High stakes of redistricting has legislators watching

Posted 8/18/21

By IAN DONNIS Redistricting issue heats up RI One of the first rhetorical shots of the 2022 legislative campaign season was fired last week when some progressives objected to Smith Hill leaders' picks for the General Assembly redistricting commission.

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High stakes of redistricting has legislators watching


Redistricting issue heats up RI

One of the first rhetorical shots of the 2022 legislative campaign season was fired last week when some progressives objected to Smith Hill leaders’ picks for the General Assembly redistricting commission. The stakes are high, since the redrawing of legislative lines will shape the battlefield as progressives and the Democratic establishment duke it out over the gradually shifting balance of power at the Statehouse. In making their picks for General Assembly’s redistricting commission, both House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio made their case for a cross-section of viewpoints. Shekarchi’s selections, for example, include a Latina (Rep. Grace Diaz of Providence), a liberal (Rep. Katherine Kazarian of East Providence), socially conservative Democrats (Reps. Arthur Corvese of North Providence and Robert Phillips of Woonsocket) and Republicans (Reps. Brian Newberry of North Smithfield and David Place of Burrillville).

However, these types of picks also underscore a fairly high degree of institutional loyalty, and progressives were not pleased. “The choice of choosing the people on the redistricting committee is a clear power grab and move to keep diverse voices out of the next decade of decisions,” Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence) said in a statement distributed by the Black Lives Matter RI PAC. Perhaps frustrated by the criticism, Shekarchi tweeted, “Random thought for the day. Let's try to make it through one day without posting or tweeting anything negative about people or events. Just one (1) day?” At the same time, critics have a point in how a redistricting process controlled by the legislature is an inherently self-interested process. Moving ahead, whether redistricting morphs into a campaign issue will depend in part on how the district lines get redrawn and the relative amount of overt politics in that process.

McKee and masks

Gov. Dan McKee found himself the odd man out last week as most of his announced or expected Democratic rivals for governor – Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Providence Jorge Elorza – endorsed a statewide mask mandate for students returning to the classroom. Asked about this, McKee said he supports the CDC recommendation toward masking. He also imposed a mask requirement for healthcare workers and state buildings. But McKee stopped short of backing a mandate for students, leading some of his rivals to pounce. For some, the student masking requirement is common sense. To others, the politicization of the issue is less welcome. Regardless, with the rise of the Delta variant – and the possibility of future mutations down the road – the pandemic and politics are likely to be inseparable as we move closer to RI’s 2022 election season.

Elorza on crime concerns in Providence

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza puts part of the blame for a recent string of violent episodes on the sheer number of guns on the streets. “It’s just too easy to get your hand on a gun and unfortunately, too many young people are using them in crimes of violence,” Elorza told me during a one-on-one interview on Political Roundtable. He cites the pandemic for why a police academy class of 49 cadets due to be completed this fall was delayed from last year. With widespread public frustration on the issue of ATV and dirt bike riders, Elorza insisted the city’s response is “as aggressive if not more aggressive than virtually every police department out there in the entire country. If there was an easy solution for it, we would have already found it.” Elorza expressed hope that State Police patrols will help to address the problem. We discussed a range of other issues, too, including the mayor’s support for a pilot guaranteed income program and the perennial issue of Providence’s under-funded pension.

So, your biggest gaffe?

Want some insight into how Mayor Elorza views politics? Consider his answer when I asked about the biggest mistake he’s made during his six-plus years at City Hall: “I’ll tell you the biggest thing that I’ve learned. There are a lot of good people in politics – there’s no doubt about that. But I came into politics believing that all you had to do was be reasonable. Being reasonable, you know, is sufficient. What I’ve come to realize is it’s not just about being reasonable. There’s egos that need to be stroked. There’s all these personality things that come into play. And if we were all just focused on getting the policy right – and if we had policy differences, believe me, I can go all day debating policy and finding compromise to get to the right result, but sometimes it’s not about getting the policy right…”

Small world, Rhode Island-style

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), the subject of a recent tweet-controversy featuring RI Democratic Party strategist Kate Coyne-McCoy, was the only Senate Republican to back Jack McConnell’s confirmation as a U.S. District Court judge during a 13-6 committee vote back in 2010. Why is this relevant? McConnell and Coyne-McCoy, as I noted with #5 back in January, are the political god-parents of Gina Raimondo; they surfaced her name on a train ride from Washington back to Providence while trying to think of female political candidates back in the 1990s.

RI’s brain drain

As part of an extended Political Roundtable, I spoke with Travis Escobar, 30, the founder and president of Millennial RI. We talked about efforts to keep young people in Rhode Island (Esobar was kind enough to name-check a story I wrote in the Providence Phoenix about Rhode Island’s brain drain. The start of the story is available here.) He praised efforts by former Gov. Gina Raimondo and Mayor Elorza, but said housing remains a major stumbling block: “Prices of condos, prices of houses – it’s ridiculous. Even sort of rental housing in Providence. Can you find a one-bedroom under $1,000 a month? I think individuals of our generation, it’s either you’ve partnered up with someone or you live with a friend and you sort of share costs. You could be having a good salary and still living paycheck in Providence, just because of the high cost and obviously, the assumption if you have pretty sizable student loan debt.” Escobar added that he’s heartened by how Gov. McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio are focusing more attention on housing.

Will baseball endure?

Batting in the three-spot on extended Roundtable was Will Geoghegan, sports editor of the South County Independent and author of “Summer Baseball Nation: Nine Days in the Wood Bat Leagues.” It’s an excellent read; as Geoghegan notes, the staying power of the Cape Cod League and counterparts around the U.S. points to the sustained popularity of baseball. While football has supplanted it as America’s favorite game, Geoghegan thinks predictions of the demise of MLB are somewhat exaggerated. “It seems like the casual fans, maybe, are not as familiar with baseball as they used to be. But in baseball towns, in Boston, in cities where baseball teams are really good, it still clicks and they’re still getting a lot of fans. And I still see it in my job at the South County Independent newspaper – cover a lot of baseball in the summer and kids are still really into it. Maybe not as many kids, but they still have these Little League all-star teams and they’re still a lot of kids who love baseball and really want to play it.”

Coming and going

Jonathan Womer, who has led Rhode Island’s Office of Management and Budget since 2015, is leaving for a job with the Policy Lab at Brown University next month. In a statement, Womer said serving in the Raimondo and McKee administrations was a privilege. “He is brilliant and has an unmatched command of the details of the budget process,” Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen said of Womer. “While his knowledge will be difficult to replace, Jonathan has built a very strong team of dedicated professionals that will serve as a legacy. We are all grateful for his impact on this office.”

New market coming to downtown Providence

While anticipation continues about what some expect to be Trader Joe’s setting up shop in an under-construction market in the I-195 District, an independent, woman-owned, Cape Cod-based shop, Rory’s Market and Kitchen, is set to open this winter in the Nightingale Building on Westminster Street in downtown Providence. Via Cornish Associates: “The market’s owner and namesake, Rory Eames, took over ownership of the business from her mother Darby in 2019. A family business at its core, the brand is built on the strength of community connections. In looking to expand her business beyond Cape Cod, Eames was initially attracted to Providence’s scale and growing downtown district. After considering properties in the Greater Boston area, she found herself uniquely attracted to the location on Washington Street. ‘Building connections through food and atmosphere is such a fundamental part of our business,’ Eames explains. ‘In a city like Providence we can play an active role in the community. We’re excited to join the vibrant downtown Providence neighborhood, not just as a new business, but as a hub for people to connect.’ ”

Parenting on a hot planet

Former Rep/LG candidate/organizer Aaron Regunberg writes in The New Republic about raising a four-month-old amid the growing impact of climate change. Excerpt: “I still don’t quite know how to justify our decision. Other questionable choices I’ve made in my life have been ones I made for myself—I alone suffered the consequences. But my wife and I made the choice to bring our son into existence for him. Without him. And I have no idea what he will think about that decision once he understands its significance, here at the ignition of the Anthropocene.”

The more thing change…

Although Rhode Island’s short-term fiscal outlook has been improved by multiple rounds of federal status, average structural deficits of $200 million a year are still expected into the future, according to a state budget document (see page 42 for details). These deficits hinder Rhode Island’s ability to invest for the future. On the plus side, though, a $200 million deficit is far less of a structural deficit that the $535 million hole during former Gov. Don Carcieri’s final budget.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter@IanDon. For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org


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