Mattiello speaks on the Britt trial

Posted 10/22/20

Does it strain credulity that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello did not know in advance about the Shawna Lawton mailer in 2016? When it comes to the top-down culture of the State House, as a former Smith Hill staffer told me, "e;They punish people for not

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Mattiello speaks on the Britt trial


Does it strain credulity that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello did not know in advance about the Shawna Lawton mailer in 2016?

When it comes to the top-down culture of the State House, as a former Smith Hill staffer told me, “They punish people for not having their shoelaces tied the right way.”

But Mattiello pointed to how he’s been vetted in three separate venues – the state Board of Elections, the AG’s office, and the Superior Court money laundering trial of Jeff Britt – without any gum sticking to his shoes.

“What you don’t know, you don’t know,” Mattiello said, sounding a bit like the late mystic Yogi Berra, during Political Roundtable on The Public’s Radio last week. Britt, the speaker said, “may have taken bits of pieces of help from people without knowing what he was doing, but at the end of the day it was Jeff Britt.” (Britt’s lawyer, Robert Corrente, maintains his client is a fall guy in the case.)

Meanwhile, Mattiello’s GOP rival for state representative, Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, pointed to testimony from the trial – about surveillance of Steve Frias back in 2016 and the “best campaign taxpayer money can buy” – as part of her new mailer for her campaign.

Whitehouse focuses on ‘dark money’

While the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court appears assured, Democrats used the jurist’s confirmation hearing to highlight a range of issues.

Not surprisingly, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse focused on dark money and the threat that he said it poses to the Supreme Court and democracy in general. He pointed in part to the role played by the Federalist Society and Judicial Crisis Network in picking and promoting judicial nominees, describing this as part of a decades-long campaign to remake courts and enhance corporate power.

“Who wins when you allow unlimited dark money in politics?” Whitehouse asked. “A very small group, the ones who have unlimited money to spend and a motive to do it.”

While Whitehouse’s supporters admire his emphasis on dark money, he also has his critics.

Cruz fires back

At one point in the Coney Barrett confirmation process, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, fired back at Whitehouse (who was not in the chamber at the time), accusing him of hypocrisy. Cruz pointed to U.S. District Court Judge Jack McConnell, noted how he had raised a lot of money in a former role as treasurer of the RI Democratic Party, and contributed to Whitehouse, who backed McConnell’s judicial nomination. (McConnell declined comment on Cruz’s remarks. Whitehouse responded by saying his contributors are not dark money since they are identified.)

Budget blues

The outlook for more budget help from Washington has become increasingly uncertain. During his appearance on Political Roundtable, Speaker Mattiello said a lot of contingency plans are being considered, but he offered no specifics on how the state will wipe out a $900 million deficit by January while preserving his signature phaseout of the car tax.

“Our constituent services has gone through the roof in COVID times,” he said, pushing back against a suggestion that lawmakers have remained on the sidelines.

While Mattiello said he holds at least one budget meeting a week, he added, “I believe that, in times of states of emergency, that the state should speak with one voice, and that is of the governor. Other people getting involved is just political talk and it’s noise and it’s distracting to the citizens.”

RI in the presidential

A quick reminder: a handful of people with Rhode Island connections are working on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, so they’ll either be exulting or licking their wounds once the race is decided.

Eric Hyers, who managed campaigns for U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and Gov. Gina Raimondo, is heading up the Michigan battleground for Biden. Pawtucket native Gabe Amo, a former Raimondo staffer, is a HQ-based strategic advisor. Last but not least, Stephen Neuman, formerly a chief of staff for Raimondo, took on a gig earlier this year overseeing a key six-state region (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska) for Team Biden.

The anger in American politics

Are you angry about American politics? You’re not alone. Here are two articles worth the read.

The first: Steven Webster, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Bloomington, writing for Sabato’s Crystal Ball on “How anger shapes American politics.”

“Because anger causes us to evaluate people, places, and institutions in a negative fashion, politicians’ stoking of voter anger specifically about politics has the unfortunate consequence of lowering Americans’ trust in their governing institutions. This decline in trust is marked. In 1958, 73% of Americans said they trusted the federal government ‘always’ or ‘most of the time.’ By 2019, this figure had dropped to 17%. This diminished level of trust is problematic for effective governance. Trust in government has been shown to be essential for facilitating bipartisan cooperation and maintaining support for social welfare programs. Thus, should trust in government continue to decline, we are likely to see less bipartisanship and a further erosion of Americans’ support for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.”

The second: Lee Drutman, at, on “How hatred came to dominate American politics.”

“The current levels of hyper-partisanship are clearly dangerous. It’s bad news for a democracy when 60 to 70 percent of people view fellow citizens of the other party as a serious threat. And the more the parties continue to unify their supporters by casting the other party as the enemy, the higher this number will rise. There are two possible ways this ends. The first is the one we all fear – the unwinding of our democracy, because one or both sides hate each other so much that they are willing to support anti-democratic and authoritarian leadership in order to maintain power. (This is the threat Democrats have explicitly raised in recent months.) The other scenario is a major realignment and/or a collapse of one (or both) of the two major parties, which could reorient American political coalitions and resurrect some of the overlaps of an earlier era.”

Meanwhile, in Woonsocket

My colleague Sofia Rudin talked recently with reporter Lauren Clem from the Valley Breeze about the progressive push in municipal politics in Woonsocket.

While Alex Kithes shook up local politics by winning a special election for a City Council seat, the November election “is really going to indicate for us, is this shift towards a progressive candidate something that residents of this city are really interested in in the long term? Or was this just a single candidate who was very good at campaigning and managed to whip up a lot of interest around his campaign during a special election year when there wasn't a lot else to focus on?”

More Moira

State Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence), who lost her primary race to Nathan Biah, has the gift of gab and insight into how things work at the State House. So her forthcoming podcast, set to debut Oct. 23, is worth checking out.

Be like Mr. Rogers

PBS is marking its 50th anniversary. So it’s worth remembering the case made by Mr. Rogers to Rhode Island’s own John O. Pastore about the virtues of publicly funded media. You can find the video clip if you look online with relevant keywords. The clip takes on added resonance given the kind of widespread anger indicated in the above item. “What do you with the mad you feel,” asked Mr. Rogers, “when you feel so mad you could bite?”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit Follow Ian on Twitter


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