity found that organized labor in Rhode Island overwhelmingly supports Democrats. Incumbency brings a lot of advantages, and legislative leaders have a series of levers that help reinforce their power, including fat campaign accounts, patronage and legislative grants. Even the RI AFL-CIO’s George Nee acknowledges the downside of the status quo, having told the ProJo in 2008 that the utter dominance of one party “is terrible for the state … I think a viable competitive two-party system is good for everybody. It makes people have to work hard, and it makes people really have to consult with their constituents; nobody gets complacent.” Yet politics is a participatory sport, and it’s not the labor movement’s fault if other interest groups don’t pursue a comparable level of political activity. As in Massachusetts, Republicans have shown an ability to capture the governor’s office in Rhode Island, holding it through two terms apiece for Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri, from 1995 to 2011. In the General Assembly, such Republicans as past and present House Minority Leaders Brian Newberry and Blake Filippi have played a prominent role in leading the opposition and raising policy concerns. Yet fostering a more competitive two-party system requires a range of approaches sustained over time – including good candidates, financial support, and an appealing message – beyond just pointing to the relative strength of labor.

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Extended unemployment benefits have run out for Americans, amplifying the economic fallout from the pandemic. U.S. Senate Republicans unveiled their latest stimulus ($1 trillion) proposal this week, and some in the GOP express concern about incenting people to stay home. Democrats are pushing for a much larger multi-trillion-dollar package. Asked if he’s concerned about saddling future generations with excessive debt, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed told me the bigger concern is unrelenting damage to the U.S. economy. “This is about maintaining the capability of the economy for as long as we can until we get the disease defeated and we’re not back to growth,” Reed said. “But there’s a fallacy thinking, ‘oh, if we just stop right now and don’t do anything, things will get better.’ No, they’ll probably get much worse.”

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State Rep. John Lombardi (D-Providence) offered a provocative idea during a candidates’ forum last week sponsored by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association: a six-year term limit for the House speaker. This has about a 0.0 percent chance of happening. Lombardi is not part of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s team and he sits in one of the “penalty box” seats reserved in front of the House rostrum for perceived mischief-makers. And Mattiello, who became speaker in 2014, is in no rush to leave. He’s repeatedly said he wants to oversee the complete phaseout of the car tax. But the longer speakers stay in office, the more challenges develop, and the more likely an attempted palace coup. Lawyer-lobbyist William Murphy of West Warwick remains the rare recent example of a former speaker who left of his own volition, sans scandal or indictment. It might be too optimistic to think that limiting what is often called the state’s most powerful political post would set clear parameters on tenure, potentially raising the speaker’s focus on how much can be accomplished in any six-year period. But it’s worth considering.

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The Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick had a good read on the skirmishes between GOP supporters of President Trump in Rhode Island and never-Trumpers like former state senator Dawson Hodgson and former RIPEC head Gary Sasse. It’s worth remembering the proto-Never Trumper with Rhode Island connections is none other than political operative Jeff Britt – currently facing charges in Kent County – who took the measure of Trump and walked away from the GOP in January 2016. “I think there are probably a lot of people in my situation that are just a little uncomfortable, or a lot uncomfortable, with the tenor of this [presidential] race,” Britt told me at the time. “And if you’re uncomfortable, you’re part of the problem if you don’t do something about it. So in my small way, I’m going to do something about it by removing myself from the affiliation.”

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COVID-19 is only magnifying the challenge of improving Rhode Island’s under-performing public schools. Yet amid a Globe report that New York officials are making another push to recruit Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, the commish offered a clear and unequivocal retort on Twitter: “Rhode Island, I am here to stay. [Smiley Face] Can’t get rid of me that easily. LOL. While I do have some great supporters back in New York State, no one has offered me a job back there. NYSED has a process, and I am not part of that process. I am committed to the work I am doing. RI strong.”

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Intense heat kills a lot more people than cold, snowy winter. So it’s worth noting a joint effort by the Rhode Island’s Department of Health, Department of Environmental Management and a group called American Forests to map the effect of heat in different Rhode Island communities. “Volunteers will use specially designed thermal sensors mounted on cars to collect ambient air temperature and humidity data,” the three groups say in a statement. “Once data are collected, sensors are shipped to CAPA Heat Watch, an external partner who combines these data with satellite imagery to create high-resolution maps for use by Rhode Island communities and state agencies. This effort will allow data-driven heat mitigation efforts, such as urban forestry, to ensure that all Rhode Island communities have the systems and infrastructure in place to be more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit thepublicsradio.org. You can sign up for weekly email delivery of Ian’s column each Friday by following this link.

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