More bridge fallout, talking with Sen. Whitehouse and fondly remembering the Follies

Posted 2/28/24

Oh the fun the Follies would have had with the Washington Bridge! You can follow me through the week on threads and what we used to call the twitters. Here we go.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Last week, …

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More bridge fallout, talking with Sen. Whitehouse and fondly remembering the Follies


Oh the fun the Follies would have had with the Washington Bridge! You can follow me through the week on threads and what we used to call the twitters. Here we go.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Last week, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti offered a glimmer of hope for frustrated drivers. A plan developed with the Federal Highway Administration calls for adding a lane in each direction on I-195 over the eastern part of the Washington Bridge. The concept — expected to take about eight weeks to complete — could reduce the congested traffic that has been flaring since the emergency closing of the west-side of the bridge in December. But a draft report first revealed by WPRI poured more cold water on the outlook for the westbound bridge, warning of “significant challenges for its inspection, maintenance repair.” The McKee administration is waiting for final versions of additional engineering reports, which are to arrive in the next few weeks. Suffice it to say, the bridge issue is not going away any time soon, and it raises the question of whether other deficient spans are in worse shape than previously described.

FALLOUT: If you talk to people in East Providence, there are lots of different takes on the effect of the bridge saga, which tends to vary day by day. Mitchell Check, who runs an 86-year-old Taunton Avenue florist shop within view of the bridge, told me traffic isn’t bad outside of peak travel times. But City Council Vice President Frank Rego sounded off during a Council meeting earlier this month, expressing concern about losing momentum in EP, which has benefited from new investment and a number of housing developments in former industrial sites: “For everything that’s going on, and you’re hearing what great things we’ve done in the city in the last three or four years, well, this can cripple it. This is going to take it back. Our businesses are getting hurt. They’re being strangled, which has a direct impact on the amount of revenue that we collect.” Mayor Bob DaSilva has declined to criticize Gov. McKee, and he’s more bullish about the outlook. However, as DaSilva notes, a big part of the issue is one of perception, and that has a tangible effect for businesses in EP.

ON THE MOVE: P.J. Fox, a former executive director of the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, was slated to start Monday as director of community violence intervention and prevention for Attorney General Peter Neronha.

STATE OF THE NATION: Donald Trump is an outlier in the history of the American presidency. He’s the only POTUS to challenge the peaceful transfer of power and he faces 91 felony counts across four states and a series of lawsuits. Trump ranked last in a Presidents Day overview of the nation’s leaders. Nonetheless, the former president appears to have support of between roughly a third and a half of the country. What does that say about the appeal of Democrats? Dems are sometimes panned as the party of coastal elites, identity politics, and a group whose brand is considered “pretty damaged” in the largely white working class communities that play an outsized role in presidential elections. Here’s U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s view on why Trump maintains considerable support: “Yeah, it’s a little surprising because in my view, Trump does something disqualifying virtually every day. I think that what we have seen pulling back to 30,000 feet is decades in which very powerful special interests have had undue influence in Congress and the American people have brought ideas like gun safety and fair taxes and climate action to Congress and just gotten rebuffed. They’ve seen communities suffer economically as jobs were run overseas by big American corporations. And so, I think there’s a lot of anger and frustration out there that Trump taps into. I think the key here is for Democrats and Republicans to restore a sense of real command of the voters over our democracy, rather than a command of the big special interests, the billionaires behind the super PACs, the whole kind of creepy, secretly funded political operation to which Congress too often dances.”

MORE WHITEHOUSE: Some highlights from our interview this week on Political Roundtable.

— Setbacks for Ukraine in its war with Russia underscore the need for additional U.S. aid, Whitehouse said, and he rejected the idea that meager progress during last year’s Ukranian counter-offensive shows that more money might not help. The senator said the U.S. has been “late” with a variety of weapons systems, including F-16 fighter jets. Despite that, Whitehouse said, Russia has been swept from the Black Sea and has been unable to gain air dominance over Ukraine. While some analysts are more skeptical, he added: “It’s not quite as static as you see when you just look at a line on a map. When you look at the larger context of the conflict, there are a lot of arenas in which Ukraine is really winning.”

— Asked about his tens of thousands of stock holdings in companies that make weapons of war, and whether it’s wrong for him to profit from that, Whitehouse said he’s unaware of the specifics of his portfolio: “I have a rule with the people who manage my stock holdings that they don’t tell me what I have, and I find out about it for the first time when they get reported to the press. So I learn at the same time that you learn. So there’s no conflict there whatsoever. And, I would actually argue that there are American munitions being used in Ukraine in a really important battle for freedom. That it is very important to the rest of the free world that we win and, whose consequences, if Putin should succeed, are very, very dire.”

— On whether Democrats have a good answer for Americans feeling jittery about the economy: “You know, making the tax code fair, dealing with climate so that you don’t have a bunch of fossil fuel billionaires running our politics and causing enormous costs down to the American public. The International Monetary Fund estimates the costs and harm to the American public at $600 billion-plus a year. That’s a very, very high price. Some of it is in the pocketbook, some of it is in just lost resources. So, yeah, I think we’ve got a very robust plan to make sure that the value of the American economy is shared more broadly and the people who work enjoy the benefits of the economy as much as people who invest.”

GAZA: While Sen. Whitehouse called a broader peace plan a desirable way out of Israel’s invasion, the path there remains highly uncertain. In related news, U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner signed onto a letter this week urging President Biden to support a mutual ceasefire, the first such effort to include several Jewish members of Congress.

PALATE CLEANSER: The Providence Newspaper Guild Follies — formerly held on the last Friday in February — is gone. But we can still smile at a lot of memories, including the time when Lincoln Chafee” gyrated to “Chafee-Style.”


HOUSING: Newport is known as a city of both the wealthy and the poor, and now my colleague Cheryl Hatch reports on how people in the middle — teachers, firefighters and police officers — find it increasingly difficult to buy a home there: “It’s one of the top five most unaffordable places to purchase a home in Rhode Island. Buyers and renters are strained by short-term rentals and vacation homes. One study found the city had the largest surge in second-home sales in the entire country last year. Right now, Newport is trying to hire a new city manager and is willing to pay the person $200,000 a year. But, according to analysis by HousingWorksRI, even that’s not enough to affordably buy the median priced home, which exceeds $800,000. ‘This idea of a bygone era, the Gilded Age, when millionaires from New York lived in Newport for a month or two out of the year. I don’t see much difference between then and now,’ [teacher Katie] Behan said. ‘But, in a lot of cases, they’re not buying mansions, they’re buying single family homes, single, middle-class, starter homes, and it’s just their vacation home.”

MEDIA: Would you believe that Gannett, the company that owns The Providence Journal and a host of other newspapers in southern New England, has hired 500 journalists since last June? That’s what one senior Gannett exec said during a recent podcast. It’s a bit hard to know what to make of this, as media critic Dan Kennedy writes, since Gannett “is rightly known for hollowing out newsrooms and using the savings to pay down debt and enrich their owners and top executives.” But there is still money to be made in newspapers, and Gannett seems to be trying a different tack.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Sympathy to the family and friends of state Sen. Frank Lombardo III, who died last week at age 65 after a battle with bladder cancer. This comes less than a year after the passing of Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, also from cancer, offering a reminder of the fragility of life. “Frank was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever had the good fortune to know,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in a statement. “He was a passionate and effective representative of his constituents, and he embodied the spirit of collegiality and service to which every member of the Senate aspires. Frank’s dignity and courage in the face of illness was an inspiration to us all. He was full of energy and adventure, living every moment of life to the fullest, from helicopter skiing to cross country motorcycle trips with his father. We are grateful to have shared part of that adventure with him. First and foremost, Frank was devoted to his family. Our prayers are with his wife, Patricia, their children, Frank and Victoria, their grandchildren and their entire family.”

GREAT NORTH: John Deaton is selling his home in Barrington to move across the line to Massachusetts for a GOP run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. As Lisa Kashinsky and Kelly Garrity report for Politico: “Deaton is a dad to three daughters, a testicular cancer survivor and a former Marine who opened a law firm in Rhode Island representing asbestos victims. He’s renting a house in Swansea that is now his primary and full-time residence, and is selling his Barrington, Rhode Island, home for $2.5 million, according to real-estate listings and Jim Conroy, a political adviser to former Gov. Charlie Baker who is consulting for Deaton. He also plans to loan his campaign $500,000 to start, POLITICO first reported. In his 314-page memoir, ‘Food Stamp Warrior,’ Deaton details his childhood in a rough Detroit enclave. He writes that he was raped, had a gun pressed into his mouth on the first day of high school and sold pot in exchange for food stamps for his family.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK: various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.

RI Senate Minority Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ (R-North Smithfield): “As a daughter of legal immigrants, I have a great appreciation for those who enrich our country and culture by following our lawful immigration process. However, the current situation of illegal immigration at our southern border, which facilitates both human and drug trafficking and threatens national security, demands the attention of our state leaders. For example, just this week, we learned of an illegal Guatemalan immigrant who was released into the public even after allegedly molesting a child. I consistently hear from Rhode Islanders who share my concerns about this looming crisis. Unfortunately, it is painfully obvious that Washington refuses to act in the best interest of Americans. President Biden encourages the anarchy and chaos at our southern border, and locally, Gov. McKee has yet to openly address Rhode Islanders with any plan of action. The governor must promptly clarify his administrative policies on illegal immigration and directives to law enforcement on ICE and Border Patrol collaboration. Rhode Island faces an urgent economic and humanitarian crisis. The governor must decide, once and for all, and openly declare whether Rhode Island is a sanctuary state.”

ROBERT A. WALSH JR., former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: “Possibly in memory of the former Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, I was asked to ponder whether we should laugh or cry about Rhode Island’s ongoing foibles. This has proven to be a difficult assignment. Generally, I fall in the camp of Seneca, who told us some 2000 years ago ‘That it is more humane to make fun of life than to bewail it.’ That supports the position that given the choice between laughter and tears, laughter is preferable, along with the hope of improvement. I also agree with labor activist Mother Jones, who reminded us to ‘Mourn the dead, but fight like hell for the living.’ Of course, if you hear me muttering to myself that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ I’m using Voltaire to make fun of my own generally optimistic outlook. But there are limits to my laughter. It is frustrating that much of the recent attempts at humor seem based on snark and political schadenfreude, so some perspective is necessary. We do not make it easier on the many people working so hard to make Rhode Island a better place with the constant sniping. The Washington Bridge closure has been a horrible inconvenience to many, but it will be rebuilt — and it was closed in time to avoid a disaster. Educational outcomes remain a challenge, but already this year, a deep focus on student attendance has resulted in a 22% reduction in chronic absenteeism. Unemployment in our state continues to be at a record low, which is contributing to budget stability. If you’re one of the people who takes joy in bad news and ignores the good news, I will mourn for you. For everyone else, take a moment to laugh at the absurd situations in which we continue to find ourselves, and then continue to fight like hell for Rhode Island. It really is all that!”

State Rep. David Morales (D-Providence): “Earlier this year, the governor released his FY25 state budget proposal, a proposal which underfunds the RI Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) by nearly $10 million. Shortly after, RIPTA announced plans to reduce services for over 30 lines starting in April, service reductions that would negatively impact communities from Pawtucket to Warwick to Scituate. As a part of this process, RIPTA hosted a series of public hearings across the state. Hundreds of attendees, from bus riders to local officials, pleaded that RIPTA not move forward with these cuts. Following the conclusion of these hearings, it is now up to administrators at RIPTA to decide whether these service cuts will go into effect. On a more reassuring note, all RIPTA drivers will now earn higher wages following the RIPTA board's unanimous vote to increase starting wages from $21.71 to $25.33. While these investments will certainly help recruit and retain drivers, we in the state legislature need to ensure that RIPTA has the sufficient funding to remain fully operational. So next week, when we return from the legislative break, a coalition of legislators from across the state will be introducing an appropriation request to fund RIPTA by over $80 million!”

FAIR SKIES: Ann Hood, the author and West Warwick native, is among the former flight attendants featured in ‘Fly With Me,’ an American Experience installment showing how women pursuing a job with rare opportunities for travel and independence were on the frontlines of the fight for gender equality.

KICKER: State Sen. Sam Zurier (D-Providence) is known as a serious policy wonk. He also has a well-developed sense of humor, as demonstrated by his winning entry in the TGIF Follies contest, “Bridge Has Some Troubled Tie-Downs,” set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”:

When you’re in Riverside

Feeling slow

The road’s a parking lot

There’s nowhere to go

Your trip is doomed

Oh, with breakdowns ahead

And detours can’t be found

Because that bridge has some troubled tie-downs

You will lose your mind

‘Cause that bridge has some troubled tie-downs

You will lose your mind

You have seen the signs

“On budget, On Time”

But 90,000 cars a day

Don’t see it that way

You’re not alone

Oh, when rush hour comes

And pain is all around

Because that bridge has some troubled tie-downs

We will lose our minds

‘Cause that bridge has some troubled tie-downs

We will lose our minds ….

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis, follies, Whitehouse, bridge


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