Monday, February 15, 2010

Political Scene: With Fox in power, the shuffle of chairmanships begins

By Steve Peoples, Randal Edgar and Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

Rep. Anastasia P. Williams offered an eloquent endorsement of Gordon Fox to the House chamber last week.

By the end of the night, Fox was the speaker and Williams had been named chairwoman of the House Committee on Labor.

A Providence Democrat, Williams later acknowledged that her philosophy differs substantially from the more conservative former chairman Arthur J. Corvese, D-North Providence.

She also acknowledged that she has been a longtime member of the executive committee of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, the largest coalition of labor unions in the state.

Her page on the legislature’s Web site lists various associations and memberships, but excludes the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, for which she serves as the chairwoman.

We confirmed Williams’ unpaid service as an AFL-CIO board member in the organization’s most recent tax filing.

The House Labor Committee reviews legislation that affects workplace issues, including binding arbitration and the state’s minimum wage.

“I have no idea if it is a conflict,” Williams said of her AFL-CIO connection, adding that she would seek the guidance of the state Ethics Commission.

“If it is in any way shape a conflict, I will certainly remove myself [from the AFL-CIO board] immediately.”

Malik loses out

Rep. Jan Malik has been stripped of his role as chairman of the House Committee of Environment and Natural Resources, apparently for backing the losing candidate in the House speaker’s race.

Malik, a Warren Democrat and liquor store owner, held the chairmanship for more than two years. But he backed Rep. Gregory J. Schadone, the losing candidate in the speaker’s race, and even seconded his nomination on the House floor Thursday evening.

“I understand that this is how the political game is played,” Malik told Political Scene.

Still, he conceded that he’s not happy.

“He’s got his chance now. Prove me wrong,” he said of Fox. “Not putting stuff in for Common Cause and looking like a knight in shining armor for one day, and then all of the sudden he gets rid of people, not just me, who don’t support him. People are tired of that kind of leadership. Why should anyone up there get punished for voicing their opinion?”

While Fox repeatedly urged cooperation in his first speech to the House chamber as speaker, his spokesman Larry Berman later declined to respond to Malik’s criticism.

Malik’s replacement will be Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, who voted for Fox.

“I think that’s maybe why I was picked. But I had already decided to support Gordon before this was discussed with me. It wasn’t something I had to do on my end. It wasn’t a trade for me,” Handy said.

He continued: “Rep. Malik chose not to support Leader Fox, even after he knew what the conclusion was. ... It’s the way it’s always been done. In business, you certainly wouldn’t put somebody in charge of something you didn’t trust.”

Another Caprio

Also voting for Gordon Fox was the lawmaker who is the son of Providence Municipal Court Judge Frank Caprio and the younger brother of state Treasurer Frank Caprio.

State Rep. David Caprio, D-Narragansett, claims both those titles, and as of last week, he also has a new title.

Fox chose him to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a post that had been held by fellow South County Democrat Donald Lally.

First elected to the House in a 1999 special election, David Caprio, 42, is a first-term member of the House Finance Committee and has also held seats on the House Corporations, Labor and Judiciary Committees.

He said he told Fox, who is currently the House majority leader, that he “would be happy to serve him in whatever capacity I could serve him best.”

While he works with his second-cousin Anthony Caprio out of the Caprio family law offices just beyond the arch at the gateway to Federal Hill, Caprio said he would actually describe himself as a sole practitioner with a general practice that includes a lot of family law.

Lally, who voted for Fox, also received a promotion of sorts, becoming the deputy majority whip.

Mayors’ PR

Mayors and town managers, not generally shy about communicating their feelings about the governor’s plan to cut local aid, have begun an organized effort to speak with a unified voice.

A group of about 15 mayors and managers has taken to issuing its own collective news releases, with the help of True North, a Providence-based communications firm led by longtime PR man Bill Fischer.

The mayors and managers –– from places ranging from Cumberland to Providence to Westerly –– have dubbed themselves the Coalition of Communities Improving Rhode Island.

While trying to absorb budget cuts, the local officials are willing to pay True North about $200 per press release, said Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee, who stressed that the company is not being paid on a retainer basis but only for each job.

The most recent release, issued Feb. 3, highlighted a new report that calls for Rhode Island to adopt a school funding policy that is “child-centered, equitable and accountable.”

Trillo’s fame

State Rep. Joe Trillo has made national news.

Sort of.

The outspoken Warwick Republican was among a handful of conservatives interviewed for a special report that aired last week on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

The segment was hardly complimentary of the Republican National Committee’s decision to host its winter meeting in Hawaii.

“This is not a vacation, this is a working meeting, it’s our working meeting, we’re here to do the business of the party,” RNC chairman Michael Steele says, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a red lei around his neck.

Roughly two minutes into the segment, the Daily Show reporter is shown outside the Hawaiian hotel alongside a penguin. “This is a party with their finger on the pulse of Main Street,” he says.

It’s a few seconds later that Trillo appears on camera: “They’re out of touch, they’re totally out of touch,” Trillo says of Democrats.

Trillo, the Rhode Island Republican Party’s national committeeman, defended the location when contacted by Political Scene, saying the annual meetings are held in different spots each year — preferably in states with Republican governors.

Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, spoke at the recent event and “delivered an excellent talk,” said Trillo, who noted that the national Republican party held its Northeast regional meeting in Newport last fall.

Trillo said he paid all his expenses for the Hawaii meeting, including travel and accommodations.

“Not one penny did I spend of my campaign money or get money from the party,” he said.

GOP primaries

Members of the Republican party’s State Central Committee succeeded last week in keeping alive their goal of closing the party’s primaries, but should they be closed, it won’t happen this year, says party Chairman Giovanni Cicione.

True, Cicione allowed supporters of closed primaries to read a motion to that effect at last week’s central committee meeting, but he said the soonest the issue could be discussed would be at the next central committee meeting, in April. That would be too late to allow a rule change this year, he said.

Cicione, who faced a movement to oust him as party chairman over this very issue, said he does not oppose the change, per se, but does oppose the push to do it during an election year, when “individual candidates” can try to influence the decision.

“I don’t think it’s fair to candidates or people who are thinking of being candidates to change the rules at this late stage,” he said.

He pointed to a rules change during 2006 that allowed the party to support then U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee in his primary campaign against Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey.

“It allowed a national committee to fund Chafee’s campaign prior to the primary, rather than allowing voters to decide who … to put up,” he said.

Laffey, viewed as a potential candidate for governor in 2010, is one of the Republicans who supports the move to close the primaries, which would block non-registered Republicans from voting.

Republican boost

The state Republican party is getting some much-needed help in paying its full-time staff of one.

State Central Committee members learned at last week’s meeting that the national Republican party has agreed to pay for a staff member in each of the 50 states.

The move comes at a good time for Rhode Island Republicans, who had about $2,000 in the bank as of Friday, said party Chairman Giovanni Cicione.

The low figure is not unusual, Cicione said.

“Our fundraising programs are probably not as consistent as the Democrats’ are,” he said.

The party does not plan to let its account go to zero. Cicione said a mailing that seeks donations is in the works.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fox is House speaker

By Katherine Gregg and Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE –– Gordon D. Fox became the state’s first black and openly gay House speaker after West Warwick Democrat William J. Murphy relinquished the helm on Thursday.

A lawyer, former nightclub owner and state lawmaker since 1993, Fox, 48, trounced his more conservative opponent Gregory Schadone, D-North Providence, on a 51-to-14 vote with another 5 votes going to the token candidacy of House Minority Leader Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich.

In his first speech as House speaker, Fox said “Change is absolutely necessary. We cannot continue [to conduct] business as usual. We must think anew and act anew.”

With the state facing a massive deficit and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, he promised his highest priorities would be to “get Rhode Islanders back to work,” by exploring tax credits for small businesses that create jobs. He pledged action on a “fair and equitable” education-funding formula this year.

“Bolstering our economy, creating jobs … and enacting a responsible and balanced budget will be our priorities for this session,” he said. But “we must be mindful that it is important to restore the public trust in this institution, and indeed, the public trust in their elected officials,” said Fox, urging quick action on legislation he introduced in recent days to “allow the voters to restore the authority and power of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission this November.”

As majority leader since 2003, Fox, D-Providence, was Murphy’s top deputy and chosen successor, and his election marked a victory over at least two competing Democrats in the House aligned with the party’s more-conservative flank.

Fox brushed aside criticism that he is too liberal, a charge leveled at him by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, in a letter explaining his reasons for resigning as chairman of the House Labor Committee.

“A Fox speakership will invariably include, but not be limited to, an increase in the state income tax, a lack of constitutionally sound state limitations on illegal immigration, an economic development policy overly influenced by environmental extremists, and of course ... gay marriage,” wrote Corvese, who has been replaced by Rep. Anastasia Williams, an unpaid member of the AFL-CIO board of directors. “I believe your philosophical stance on major issues is too far to the left for the good of the citizens of the State of Rhode Island.”

Fox refused to rule out tax increases. And he has been a passionate advocate for same-sex marriage, but said on Thursday: “It’s always a priority, but I wouldn’t call it a priority this year. I think this year’s going to be jobs and economic development.”

Fox’s partner of 12 years, Marcus LaFond, was at his side Thursday night at the State House, holding the Bible on which Fox placed his hand to take the oath of office. “When I get married, I would like to do it in my home state,” he once said.

Only the timing of Murphy’s resignation and Fox’s ascension was in doubt. Murphy served notice in late September that he might step aside as speaker before the year was out.

Unlike his own predecessor, John B. Harwood, Murphy leaves the top job untainted by scandal, insisting he never intended to remain as House speaker for more than eight years, has no new job lined up, and just wants to practice law and spend more time with his family.

But Murphy, who intends to remain in the House through this year’s session as a rank-and-file lawmaker, had the misfortune to preside during a time of huge upheaval that exacerbated the state’s growing budget crisis, and left him at the vortex of growing public anger at the state of Rhode Island’s economy, with one of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the country.

In his last moments as speaker, Murphy rattled off a list of accomplishments, led by the fact that the legislature hasn’t raised broad-based sales or income taxes over the last eight years. “In this day and age, when we are getting criticized because of the national financial problem, which is also the state financial problem, I think all of you have something to go home and be proud of.”

Fox has been guarded about where he stands on some of the more volatile issues the 2010 legislature is likely to face, including a proposed referendum to turn the Twin River and Newport Grand slot parlors into full-scale casinos.

Though, at one point, he had to pay the state Ethics Commission a $10,000 fine stemming from his then-law firm’s work for GTECH, he won kudos from citizens-advocacy groups in recent weeks by introducing a bill to give voters a chance to place the legislature back under the jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission after a late-June decision by the Supreme Court left the commission’s powers in question.

Fox becomes the 222nd House speaker since Rhode Island became a colony more than three centuries ago.

The last major changing of the guard at the State House — including the ascension of the Murphy-Fox team in 2002 — played out first in open caucuses of House and Senate Democrats.

Thursday’s vote for a new speaker was preceded by a closed-door caucus of House Democrats from which the media were barred. “It shouldn’t be like electing a pope where we wait to see the smoke coming out and what color it is,” said John Marion, executive director of the citizens-advocacy group Common Cause.

Fox is the son of an Irish father and a Cape Verdean mother, who grew up in the Mount Hope area that forms part of his East Side district. “I’m the first person of color to hold the office, first openly gay person to hold the office,” Fox said in an interview after he addressed the chamber. “I hope that somebody watching out there, listening to this, seeing me, can draw energy and strength from that. Some young person can say, you know what, that’s not now something I can’t aspire to, because someone else like me is there and has done it.”

Chimed Rep. Joseph Almeida, a former chairman of the Black and Latino Caucus said: “It’s great to know that Gordon will be taking over as speaker, not because he’s black, because he’s a qualified black man. It’ll be good for this state to finally move forward in the 21st century regarding leadership of color.”

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Is Governor Carcieri breaking the law?

Woonsocket Call

Politics as Usual by Jim Baron

Is Gov. Donald Carcieri flagrantly violating state law by not sending the cities and towns the third quarter car tax reimbursements that were due a week ago today?

His spokeswoman, Amy Kempe won’t say.
I asked last Friday and Kempe refused to say whether the governor’s actions constituted a violation of law.
All she would say is that the administration believes that withholding the $30-some million in payments from the cash-starved municipalities is “the right course of action” and “in the best interest of the state.”
But as for whether it is legal, Kempe would say only “that is a determination for the courts to make.” I guess that is true, to a point. When a guy with a mask and a pistol holds up a bank, whether that is illegal or not is technically a determination for the court to make, but I think we all know pretty much how that is going to turn out.
But it looks like the court is going to have to make a decision on this one. Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine filed suit in Superior Court on Friday to force the governor to pony up the money and the RI League of Cities and Towns will probably say “Amen” with a court action of its own this week.
The first thing I noticed in my phone conversation with the press secretary was that I didn’t get an answer of “Of course the governor didn’t think it was illegal or he wouldn’t have done it.” I even fished for that answer and didn’t get it. I asked Kempe “well if the governor thought it was illegal, he wouldn’t have done it would he?” She still didn’t budge and would only say that the administration thought it was “the best course of action.” She must have used that phrase 10 times in a seven minute conversation.
Back in the Lincoln Almond administration, the General Assembly took away the governor’s power to not spend money that was appropriated for a particular purpose.
Fontaine’s lawsuit — which he signed in red ink because “That's all anyone of us will have left if things are allowed to continue”; the man understands political theater — says that the governor therefore has a duty to carry out the budget as passed by the legislature.
Kempe said the governor is hoping to work with the legislature to get it to decide as quickly as possible whether it is going to pass the supplemental budget that contains the cuts.
Good luck with that. The General Assembly has a vacation coming next week and has no intention of voting on a supplemental budget before that. That means it will be Feb. 23 before even a committee vote is taken on the supplemental budget. So for all intents and purposes it will be March before cities and towns know for sure whether they are going to lose $67 million from a budget that expires June 30.
The legislature has only been in session for six weeks in the midst of the most severe budget crisis this state has seen since the credit union crisis, has passed zero legislation of any significance, and now needs to take a week off for vacation before making a decision of make-or-break importance to all 30 cities and towns? That is beyond chutzpah; it is off-the-scale arrogance.

Amendment may be coming
It looks like we are going to get a Bill Irons Amendment to the RI Constitution
Such an amendment was called for in this space more than a year ago, when Irons was still wrangling with the Ethics Commission over the Constitution’s speech in debate clause. I renewed that call after Irons prevailed in the state Supreme Court last year and now it looks like it may be happening.
The amendment — which would bring the behavior of General Assembly members under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission, the speech in debate clause notwithstanding — was drafted by Common Cause and Operation Clean Government (OCG). They gave it to House Majority Leader Gordon Fox to introduce. The legislation to put the proposed amendment on the ballot may have to be amended itself, because it does not specify the exact language of the referendum question to be put before voters for them to accept or reject. But that is a housekeeping detail that can be left for another time.
Fox is at once a natural and a curious choice to submit this particular amendment. Natural because he is the powerful Majority Leader of the House who, as soon as this week, could get nominated for Speaker by the Democratic caucus if Speaker William Murphy makes an abrupt exit. If anyone has the oomph to get such a provision on the ballot, it is Fox.
It seems lately that every time there is a new Speaker of the House, there is a major step forward in government reform. When Murphy succeeded John Harwood, a separation of powers amendment was finally put before voters after a decade of reformers’ efforts to do so. Now, with Fox apparently preparing to succeed Murphy, General Assembly members will once again be subject to being called on the carpet by the Ethics Commission.
That, too, was predicted right here. In the July 6, 2009 Politics as Usual it said:
“House Speaker William Murphy has been saying for years that he would likely serve eight years as speaker, then move on. If he holds to that — and yes, that is a BIG if — that means next year would be his last. When politicians see the end of their term coming, they tend to look for a legacy.
Closing the ethics loophole would be a good legacy for Murphy. Murphy took the speakership in 2003 and soon after the long-stalled separation of powers amendment finally made it to the ballot. If Murphy goes out by closing the Irons loophole, he can go down in Rhode Island history as Mr. Ethics.”
OK, Mr. Ethics might have been a bit carried away, but I’m claiming the prediction nonetheless. By the way, Murphy had earlier told me he would stay on as Speaker “at least through the budget,” but now he may be bailing in the second week of February. The general laws say that if a General Assembly seat becomes vacant after the first Monday in February of an election year, there is no special election to replace him or her, the seat stays empty. It’s not clear whether Murphy would remain in the House after stepping down as Speaker, but that almost never works — it is too awkward for everyone involved.
Fox is a curious choice because at one time he had been the recipient of the biggest fine ever meted out by the Ethics Commission — before Sen. John Celona came along and really rang the bell — on a complaint filed by OCG, in fact.
So much for the House, but a bill to put the amendment on the ballot would also have to pass the Senate (the governor has no say in this; the constitution does not give him a veto over proposed amendments because the people get to vote on them). That could be another story altogether.
Sen. J. Michael Lenihan will be introducing an identical measure in the Senate. That could be a good and a bad thing. Good because Lenihan is a reliable reformer. If he sponsors a bill, you can trust there is a good government reason behind it.
It could be a bad thing because, possibly for the very reasons cited above, not everything Lenihan puts his name on passes, or even comes up for a vote. So be prepared for this to not see the light of day in the Senate.
One idea put forward is for the Senate to — don’t laugh, now — form a committee to police the ethics of its own members. I said don’t laugh! But I guess you couldn’t resist. I still give a sardonic chuckle at the thought myself.
But with Fox pushing for the amendment in the House, that might give it the boost it needs to clear the Senate as well.
If the amendment does get on the ballot, I will be surprised — and disappointed — if it doesn’t get approved by at least 85 percent of the voters. For the life of me, I can’t think of more than 113 people who might vote against it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bill would allow R.I. voters to close ethics loophole

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE — House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox has introduced a bill to give voters a chance to close a newly carved hole in state ethics law that insulates state lawmakers from scrutiny and prosecution by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

Fox said he introduced the bill because he believes it was “the clear intent of voters when they approved the creation of the Ethics Commission to give the commission power over all government officials in the state, without an exception for legislators.”

The current gap stems from a June 2009 decision by the state Supreme Court that effectively removed lawmakers from Ethics Commission scrutiny.

In a case involving former Senate President William V. Irons, the court said the “speech-in-debate” clause in the Rhode Island Constitution gives legislators immunity from prosecution by the Ethics Commission for “core legislative functions” such as voting and speaking.

Fox, who has had his own tangles with the Ethics Commission, said: “This legislation will allow voters to reaffirm that they mean for the Ethics Commission to have the same jurisdiction over members of the legislature that they have over all other public officials, and I’m confident that they’ll approve it and set the record straight.”

Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, has promised to introduce comparable legislation in the Senate.

Fox is the chosen successor to House Speaker William J. Murphy, who has signaled plans to step down from the podium before the year is out, and perhaps sooner.

Fox’s most visible challenger for the job — Rep. Gregory Schadone, D-North Providence — has questioned Fox’s judgment in light of reports in The Sunday Journal about Fox’s business partnership with a nightclub owner, while Fox sat on the Providence licensing board. “People who care about ethics and good government do not put themselves in a position where they have a financial relationship with people they are regulating,” Schadone said in a statement.

But the attention of the citizens advocacy groups Common Cause and Operation Clean Government were focused Thursday on Fox’s introduction of the ethics legislation they helped to craft.

“Common Cause is very pleased that Majority Leader Fox has agreed to sponsor our legislation restoring the General Assembly to the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. In 2004, Common Cause worked closely with Leader Fox to strengthen lobbying disclosure laws, and we are happy to again be partnering with him on another important piece of ethics legislation,” said Common Cause Executive Director John Marion.

“It is our hope that, with his leadership, the General Assembly will pass this legislation, putting on the ballot, this November, the question whether legislators should have partial immunity from the state’s ethics laws,” he said.

Republican Governor Carcieri also commended Democrat Fox, D-Providence, for submitting the proposed November 2010 ballot measure.

Carcieri issued a statement that said: “Restoring the Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the General Assembly will help to regain confidence and trust of the people of Rhode Island. The intention of the voters was always to hold all elected officials, including members of the House and Senate, to the same high level of ethical standards.

“I strongly urge the General Assembly to act immediately and pass this important resolution, giving voters the opportunity to set the record straight,” said Carcieri, adding that he is “confident they will approve this ballot measure and insist that all elected officials be accountable for their actions.”