STORY OF THE WEEK: In recent weeks, RI Attorney General Peter Neronha has used Twitter to amplify the fight for continued access to mifepristone; cite the need for those with power to “exercise …
STORY OF THE WEEK: In recent weeks, RI Attorney General Peter Neronha has used Twitter to amplify the fight for continued access to mifepristone; cite the need for those with power to “exercise it decisively;” contend that public support is aligned with stronger gun restrictions; push back against critics who say gun laws aren’t being properly enforced; tout the state’s approach to opioid settlement money, and call on CD1 candidates to explain how they would fix healthcare in the state. This can be seen as part and parcel of Neronha’s management style in the AG’s office, where, for example, he played hardball with Prospect Medical Holdings, the owner of two Rhode Island hospitals, ultimately extracting an $80 million in escrow to strengthen the outlook for Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima. At the same time, even though three years is an eternity in politics, Neronha’s approach is underscoring a contrast with Gov. Dan McKee and the AG’s tweeting is doing nothing to dim speculation among some that he may be edging closer to a run for governor in 2026.
Neronha tells me his tweets should not be interpreted that way, “but I do think people should know that I am concerned about things like healthcare and I really see problems, significant problems ahead …. What really worries me is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of thinking about that issue and issues like it …. It’s all well and good for us to have access to health insurance, but if you can’t find a primary care doctor, the insurance doesn’t do us any good and that’s a separate problem and I don’t see enough strategic thinking about that. And on climate, we are moving too slow.”
In sum, Neronha said, he sees a lack of serious thinking about short-term consequences, “so I intend to keep speaking up and work on them here,” in his office. McKee rejected Neronha’s budget request for additional staff – a situation flagged in this column a few weeks back by Neronha supporter Dante Bellini, and relations between the two men appear chilly. With time ticking down on his second and final term as AG, Neronha said more resources are needed “because I see these crises coming and I need more people to address it, because I don’t think that thinking’s going on anywhere else.”
REMEMBERING MARYELLEN: The impact of Rhode Island Senate Whip Maryellen Goodwin, who died last weekend at age 58, can be seen in the outpouring of affection for her. Goodwin is remembered as a champion for vulnerable Rhode Islanders. A colo-rectal screening bill is among her legislative accomplishments. She was a mainstay of the state’s political scene, as someone who first won election in 1986. Colleagues remember her humor, her ability to cut tension, the twinkle in her eye, and her smile. Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) credits Goodwin with being a driving force on paid sick leave. “She didn’t just sponsor it, she made it a Senate priority to bring the power of the Senate to bear in getting it through the House,” he tweeted. “And there’s a lot more …. Perhaps most important is the bad legislation she got killed quietly without making any noise. She never wanted credit for it, but that’s a place she made a huge difference.” Of course, another key moment was when Goodwin, a devout Catholic, decided in 2013 to vote in support of legalizing same-sex marriage – a decision that she said was based on love. “We all started crying [tears of happiness] and knew it was over,” Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), who had been among the organizers pushing for same-sex marriage, recalls as senators remembered Goodwin Tuesday.
ECONOMIC CLOUDS: Via the Twitter of Michael DiBiase, president/CEO of the RI Public Expenditure Council: “March job numbers indicate RI economy is stalling. RI-based jobs fell by 700 since Feb. Since June 2022, employed RIers down 6,600, although RI-based jobs up 3,600. Labor force (those working or looking for work) is becoming a more significant and stubborn issue--down by 6,800 since June 2022. A lot of RIers are on sidelines. Labor force now at lowest level since Oct. 2020.”
CD1 UPDATES: Gabe Amo made his candidacy official this week, with a three-day fundraising haul of $130K+ …. Sabina Matos landed an endorsement from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ BOLD PAC …. John Goncalves unveiled a campaign team that includes the noted media consultant Tad Devine.
THE DIFFERENCE: With a 15th Democrat joining the fray, the challenge for the candidates is setting themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Name recognition, the ability to raise money to increase that, creativity and an appealing message will all be important. Aaron Regunberg was my guest on Political Roundtable this week, and we covered a range of topics including the clash between Regunberg and the RI Political Cooperative. Here’s the top of how the candidate describes his path to victory: “Well, I think the record that I bring to the table is 15 years of fighting to make a difference for regular Rhode Islanders. You know, when I was first elected to the General Assembly back in 2014, I heard a lot of 'that'll never happen.' A lot of people said, we'd never pass paid sick days, too many corporate interests lined up against it, but we were able to, to organize and bring workers and unions and small businesses together, and we're able to get that through. Same thing happened with legislation to increase the tipped minimum wage for workers to reform solitary confinement in our prisons to create new clean energy and renewable energy programs in our state and make them accessible for folks. I think it is all of those. In all of those fights, there were strong interests lined up against us, but we were able to, to bring folks together and make it happen. And that's the kind of work that I want to do in Congress.”
THE END: Fewer than 200 people have used Vermont’s medical aid in dying law since it went into effect in 2013. Here’s a report on how it works, involving a woman with stage 4 stomach cancer and weeks left to live. In Rhode Island, a bill to offer physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients (first introduced in 2015) has again been sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello (D-Providence).
TAKES OF THE WEEK: A mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.
State Rep. BARBARA ANN FENTON-FUNG (R-Cranston): Earlier this week, Damar Hamlin announced he would be making a NFL comeback -- only three and a half months after he went into cardiac arrest in front of the world. His life was saved by an AED, or automated external defibrillator. AEDs also made an appearance at the recent, first-in-a-decade JCLS meeting, as Director Kinch acknowledged the effort I led and Speaker Shekarchi was so kind to fully embrace to have AEDs prominently located throughout the State House. This year, my legislation -- endorsed by the state Department of Education -- would close the loophole that currently exempts elementary schools as the only ones not required to have AEDs onsite. Commotio cordis (the condition made famous by Hamlin's injury) is actually most common in kids between 4-14 during ball sports, and of course a member of staff could have a cardiac event at any time. Let's get this literally lifesaving legislation over the finish line today.
Physician, community activist and OG of Latino politics PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Just when you think things cannot get any worse or crazier with the SCOTUS, in comes the decision regarding the challenge to the FDA's approval of mifepristone more than 20 years ago, by a coalition of antiabortion religious zealots calling themselves the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine. The challenge which was upheld by a single federal judge in Texas is not only dishonest but obviously dangerous. Regardless of how you feel about abortion, everyone should be concerned that medical and scientific evidence is being trumped (no pun intended) by ideological and religious considerations. Rarely do you see mainstream medical and scientific organizations wading into the abortion debate, but in this case the AMA, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Gynecological & Obstetrical Society, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and a half dozen other organizations jointly filed a brief condemning this as an attempt to ban all forms of abortion, evidence be damned. This drug has been discussed in more than 780 medical reviews, used in more than 630 published clinical trials of which more than 420 were randomized controlled studies, the gold standard of scientific evidence. On the side of the plaintiffs, the opinion of a couple of physicians and included in the opinion of the judge, a report of complications on a website blog called "abortionchangesyou.com" Never mind that mifepristone is as safe as Tylenol and acetaminophen, and safer than Viagra. Maybe it is time to challenge their approval, too.
RI Senate GOP Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ of North Smithfield: In light of myriad firearms bills coming before the judiciary committees of both chambers of the General Assembly, it's important to remind Rhode Island lawmakers who took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the landmark decision from the U.S. Supreme Court (New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen). This ruling affirmed that our constitutional right to bear arms is not a “second-class right subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.” The court went on to say: “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officials some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to defendants' rights to confront the witnesses against them. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to our right to bear arms.” We rightfully look to the Constitution and Bill of Rights to enumerate our inherent rights. These documents, by design, limit government interference in the legal exercise of those rights, including equally the right of individuals to privately own, possess and use firearms. Inasmuch as legislation may be challenged in our courts for unconstitutionality, we should follow the law of the land as recently enunciated in Bruen, which shifted the judicial review from a means-end test to a text-and-history test. That historical perspective test is now also the context in which we should gauge any new gun legislation before us in the General Assembly. The right to bear arms shall not be infringed. That is what it said in 1791 and that is still what it means in 2023.
Providence Ward 3 Democratic Committee member SAM HOWARD: In a piece in the Columbia Law Review, Drexel Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj and Stanford Senior Research Scholar Didi Kuo make the case for what they call "associational party-building." Instead of political parties being mere brands that anyone can put on for an election, Abu El-Haj & Kuo remind us that parties hold tremendous power in their role as permanent organizations; even just in their ability to get people in the same room and discuss what issues they're facing. The scholars say it's in the best interest of both parties and democracy to reinvest in our moribund state and local parties. I think it's precisely that lack of party capacity at the local level in RI that forces most organizing to occur outside the existing party structures by largely movement- or issue-based groups. This creates a perception of our parties as closed-off old boys' clubs, while everyone else fragments into competing orgs. Abu El-Haj and Kuo's work forces us to examine whether our local party committees are truly connecting with voters and consider how we move from a politics of individual candidates and clashing egos to one of strong policy and responsive government.
Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: Here is a two-part take.
First, Portuguese-Americans will play an outsized role in the winner of the CD1 race. Rhode Island is home to one of the largest Portuguese-American communities in the U.S., with over 100,000 residents of Portuguese descent, most of whom reside in the First District. The East Bay has many from the Azores Islands (nine volcanic islands), specifically San Miguel, who initially came to Rhode Island in the mid-to-late 1800s to work on whaling ships and, later, in the textile mills. East Providence, Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls have large Cape Verdean populations that also immigrated via whaling ships in the Atlantic. And Cumberland hosts a large community "do continente" or from mainland Portugal. It will be very interesting to see which candidates invest in time at local Portuguese clubs, bring pastéis de nata to senior high-rises and host political lunches at O Dinis over bifanas and camarão alhinho.
Second: first-year state Rep. Cherie Cruz (D-Pawtucket) won a big victory on Thursday when the House of Representatives unanimously voted to eliminate housing rental application fees. The legislation, part of Speaker Shekarchi's package of housing bills, came on the heels of a riveting story by Alexa Gagosz in The Boston Globe (https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/12/17/metro/how-hard-working-middle-class-family-spiraled-into-homelessness/) about a middle-class Warwick family who got thrown into homelessness and couldn't get out because of the thousands of dollars that landlords made them pay in predatory "application fees." It is great to see that the voices and experiences of families hurt the most by these fees grew to a loud drumbeat that could no longer be ignored or denied. Kudos to Rep. Cruz, whose first-name derives from the famous Stevie Wonder song, for passing such important legislation in her first year.
SOUTH COAST: Don’t miss my colleague Ben Berke’s description of how “even the faces of some of the dogs are blurred out” in newly disclosed video depicting a 2020 clash between guards and detainees at a former ICE facility in Bristol County, MA.
HARM REDUCTION: Via my colleague Lynn Arditi: “Nearly two years after Rhode Island became the first in the nation to legalize safe places where people can consume illicit drugs, the state’s first safe consumption center is expected to open in a commercial neighborhood in Providence in early 2024.”
KICKER: I met Jim Gillis just in passing a few times, but Gillis – who died last week at 64, was known as a great guy and for decades of reporting and writing columns for the Newport Daily News. Via Amy Kempe: “Jim was more than a great reporter. He was an observer of people, places, and life. He was kind, quick witted, funny, and cared deeply about telling a story and why it mattered, not just reporting the news.”
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org