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Whitcomb: On to Infrastructure; Get Married, Mayor Elorza; Defending Ukraine

Monday, January 01, 2018


Robert Whitcomb

“Now winter downs the dying of the year,   

And night is all a settlement of snow; 

From the soft street the rooms of houses show   

A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,   

Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin   

And still allows some stirring down within.’’ 

-- From “Year’s End,’’ by Richard Wilbur




In the 2016 campaign and before Donald Trump commendably discussed the need to fix America’s decayed infrastructure, whose crumbling is all too apparent in New York City, whence he comes. He and others in the political class in Washington have suggested that $1 trillion might need to be spent to get things up to something approaching the level of other Western nations. Now that the Republicans have gotten their tax bill enacted, Trump and congressional luminaries have suggested that a big infrastructure bill should be next.

The President said last August: “No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay.’’


President Donald Trump

But with the federal budget deficit about to swell even more with the tax law and with the two major parties more suspicious of each other than ever, even doing something as seemingly bipartisan-sounding as infrastructure repair will be tough. One of the issues will be how much of any such law would involve public money and how much private- sector investment. Trump likes public-private deals, but that can raise the total cost. (See the latest plans for fixing part of Route 95 in Providence.) The possibilities for conflicts of interest and out-and-out corruption are large, but America must address its infrastructure crisis.


Congress and the president in 2017 would have done far more good for the economy, in job creation and in making America more competitive, if they had focused from the start on a responsibly financed infrastructure bill instead of on a tax bill to please their big donors.


Meanwhile, as Common Good, the nonprofit run by my friend Philip K. Howard, has argued, the almost comically slow approval process for infrastructure projects, such as replacing superannuated bridges, must be speeded up. Common Good has estimated that large infrastructure projects require a far too long six years to start. The culprits include fear of lawsuits and very broad and complicated environmental reviews. 




Trump, for his part, has commendably directed federal agencies to speed up things through better coordination of environmental impact reviews.


Unlike with tax laws and the Affordable Care Act, Republicans and Democratic leaders both generally agree that a huge national infrastructure program is needed. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has noted that the Senate, with the election of Democrat Doug Jones as the new U.S. senator from Alabama, will require more bipartisanship to get things done. Perhaps even in a congressional-election year, that bipartisanship could result in a big infrastructure program, even if it means raising the gasoline tax to help responsibly pay for it. And both parties could claim credit. Or, as Ronald Reagan liked to say:


“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.”



It’s too bad that the once very respectable and nonpartisan WJAR-TV, in Providence, has been turned into a strident right-wing propaganda organ by its owner Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is very close to Donald Trump. Sinclair is becoming the Fox News of radio.




It was gratifying to hear that the U.S. will finally supply Ukraine with defensive weapons – Javelin anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles -- to better protect itself in Russia’s ongoing war/invasion in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration and the early Trump administration were too weak in helping this democracy – albeit a very flawed one – defend itself from its expansionist neighbor to the east.


The psychodynamics of the administration’s Ukraine move and a recent Trump administration report declaring the need to more forcefully confront Russian and Chinese aggression and threats thereof are intriguing since Trump has been famously loath to say negative stuff about the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin. It often seems that there are two sets of Trump administration foreign policies – one consisting of the views of the GOP foreign-policy establishment and the other a chaotic stew of Trump tweets.


Anyway, dictators respect physical force above all.




I don’t agree with some of the positions that Nikki Haley enunciates as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, especially her bashing of the U.N., which will not help us over the long haul. (That doesn’t mean that I’m not well aware of the hypocrisies and other pathologies of the world body. But we still need it.) Still, it should be said that Ms. Haley, a former GOP governor of South Carolina, has shown herself to be a very articulate, savvy and confident diplomat, a very fast learner of foreign-policy issues and a highly competent deal maker.


So confident is she that she has ignored Trump’s tendency to make nice with Putin and roundly denounced the Putin regime: “We cannot trust Russia. We should never trust Russia.’’


She’d be a very plausible replacement for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and might well end up as president.




Earthquake damage

Earthquake zone? You’d  probably not think of New England as a particularly geologically active place, but we do get mild earthquakes from time to time. But as it turns out, geologists have found that much of the region is atop a rising mass of warm rock! As the National Geographic reported, it’s “a smaller, slower version of the magma pockets under well-known volcanic zones.’’


This suggests that we may be more vulnerable to major quakes than we thought.


The warm rock is centered beneath central Vermont, western New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts. Don’t expect a volcanic eruption any time soon, but things could get shakier than expected.





New England’s extreme cold in the past few days has led to surges in the price of natural gas, which will, in turn, boost electricity rates. That ought to remind New England how much we need to develop alternative sources of power.


Perhaps Associate Prof. Geoffrey Cowles, of UMass Dartmouth, an oceanographer, and his colleague, Princeton engineering Prof. Luigi Martinelli, can help. The National Science Foundation has awarded them a $300,000 grant to work in cooperation with Ocean Renewable Power Co., to assess the performance of tidal-energy turbines and their interactions with the marine environment. This might or might not become an important energy source for New England; it certainly deserves investigation. The more home-grown energy the better.


I ran into a neighbor the other week a who had recently put solar panels on one side of the roof. It cost $10,000 but now he and his wife have virtually no electric bill. They can run electric heaters to their heart’s content. Pretty alluring the past few days….



Mayor Jorge Elorza

Obviously, this is a very personal matter but I can’t help saying that I wish that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza would marry his girlfriend Stephanie Gonzalez, with whom he is having a baby. Marriage is obviously no panacea for society’s ills but the fact is the duties associated with the ancient institution are stabilizing forces for individuals and society, especially because they help to legally protect children. And parents’ failure to wed is correlated with high poverty rates, crime, and other social dysfunction.


You can see the effects of the “illegitimacy’’ epidemic around America, especially in inner cities and in poor rural areas. I wish that the mayor and his girlfriend would set a good example for the citizenry –especially young people – and get married. You could look at marriage as the smallest unit of government. Without it, you’re spawning anarchy.




Emily Badger had an important story in the Dec. 24 New York Times entitled (in the print edition) “The Megacity, Untethered: Urban Giants are going global but losing their connections with smaller neighbors’’.


It basically says that such big globalized high-tech cities as Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle no longer need as much their old connections with manufacturing centers, both nearby or elsewhere in America. She writes:


“The companies that now drive the Bay Area’s soaring wealth — and that represent part of the American economy that’s booming — don’t need these communities in the same way. Google’s {which also has a large operation in Cambridge/Boston} digital products don’t have a physical supply chain. Facebook doesn’t have dispersed manufacturers. Apple, which does make tangible things, now primarily makes them overseas.’’


“A changing economy has been good to the {San Francisco} region, and to a number of other predominantly coastal metros like New York, Boston and Seattle. But economists and geographers are now questioning what the nature of their success means for the rest of the country. What happens to America’s manufacturing heartland when Silicon Valley turns to China? Where do former mill and mining towns fit in when big cities shift to digital work? How does upstate New York benefit when New York City increases business with Tokyo?’’


So how do the old manufacturing cities of, for example, Worcester and Providence deal with this problem? They become lower-cost extensions of Greater Boston. That, like that powerhouse, they have some very good universities to help staff companies with technological and other highly trained people is a major strength. They’re better positioned to do 21stCentury work than are most old American mid-sized cities. Providence and Worcester should embrace Boston, not try to compete with it.


To read The Times’s piece, please hit this link:




Those depressed about the Rhode Island economy might feel better if they looked at the big building projects underway in downtown Providence. Parts of the cityscape are being transformed near the train station and the Rhode Island School of Design.




Sydney Opera House

Wouldn’t it be nice if Brown University put its planned big new performance center on the Providence riverfront as a sort of Sydney Opera House instead of building it in a residential area and having to raze or move some old houses to do so.




I used to like eating grilled octopus. But no more after having read Sy Montgomery’s book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of  Consciousness no more.


Ms. Montgomery,  after having done research at the New England Aquarium, in Boston, convincingly describes the octopus as a very complex, intelligent and emotional creature and one that makes sensitive connections with humans. I think that I’ll start confining my seafood consumption to clams, mussels, and oysters.




A big tax issue in New England is federal tax credits for developers of historic properties.  Political leaders and developers had worried that an element of the federal Historic Tax Credit  (HTC) program that lets developers offset 20 percent of approved historic rehabilitation projects against tax liabilities would be eliminated. But as The Boston Guardian (which gets most of its revenue from real-estate ads) reported, the 20 percent rule remains, although the new law has the credits payout over five years instead of in the first year of development.


These credits have been a very big deal in Boston and Providence, with their riches of old commercial buildings. In the former, $2 billion worth of projects took advantage of the program from 2011-2016. The most famous beneficiaries – the owners of Fenway Park!


More problematic in the tax law is that the doubling of the standard deduction to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for joint filers will also certainly cut charitable giving because fewer people will itemize deductions. And the doubling of the amount in an estate that’s estate-tax-free to $22 million reduces rich people’s incentive to make donations to cut their estate taxes.




Why do so many New England drivers refuse to slow down on ice-covered roads?




Correction and/or clarification: In early editions of last week’s “Digital Diary,’’ I cited one estimate that Donald Trump and his enterprises would save $1 billion in the new tax law.  In fact, that estimate included, among other things, abolition of the estate tax, which didn’t happen after all, though the amount shielded from the levy from it has been doubled, to $22 million from $11 million. A friend (and former chief financial officer at big companies) emailed me to complain. I thank him.


What seems clear to me is that the very complex, closely held and secretive Trump Organization will do very well from the tax bill, including changes involving “pass-through’’ income and lovely new tax breaks for real-estate operators, of all people. 

New York City  real-estate accountant Kenneth Weissenberg told Forbes: 


"You've given the majority of his income a tax break. He's benefiting, not just from the direct tax benefits but the increase in the value of his holdings."


In any event, it will take months to figure out all these changes. That Trump, who claims to be a multibillionaire, refuses (as is his right) to release his tax returns makes understanding how much he and his family will gain from the new law particularly daunting. Perhaps we’ll know a lot more by April 15.




Happy New Year! A lot of people still make New Year’s resolutions. But it’s probably more effective to make a list of resolutions – things to do and how to act – every morning to cover just that day. Harder to forget or ignore.


First resolution: Buy one of those full-spectrum light boxes to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I did.


Related Slideshow: Some of the Most Interesting GoLocal LIVE Interviews—The First 1,000

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Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny, former Prime Minister - the Taoiseach - of Ireland, joined GoLocal LIVE to discuss the growing trade opportunities sparked by the new direct air travel between Rhode Island's T.F. Green via Norwegian Air.


Kenny has been instrumental with his support for the Ireland West International Trade Center in Rhode Island and the RI Trade Center in Mayo.

At the time of the interview, a Rhode Island trade mission was visiting Ireland led in part by Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who also appeared on LIVE.

Kenny served as Prime Minister from 2011 until earlier 2017.

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Amanda Clayton, Actress

Johnston native Amanda Clayton was almost ready to give up on her acting dreams when she got the call to travel to Atlanta to meet Tyler Perry and test-read with other actors for the then-new show “If Loving You Is Wrong," an opportunity that has been life and career changing for Clayton. 

Having moved to New York at 19, five days before 9/11, she studied on-camera acting at New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue film and TV opportunities in Hollywood.


She appeared in Disney’s “John Carter," multiple TV appearances like NCIS: New Orleans, Major Crimes, and The Mentalist, and as Vinny Pazienza’s sister in “Bleed for This” filmed and based right here in Rhode Island.

Clayton just finished a Lifetime Movie “Mommy’s Little Angel”, coming out next year, and finished a role behind-the-scenes as a producer for “Dirty Dead Con Men.”

 “If Loving You Is Wrong” airs Tuesday nights on OWN.

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Billy Gilman, Grammy Nominee

When your career begins at age 11 as the youngest artist to reach #1 on the Billboard charts and continues on through adulthood, it’s almost difficult to believe one could still have professional firsts, but RI native and “The Voice” Alum, Billy Gilman, did just that with his first ever arena concert at the Dunkin Donuts Center.


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Johanne Killeen, Al Forno

Johanne Killeen of Al Forno shared both the story on GoLocal LIVE's "The Taste," of how grilled pizza began -- as well as the announcement on her new cookbook highlighting pizza.

She told the story of how one of America's greatest restaurants was started and where it is going in the future. 


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South African Penguins

Mystic Aquarium’s Penguin Trainers Eric Fox and Josh Davis visited GoLocal LIVE with Blue-Purple and Blue-Red penguins, talking about how you can help the Endangered South African species.


They also discussed trips to South Africa, what it’s like working with penguins, and what’s on the penguin’s lunch menu.

Mystic Aquarium’s mission is to inspire people to care for and protect the ocean planet through education, conservation and research. To help accomplish that mission, Mystic Aquarium offers educational opportunities and fundraising events to continue their conservation work and teach the public about the ocean’s creatures.

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Jai Rodriguez, Actor

“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” alum, Jai Rodriguez, joined GoLocal LIVE to talk about his new show “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man’’ currently running in Vegas until January of 2018. 

Rodriguez co-stars in the audience-participation heavy live show with reality TV personality, Kendra Wilkinson, and says the subject matter of the show is perfect for the crowd in Vegas. 


Rodriguez will also be appearing on the new CBS drama “Wisdom of the Crowd” and makes a cameo as Margaret Cho’s Husband in “Sharknato 5.”

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Governor Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee, former Mayor, U.S. Senator and Governor, took Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration to task for promoting economic growth by funneling tax dollars to some of America’s richest corporations, in one of a number of appearances on GoLocal LIVE.


Appearing on GoLocal LIVE with GoLocal News Editor Kate Nagle, Chafee said the Raimondo’s transfer of taxpayers dollars to billion dollar companies such as General Electric and Johnson & Johnson was flawed.

“I have never liked corporate welfare. It's unfair to existing businesses…some out of state business comes in and you give them the candy store. I just don’t like it," said Chafee.

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Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero

As only the 10th person to serve as the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero said it’s been amazing to learn responsibilities of the position and get to know the staff at the National Archives. He appeared on GoLocal LIVE with Molly O'Brien at GoLocal's downtown Providence studio.


“The most exciting thing is getting to know the records and getting to know the richness of the documentation that tells our country’s history, starting with the oaths of allegiance signed at Valley Forge by George Washington and the troops, all the way up to the tweets that are being created as I am speaking, in the White House,” Ferriero said.

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Governor Gina Raimondo

Governor Gina Raimondo joined GoLocal News Editor Kate Nagle on LIVE where she discussed the UHIP technology failure, economic development, the status of 38 Studios, and how she works to build a lasting legacy for Rhode Island. 


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Walt Mossberg, Top Tech Journalist

Who are five of the most influential people to change personal technology? The most important journalist gave his insight on personal tech to date and outlined where we are going.

Super tech journalist and Rhode Island native Walt Mossberg appeared on GoLocal LIVE with GoLocal's News Editor Kate Nagle.


"Well, it was a combination of really important people - and really important technology," said Mossberg. "It took too long for the computer industry to get the memo that these things had to be usable without reading manuals."

Mossberg, who served as the principal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal from 1991 to 2013, founded AllThingsD, Recode, and the D and Code Conferences, and from 2015 to 2017, was Executive Editor of The Verge.

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Gretchen Morgenson, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist

Gretchen Morgenson, a top financial writer for the New York Times [now the Wall Street Journal], joined GoLocal LIVE just hours after her newspaper published her investigative piece that unveiled that claims that financial giant TIAA was involved in improper financial practices took on new momentum.


Rhode Island’s Treasurer Seth Magaziner has nearly $700 million invested with TIAA.

Morgenson was first to report that, “New York’s attorney general has subpoenaed TIAA, the giant insurance company, and investment firm, seeking documents and information relating to its sales practices…”

In October, she wrote a sweeping investigative piece that raised questions about TIAA’s selling strategies. “The subpoena to TIAA, which handles retirement accounts for over four million workers at 15,000 nonprofit institutions across the country, followed an article last month in The New York Times that raised questions about the firm’s selling techniques,” wrote Morgenson.

On GoLocal LIVE, Morgenson told News Editor Kate Nagle in a Skype interview, “I think clients in all states should be worried -- Mr. [Seth] Magaziner should do a little more investigation into this to assure himself and the people in Rhode Island in these plans - that what TIAA is [telling them] is correct.”

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Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ron Powers said his recent book, “No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America” is one he promised himself he would never write.


The book is based on the true story of his two sons' struggles with mental illness. Both were diagnosed with Schizophrenia as young men.

While deeply personal, Powers gave insight on the battles his sons’ fought and details into their family life. He also looked at the history of mental illness, including incarceration, medication and more. 

"I was determined to give the mentally ill, invisible to much of society and often denied the very basic acknowledgment of their own humanity, a voice,” Powers said.

Powers is the author or co-author of 14 previous books, including New York Times bestselling “Flags of our Fathers” and “True Compass."

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Lidia Bastianich, Chef and Author

Lidia Bastianich, Emmy award-winning chef, restaurateur, and author joined GoLocal LIVE's The Taste with Rick Simone.


Bastianich explained how she was inspired by family traditions and how she first got into the culinary world. She has since carried on her passion and it now has involved to include her whole family in all her endeavors.

Big news -- Bastianich announced that Eataly could be opening in Toronto, Canada in 2018.

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Piff the Magic Dragon

Magician and comedian Piff the Magic Dragon appeared on LIVE before he performed five shows at the Comedy Connection in East Providence over Labor Day Weekend. 

“New show, all new jokes, all new tricks, same dog,” Piff said. “Mr. Piffles will be doing a lot of mind reading. He’s got his whole new act with The Dog Who Knows and he’ll be attempting to see all and know all. Ask him anything and he’ll tell you.” 

Known for his dry sense of humor and rescue K-9 sidekick Mr. Piffles, Piff gained worldwide attention after his success on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. 

Although Piff didn’t win that season, he’s made guest appearances on America’s Got Talent, racked up 50 million YouTube views, and recently extended his show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas until the end of 2018.

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Jean Lesieur, French Journalist

Leading French journalist Jean Lesieur has appeared twice on GoLocal LIVE. 

He is a novelist and a co-founder of France 24, the French version of CNN, warned of the rise of Trump and nationalism.


“He is the symptom and agent of the emerging nationalism. And, nationalism should not be considered patriotism. Patriotism is the love of your own. Nationalism is the hatred of others,” said Lesieur at the Hope Club.

In a sweeping discussion with GoLocal, he spoke about Europe in the Brexit, the Trump relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the wild French election campaign.

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Patrick Kennedy, Former Congressman

Former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke with GoLocal LIVE about efforts in Rhode Island in 2017 to legalize marijuana - and what he said is the country’s crisis of addiction, and why he is opposed to marijuana legalization. 


“We’re going through an epidemic of addiction and depression…and we’re in the midst of the rollback the biggest expansion of healthcare coverage that benefits people with mental illness [and] addiction, and this was the first time the ever got coverage,” Kennedy told GoLocal’s Kate Nagle on Wednesday.

“We ought to think do we want to throw gasoline on the fire,” said Kennedy, of legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island. “We know what’s happened with other addictive substances where’s basically there’s no perception of ‘risk’ — alcohol is ubiquitous; tobacco, until the settlements, there was no appetite for addressing [the impact of that].”

“Going down this road of adding a new intoxicant is not a good thing,” said Kennedy.

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Beverly Daniel Tatum, Former Spelman College President

Former president of Spelman College, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., is one of the nation’s leading experts on race, and the psychology of race.

Tatum recently released a fully revised and updated edition of her bestselling book “Why Are the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race.” 


In an interview with LIVE, Tatum said it’s important to have conversations about race and listen for opportunities to have natural discussions.

“We can’t solve a problem if we can’t talk about it,” the Brock International Prize in Education winner said. 

To make a change, she said, we all have a role to play and each of us has an opportunity.

“We all have a sphere of influence. Everybody influences someone, and we should not be afraid to use that influence to bring about the changes we hope to see,” she said.

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Mark Baillie, Top British Security Expert

Terrorism and international relations expert Mark Baillie of King's College in London's War Studies Department spoke with GoLocal's Kate Nagle regarding the post-Manchester landscape in England - and the world. 

"The young guy...did it in his mother's basement. Any lone actor can make a powerful bomb," said Baillie following the terrorism incident. "We're in the midst of a general election where politicians talk about there being no political or cultural backlash."


"And estimated 300 people are 'ready to go' -  400 who have been fighting with Isis in Syria  -- and in a group of about 20,000 supporters," noted Baillie of the UK landscape, calling Manchester and acts like it the "terrorism of the mundane" -- and much more frightening than "spectacular" acts of terrorism. 

Baillie, who runs seminars on a wide range of security matters at King's and at the UK Joint Staff College, has lived or worked in more than 14 countries in the fields of news, security, finance, economics, business and politics and appears widely in international news media on terrorism and international security.

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Mark Geragos, Celebrity Attorney

Geragos is one of Hollywood's biggest celebrity lawyers having represented rapper Chris Brown and Michael Jackson over the years. When asked about his relationship with the often legal troubled Brown, Geragos said that the rapper is "like a son and an annuity" to him.

In reference to a lawsuit that he is representing Alex and Ani over, Geragos said, "For lack of a better word, we've got a couple of knuckleheads, [and] it's not at the forefront of anything we're worried about."

"Unfortunately when you become successful people want to take an elevator to the penthouse and that won't happen here, trust me," said Geragos.

Geragos explained how he met Alex and Ani CEO Carolyn Rafaelian - and spoke to how the "company culture" brought him in.

"I was at a charity event at Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard -- she was doing a fundraiser for an Armenian orphanage," said Geragos. "They have a unique blend of doing humanitarian work...Carolyn was the hit in New York this week."

Model, entrepreneur and activist Gisele Bündchen, co-anchor of Good Morning America Robin Roberts; and Rafaelian were among the women recognized Tuesday in New York City by the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), a global charitable organization that addresses the epidemic of trauma and toxic stress amongst at-risk populations.

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Amazing Regulars

Each week, GoLocal LIVE features an amazing group of experts in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

Robert Whitcomb, former Editorial Page Editor of the Providence Journal, now GoLocalProv columnist

Gary Sasse, "The Money Man," an expert on state and federal fiscal policy

Jennifer Lawless, Director of the Women & Politics Institute and Professor of Political Science at American University

Ray Rickman, Former State Representative, Deputy Secretary of State, and Civil Rights Leader

Kristin MacRae, Organizing Expert

Saul Kaplan, Business Innovation Expert

Robin Garceau, Interior Design Expert  


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