By Cynthia Richie Terrell on December 20, 2015
By Jennifer Bogdan and Katherine Gregg Providence Journal
Former TV reporter Margie O'Brien has been hired by the General Assembly to interview legislators on-air in a role that the late Dave Barber had on Capitol TV until his unexpected death last summer.
O'Brien has worked as a news reporter and anchor in the Providence and Boston media markets for close to two decades, including stints as a reporter and anchor for WLNE/ABC 6 from 1997 to 2000 and at WJAR/NBC 10 from 2001 to 2006. More recently, she has produced and hosted local programs for Rhode Island's PBS station.
She was also the spokeswoman for then state Treasurer Frank Caprio's 2010 run for governor.
In her new $70,577-a-year role as program manager for the Assembly-run Capitol TV, O'Brien "will take over and expand the programs once hosted by the late Dave Barber," according to House spokesman Larry Berman. She starts next Monday.
"She will be hosting a regular show called 'Legislative Insight,' which will offer viewers a more in-depth look at pending and approved legislation and further explain the effects and ramifications to all Rhode Islanders," Berman said.
O’Brien will also package the "Capitol Spotlight" stories "in a more compelling manner with on-site visits to community events held by Representatives and Senators," and work with both Capitol TV and the Legislative Press Bureau "to provide a greater level of information through social media," Berman said.
"Margie is greatly respected and has more than 20 years of experience in the broadcast field," said House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello. "She will be a wonderful resource for the General Assembly and for the state’s citizens to disseminate important information they need to know about the legislation we are working on."
While some call these taxpayer-financed broadcasts by the Assembly's $1.8 million-a-year TV arm informative, others over the years have said they’re little more than infomercials for legislators.
When Barber was hired in 2008 as the Assembly's first-ever TV personality, Republicans railed against the leadership’s decision to add thousands of dollars to the Assembly's budget amid a multi-million-dollar deficit. Each election year since, this taxpayer-funded showcase for lawmakers has prompted questions about election rules, fairness and advantages of incumbency.
State election laws dictate that candidates may not use public funds "for any publication, advertisement, broadcast or telecast" within 120 days of any primary or general election.
There is, however, one exception: candidates are not prohibited "from appearing on regular Capitol Television programming operated by the General Assembly or on television stations operated by the Rhode Island public telecommunications authority during the period of time or programming of regular or special meetings of city or town councils or any local governmental board, agency or other entity."
"Regularly scheduled means when the House meets, not when the leadership chooses to promote its candidates," said then-House Minority Whip Nicholas Gorham. But House leaders contended that Barber's on-air interviews with lawmakers were part of "regular Capitol Television programming" and therefore exempt.
In 2008, the legislature's vastly outnumbered Republicans vowed a boycott. Now they, too, are Capitol TV regulars.
O'Brien has a bachelor’s degree in political science and pre-law from St. Anselm College and a master’s degree in communications/broadcast journalism from Emerson College. She lives in Barrington with her husband, Todd Reed, and three children.
Barber’s $73,543-a-year job has been empty since his death on July 4, 2015.
Winning a seat in Rhode Island's part-time General Assembly comes with more than a few perks, beyond the $15,414.26 salary for most lawmakers (double that for the House speaker and Senate president).
They include the occasional expense-paid trip.
And Political Scene takes a look every year at where Rhode Island's lawmakers have gone at taxpayer expense. The latest tally:
In the last year, Rhode Island legislators have run up state-paid bills totaling $5,798 for airfare, hotel and registration expenses paid, at least in part, out of the Assembly's $15,300 travel budget.
That does not include the trips much farther afield that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and state Rep. Joseph McNamara — who doubles as the R.I. Democratic Party chairman — took in recent months to destinations farther afield, such as Israel and Taiwan.
(As previously reported, the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island financed the expense-paid, week-long trip that Mattiello and Paiva Weed took to Israel in November, and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston paid for Paiva Weed and McNamara to go to Taiwan earlier this month. The cost of those trips will come to light when the lawmakers file their next annual financial-disclosure reports with the state Ethics Commission in April.)
Here is the breakdown that House spokesman Larry Berman provided, in his dual role as spokesman for the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) chaired by Mattiello:
— Representatives Jean Philippe Barros, D-Pawtucket; Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket; Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket; and Marvin Abney, D-Newport; attended the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual summit in Seattle from Aug. 2-7. The Joint Committee on Legislative Services paid $615 registration fees for Barros, Tobon and Phillips and $549 for Abney, who qualified for a reduced fee because he registered early.
In addition, JCLS paid $988 for Barros’ air fare, $536 for his hotel and $226.77 for his other travel expenses (fees, parking, taxis, etc.). There were no other state payments for the other three representatives, who tapped their campaign funds for their other expenses, according to Berman.
— Abney also attended the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ annual meeting in Los Angeles from Dec. 2-5. JCLS paid $350 for his registration fee. There were no other state-paid expenses.
— Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, attended a Toll Fellowship conference, sponsored by the Council of State Governments, in Lexington, Kentucky, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 2. The Assembly paid $377 for his airfare and $50 for other expenses. The state did not pay for his registration or lodging.
— Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Picard, D-Woonsocket, attended two conferences, with the Assembly paying for his registrations only: $375 for the National Conference of Insurance Legislators in San Antonio from Nov. 12-14 and $500 for a NCLS Capitol Forum in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 8-11.
Speaking of campaign accounts, the new legislative fundraising season is about to begin.
In keeping with tradition, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will host a kickoff fundraiser on Thursday, Jan. 21, at the Providence Marriott Downtown.
Next up come fundraisers for Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, on Jan. 28 (same location); House Majority Leader John DeSimone, Feb. 3 (same location); Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, Feb. 4, at the Roger Williams Park Casino; House Majority Whip John Edwards, Feb. 10, at Camille's restaurant; and Rep. Chris Blazejewski, the House deputy majority whip, Feb. 24, at the Rooftop at the Providence G.
For Mattiello and Paiva Weed, the suggested contribution is $200; For DeSimone and Ruggerio, $150; Edwards and Blazejewski, $125.
Gains for women
Rhode Island is making strides in increasing the number of women in elected office, according to Representation 2020, a Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for women in elected positions.
A new study ranks Rhode Island 16th out of the 50 states in terms of "gender parity in elected office." Last year, Rhode Island ranked 31st.
The biggest change since last year? The state now has nearly the same number of men as women in statewide office since the election last year of Governor Raimondo and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
"Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the state legislature," the organization said. "Since 1993, the percentage of seats held by women in the [General Assembly] has increased by just two percentage points from 25 percent in 1993 to 27 percent in 2015."
In 1993, there were 11 women in the Senate and 26 in the House, according to the report. (By the start of the 2003 session, downsizing had reduced the House from 100 members to 75, and the Senate from 50 members to 38.)
Rhode Island's current ranking is based on a count of 10 women in the Senate and 20 women in the House, but that tally doesn't include Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, who was elected in June to fill former Rep. Donald Lally's seat.
The state's other problem area, according to the report? Congress.
There are no women in the current congressional delegation. The only woman to ever serve in Congress representing Rhode Island — Claudine Schneider — left the House of Representatives in 1991 after an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.