STORY OF THE WEEK: For supporters like state Sen. Bridget Valverde and Rep. Katherine Kazarian, the legislative sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, passing the EACA was unfinished …
STORY OF THE WEEK: For supporters like state Sen. Bridget Valverde and Rep. Katherine Kazarian, the legislative sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, passing the EACA was unfinished business. Although Rhode Island created a state-based law to protect abortion rights in 2019, “a right to a health care service is useless if we intentionally prevent people’s health insurance from covering it,” Valverde said during a floor debate Thursday. Now that it is law, the EACA ensures abortion coverage for those on Medicaid or the state employee health plan. For some, that’s a point of pride as abortion rights have been restricted in a series of red states. But this subject remains one of the most polarizing issues in America, so opponents have a sharply different view — objecting in particular to spending tax dollars on abortion care. They also lamented the way in which majority Democrats sped the bill’s final passage through the General Assembly and onto the desk of Gov. Dan McKee, who signed it with alacrity. Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz (R-North Smithfield) accused Democrats of high-handedness in ruling non-germane her attempt to move an amendment. “You know [the bill] is going to pass,” she said. “You should allow the discussion and debate to go forward … Those that rule in this chamber do so with an iron fist, with very little regard for those who have minority views.” In the end, the Senate passed the EACA by a two-to-one margin, 24-12, a far cry from the time when a tacit agreement kept abortion bills from reaching the floor of either chamber, and the Senate was a Bermuda Triangle for progressive bills. That changed dramatically in 2013, when grassroots activism propelled the passage of same-sex marriage. The composition of the General Assembly has moved to the left ever since, even though de la Cruz represents a marked contrast from predecessor Dennis Algiere’s decidedly more muted approach to partisan debate.
ENDORSEMENT: The Rhode Island Working Families Party has pursued a more low-profile approach than another progressive group, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, while scoring a string of legislative victories since 2016. At the same time, CD1 candidate Sandra Cano cried foul this week when RIWFP decided to endorse a rival, Aaron Regunberg. “It is deeply disappointing to learn that the Rhode Island Working Families Party (RI WFP) has chosen to not endorse the type of candidate they claim to champion: a woman of color, an immigrant, a working mother,” Cano’s campaign manager, Sydney Keen, said in a statement. RIWFP’s Georgia Hollister Isman was unapologetic about the endorsement, describing Regunberg as someone with a record of coalition-building and support for working people. “We think this is a race that Aaron can win and we think he’s the best-situated progressive,” she told me. Those with a more critical view on the endorsement remember when WFP rallied behind another white male candidate, Laufton Ascencao, who won a state rep seat in Bristol in 2018, but stepped down before being inaugurated and pleaded no contest to a charge of felony embezzlement. Cano, meanwhile, announced endorsements from two more of her colleagues: Sens. Pam Lauria of Barrington and Alana DiMario of Narragansett.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Rhode Island has the third-highest per capita rate of people on probation in the U.S., as my colleague Olivia Ebertz reported last week. By one estimate, judges hold people who violate probation without bail 85% of the time, sometimes with grim consequences.
EXIT STEINBERG: Neil Steinberg has led the Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s largest philanthropic group for the last 15 years. After serving in key roles at Fleet Bank and Brown University, Steinberg said heading the foundation was his favorite job. “It's a combination of all the other ones,” he said. “[It] allows me to bring all those together, and leverage the experience that I have and my network for good for Rhode Island.” The numbers tell part of the story: during Steinberg’s tenure, the foundation’s assets have grown from $455 million to $1.3 billion, and the number of nonprofits receiving grants climbed from 1,275 to 2,400. The foundation’s new era starts June 1, when U.S. Rep. David Cicilline succeeds the departing president/CEO.
Here are some excerpts from Steinberg’s exit interview with me on Political Roundtable.
-On why RI struggles to create well-defined engines of growth: “We tend to do things for a few years, and then switch gears – whether it's because of leadership changes or whatever, we need to stick with doing some things well.”
-On how the state’s small size affects things: “[W]e should be able to get our act together. And we shouldn't be as balkanized as we are. And I'm not talking about consolidating every service. I'm talking about leadership that says this is what's best for Rhode Island. And let's all mobilize to do it, because in that small [a] state it should be a strength.”
HOUSING: The board of RI Housing last week approved the first outlay of housing-production money from the state budget approved last year. The award of more than $101 million (with $82.9 million from the FY23 spending plan) is meant to preserve and build close to 1,500 units of housing in communities around the state, the vast majority of which will be affordable. Gov. McKee spoke at the outset of the RI Housing meeting, hailing the spending plan as a sign of progress in the fight against the state’s housing crisis.
STATE GOVERNMENT: After a long lag in filling various vacancies, particularly the Cannabis Control Commission – the new group whose responsibilities include choosing who gets retail licenses to sell cannabis – Gov. McKee has picked up the pace. His nominations for the CCC include his well-regarded deputy chief of staff, Kim Ahern, as chairwoman of the body. McKee nominated BHDDH Director Richard Charest as the new secretary of the wide-ranging Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which encompasses the state departments of Health, Human Services, Children, Youth and Families, and Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. Other picks by the governor: former Providence police Deputy Chief Thomas Verdi as the next state Revenue director; and former OMB head Jonathan Womer as the new director of the Department of Administration. What explains McKee’s sudden flurry of nomination activity? Well, it could be how the General Assembly is aiming for a mid-June exit, and time for state Senate confirmations are quickly winding down.
GUNS: The proposed assault weapon ban appears unlikely to clear the General Assembly this year. Less clear is what happens with a bill calling for stricter gun storage requirements. Opponents generally cite concerns about being able to defend themselves in their home. But, as my colleague Lynn Arditi reports, having a gun in the home is associated with significantly increased risk for suicide, according to the CDC, and suicides accounted for 98 of 169 fatal shootings in the state from 2019-2021.
KICKER: There was a hint of Yogi Berra’s signature observations when former Sox 1B Kevin Millar offered this riff while doing color commentary on NESN this week: “I always said that Boston is a small state in Massachusetts, but you feel like it's one big family member and it really is.” Of course, baseball has its own rich lexicon and malaprops are a staple. In that respect, Yogi’s real-life accomplishments are overshadowed by his deceptively expert observations. (I mean, can you do any better for Rhode Island’s long-running attempt to reinvent its economy than ‘It’s deja vu all over again’?). Representing a franchise whose ethos was once likened to U.S. Steel, Berra exuded amiability. He landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Despite all this, Berra was often underestimated because of his stumpy build. Now, a new documentary (via the NYT) makes the case for Yogi’s greatness – a three-time MVP, someone who showed early respect to Black players, and only one of two players to ever hit more than 350 home runs while striking out fewer than 450 times. (Perhaps most impressively, Berra struck out only 12 times during 656 plate appearances in 1950.) Yogi died in 2015, at age 90. We would all do well to remember him.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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