Taking Politics

The Washington Bridge story just won’t go away – not anytime soon

By Ian Donnis
Posted 2/6/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: After a recent news dump, when the McKee administration shared details of a federal request for records related to the Washington Bridge, Gov. Dan McKee tried to regain control of …

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Taking Politics

The Washington Bridge story just won’t go away – not anytime soon

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: After a recent news dump, when the McKee administration shared details of a federal request for records related to the Washington Bridge, Gov. Dan McKee tried to regain control of the ensuing narrative early last week. He dispatched senior deputy chief of staff Joseph Almond, a former town administrator in Lincoln, to offer oversight at the state Department of Transportation. The governor’s office also described how McKee asked the administrator of FEMA last weekend to seek possible financial help for the bridge.

Of course, when there’s a problem with crucial infrastructure on an interstate and the precise cause remains as yet unknown, the narrative has a life of its own. McKee this week sought to distance himself from the situation, pointing to how structural issues with the bridge might precede his time as governor. He called for patience until further engineering details emerge later this month or in March.

At the same time, the governor indicated he should have been told sooner about the concerns that closed the bridge in December, and he ordered RIDOT to rescind the various amounts charged to news organizations for related public records.

This swirl of storylines is starting to converge with the slow march to the 2026 race for governor, adding heightened uncertainty. Amid chatter about her fundraising, Helena Foulkes – who came close to edging McKee in the 2002 Democratic primary – released her Q4 number ($116K) and released a statement about how she is “continuing to keep my options open on ways that I can contribute and make a positive impact in addressing some of the most pressing issues facing our state.” (Time will tell whether the Washington Bridge nudges Attorney General Peter Neronha closer to a run for governor.)

McKee can be thankful that there are more than 30 months until the next gubernatorial primary. Barring an unexpectedly rapid solution, however, the bridge story isn’t going away any time soon. It affects a lot of people in their daily lives, and regardless of when the situation started to develop, McKee (who has been in office for almost three years) is the elected official most associated with the situation. State lawmakers are expected to begin their oversight process on or about Feb. 12.

  

OPEN RECORDS: Amid the back and forth on open records – and the various amounts charged by state government and then refunded in some cases – ACCESS/RI and other supporters of greater transparency plan a news conference at 3 p.m. Thursday to rally behind a bill sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Rep. Pat Serpa (D-West Warwick). The event will be emceed by a familiar face, former ProJo managing editor Mike McDermott, who is now executive editor of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Also slated to speak are John Marion of Common Cause of RI, Steve Brown of the RI ACLU, Scott Pickering of East Bay Media Group and Liza Burkin of the Providence Streets Coalition.

 

CRANSTON: State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung this week unveiled her GOP challenge to Mayor Ken Hopkins, who won election with the backing of outgoing Mayor Allan Fung in 2020. The race has already gotten chippy, with Fenton-Fung panning Hopkins’ stewardship of Cranston and Hopkins twitting Fenton-Fung as a relative short-timer in the city. Fenton-Fung is energetic and media-savvy, while Hopkins touts his support from incumbent Republicans on the City Council and School Committee. Worth noting is how Allan Fung edged U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner in Cranston by just a few percentage points in their 2022 campaign, although that’s less of an issue in the GOP primary between Hopkins and Fenton-Fung.

 

THE YOUTH VOTE: Harrison Tuttle, 24, president of Black Lives Matter RI PAC, on his sense of how young Democrats are viewing the likely matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. “They’re in a very difficult position right now,” Tuttle said during an interview on Political Roundtable this week. “A lot of them feel discouraged. A lot of them feel like the calls for change haven’t been answered. It’s certainly not to the degree in which was promised during the 2020 election by President Biden. So, you know, as the election continues to go on, it’s incredibly important that people come out to vote, but it’s also important that people feel like their voices are being heard. Gen Z and Millennials in particular don’t exactly feel like the issues that they care about are being addressed.”

  

VIVA LAS VEGAS: The top three officials from the Rhode Island Republican Party – Chairman Joe Powers, Committeeman Steve Frias and Committeewoman Sue Cienki – were in Las Vegas last weekend for the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee. Interestingly, given Donald Trump’s sway over the GOP, Powers declined to say which presidential candidate he is supporting, Cienki is neutral for now, and Frias backs Nikki Haley.

 

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: It wasn’t exactly a big surprise, but House Speaker Joe Shekarchi announced this week that he plans to seek re-election: “Representing my hometown of Warwick is truly the honor of a lifetime, and I’m very excited to continue the great work we’ve started: making housing more affordable, building an economy that creates good-paying private sector jobs, increasing access to educational opportunities, and continuing to lead the way in environmental and climate protections.” Shekarchi first won election as speaker in 2021. With more than $2 million in his campaign account and a stated view that the speakership need not be a terminal position, the question is, what does the future hold for the Warwick Democrat?

 

ON THE MOVE: Karen Santilli is stepping down as CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, a post she has held for almost a decade, to become CEO of the YMCA of Greater Providence. “The YMCA of Greater Providence is one of the most important, impactful, and lasting community pillars in our region. I am thrilled to lead the YMCA of Greater Providence and steer this organization as it continues to evolve coming out of the pandemic,” she said in a statement. “My kids learned to swim at the Cranston Y. I know how important our branch YMCAs are, and I believe that each facility ought to reflect the community it serves. As I step into this new role, I am deeply grateful for the work that Steve O’Donnell has done over the last seven years to secure a strong foundation during some of the most difficult and challenge days.” At Crossroads, President Michelle Wilcox has been named interim CEO.

 

RIPTA: With the board of RIPTA this week approving an agreement for a new transit center at an unspecified Providence location, critics continue to sound off on the transit agency’s financial woes. In a statement, RI Transit Riders said in part, “When RIPTA is facing imminent service cuts, unable to pay enough to attract bus drivers, and expecting an even worse fiscal cliff in the next two years, it is financially irresponsible to undertake an expensive move to a new bus hub in a clearly worse location than the current one. The proposed Preliminary Services Agreement, at $16.9 million, will use almost all the remaining bond money that was approved in 2014 by voters, who had been told it would be used to fund ‘enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout the state...’ We don’t believe this project meets those standards as promised to voters. The proposal doesn’t enhance RIPTA’s infrastructure any more than it renovates Kennedy Plaza. These funds could instead be used as promised to improve mass transit; we can’t afford to squander the money.”

 

OVERDOSE: My colleague Lynn Arditi scooped on the location of the site for the first state-regulated overdose prevention center in the nation, a move approved by the legislature in 2021: “Project Weber/RENEW has signed an agreement to lease the building at 45 Willard Ave., for a few months until it raises the rest of the nearly $3 million it needs to buy the building, said Colleen Daley Ndoye, the organization’s executive director. The state already has committed $2.6 million in opioid settlement funds to open the center, which includes money for salaries, Ndoye said. The building will need minimal work, she said, prior to opening. It’s expected to open as early as this summer.”

  

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

 ANDY BOARDMAN, policy analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy: “ ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ Acerbic Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten concluded the U.K. punk band’s 1978 final show with this remark. But the same comment might be an apt response to new data confirming the upside-down structure of R.I. taxes: According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, for each dollar in income paid in taxes by low-income Rhode Islanders, the wealthiest pay just 65 cents. Aiming to fix this imbalance, Rep. Karen Alzate and about two dozen House colleagues have a new proposal to better tax millionaires. The funds would be dedicated to public education, infrastructure, child care and transit. Over in Massachusetts, a similar law approved in 2022 helped fully close the gap between what the richest and poorest residents pay in taxes – while boosting resources for road improvements, school meals, community college and more. Wishing for a fairer tax code in R.I.? It’s coming sometime, maybe.”

 

RI House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale of Foster: “The recent push to increase taxes on individuals earning over $1 million is counterproductive. Such measures deter the economic growth necessary for widespread prosperity. The well-documented trend of wealth migration from Rhode Island to states with more favorable tax climates has been detrimental to our state for decades. Rather than targeting successful individuals as additional ‘revenue sources, we should focus on reducing government spending. Wholesale budget cuts are not easily achieved unless we move beyond the entrenched pattern of taxing and spending and the ‘cradle to grave’ approach to governance. Rhode Island Republicans have long advocated for the establishment of an independent Office of Inspector General to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in government operations. Investing in being better as a state will always yield a greater return than blind spending. I encourage my Democratic colleagues to shift from the mindset of ‘increasing revenues’ to improving efficiency and effectiveness in governance so all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to prosper.”

 

PAIGE CLAUSIUS-PARKS, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT: “There is no other way for Rhode Island’s economy to grow and for our state to prosper but to invest in our children and their families. Rhode Island KIDS COUNT – and the Right From the Start Campaign, a campaign that we co-lead with seven organizations – have proposed investments that will help our children and our state thrive. Early learning programs and child care are essential to help parents get into and stay in the workforce. Early intervention, family home visiting, and continuous health coverage keep our kids healthy and address developmental delays, which saves our state money in costly emergency room visits and services. Addressing the children’s mental health crisis by investing in school-based mental health providers and mobile response stabilization services helps to keep kids steady and on track and their parents at work. Investments in our opportunity youth – youth and young adults who find themselves disconnected from school and work – can save individual and societal costs. Supporting multilingualism and improving schools’ ability to meet the needs of Multilingual Learners will help our kids be more competitive in our global economy. Continuing to improve access to workforce development programs like Rhode Island Works while raising the income for all Rhode Islanders is a crucial two-prong approach to allow working families to break free from poverty. Rhode Island’s budget must include an equitable approach so all Rhode Islanders can contribute to the state’s success. It’s always the right time to invest in Rhode Island’s children and families.”

 

GOP Strategist KEN NAYLOR: “I am running for delegate to represent Ambassador Nikki Haley because I firmly believe that many Rhode Islanders are looking for an alternative option in nominating our next Republican Presidential candidate. Ambassador Haley’s popularity is growing, especially among independents and moderate Democrats unhappy with President Biden’s administration. Her ability to connect with people from different parties makes her a unifying figure, attracting support from those who want a fresh perspective and effective, bipartisan leadership. A New Hampshire exit poll emphasized Ambassador Haley’s wide popularity. About 7 in 10 voters in last Tuesday’s election were independents, showcasing her cross-party appeal. Additionally, she gained a remarkable 72% of votes from moderates, highlighting her broad appeal among those seeking a centrist and practical approach to governance.”

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

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