A Devil’s Triangle of aggravation for Rhode Island

Posted 4/17/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: For a long time, it seemed as if Scott Avedisian was destined to be mayor in perpetuity of Warwick. He could be counted on to win re-election as a genial GOP moderate, even amid …

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A Devil’s Triangle of aggravation for Rhode Island


STORY OF THE WEEK: For a long time, it seemed as if Scott Avedisian was destined to be mayor in perpetuity of Warwick. He could be counted on to win re-election as a genial GOP moderate, even amid questions about whether he would best a conservative opponent in a bid for higher office. A sufficiently appealing opportunity didn’t present itself until Gina Raimondo picked the Warwick mayor as the new head of RIPTA in the election year of 2018. Now, six years later, Avedisian has submitted his resignation after being charged with leaving the scene of a multi-car accident at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Warwick. The episode amplifies how, with the multi-year outlook for replacing the Washington Bridge, transportation is proving to be a Devil’s Triangle of aggravation for Rhode Island. In response, both Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and the advocacy group RIPTA Transit Riders are singing from a similar hymnal; Ruggerio calls this the moment “to bring in a true transit professional,” while the Transit Riders cite “an opportunity to replace RIPTA's current CEO with a nationally recognized public transit leader who can provide the transformational leadership needed to turn RIPTA into a first-class public transit agency.” But the idea of instilling robust multi-modal transit in the smallest state has eluded Rhode Island for years. And as Transit Riders’ co-chairs Patricia Raub and Amy Glidden note in a statement, RIPTA’s challenges include “impending deficits, a driver shortage, efforts to move the central bus hub from Kennedy Plaza to a remote location, scant progress on the Transit Master Plan, almost no marketing to increase ridership, and a problematic law giving board chairmanship to an official who inherently must focus more on highways and RIDOT's bridge problems than on public transit.”

SIGNATURE ISSUE: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos has generally kept a low profile since a signature-gathering controversy engulfed her campaign in the 1st Congressional District last year. Matos graciously cheered on Gabe Amo during his campaign celebration in November, although as of now, she hasn’t sketched out any prominent new policy initiatives or public stances in the new year. (Matos spokesman David Folcarelli disputes this characterization, citing the release by Matos of a policy on Alzheimer’s, her advocacy for changes to the councils that she oversees, and her encouragment to businesses to consider employee ownership succession plans.) The conventional wisdom holds that more Democrats are likely to emerge as candidates for lieutenant governor in 2026, when Matos is likely to seek a second term. The signature issue resurfaced this week when Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office shared word that Christopher Cotham, 45, who gathered signatures for Matos’ campaign, was charged with two counts each of falsely making a nomination paper while knowing it to be falsely made and submitting nomination papers to election officials containing information known to be false. The AG’s office said the investigation is ongoing. In a statement, Matos said, “It is vital that the people who demeaned Rhode Island’s democratic process are held accountable for their actions. As I've said from day one, this is a serious crime that was perpetrated against Rhode Islanders' confidence in our state’s free and fair elections, and I am more invested than anyone in a thorough and public investigation. I'm glad to learn that the attorney general has taken this important step forward in that process. I will continue to support our justice system in any way I can to ensure the truth comes to light, as well as supporting reforms to the reporting structure to protect our democratic process.”

GENERAL MATTERS: Speaking of AG Neronha, his candid speaking style was on display during a recent keynote speech to the Unitarian Universalist Ministry of Rhode Island. The peripatetic Steve Ahlquist offers an edited transcript from which we offer these highlights:

-- Neronha called House Speaker Joe Shekarchi “vastly different from some of his predecessors: “He's willing to listen. He has taken responsibility in this state to move things forward - far more than the Governor. Frankly, he is far more interested than our current Governor [Daniel McKee] in moving the state forward.”

-- “Healthcare is the number one challenge facing the State of Rhode Island.”

-- If the state faces a lawsuit for people damaged by what’s happened with the Washington Bridge, “I guarantee you that the defense will be that whatever we did, DOT either authorized it or didn't act on something we told them. You can hold me to that. I'll come back in a year if you have another one of these not to speak, but for you to hold me accountable.”

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Former Cranston City Council President Michael Farina tells me he’s “pretty close” to pursuing a GOP run for the seat being vacated by state Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston) and that his decision will turn on whether he can raise sufficient money for the race. A former Democrat, Farina lost as the endorsed Republican for mayor to Ken Hopkins in 2020. (Fenton-Fung is challenging Hopkins this year in an increasingly sharp GOP primary.) Farina describes himself as a fiscal conservative/social liberal and said he expects to return to the Republican fold after running for City Council as an independent in 2022. TGIF previously reported that Democrat Maria Bucci, who lost to Hopkins in 2020, is seeking Fenton-Fung’s state rep seat. “I think it will be a fun race,” Farina said, adding that Bucci “is a formidable opponent.”

GENERAL ASSEMBLY II: With lawmakers set for their April vacation week, and a certain number of incumbents eventually expected to call it a day, state Sen. Roger Picard (D-Woonsocket) announced this week that he will not seek re-election. Picard first won election in the House in 1992 and he moved to the Senate in 2008. “I have wrestled with this decision for a long time, and I know I will very deeply miss representing this district and serving alongside my colleagues in the Senate,” Picard, a social worker in Woonsocket schools, said in a statement. “But I also believe that there is opportunity in change, and I am hopeful that whoever serves next will bring energy and ideas that will strengthen our community and all of Rhode Island.” Woonsocket City Councilor Brian J. Thompson announced a run for the seat being vacated by Picard.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY III: The RI GOP has struggled to increase its legislative representation for years, and that effort won’t get any easier in the House of Representatives this year, since a third of the current nine Republicans in the chamber (Patricia Morgan, Brian Rea and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung) are not seeking re-election. Nonetheless, with Gov. McKee in Florida this week and ongoing issues with the Washington Bridge, longtime talk-show host John DePetro tweeted: “If I ran RIGOP, I would have a presser in East Providence to demand accountability, express outrage over the incompetence of the traffic, and recruit candidates to run against every democrat office holder in the east bay.”

LITERARY LIFE: Add Providence’s own Phil Eil to the pantheon of writers who have made important contributions in chronicling the opioid epidemic that ravaged America. “Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the ‘Pill-Mill Killer” -- about a med school classmate of EiI’s father -- recounts the lax atmosphere that allowed people like Paul Volkman to escape consequences for years. Phil displayed remarkable skill and determination in pursuing the story for more than a decade. Count me unsurprised that he is a talented and engaging writer. Phil freelanced for me years ago at the Providence Phoenix and ultimately served as the last news editor before the alt-weekly ceased publication in 2014. I can’t wait to see what he does next. (Also strongly recommended: Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Empire of Pain,” about the Sacklers.)

HOUSING: More of the housing bills backed by Speaker Shekarchi cleared the House this week and the state has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars toward housing production. Yet progress in chipping away at Rhode Island’s housing crisis is slow, in part due to opposition. Patrick Anderson recently reported on how cities and towns are pushing back against change, and even a widely lauded East Providence project faces delay due to city councilors citing concern about more demand for city services, as Wheeler Cowperthwaite reports. United Way President/CEO Cortney Nicolato, who has been banging the drum for the speaker’s housing initiatives, said on Political Roundtable this week that the state needs to be more flexible if it wants to move forward: “I think all of us have to realize that we have a role to play. I think this idea of, like, ‘not in my backyard’ is not the answer. I think the idea of, you know, ‘well the density is what the density is’ is not the answer. I think we all have to look at creative solutions. I think the dollars and the investments are being made and that’s super important, but we also have to make sure that things like enabling zoning regulations are more flexible.”   

HOUSING II: Nina Sparling outlines a looming crisis in funding to fight homelessness: “An influx of federal Covid-19 relief dollars has helped the state more than double the number of shelter beds since 2020. But that funding has dried up, and providers worry the state lacks a concrete plan for how to fill the gap. At a House Finance Committee hearing in March, state Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor said funding for shelter beds and related services could drop to pre-pandemic levels, even as the state has seen at least a 370% increase in unsheltered people since 2019. Without additional funding for shelter beds and supportive services, advocates warn the crisis will only deepen.”

IMMIGRATION: One of the benefits of listening to The Public’s Radio (and please consider making a contribution as part of our spring membership drive) is that we offer a lot more than just the work of our local newsroom and reports via NPR, the BBC and other producers from across the U.S. and around the world. We air a variety of informative, thought-provoking shows, ranging from On Point and Fresh Air to Freakonomics Radio. One recent episode traced how political rhetoric has changed since Ronald Reagan touted immigration as part of what makes America great. 

HARASSMENT: Ben Berke reports on fallout after a manager at a Market Basket in New Bedford was charged with harassing female employees.

KICKER: What is better than the centennial of a venerable eatery on Federal Hill? Of course, there’s a framed photo on the wall of former ProJo political columnist M. Charles Bakst at Angelo’s Civita Farnese, a reliable regular. Olivia Ebertz has the story on a recent birthday celebration, recounting the food and the people that have made Angelo’s a landmark. As state Sen. David Tikoian told her, “The food is consistent, but one thing is also consistent: whether it’s been your first time here or your 10,000th time here, no matter who you are, it’s like family.” 


politics, Donnis, political


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