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Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 25 | WPRI.com


Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. The Democratic field for governor is getting crowded, and while few voters are paying close attention, the “invisible primary” is well under way — so what happens now matters. Matt Brown’s official announcement puts at least five Democrats in the mix — Brown, Dan McKee, Seth Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea and Luis Daniel Muñoz — with a sixth, Helena Foulkes, actively considering a run as well. Four of those candidates have won statewide before, adding to their credibility. Brown is a bit of a wild card because his ambition is so much larger than the others: he wants to lead a slate of candidates that ejects the entire State House political establishment from power. He’s also the most likely to push the conversation leftward, with platform planks like a $19 minimum wage and 100% clean power by 2028. However, Brown’s decision to target stalwart liberal legislators like Dawn Euer triggered an immediate backlash from other progressives; Sam Howard ably analyzes the split on the left here. Two key questions for Brown: how much of Rhode Island’s Democratic primary electorate is open to a full-throated left-wing message, and how much of the 34% he got in 2018 was pro-Brown rather than anti-Raimondo? Meanwhile, the fractured Democratic field and President Biden’s struggles could give Republicans a serious opportunity to recapture the governor’s office for the first time in 12 years — but only if they field a compelling candidate. The Republican being mentioned most frequently is House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, who is under pressure to enter the race. Will he do it? “That really is undecided at this point,” the 41-year-old Block Islander told me. He expects to make a decision this fall.

2. The Rhode Island Political Cooperative’s initial slate of candidates for 2022 left off four sitting lawmakers who won under its banner last year — Sens. Jonathan Acosta, Kendra Anderson and Tiara Mack, and Rep. Michelle McGaw — so I checked in to find out why. All four said they remain broadly supportive of the Co-op’s goals, they just no longer need to run as paying members. “I am now a Co-op alum, meaning I will not be paying dues for the upcoming cycle nor will I be a voting member,” Mack said. “I am still deeply committed to working towards the same policy platform as 2020 and ensuring RI works for everyone in our state.” Acosta compared it to when he moved from active to alum at Teach for America or his fraternity. “While philosophically aligned along many points and sharing in some of the policy proposals, as an alumni, I am not formally committed to the group’s platform in its entirety or its candidates,” Acosta said. “I wish the group the best in this upcoming cycle.” (State Rep. Brandon Potter, who had a falling out with the Co-op after he supported Joe Shekarchi for speaker, offers a very different view in this Boston Globe op-ed.) Notably, so far none of the four Co-op alums are endorsing Matt Brown. “I am not currently supporting any particular candidate in the race for governor,” McGaw said. “Rhode Island is fortunate to have so many good Democratic candidates seeking high office.” Added Mack, “I am eager to see the platform of all candidates, read their policy goals, and chat about where our values align.”

3. The debate over how Rhode Island should spend its American Rescue Plan Act windfall is heating up. First, an important bit of context: while that federal windfall is often pegged at $1.1 billion, it’s actually more like $2.6 billion. Why? As state budget official Joe Codega explained at a Senate hearing Tuesday, the $1.1 billion is only the state’s allocation from one (large) pot of ARPA money. That pot has understandably gotten a lot of attention, since it has relatively few strings attached and presents a big opportunity. (It can be allocated through the end of 2024.) Still, the $1.1 billion is only the largest category in an overall $2.6 billion of ARPA funds headed to Rhode Island. About $750 million of that $2.6 billion is “pass-through” funding which the state redistributes to municipalities and school districts. But there’s still lots of additional money to be spent at the state level, everything from $112 million for capital projects to $1 million for domestic violence services. (Concrete example: the controversial $5 million ILO Group contract is partly ARPA-funded, but ILO is getting some of a $41.5 million education grant, not the much-discussed $1.1 billion.) Governor McKee is growing frustrated at the General Assembly’s refusal to quickly appropriate a portion of the big $1.1 billion pot, and made his case in a Projo op-ed this week. “Let’s take at least 10% of these federal funds and make a down payment on Rhode Island’s economic comeback,” he wrote. But Assembly leaders seem inclined to take it slow, fearing misuse more than delay, and they also want to hear the recommendations put forward next month by the Rhode Island Foundation task force. In the meantime, Senate Finance Chairman Ryan Pearson is urging McKee to send lawmakers a formal proposal for ARPA spending if he wants his ideas seriously considered. “An op-ed in The Journal will not do it,” Pearson said Tuesday. “I need more than that to have a hearing.”

4. Rhode Island social-services groups are alarmed about lawmakers’ go-slow approach to doling out ARPA funding, warning they are in a “full-brown crisis” due to a lack of staff, Eli Sherman reports.

5. New faces in Governor McKee’s office: an updated list shows 45 employees are now on board since McKee’s team released an initial list of 34 staffers when he took office in March. The additional employees are Joe Almond, senior deputy chief of staff (salary: $162,045); Kathryn Pirraglia, senior adviser/special counsel ($154,198); Elizabeth Winangun, deputy policy director ($123,982); Simon Goudiaby, small business liaison ($108,879); Doris Adesuyi, policy analyst and public records officer ($73,117); Elizabeth Silvestre, special assistant to the deputy chief of staff ($70,039); Jakob Frenette, digital communications director and policy analyst ($67,767); Debra Rota, administrative assistant ($55,969); Arelis Peña Brito, community outreach coordinator ($55,969); Michaela Grundy, special assistant to the deputy chief of staff ($44,345); Keila Gonzalez, constituent services associate ($43,183); Donna Charpentier, constituent services associate ($43,183); Miguel Sanchez, constituent services associate ($43,183); Jennifer Gonzalez, constituent services associate ($43,183); and Michael Napolitano, policy associate ($38,512). There are also three staffers who are on loan from other agencies, which pay their salaries: Tom Mullaney, senior advisor ($199,793 paid by OMB); Matt Sheaff, senior communications adviser ($118,000 paid by Commerce Corp.); and Ron Desiderato, special assistant to the governor ($79,423 paid by the Department of Administration).

6. There’s only a week and a half left before the primary to fill former Sen. Gayle Goldin’s District 3 seat on the East Side of Providence, and the race is being closely watched. Our Steph Machado taped one-on-one interviews with all five Democratic candidates, and you can watch them all here on her latest Pulse of Providence episode. You can also sign up for Pulse of Providence as an Apple Podcast.

7. A bad day for former gubernatorial chiefs of staff at the R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday: Brett Smiley paid a $4,500 fine for taking donations from state vendors while he was running the Department of Administration, and Tony Silva saw an investigation opened into whether he failed to disclose the infamous Cumberland wetlands property. Here’s our report on the commission’s actions.

8. Eye on Congress … Jack Reed will lead the highest-profile hearing of his Armed Services Committee chairmanship so far on Tuesday, questioning Pentagon leaders about what went wrong in Afghanistan … Sheldon Whitehouse joined Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey in singing an 11-senator statement backing House progressives’ negotiating position on the budget reconciliation bill (Reed did not) … Jim Langevin added an amendment to the defense policy bill regarding immigrants who work on defense techDavid Cicilline had some fun casting proxy votes for an Alabama colleague … Jake Auchincloss’s office announced he was “the only Democratic veteran” voting against the defense policy bill; it passed the House 316-113, with Cicilline, Langevin and Bill Keating all voting for it.

9. While New Bedford isn’t in the 4th Congressional District, during last year’s primary Jake Auchincloss touted an endorsement from Jon Mitchell, the Whaling City’s mayor and a fellow Democrat. Now, though, the pair are at odds when it comes to creating a new congressional district anchored in Southeastern Massachusetts that would include all of New Bedford and Fall River. (Fall River is currently split between the 4th, represented by the Auchincloss, and Bill Keating’s 9th, home to New Bedford.) Auchincloss made his case on Newsmakers last month, saying he thinks it’s beneficial that the 4th District is economically diverse, with rich Boston suburbs in the north and a hardscrabble mill city in its south. But Mitchell thinks the South Coast would be better off with both its major cities in one district, a point of view he communicated to Auchincloss last week. “The interests of New Bedford and Fall River are more alike than the interests of, say, Fall River and Newton,” Mitchell said on this week’s Newsmakers, referring to Auchincloss’s hometown. He noted it’s now been 99 years since a New Bedford resident served in Congress (Republican Joseph Walsh left in 1922). “This is gerrymandering,” Mitchell said. “It’s not race-based gerrymandering of the type that the Supreme Court has consistently thrown out over the decades, but it’s gerrymandering when you split up a district in a tortured way. … Over time Southeastern Mass. has gotten the short end of the stick and this is an opportunity, I think, to sort of fix things.”

10. Speaking of the 4th Congressional District, the odds appear to be rising that Jesse Mermell will seek a rematch against Jake Auchincloss in next year’s Democratic primary. Regular readers will recall that Auchincloss defeated Mermell by a single percentage point, 22% to 21%, in the primary to succeed Joe Kennedy. And Auchincloss has been well aware of his potential vulnerability, working tenaciously to raise both his profile and piles of campaign cash. But despite the freshman lawmaker’s reliably party-line voting record on the floor, progressives have been infuriated by his behind-the-scenes resistance to Nancy Pelosi’s drug-pricing bill, which is opposed by Big Pharma interests. Politico’s Lisa Kashinsky got word of a poll that tested how Auchincloss would fare against Mermell, and he rolled out a new batch of lawmaker endorsements Friday that included some 2020 Mermell supporters. If Mermell does want to run a serious campaign, she’ll need to get in soon to have a real shot of unseating the incumbent.

11. The effort to merge Lifespan and Care New England has fallen out of the headlines since the end of the legislative session, when it emerged that the two hospital groups had explored getting a special “COPA” from the General Assembly. But behind the scenes, the effort continues: this week Lifespan executives told bondholders they hope to complete the merger either late this year or early in 2022.

12. Mindy Myers is a familiar name to local politicos, remembered for piloting Sheldon Whitehouse’s 2006 U.S. Senate campaign against Lincoln Chafee, then serving as Whitehouse’s first chief of staff. (She played the same back-to-back roles for Elizabeth Warren in 2012.) Myers was a guest on Zac McCrary’s latest Pro Politics podcast, and the conversation includes her recollections of that ’06 Rhode Island battle royale. Between the passage of 15 years and Chafee’s strange odyssey in the years since, it’s easy to forget how formidable he was at the time. “It was an incredibly tough race,” Myers told McCrary. Alluding to Whitehouse campaign pollster John Anzalone, Myers said, “Anzo actually used to always describe for me, Chafee was like a bad boyfriend — voters knew they needed to get rid of him, but they didn’t want people talking about him in certain ways.” That led the Whitehouse team to soft-pedal direct criticism of the incumbent Republican, focusing more on his status as a likely swing vote to decide if George W. Bush’s party retained control of the Senate. But it still looked dicey for Team Whitehouse as late as the weekend before Election Day. “The DSCC got a poll back, [and] I had gotten a phone call that I was going to cost us the majority,” recalled Myers, who had never managed a campaign before. “Luckily, it just turned out to be not an accurate poll.”

13. Voters in one of the world’s most important countries go to the polls Sunday to choose a new leader for the first time in 15 years: Germany, where Angela Merkel is retiring as chancellor. The election isn’t getting a ton of attention in the U.S., but The Guardian has a good overview here.

14. Is America suffering from too many managers?

15. Damon Linker examines why rock stars go into decline so young.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell. Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here next Saturday.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram





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