Tim White is one of the preeminent journalists working in Southern New England today, serving as an investigative reporter and host for WPRI in Providence. In a recent, wide-ranging taping of The Bartholomewtown Podcast, Tim and I discussed changes in the media landscape, his book The Last Good Heist and subsequent appearance as a feature guest on the popular mob-themed podcast Crimetown. We also took a deep dive into Rhode Island politics ahead of the September 12th primary elections. Below is an excerpt from our discussion, in which Tim and I agree that the lieutenant governor’s Democratic primary race will serve as a litmus test for whether the Democratic party in Rhode Island is rapidly moving to the left, or still firmly in the hands of the so-called “old guard,” and Tim makes notes the volatility and statewide impact of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s contest in District 15.
Bill Bartholomew (Motif): What’s your take on where we’re at right now as far as the gubernatorial race, and, to me, more interestingly, the lieutenant gubernatorial race. We seem to have several factions of positions (within political parties) in Rhode Island right now.
Tim White: What interests you about the lieutenant governor race?
BB: Well, there’s two things. One, that it hadn’t really received much media attention for a while. Now it’s getting a little bit more attention.
TW: It’s like the corner of the state house, right?
BB: The lieutenant governor’s office, absolutely! Room 216.
What really fascinates me about it is that it has gotten to the point where — take for example Ian Donnis’ Tweet that included a photo of Lieutenant Governor Mckee side by side with (Trump-supporter and Democratic General Assembly candidate) Michael Earnheart at a barbecue or something. Evidently someone, not officially from The Regunberg camp, but someone unofficially tied to Regunberg, had taken the photo (in an attempt to paint McKee as an Earnheart associate). It just seems like we’re getting into the point of silly season now in that race.
TW: Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet. It’s gonna come!
I agree with you in the lieutenant governor’s race, which is why I wanted to ask your opinion, and I think that the lieutenant governor’s race is a good barometer on this democratic party in RI right now. You have the moderate, Dan McKee, of the democratic party. And then you have more of the progressive state representative Aaron Regunberg and the real grassroots campaign that Aaron is moving and whatnot. So, we have a very left candidate in Aaron and Dan is more on the right side of the Democratic Party. And I think that, particularly in a midterm election with a very, very conservative president right now in Donald Trump, you’re seeing the progressive wing supercharged and energized throughout the country. But obviously what we care most about is, is here in Rhode Island and, whether it was intentional and not, maybe Aaron Rosenberg was thinking of doing this for a couple of years now, you know, but he certainly can capitalize off of that (anti-Trump) energy that’s happening right now.
We’re seeing some General Assembly candidates as well that are, you know, on the progressive side and they’re energized. We have seen more women run, which is a good thing.
The Governor’s race tends to suck the oxygen out of the room and you can understand why, because so much money is spent on that race and you see a lot of television ads and a lot of Facebook ads and things like that, because they have the deeper pockets. But, the general assembly is really where the power is held in Rhode Island and the microscope should be on that, and also the lieutenant governor race and things like that. (The non-gubernatorial races) don’t make a lot of headlines, but we’re interested because of what it means politically in Rhode Island and what it’s going to tell us about where Rhode Island is moving as a whole.
The question is going to be turnout in the Democratic primary. I think that’ll be the biggest factor. I’ll let analysts tell you if it’s a high turnout, is that better for Aaron Regunberg? Is that better for Dan McKee? I won’t get into that sort of analysis. We’ll let Joe Fleming do that. You should have him on!
BB: Yeah, absolutely!
TW: But, you know, I think just if turnout is high, for a primary, which traditionally are very low, particularly in non-presidential years, I think that’s going to be really telling, Bill, about what people’s attitudes are right now. People vote angry. I think if the numbers are high, that’ll tell us that people are pretty pissed off.
BB: Absolutely. And what will be interesting to see is whether potential voters that may come in for Regunberg are somehow aligned with Matt Brown and potentially Patricia Fontes in the United States Senate race. Very interesting. That’s why I’m fascinated by the lieutenant governor’s race, as you say, it’s going to really define how much this progressive movement resonates with people. Will someone who right now is, you know, out there marching with Aaron Regunberg, maybe a 20-year-old kid, will they actually show up with 15, 20 of their friends on September 12 and cast 15, 20 votes for Regunberg (and subsequently other progressive candidates), or is it going to be more like Bernie Sanders, where there were a lot more people in the streets rallying than that actually turned out at the polls in some cases.
TW: One other race, when it comes to progressive impact, I think that that should be watched very closely, once again, is the reelection campaign of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. It’s just a few thousand people that determine a state rep, but because he’s house speaker, it feels like a statewide race.
And he’s a very moderate democrat, very moderate democrat. He’s in a very conservative district in Cranston, yet he is being challenged once again by Stephen Frias. I’ll never forget two years ago when Joe Trillo the Republican state lawmaker was still in office. He’s now, as you know, running for governor as an independent, but he’s a real Trump conservative guy. He actually, if memory serves, I don’t know if he said it outright that he didn’t want Steve Frias, who was a Republican, to win, but he had concerns about Frias winning.
Why? Because he said he didn’t want to see a progressive as a house speaker, that he felt that at least Nick Mattiello was a bit of a buffer between that far left of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island and you know, a more moderate Democrat. And remember Nick Mattiello is a pro-gun guy.
BB: He’s pro-life at least as a personal statement.
TW: You go down the list and there are some policies that he has that tend to lean a little bit toward the right. And look, that’s, I think that’s reflective of his district. Repeating myself, it’s a pretty conservative district. With Steve Frias in, Nick Mattiello, I think is going to have a tough reelection campaign. [If Frias defeats Mattiello] who’s going to be the next house speaker? That’s a whole set of dominoes that are going to fall. So, that, to me, is another race that I’m very interested in. And even though the vast majority of Rhode Islanders don’t vote in the district, the impact of that race is gonna really affect us all. Undoubtedly.