Just another ho-hum week in Rhode Island politics, right? The news emerged fast and furious Wednesday, in a likely harbinger of a lot more drama in the months to come. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. How could a savvy politician like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello exceed by a factor of 72 the $1,000 limit on spending from his own PAC during his 2016 state rep race? “This cannot be explained away as a series of honest errors,” charged RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell. “Mattiello would not be in office today but for this illegal activity. When an elected official breaks the law in order to get re-elected, he needs to leave office.” Yet the speaker was cool and collected when he spoke with reporters about the issue on Wednesday. “It was a mistake,” Mattiello said, noting how he had more than enough in his personal campaign account in 2016 to cover the over-spend from his PAC. “The wrong account was used …. Some folks are trying to make it into something it’s not. The wrong account was used, the expenditures were appropriate — we always had enough money, there was no tactical advantage.” Never mind that elected officials’ campaign finance violations (here and here) — and the state Board of Elections’ heightened role in policing them — were increasingly evident ahead of the November 2016 election. Republican Steven Frias gave Mattiello the fight of his political life that year. So Mattiello’s forces used everything they could — mail ballots, a far greater amount of campaign spending, and a mailer featuring an endorsement of the speaker by Frias’ vanquished primary rival, Shawna Lawton. (Remember that mysterious independent candidate Patrick Vallier got 202 votes — more than enough to swing the outcome.) In the end, Mattiello squeaked by on a 85-vote margin — a disproportionately narrow plebiscite for the most powerful post in state government, due to the speaker’s influence over spending and hiring. So what’s the upshot of this week’s findings by the state Board of Elections? Mattiello vowed that his campaign will now be more diligent, and there’s no palpable talk of an uprising in what former speaker-turned-lobbyist William Murphy dubbed “the House of Ambition.” House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan stood out among GOP gubernatorial candidates in calling for Mattiello to resign, while Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is known to have friendly ties with the speaker, struck a more subdued tone: “It is important that all campaigns play by the rules. I am glad the Board of Elections took the GOP’s allegations against Speaker Mattiello and his campaign staff seriously.” As Fung noted, the real test will come in November. That’s when Frias (who has said he remains undecided about a possible rematch vs Mattiello) or some other challenger may point to the campaign finance issue as evidence for why District 15 needs a different state rep.
2. The Board of Elections gave Speaker Mattiello a warning and ordered him to pay back the $72,000 in overspending to his PAC. Is that a sufficient punishment? “I’m left to wonder how a PAC can exceed the contribution limit by 72 times (a PAC whose agent is lawyer/Speaker and treasurer was now a magistrate on the bench) and not be subject to any punitive fine,” tweeted John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. “He simply has to pay the $72,000 back to the PAC from his campaign account, for which he can easily raise that in a single night from a room full of lobbyists.” Gov. Gina Raimondo declined to say whether Mattiello deserved a stiffer sanction. “What the campaign did wasn’t right,” Raimondo said during Rhode Island Public Radio’s Political Roundtable this week. “It was a serious and troubling mistake and the Board of Elections ran a process, and he has acknowledged his mistake. I think the important here is, people need to have confidence in their public leaders. We all need to follow the rules. There’s rules, we all need to follow the rules. If you break the rules, then there are consequences. I will say every year since I’ve been governor I have been working to tighten campaign finance laws and ethics laws. I have a bill before the legislature right now to tighten campaign finance laws and to call for random audits [of campaign finance accounts]. And I hope that they pass it, because again people deserve to have confidence in public leaders.” So was Mattiello’s punishment appropriate? “I’ll leave that to the Board of Elections, but as I said, it’s a serious mistake.”
3. Matt Brown‘s decision to run for governor as a Democrat puts him on a collision course with Gov. Raimondo in the September 12 primary. That means Brown has only slightly more than four months to build a campaign and raise money while making his case to voters. Brown’s decision may work to Raimondo’s advantage; if she wins the primary, it’s one less opponent siphoning votes in the November election (with Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo potentially drawing from Allan Fung‘s support if Fung emerges as the winning of the GOP primary in September.)
4. Give Lincoln Chafee credit for being unpredictable. After a long flirtation with a possible attempt to regain the governor’s office, Chafee poured cold water on that this week. Then, rather than riding off into the sunset, he told WPRO’s Tara Granahan that he was leaning toward a Democratic primary challenge against Sheldon Whitehouse — the same guy who beat Chafee in 2006. While the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat’s quixotic 2016 presidential run may have inspired a measure of Chafee fatigue, the candidate in waiting insists he’s a contender. “I’ve won 10 races in Rhode Island, and they’ll all been competitive and I believe I’ve been outspent in all of them,” he told me. “So I know how to win elections and I have a record of winning elections and I think I’m going to win this one.” Chafee still has a following among progressives, funding his campaign won’t be a problem, and he’s been on record for some time against the Burrillville power plant proposal (while Whitehouse, an outspoken environmentalist, has not taken a stance on that). Yet the Democratic establishment will remain aligned behind Whitehouse (his campaign manager from 2006, Mindy Myers, now leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), and the coordinated campaign boosting Whitehouse and Gov. Raimondo is already underway. Meanwhile, some people who might otherwise like Chafee may be put off by his statements in support of Russia.
5. Asked on Political Roundtable why she’s a better choice for Democratic primary voters than Matt Brown, Raimondo didn’t even mention her opponent. Instead, the governor offered the two components of her message: 1) “I’ll just look at where we started and where we are now. When I took the job we had just about the highest unemployment rate in the country, and now we have more people working than we have at any time in the past 10 years. Step out of your studio here, you see cranes in the sky, development, we’re fixing roads and bridges, people are back to work …” 2) “and all the while we’ve done that by being true to progressive values. Over 1500 kids are going to CCRI tuition-free this year. We’ve raised the minimum wage three times, provided paid sick leave. So we’ll leave it to the people to decide. But I know I don’t want to go back to the days of the highest unemployment rate in the country. We’re on a good path. We have an awful lot more work to do. As we’ve said, I think we’re in the 3rd or 4th inning of our economic comeback.”
6. On the other side of the race for governor, Republicans describe Raimondo as a failure. Yet they’re also increasingly training their fire on one another. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who has tried to remain above the fray, is coming under increasing attacks from House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan and Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo …. Trillo appalled some observers with his recent remarks about the Starbucks controversy, but his defense of Rep. Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) endeared him to the politically active 2A supporters who have become a presence at the Statehouse. Trillo also announced he will fund his own campaign, saying, “I am not…