OP-ED

VP's whirlwind visit to RI

Posted 5/14/21

Although Vice President Kamala Harris had a whirlwind visit to Rhode Island last week, she spent a lot more time with locals than predecessors Mike Pence and Joe Biden when they were here, respectively, in 2017 and 2016. The way that Harris directed the

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OP-ED

VP's whirlwind visit to RI

Posted

Although Vice President Kamala Harris had a whirlwind visit to Rhode Island last week, she spent a lot more time with locals than predecessors Mike Pence and Joe Biden when they were here, respectively, in 2017 and 2016.

The way that Harris directed the conversation back to her administration’s ambitious spending plans was predictable. When Philip Trevvett of the Urban Greens food co-op talked about filling the void of a food desert, Harris pivoted to the importance of public transit. When women small business owners talked about the challenge of keeping things going during the pandemic, the VP made her case for a more expansive definition of infrastructure: “I define infrastructure – one of my definitions – is the things you just need to get where you need to go,” she said during the conversation at District Hall at the Wexford Building. “So let’s talk about why child care is part of that. For example, it is our intention to say that no working family should pay more than 7 percent of their income in child care. So you don’t have to put it on your credit card.”

Of course, the people who Harris and Biden need to win over to shift priorities are in DC, not RI. Yet the VP’s visit was noteworthy in other ways, and not just because she’s a beacon for women and people of color. In the past, party big wigs/fundraisers demanded home visits by VIPs stopping in RI. This time around, there was no fundraising element and Harris spent the bulk of her time with regular Rhode Islanders.

McKee distances himself from Trump co-chair

Gerald Zarrella, who co-chaired former President Trump’s reelection campaign in Rhode Island last year, was set to stage a post-work fundraiser at his Exeter home on Wednesday, May 12, for Democratic Gov. Dan McKee. (“We are looking forward to a beautiful (and dry) evening outside at the barn on Gerald's Farm,” according to an invite. Fellow developer Thomas Santilli was co-hosting.) Those on the invite list included former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, members of the Tasca family, and a number of state lawmakers. Zarrella, a Democrat-turned-Republican, has a colorful record in Rhode Island. The event was scrapped following a request from McKee, who calls Trump dishonest, divisive and a threat to American democracy.

What the people say

Talking Politics obtained a copy of the results from a respected local pollster in a survey done for organized labor.

Some highlights:

* Almost 86 percent of respondents support amending the state Constitution to give students the right to an adequate public education.

* As of March, 38.6 percent of respondents said the state is going in the right direction, compared with 34.9 percent for wrong direction. Back in April 2019, the right track/wrong track was 42.1/44.6.

* The poll shows strong support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years, and for paying a $15 hourly wage to frontline workers caring for the developmentally disabled and elderly nursing home patients.

* More than 70 percent favor reducing Rhode Island’s reliance on fossil fuels by 2050. More than 80 percent support using incentives and tax breaks to attract new businesses and help existing businesses expand.

* Almost 80 percent back banning guns at schools, except for police.

* On a charter school moratorium until 2024, 36.9 percent strong support that, 23.4 percent are somewhat supportive, 14.3 percent are somewhat opposed, and 16.9 percent strongly oppose.

* The General Assembly’s approval/disapproval is 41/38.

* Almost 47 percent say they never listen to political talk radio, while about 37 percent listen sometimes, and 16.6 percent a lot.

Fox’s speaking appearance

Former Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox has kept a low public profile since getting out of prison a few years ago. (In 2015, Fox was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion.) Coming up on May 17, Fox will deliver an invitation-only Zoom presentation, entitled, “Ethical Lapses: Learning From My Mistakes.” The program is being presented by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.

Superman update

Don’t read too much into this, since there may not be much there. However, a public records request by The Public’s Radio shows that Ganesan “Dr Vish” Visvabharathy of Hawthorne Development Corp. in Chicago has been communicating with the Commerce Corporation about the Superman Building in Providence. I got about 30 pages of heavily redacted emails between the two parties, all from early to mid-April. Visvabharathy, whose company was denied when it tried doing a project in Woonsocket a few years ago, declined comment when recently contacted. Whether this amounts to anything more than an initial inquiry about the Superman Building remains to be seen.

Taxing matters

As governor, Gina Raimondo largely prioritized holding the line against raising taxes on upper-income Rhode Islanders and businesses. Now, as U.S. Commerce secretary, she’s part of an administration that wants corporations and wealthy Americans to pay more for some of the administration’s initiatives.

In an interview during her day spent with VP Harris, I asked Raimondo how she reconciled those two things. Her response: “Well, as I always said as governor, as a state, it’s different, because I had to be competitive with neighboring states. And I always also said at a federal level I was in favor of higher taxes, and I am now. Especially corporate income taxes. Last year, there were almost 100 very large, multi-multi-billion dollar very profitable American companies that paid no taxes because of certain loopholes. That’s an unfair system that’s broken, if you have so many companies not paying anything in taxes.”

The persistence of domestic violence

While most major categories of crime have declined significantly since the early 1990s, domestic violence remains a widespread problem. Don’t miss my colleague Antonia Ayres-Brown’s two-part look at the issue, available at thepublicsradio.org, examining the increased demand for support services during the pandemic and a survivor’s story of, as she put it, “becoming whole again.”

Got deficits?

The scale of the Biden administration’s spending plans has sent “Meet the Press” and other shows running for clips of Ronald Reagan decrying the federal government and its various social and spending initiatives. So it may come as a surprise to some to learn that Reagan presided over an increase in federal spending and debt.

As Daniel Yergen and Joseph Stanislaw wrote for www.PBS.org in 1998, “David Stockman, Reagan’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, left the administration dejected, disillusioned with supply-side economics, and chastened by the realities of the political process. Failure to achieve fiscal-policy change, he argued, was a clear vindication of the ‘triumph of politics’ – of entitlements over austerity, and of the enduring pork-barrel tradition of American legislation over any cold economic logic. ‘I joined the Reagan Revolution as a radical ideologue,’ he wrote. ‘I learned the traumatic lesson that no such revolution is possible.’ The triumph of politics and what Stockman called the ‘fiscal error’ that went with it spawned a new monster, which would come to occupy center stage in policy debate: the deficit and the federal debt. Between the beginning and the end of the Reagan presidency, the annual deficit almost tripled. So did the gross national debt – from $995 billion to $2.9 trillion. Or, as Reagan and Bush administration official Richard Darman put it, ‘In the Reagan years, more federal debt was added than in the entire prior history of the United States.’”

Welcome, Jeremy!

Jeremy Bernfeld will be starting later this month as the investigative editor at The Public’s Radio, deepening the station’s capacity for investigative reporting. I was on the search committee, so take it from me: Jeremy is a great guy with an impressive background – including being the lead editor on a multi-state project, Guns and America – and I’m excited about working with him.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter (@IanDon). For a longer version of this column, see www.thepublicsradio.org.

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