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What the Newspapers Emphasize

Just for fun, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Sakonnet Times’ coverage of the local election results.  Readers may recall that the paper decided that the first town budget fight that my friends and I lost after four straight victories was the only one worth reporting on the front page.  Moreover, the headline seemed to present me (like my most-aggressive opponents do) as some interloping enemy of the community:  “Voters favor Town vs. Katz.”

How will the paper cover our local electoral victory, which saw the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA) gain control over the town council and the budget committee and led a rejection of ballot questions that would have limited voter control over the budget?  In Portsmouth, the Sakonnet Times‘ sister publication, the Portsmouth Times, proclaimed at the top:  “A big night for Democrats.”  Another East Bay RI paper, the Bristol Phoenix, went with, “Bristol voters choose new faces… and reward old favorites,” the majority of whom are Democrats.  In East Providence, Democrat Mayor-Elect Bob DaSilva got a triumphant photo under the headline, “Victory!”

The Sakonnet Times?  Well, nothing political.  To be fair, even though the Tiverton paper has the same publication date as the others, it apparently goes to press on Tuesday, before election results would be available.  Still, I haven’t heard from the paper, and neither has anybody else from TTA, to my knowledge.  An online article is mainly a short recitation of the numbers as they were earlier reported, although it does state that TTA “appears to have captured a majority.”

We’ll see what we see with next week’s edition.  Will the bold letters across the top of the paper read, “Tiverton Favors TTA”?  Maybe, “A big night for TTA.”  Or, “Taxpayers’ strong campaign pays off.”

I’d settle for “Victory!,” but I expect something much different.  Maybe the editors will go with the old standby of crediting “angry voters” for the results.  Or maybe the paper will decide that the election is already old news and bury the brief article somewhere beyond the front page, as it has done with the taxpayer budget victories.

Watchers of local news and politics can place their bets.

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The Inverse Relationship of Voter Interests and Voter Interest

Even at the state level, in Rhode Island, there isn’t but so much debate about major issues, like massive new debt proposals on the ballot.  At the local level, it’s even worse.  Trying to remedy some of this in my town, I’ve been writing a Daily Tiverton Truth Flash (well, almost daily) on Tiverton Fact Check for about a week, and the related Facebook page has had some great exchanges, but even this feels insufficient, not the least because there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable from the opposing side.

This is indicative of a broad problem in our representative democracy.  Our government is (or is supposed to be) structured so that the most important decisions affecting people’s lives are made at the most-local level possible.  But involvement in local government is no longer the important source of personal entertainment that it used to be, and mass media means that the most money and promotion will be devoted to national topics.  One of the Daily Tiverton Truth Flash posts took up this very problem:

… the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs [financial town referendums] saw turnout of just over 20%.

However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.

This is a problem we don’t see many people trying to solve… because of the very same lack of interest.  Local government is involved in so many things that it takes a lot of work to keep up, and special interests, like labor unions, have incentive to make too much involvement painful for anybody who isn’t advocating on their behalf.

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What to Expect from the PARCC Scores

The other day, I put a spotlight on the suspicious delay in the state’s release of results from public schools’ standardized PARCC tests.  In the days since, the two challengers facing incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo have picked up that theme and drawn a response from the state Department of Education (RIDE).  If anything, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s explanation only reinforces the suspicion:

“This is the first year of the new test,” Wagner said. “We’ve never released them before. People don’t know what it is.”

“Colloquially, it’s a harder test,” he said of the RICAS. “Massachusetts has a more rigorous standard. We have to figure out how to explain [to Rhode Island parents] the comparison with Massachusetts. We have to figure out how we help parents to understand the change in their child’s test scores.”

Wagner said that with the new tests, Rhode Island students, in order to reach proficiency, have to get more questions right than they did on the previous tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Wagner also said that student scores typically drop with any new test, which was the case when Rhode Island adopted PARCC several years ago.

In short, the state expects there to be score-shock from parents and the public because the harder test is producing results even worse than the earlier version, which was already producing shockingly poor results by some lights.  The only question, now, is the motivation for the delay:  Is it to figure out how to explain the setback in a way that will tamp down outrage, or is it to keep that outrage from affecting the election?

To formulate an answer, readers should ask themselves a somewhat different question:  If the results came in surprisingly fantastic, would RIDE have held back the good news until after the election?  Of course not.

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A Voice of “No” on Debt

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has released a statement against all three ballot questions for more debt:

Broadly, Rhode Island is relying too heavily on debt to cover its bills. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University puts Rhode Island’s long-term liabilities at 90% of the state’s assets, which is higher than the average state. Truth in Accounting’s State Data Lab gives Rhode Island a D for finances, with $8,288,881,000 in bonds and other liabilities, plus another $4,316,527,000 in pension and other retirement liabilities. A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) report finds Rhode Island already among the worst states when it comes to debt per capita and debt per income.

More debt is not the answer to the Ocean State’s problems; it is a major problem in itself. Adding $589,462,045 in principal and interest by passing the three ballot questions will make it worse.

The State of Rhode Island and its municipalities must be more prudent with the tax dollars they already collect — for example, prioritizing school-building maintenance over more frivolous projects.

Every election brings this same issue.  It’s just too easy for people to tally up the promised benefits and not consider the costs.  Meanwhile, the special interests — from the construction unions to the environmentalist groups — have huge incentive to advocate for the debt. (Contrast that, by the way, with the dangers of advocating for a bigger piece of existing spending, which might go up against other special interests who want to keep what they’ve got.)

This is another area where the public needs more education on the issues and all too few people have any incentive to provide it.

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Moderate Democrats’ Tepid Response to Their Biggest Threat

The most surprising thing about this article, which mentions “a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay,” is how limited the actions it describes are:

Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is joining a backlash against progressive lawmakers in the East Bay, endorsing an independent candidate over an incumbent Democratic House member, while in a separate race a retiring member of House leadership has backed a Libertarian over the Democratic nominee.

Progressives are working to undermine every policy that moderate Democrats profess to believe as well as to seize power.  Any observer can see that they struggle to play along with the comity game, which can be a good thing when they’re a small minority but, when they gain critical mass, will explode into a demand for 100% conformity.

People who are more-moderate in their beliefs should be pushing back against progressives across the state, not just in a couple of races in the East Bay.

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A Curious Delay in Test Scores

Wouldn’t it be good for Rhode Islanders to know how our education system is faring prior to next week’s election?  Apparently, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo would prefer that you wait until after for information:

Last year, the Department of Education released its PARCC scores in August. This year, the scores on the new test won’t be released until late November, after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Of course, they’ve got the excuse that “the department needs more time to pull together the data” because it’s a new variation of the test, but the intervening election makes the claim suspicious.  One wonders how many discouraging facts are in the queue for release after the political contests have been decided.

We can’t have accountability in public education if government times information to affect political outcomes.

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Fung’s WPRI Poll Results Show the Trillo Effect

Polls can be proven wrong, of course, but WPRI is reporting that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has a 45/34% lead over Republican challenger Allan Fung.  Independent candidate Joe Trillo’s take is 9% would put the race within the margin of error if we assume that Allan Fung would pick most of that up in his absence.

The bigger effect of Trillo in the race, however, may be seen in the favorability ratings.  Until this poll, Rhode Islanders have had a strongly favorable impression of Fung, but this latest poll sees his unfavorable rating up from 35% to 45%.  To be sure, Raimondo’s team has been spending its millions in part on relentlessly negative ads, but attacking Fung has been Trillo’s primary strategy.  The public expects to hear attacks from the candidate from the other party; having them reinforced by a third candidate formerly of the target’s own party gives them added force.

The presence of Trillo in the race probably also played a role in the decision of the Republican Governor’s Association to cancel advertising on Fung’s behalf.  This left him with fewer defenses against attacks.

So, without an unexpected outcome next Tuesday, Raimondo’s millions in out-of-state campaign funds and the presence of the spoiling kamikaze Trillo will ensure she spends another four years pushing progressive policies, discriminating against school boys, and flubbing the management of the state while she travels the country replenishing her political war chest and preparing for her own personal advancement to the national stage and a lifetime political sinecure.

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A Rubber-Stamp Commerce Board and Political Give-Aways

In my more-innocent days, I used to think the advantage of incumbency had mostly to do with things like name recognition and people’s general aversion to change.  Whether I’m just less innocent, these days, or our elected officials are becoming more brazen, I don’t know.

Take, for example, a new press release from Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s office:

At North Providence Town Hall this morning, Governor Gina M. Raimondo and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation announced that nine cities and towns throughout the state have been awarded Main Street RI Streetscape Improvement Fund grants.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and they often find their home in Main Streets across Rhode Island,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “By investing in our Main Streets and making them more attractive places to spend time and money, we’re supporting our local economies. We’ve seen great success in cities and towns that have received previous rounds of funding through this program, and I can’t wait to see the improvements from these new projects.”

So, about a week before an election, the governor announced just over $1 million in taxpayer funding for nine municipalities.  Here’s the kicker:

The projects will go before the Commerce Corporation Board of Directors for a final vote at their next meeting.

The press release doesn’t mention this, but the board’s next meeting is November 19.  Even just to keep up the illusion that the Commerce Board has some sort of independent authority, shouldn’t the governor have waited until then to announce the awards?  Or shouldn’t her press release at least say that these communities “may be awarded” the money?  I guess there’s less to be gained, politically, from prudent governance.

To our civic shame, we’ve allowed legislators to enact various rules restricting our political speech, especially around election time.  Maybe what we really need are laws preventing government officials from announcing grants and other giveaways within 60 days of an election… especially those that haven’t yet been officially approved.

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Gorbea’s Pattern of Action with Electoral Security

Of course there’s a balance to be struck between public information and privacy, but this just looks suspicious:

Two summers ago, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea quietly changed what information is available to the public in the state’s Central Voter Registration System.

Without public notice or public hearings, Gorbea deleted the month and day from the date of birth supplied to the public in response to requests for the voting list.

Full dates of birth can be key to independent investigations into how accurately Gorbea is maintaining the state’s voting list. Full dates of birth facilitate computerized searches for voters who may be registered in more than one municipality, may be registered in more than one state, or may have died.

As a rule of thumb, when politicians believe they’re doing something smart or popular, they create events, like hearings, and promote their actions with press releases.  When they’re doing something that they think might not be popular or for which they’ve got some ulterior motive, they do it “without public notice or public hearings.”  This is especially true when the politicians are using executive power to act, rather than legislative.

The motive could be as crass as responding to the desires of a big donor or as insidious as a plan to make election fraud more feasible.  In making a judgment as to where on that spectrum Gorbea’s action might fall, Rhode Islanders should recall that she also requested (and received) legislation from the General Assembly that would make fraud with mail ballots easier.

The mantra on the Left is that there is no evidence of systemic vote fraud.  To the extent that’s true (which isn’t much of an extent), one still must wonder about a secretary of state whose pattern of action seems to make it more difficult to find proof, rather than more difficult to commit fraud.

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A Democrat Promotion of Trillo?

Some Rhode Islanders, at least some registered Republicans and unaffiliateds, have received a mailer “Paid for by the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee.”  Presumably, it’s an attack mailer to dissuade Democrats from voting for the independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Trillo, but it sure doesn’t look like an attack:

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The huge color mailer certainly links Trillo with President Trump.  The text on the back reads:

Same Policies, Same Priorities.

In the 2016 Republican primary for President, Joe Trillo was Donald Trump’s campaign chairman right here in Rhode Island.

Now Trillo’s running for Governor.

He’s a strong supporter of the President, and Trillo even said he is running on “Trumpian policies,” promising to work with President Trump to bring his priorities to Rhode Island.

But nowhere does it say that those policies are bad.  Nowhere do we get the fear mongering that we would expect if the Democrats wanted to bring Trillo down.  In fact, without the “paid for by” disclaimer, one might assume that candidate Trillo had sent the flier.  The language is generally positive, if you take out the insinuations one expects it would have for Democrats.

So, why would a party spend money mailing big fliers to members of the other party in order to knock down a long-shot independent candidate whose most likely effect is to draw votes away from that other party’s candidate?  Well, the answer is in the question.  The Democrats want to remind Trump supporters that Trillo is the most Trumpy guy, not Allan Fung.

In other words, one could argue that this mailing should be reported on Trillo’s campaign finance reports as an in-kind contribution.

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A Journalism Panel at RIC Goes from Left to Lefter

A small note on a brief Providence Journal article about a panel discussion on journalism in the Trump Era, hosted by Rhode Island College.  Reporter Mark Reynolds conveys some of the comments from the panelists, but the key detail, for my money, is the list of panelists:

Jill Agostino is Deputy Editor, Special Sections of the New York Times.

Jennifer Bendery is a Senior Politics Reporter for HuffPost.

Josh Israel has been the Senior Investigative Reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012.

Ron Nixon is The New York Times’s Homeland Security Correspondent.

Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for the Washington Post and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for her coverage of Russian Interference.

Paul Singer became Investigations Editor at WGBH in Boston and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in March 2018.

In other words, the panel ran the gamut from… err… Left to Far Left.  Shouldn’t a college — especially a publicly funded college — make some effort to appear balanced?  I mean, apart from wanting to offer students a thorough education and a lesson in weighing different perspectives, that is.  A conservative journalist would have brought something completely different to the gathering, perhaps something surprising.

Some local color might have been helpful, too.  Local reporters across the spectrum might have had something to say about the increased difficulty of getting information from government agencies during the Raimondo Era.  When she came into office, the door closed quite a bit on our ability to get information directly from government employees without going through one of the many public relations specialists.

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When Science Comes with an Underlying Hope

An essay on NRO by Oren Cass is worth a read for the broad-ranging illustration it provides of the state of politicized science these days.  His opening vignette is perfect:

The president of the United States had just cited his work with approval during a Rose Garden speech announcing a major change in American policy, and MIT economist John Reilly was speaking with National Public Radio. “I’m so sorry,” said host Barbara Howard. “Yeah,” Reilly replied.

This was not a triumph but a tragedy, because the president in question was Donald Trump. And the action taken was withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

Trump had cited Reilly’s work correctly, saying: “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full” using Reilly’s economic projections, “. . . it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree . . . Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100.” But as Reilly explained on NPR, “All of us here believe the Paris agreement was an important step forward, so, to have our work used as an excuse to withdraw it is exactly the reverse of what we imagined hoping it would do.”

In other words, this isn’t about science, but about belief, and in this view, science is supposed to find evidence confirming progressive assumptions.  That’s what it means to “believe in science.”

As Cass elaborates, this is especially a problem for people who profess to believe in data-driven public policy.  If their data starts to raise doubts about their policies, and rather than adjust the policies, they look for new data, the whole thing begins to seem a bit like a scam.  More from Cass:

Some check is needed on the impulse to slice and dice whatever results the research might yield into whatever conclusion the research community “imagined hoping” it would reach. In theory, peer review should do just that. But in this respect, the leftward lean of the ivory tower is as problematic for its distortion of the knowledge that feeds public-policy debates as it is for its suffocating effect on students and the broader culture. Peer review changes from feature to bug when the peers form an echo chamber of like-minded individuals pursuing the same ends. Academic journals become talking-points memos when they time the publication of unreviewed commentaries for maximum im­pact on political debates.

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The Century’s Story of Partisan Hatred

Jonathan Haidt points to the following chart as a partial explanation of why our democracy “seems to have decayed so quickly,” with groups’ believing “that the ends justify the means.” The source is a book titled, Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler:

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Of course, progressives will fit the inflection points of 2000 and 2008 into their narrative about Republicans and racism, but my experience of the first sixteen years of the century leads to an explanation more like this: With the return of the presidency to a Republican after just one Democrat, especially with such a close, contentious election, the Left and the mainstream media began ramping up hatred against the Republican president and Congress as a political strategy.  (Note, surprisingly, that the entire episode of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment didn’t move the needle, leaving that out as a first-order cause.)

Seeing the lengths of the animosity by 2004, Republicans began to respond in kind, but it wasn’t until after the election of President Obama that their other-party hatred began to catch up to the Democrats’.  Obama definitely contributed to this in both the way he conducted his office and his rhetoric, and conservatives began feeling that they were being shut out and that the Democrat Party was changing the very rules of our government.

These trends brought us from an even contest of seeming moderates in 2000 to a contest of hatred by 2016.  Since then, I suspect we’ve hit a plateau.  After all, in a fifty-fifty country, it’s difficult to have more than 50% of people hating one or the other of the parties (unless we shift into a new dynamic of voting for the parties that we hate less).  On the other hand, I think it is indisputable that the intensity of hatred on the left side of aisle has ramped up by multiples.

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The Too-Obvious Plot of RI’s Made-for-TV Politics

What can one say about the revelation — the minuscule import of which is mirrored in the mammoth coverage it has received — that a 30-something Joe Trillo once faced charges for whacking a young-teen Nicholas Mattiello?

As Trillo tells it, he was outside working on his house when he heard a young girl’s screams coming from a nearby home. He saw a group of young boys pounding on the front door of the home, where the girl – who by Trillo’s recollection was was around 12 or 13 – had been left alone.

“I immediately dropped everything I was doing and ran over to the house, and started waving my arms around furiously to disband the group of boys doing everything they could to get in that house,” Trillo said in a statement issued Wednesday morning. “That’s when one of my arms unintentionally struck young Nicholas Mattiello, who was approximately 14 years old.”

According to reports from WPRO radio, Mattiello’s family pressed charges, Trillo pleaded no contest, and, eventually, the assault charge was expunged from the gubernatorial candidate’s record.

WPRI has since found that Trillo was actually found not guilty, and Nicholas Mattiello clearly bears him no ill will, but the most telling detail of the anecdote, for my money, is that the Mattiellos insisted on pressing charges against their neighbor for accidental contact with their son in defense of a young girl.  But going down that line of inquiry would require one to believe that an incident from the year of my birth might contribute more to voters’ understanding of the candidate than the behavior that has been on display for the public in more-recent decades.

The larger concern for Rhode Islanders should be the degree to which the whole thing just feels so Rhode Island.  People talk about how everybody knows everybody in our state, but that isn’t true.  It would absolutely be possible to fill the State House with elected officials who were not each other’s neighbors at any point in the past half century.

The problem is that our government is set up to elevate colorful characters and people of a certain sort and disposition.  That’s what needs to change, and its causes ought to be the subject of our public discourse.

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Who Profits from Deepwater Cronyism

Is a Danish company’s purchase of Rhode Island–based Deepwater Wind relevant to a discussion about corporate cronyism in our government?

Providence-based Deepwater Wind announced Monday that Orsted has entered into an agreement to buy it. Orsted says it’s paying $510 million. …

Deepwater Wind says it’ll expand in the coming years, making Providence and Boston the two major hubs of the company’s U.S. offshore wind activities.

The time line goes like this:  To his shame, Republican Governor Donald Carcieri guaranteed long-term profits for a green energy company run by his former chief of staff.  Earlier this year, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo surprised Rhode Island by announcing a secret deal to guarantee the company more profits (and then immediately began fundraising off it).

Now the company’s owners have sold it off to ∅rsted, no doubt at tremendous personal profit.  There’s a reason CEO Jeffrey Grybowski hands out about $4,000 per year to key decision-makers in government, with Gina Raimondo taking the lead since 2010, at $6,300 total.  So far this year, Grybowski has given the max to Raimondo, Democrat Aaron Regunberg, Republican Allan Fung, and Republican Patricia Morgan — hedging his bets, it would seem.

Rhode Islanders should push back against these gambles.  If companies from anywhere in the world can make make a profit in Rhode Island while offering its people something for which they are willing to pay, then we should welcome them for that mutually beneficial exchange.  But when our political overlords force us to guarantee profits, the benefits are always imbalanced toward connected insiders.

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“Publick Occurrences” – The Fundamentals: Patriotism & Faith

As part of the recent Providence Journal sponsored “Publick Occurrences” panel discussion at RI College, I’d like to share some thoughts I prepared, but did not have the chance to put forth. The event’s premise – “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?” and the polarization of public discourse – leaves us two factors to consider:

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Funny How Rhode Island Works

Readers know that I’m not a fan of our campaign finance regime.  It imposes a complicated, intimidating set of laws for grassroots candidates and groups that creates opportunity not only for prosecution of them, but also political attacks on their donors.

I have a hard time, therefore, getting worked up about the apparent probability that the campaign of Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello funded a mailer allowing Republican Shawna Lawton to endorse him in a high-profile way against his Republican challenger, Steven Frias.  To the extent the activity is illegal, it is because of this complex, unconstitutional labyrinth we’ve built, with incentive to find workarounds.

That said, the investigation is unearthing an education in the way Rhode Island politics work, and the stunning thing is that the most objectionable things are treated as incidental… and they’re all completely legal.  I’ve already highlighted one connection:

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has put Edward Cotugno, the mail-ballot guru who helped him eke out an 85-vote victory in 2016, back on his campaign team and given his son a $70,000 a year State House job.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, hired Michael Cotugno as the legislature’s new associate director of House constituent-services.

Here’s another:

Included in the evidence packet that the board provided to The Journal on Friday, in response to a records request, was an Aug. 14, 2016, text from “Teresa” to [political consultant] “Jeff” [Britt] and his partner, Daniel Calhoun, who is still listed as a $60,891-a-year legislative employee on the state’s transparency portal.

Think of this.  Under Mattiello, the legislature has given well-paying legislative jobs (of unknown difficulty) to the son of his “mail-ballot guru” and the man who shares a nice Warwick house with one of his campaign operatives, and the thing we’re supposed to be upset about is a relatively small contribution toward political free speech!

But arguing that the campaign finance investigation is the only reason we know about the rest doesn’t justify burdensome campaign finance laws.  When people act in suspicious ways (like endorsing people of other parties or independent spoiler candidates), we should… well… suspect them of having some ulterior motive, unless they can express a persuasive rationale for the odd decision.  And if somebody who benefits from that persuasion wants to fund it, their money doesn’t change the validity of the argument.

Ultimately, the answer is just to reduce the size of government and the value of controlling it.

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