Talking Politics

Whitehouse seizes the moment to call for Supreme Court reform

By Ian Donnis
Posted 5/9/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a longstanding critic of efforts to move the U.S. Supreme Court to the right, so he’s remained in the spotlight as SCOTUS faces a wave of …

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Talking Politics

Whitehouse seizes the moment to call for Supreme Court reform


STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a longstanding critic of efforts to move the U.S. Supreme Court to the right, so he’s remained in the spotlight as SCOTUS faces a wave of stories about ethics, mostly involving Clarence Thomas. While Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to make political hay, polls show that Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court has dropped dramatically.

It’s worth noting how supreme court justices, unlike federal judges, are expected to police themselves on ethics. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that he co-led last week, Whitehouse said the Supreme Court is playing outside the bounds. He traced the issue of justices accepting undisclosed hospitality to the time of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts was a no-show for the hearing, to the disappointment of some legal scholars.

Whitehouse, meanwhile, while pulling out no fewer than 10 exhibits to back up his points (“Did you think I’d show up to the hearing on Supreme Court ethics without receipts?” he asked in a tweet that has received more than four million views.) Whitehouse has a bill that would institute the three things he said are needed to correct the court: “Better enforcement, better recusal rules, and better disclosures.” Without those, he said, the types of unflattering stories involving the nation’s highest court will continue.

ELECTION 2024: The National Republican Congressional Committee is already stepping up its rhetorical attacks on freshman U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner. The best defense, as the saying goes, is a strong offense, so Magaziner has responded by focusing in part on fundraising. Next month, Helena Foulkes and U.S. House Speaker emerita Nancy Pelosi are hosting a fundraiser for Magaziner in Narragansett. 

CHALLENGING WHITEHOUSE: Sen. Whitehouse first won his seat back in 2006, a time when George W. Bush’s unpopularity undercut the high approval rating of then-Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee. More recently, in 2018, Whitehouse blamed dark money for why he had to raise so much campaign cash in the fight against GOP rival Robert Flanders. Now, with Whitehouse set to seek his fourth term next year, Ray McKay, the former head of the conservative RI Republican Assembly, is taking on the senator, calling him (via ProJo) an out of touch elitist. State Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) tells me she is considering a run, but remains undecided.

CRANSTON: State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung is staging a May 15 fundraiser at Chelo’s in Cranston, with suggested contribution levels running from $125 (“friend”) to $1,000 (“early investors in the future”). That’s a wide spectrum for a state rep, so speculation continues about whether Fenton-Fung – who won her seat by defeating Nick Mattiello back in 2020 – will challenge a fellow Republican, incumbent Mayor Ken Hopkins, who said he plans to seek re-election. Fenton-Fung declined comment.

HOUSING I: Housing advocates plan to stage a news conference this Thursday at the site of an envisioned 160-unit apartment building on a vacant three-acre parcel on Taunton Avenue in East Providence. The project is envisioned by the Taunton Avenue Collaborative, a partnership between One Neighborhood Builders, Crossroads RI, Foster Forward and Family Service of RI. An April news release touted the innovative proposal as a “vibrant and diverse apartment community for extremely low-income households, youth aging out of foster care, and low- to moderate-income families.” Initial funding came from the RI Foundation, through the state’s congressional delegation and other sources. The stumbling block is how a $28 million state appropriation is needed to make the development a reality. Hence the news conference.

HOUSING II: Members of Gov. Dan McKee’s administration outlined last week how the governor is including a budget amendment to funnel an additional $29 million toward addressing the housing crisis. Some of the money would create a low-income housing tax credit – something currently not available in Rhode Island. Other funds would boost priority projects, offer fellows to boost planning capacity in cities and towns, and encourage more housing near public transportation. While additional steps and sustained funding are needed to end the housing crisis, Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor told reporters during a briefing that the governor’s proposal would significantly boost the state’s capacity.

TRUST DEFICIT: NPR’s Domenico Montanaro reports on how a toxic brew of mistrust toward U.S. institutions has real-world implications. On one hand, conservatives “see corporations and the media — not just the news but Hollywood and television — lurching toward a liberalism they see as fundamentally changing the traditional fabric of the country. Republican strategists say they have played by the rules, focusing on building advantages in key Electoral College states, legislatures and governors' races over two decades — and because Democrats didn't invest in down-ballot infrastructure, they're now complaining about unfairness. Republicans have dug in.

“Strategically, starting under Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, the GOP policy, particularly in the House, has largely been party unity first above compromise. Partisanship and polarization have been on the rise over the last 30 years. There are fewer competitive House districts, largely drawn by Republicans, which has meant more ideological purity in Congress and more hard-line, and, at times, ugly, in-your-face politics.”

On the other hand, Montanaro writes, “Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But two of the elections in which they won the popular vote were awarded to Republicans because of the Electoral College. And it's had profound consequences. The Iraq War likely would have never happened with a Democratic President Al Gore, and there would have certainly have been more action on climate change. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by three million votes in 2016, but won the Electoral College. He wound up being impeached twice and lies he told about the 2020 election he lost led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“Trump was also able to nominate three Supreme Court justices. That reshaped the court, making it the most conservative in almost a century and led to a host of changes now roiling society, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade …”

THE FIELD: John Goncalves, the Ward One city councilor in Providence, is part of the group of more than a dozen Democrats seeking the 1stt Congressional District seat being vacated by David Cicilline. During an interview on Political Roundtable, Goncalves declined to specify a position on Providence Mayor Brett Smiley’s tax proposal or a residential project proposed at Brook and Wickenden streets. As to why he’s running, Goncalves said, “As the son of an immigrant mother, I understand better than anyone else in this field the struggles of working families in Rhode Island. With rising inflation, it's getting harder every single day for Rhode Islanders to get by. My goal is to go to D.C. and fight for those people and advocate for them every single day.” 

TEAM AMO: Elsewhere among the Democratic candidates in CD1, Gabe Amo unveiled a campaign team studded by familiar names from his previous work for Sheldon Whitehouse and Gina Raimondo, including Mindy Myers, who ran Whitehouse’s 2006 campaign; Collin Berglund, who worked on Raimondo’s ’14 campaign; and longtime RI fundraiser Kate Ramstad. 

GINAWORLD: Speaking of Gina Raimondo, the U.S. Commerce secretary ... CHILD CARE: Raimondo and Gov. Dan McKee had a famously chilly relaionship during their  overlapping time in state government. So it was interesting to note how they sing from the same hymnal in raising the profile of child care. As CNBC reported this week, Raimondo got support from tech giants in her demand for child care for workers to be included in the CHIPS Act. Closer to home, McKee took part in the “Strollin’ Thunder” event at the Statehouse to dramatize the importance of investing in children. At the same time, child care remains costly and child care workers get meager wages. Is there a better way of doing things? Well, during WWII, Americans had access to universal child care and the government paid for it.

 JUDICIARY: Former U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux, a mainstay of the judiciary in RI, died last week at age 91. In a statement, the court’s chief judge, John J. “Jack” McConnell Jr., said, “The judges of the court are saddened at the death of our dear friend, colleague, and mentor. He was an exceptional jurist and respected by the legal community in Rhode Island. His legacy of public service is an inspiration, and we extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Denise and his family.”


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

Journalist and soon-to-be author PHIL EIL: A few weeks after my 38th birthday, I joined TikTok. Besides making me feel positively ancient, it’s been a fascinating experience. What interests me, in particular – aside from the ongoing debate about whether the app poses a threat to national security – is how relatively undeveloped the Rhode Island niche of the app still feels. It’s true, there’s an account that posts photogenic drone footage of beaches and lighthouses. There are a couple Rhody-focused food accounts. There’s one guy who travels around the state making little fan videos for each town. But Brown University doesn’t have an official account. Neither do Dan McKee, the Providence Journal, and lots of other public figures and institutions. If you’re looking for a place that feels a little fresher, a little less supervised, and a bit more freewheeling than some of the older social media apps (Twitter, Facebook), come join me. For now, I’m posting cat videos and little video dispatches from around Providence. But, who knows? One of these days I might break out a dance move.

Entrepreneur, community leader and ProJo alum ALISHA PINA: Nurse Appreciation Day is May 6 and Teacher Appreciation Week starts May 8. You know how to best thank them? Pay and support them what they are worth. It's been proven repeatedly that in addition to teaching, many great teachers can also be the coach, referee, parent, therapist, clothes provider, cook, security guard, translator, advocate, driver, shoulder, ear and pivot master. Several even purchase their own supplies for their classrooms and make copies of books because there aren't enough for all the students. Nurses are oftentimes the first smiles of the day for the sick. They clean bedpans and patients, draw blood from scared toddlers and adults, take insults from those in way-too-long waiting rooms, and answer multiple, simultaneous call buttons for help. Sometimes, like those in nursing homes, they may be the residents' only "family," putting their favorite sports game on for them, combing their hair, painting their nails, feeding them and getting them ready for bed. (Side Note: My father has lymphoma and dementia, and the nurses at Wingate Residences at Blackstone Boulevard deserve every medal ever made.) We can all see why there is a national shortage for both fields, and why the Charlesgate Nursing Center in Providence could be the fifth nursing home in Rhode Island to permanently close since the pandemic began. No offense to the jobs I am about to list and the hard work those put in to attain that profession, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on occupations and salaries from May 2022 for Rhode Island show power plant operators, sales reps, and captains’ mates and pilots of water vessels make more on average annually than teachers and nurses. I am screaming "SOS" with bold type to our leaders and those with the purse strings who can help. And if you are lost with my point, please re-read my first three sentences. Nurses and teachers are essential first responders. Pay and treat them as such.

Warwick City Council President STEVE MCALLISTER: Warwick residents in November of 2022 voted to borrow up to $350 million dollars to build two new high schools. Since November 2022 a number of factors have changed in the US economy that have a major impact on this Warwick project. The factors such as higher interest rates, banking concerns, supply chain issues and continued inflation have an impact on all projects across the country including building new schools here in Rhode Island. As a result, the Warwick City Council this week went out with a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for an independent cost review of the school department’s plan to build two new high schools. This report will give the community the most updated cost estimates on what it will take to build these two new schools. We all want to make sure that we have a safe, clean, healthy place for the students, teachers, coaches, administrators and the community who use our schools. However, there are so many factors that affect this plan that are outside the control of local leaders. Economic policies and conditions nationwide have a direct impact on every citizen, and this impact can be seen right in your own backyard. This fall there will be an election for Congress in the First Congressional District. While Warwick is not in that district, we must all recognize that the votes and policies made in Washington DC really do have a direct impact on all our neighborhoods, regardless of what congressional district or state you live in. All politics is local, and all federal policy and votes have a local impact.

Physician, community activist and OG of Latino politics PABLO RODRIGUEZ: To this old reproductive health warrior, it feels like we are living in the upside-down world. For years we fought to expand reproductive rights in this country, secure in the fact that Roe v. Wade was the eternal wall against gerrymandered state legislatures bent on limiting the ability of women to make their own decisions regarding when or whether to have children. Year after year, state challenges to Roe were defeated – but also defeated was the right to have Medicaid and state employee coverage for abortion, at least here in RI. Never would I have foreseen a moment where Medicaid coverage is at the verge of reality, but the right nationwide is as weak as before Roe. Justice for poor and state workers is finally here, but millions of Americans elsewhere do not know what they are going to do tomorrow, now that their pregnancy test turned positive. Doctors are standing by the side of patients not knowing if the procedure they know is indicated may land them in jail. And pharmacists are going to have to become lawyers to understand the myriad confusing restrictions and the possibility of Mifepristone, the abortion pill, to be made illegal in some places, under certain conditions, but not everywhere, perhaps. It may not be the upside-down world, but it is certainly a confusing one.

KICKER: Congrats to Brown University’s Olivia Pichardo, the first woman to play Division I baseball and who threw the first pitch during a Sox game this week.

 Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.