Sunday Political Brunch: Is Republican Party at a Crossroads?—October 29, 2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017


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I guess I foreshadowed the Trump versus U.S. Senate feud in last week’s column, but it’s just gotten worse. Where does this end? Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Tweet Tempest” – It may be the most undignified forum in modern media, but you can’t beat Twitter for allowing raw honesty. President Trump tweeting, “Bob Corker, who helped President O give us the bad Iran Deal & couldn't get elected dog catcher in Tennessee, is now fighting Tax Cuts....” Senator Corker fired back in an interview saying, “I think at the end of the day, when his term is over, I think the debasing of our nation, the constant non-truth telling, just the name-calling ... I think the debasement of our nation will be what he'll be remembered most for, and that's regretful."

“Flake for President 2020?” – In forty years of covering politics, the “retirement” address by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was one of the most heartfelt and eloquent speeches I’ve ever heard. But where does it lead? My gut tells me Senator Flake is going to challenge President Trump for re-nomination in 2020. Flake served 12 years in the House and six years in the Senate, and may be primed for the national stage. He’s 54 years old and has a political future ahead of him. Arizona is one of those red states that is gradually turning purple, so by the next election it will be a key battleground. Democrats could also win his Senate seat. But, after mavericks such as Barry Goldwater and John McCain, Arizona may be poised to finally elect a U.S. president. Stay tuned.

“Cut and Run?” – It’s a critical question, and as old as time. What do Republican loyalists do in 2018 and in 2020? Do they vote party loyalty and toe the line, or do they go rogue and vote their own conscience? I’ve been doing this a long time and here’s the answer: You save your own skin first. In 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich basically told moderates Rep. Scott Klug (R-WI) and Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA) to run ads distancing themselves from Gingrich, if need be. The Speaker knew he needed these two-key votes on big items like the budget, so they were okay to oppose him on lots of other issues. The goal: Just win, and we’ll sort it all out. They did!

“Biden His Time” – I have been firmly convinced for some time now that former Vice President Joe Biden is going to run for the Democratic nomination in 2020. I sensed – even before the 2016 election – that he regretted that he deferred to Hillary Clinton out of party loyalty. He believes he’s been a loyal soldier over the years – not to mention the adult in the room – to junior colleagues like President Obama. My bet is that Biden is in, no matter who else the Democrats field.

“The Next Test” – The only two states that hold odd-numbered year elections for governor are Virginia and New Jersey (November 7, 2017). And every odd-year election cycle you will hear network political pundits say, “It’s a litmus test for president (whomever is in office at the time)!” Baloney! These elections never have been (and likely never will be a national bellwether). First, New Jersey is probably more of a referendum on two-term Governor Chris Christie, who can’t run again. His Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, is trailing badly in the polls to Democratic nominee Phil Murphy. In Virginia, long-time GOP operative Ed Gillespie (no fan of President Trump), is in a see-saw battle with Democrat Ralph Northam. In both races it’s, “All politics is local,” and Trump is not a factor.

“Adams and Jefferson” – I laugh when people suggest that nasty, negative political rhetoric is a new phenomenon. Oh, please! Negative campaigning was born between our former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The Adams campaign referred to Jefferson as, "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." The Jefferson campaign in turn called Adams a, "Hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Ouch! The bottom line: The Trump-Corker Tweet feud is nothing new. In American politics - same song; different verse!

“Tax Reform is Crucial” – Nine months into his presidency, and President Trump has yet to score one major legislative victory in Congress, that he could sign into law. That’s not a good omen on a White House resume. Most of his predecessors had something of significance on the books by now. His last chance this year (before the 2018 reelection cycle begins) is tax reform. Various measures related to it have now passed the House and Senate. The president’s goal is to sign a bill before New Year’s Day, but that seems daunting. He desperately needs this win and may need Democratic support to do it. The fate of his presidency could rest in the balance.

“Drug Crisis” – This past week President Trump truly had an opportunity. Thursday, he declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency and was surrounded at the White House by many folks (within Congress, and without) who supported that. The problem may be that that no new funding was offered to get the agenda going. That may be a huge tactical mistake. I am in West Virginia where more people die per capita from drug overdoses than in any other state in the nation. It’s one thing to declare a war on the drug epidemic; it’s another kettle of fish to fund that war. People are watching and asking, “Where’s the money?”

“Why All This Matters” – Politics is a “proof of performance” business where people want to know what you’ve done for them, and why they should vote for you again. The current resume matters.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is a nationally-known political reporter, analyst and author who has worked on both coasts, and is now based in Charleston, West Virginia. He is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations covering the Mountain State.


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Five-Tool Player

Kate Coyne-McCoy - In baseball, they call them all around superstars - five tool athletes.

McCoy, who once ran for Congress, is a strong political organizer for EMILY’s List, a proven fundraiser for Raimondo’s PAC, strong with the media, and is a top lobbyist.

She is manages to balance being a partisan with her all-around effectiveness. McCoy can do it all.

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Effective Insider

Lenny Lopes - Whether you’re looking for someone to navigate the halls of the State House, manage your public relations image, or execute a contract, Lopes can do it all.

The affable and well-liked former Chief of Staff to then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch (and prior to that, Legal Counsel to Lt. Governor Charlie Fogarty) had joined forces with Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West before striking out on his own with The Victor Group, taking on such heavyweight clients as Lifespan and online gaming behemoths Fanduel and DraftKings, and more niche healthcare accounts — including the medical marijuana Rhode Island Growers Coalition. 

Lopes was tapped this past spring following the tourism debacle by Havas PR to help navigate their way through the Rhode Island waters, and ultimately defend their performance and reputation to stave off their contract cancelation for now. If you’re hired to be a PR firm’s de facto PR brain, you must be on your game.

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Two Coast Operative

Matt Lopes - With more than 20 different lobbying agreement Lopes has emerged as a premiere influencer in Rhode Island. His clients range from Dunkin’ Donuts to Amgen to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.

While managing one of the biggest lobbying practices he is often on the West Coast -- he is a nationally recognized Special Master for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, overseeing prison reform and compliance.

He plays with the big boys on both coasts. Easy for a guy who was a star athlete in high school and at Dartmouth.

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Gambling Man

Don Sweitzer - IGT (formerly GTECH) super lobbyist plays the game at most every level, with big ties to the Clinton organization that go all the way back to Sweitzer playing a key role with Clinton-Gore in 1992.

Sweitzer’s contacts span the political spectrum - despite his Democratic pedigree, don’t count him out if Donald Trump wins the Presidency as Sweitzer worked for Paul Manafort back in the early 1990s.

Reportedly, Raimondo asked him to serve as her chief of staff - he gracefully declined.

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New School

Segal, Bell and Regunberg - These three young Brown grads are emerging as the leaders in progressive causes in Rhode Island and across the United States. David Segal, who served on the City Council in Providence and as a State Rep, failed in a 2010 effort for Congress losing to David Cicilline in the Democratic primary. 

In 2016, Segal along with Aaron Regunberg emerged as a powerful force in trying to kill of the Super-Delegate structure in the Democratic primary.

Sam Bell is leading a major effort to re-calibrate the Democratic party to the left the election season. We will know just how good Bell is after September 13’s Democratic primary - Bell is overseeing more than a dozen progressive candidates' campaigns.

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Old School

Goldberg, Walsh, Ryan and Murphy - These four veteran lobbyists know the pass codes to just about every private office in the State House. For decades they have been the go-to guys. Regardless of who is in power Bob Goldberg, Joe Walsh, Mike Ryan and Bill Murphy are always in vogue.

Only Ryan was not an elected official. Murphy ran the House for a decade, Goldberg had pulled off one of the greatest political coups when he lead a small band of GOP senators and split the Dems to take power, and Walsh was the almost Governor of Rhode Island in 1984. 

Combined, they have the lion's share of premier clients and have collected the millions in fees to prove it.

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Urban Innovator

Nicole Pollock - The new Chief-of-Staff for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza certainly has big shoes to fill, with the recent departure of both Chief Operating Officer Brett Smiley and outgoing Chief of Staff Tony Simon but Pollack has gotten off to a strong start.  Following the recent summit on Kennedy Plaza co-hosted former Mayor Joe Paolino and Elorza, Paolino told GoLocal, “[Elorza’s] new Chief of Staff, I’m very impressed with.”

Pollock had joined the administration in February 2015 as Chief Innovation Officer and then served as Chief of Policy and Innovation for the administration before being tapped for the top post. Pollock had previously served in a policy and communications role for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. A graduate of Brown University, Pollock currently serves on the Board of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association and the Providence Plan.

The city has no shortage of pressing issues to tackle, from devising a plan to handle the ongoing panhandling, homelessness, and drug use issues in Kennedy Plaza, to the ever-looming issue of the protracted legal battle with the Providence Firefighters that could have monumental financial implications for the city, depending on the outcome. 

Photo: LinkedIn

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Emerging Star

Matt Bucci - The up-and-comer on Governor Raimondo’s staff was in the mix for Chief of Staff or another promotion this summer, but may chose to take his skills and join the world of lobbying or grab another private sector position.

Made news when he was tied to Governor Raimondo’s ill fated and ultimately canceled trip to Davos Switzerland. Raimondo was going to spend a weekend with the beautiful people and raided the non-profit URI Foundation’s scholarship dollars to fund the trip.

The former staffer to Senator Jack Reed is widely respected. Look for news about Bucci in the near future. Too talented to not make a leap soon. 

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Seasoned Pro

Chris Hunter - The strategy wunderkind has morphed into a well-established operative in his own right in veteran lobbyist Frank McMahon’s public affairs shop, Advocacy Solutions.   

The long-time government and public relations manager for the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance, Hunter is equally adept at the State House, having snagged emerging industry client Lyft and engaged in the hand-to-hand combat that comes with lobbying for the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. 

Election seasons in particular are where Hunter’s know-how comes in handy, having managed a number of successful bond referendum in the state. Hunter is a constant presence networking around town, whether it’s hobnobbing with the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations or serving on host committees for key candidates - he’s the combination of both “who you know” and “what you know."

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Nick Hemond - None may be more unabashedly and relentlessly ambitious than Hemond, who landed as an associate at powerhouse DarrowEverett in 2014. 

The President of the Providence School Board lobbies at City Hall for high-profile real estate clients including Buff Chace and High Rock Management (i.e. the ownership of the Superman Building) and at the State House for labor interests (RI FOP, RI Carpenters Local Union 94), Big Health (the Hospital Association of Rhode Island) and rounding it out with such interests as AAA, the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, and infrastructure firm AECOM.

If that doesn’t sound like a full load, toss in a slew of crisis communications clients in the way of bars and clubs in varying degrees of trouble (read: stabbings, shootings) before the Providence Board of Licenses. Having so many fingers in so many pies (and some of which could appear somewhat conflicting) has raised eyebrows, but in the meantime if Hemond is winning, the checks keep coming. 

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Veteran Professional

Leo Skenyon - The seasoned political operative is the man behind the man. Serving as Chief of Staff to Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Skenyon helped navigate a more than treacherous legislative session which saw Finance Chair Representative Ray Gallison resign, Representative John Carnevale found ineligible to run at his purported address in Providence, and a slew of financial and ethics issues for a number of Democrats. 

The Speaker however emerged from the session having tackled the thorny issue of community service grants, and what had seemed up until this year a nearly impossible task, putting ethics reform — and oversight of the Assembly by the Ethics Commission — before voters this November.

Skenyon has weathered many a political season before, having been the former Chief of Staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Jack Revens in the 1980s, and then a former top aide to Governor Bruce Sundlun and U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.  Now, his boss faces both a Republican and Independent challenger in the general election in November.  

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Deep Pockets

Joe Shekarchi - The Chair of the House Labor Committee is running unopposed this year in District 23 in Warwick, marking just the third election season for the powerful politician-lawyer, who first won in 2012.

Given his fundraising prowess, however, one would think that Shekarchi accrued his war chest over a longer tenure, with over $528,000 cash on hand as of the second quarter of 2016, making him far and away the most flush General Assembly member (by way of comparison, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello reported just over $365,000 cash on hand for the same period; Governor Gina Raimondo had $1.4 million.)

It was managing money that helped establish him on the map as a seasoned statewide political operative — he was the campaign manager for statewide operations for Raimondo when she ran for General Treasurer in 2010.  With a number of successes in business and on the Hill, keep an eye on Shekarchi's future plans. 


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