Ted Nesi

Nesi's Notes: Dec. 8

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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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Only one of Rhode Island's statewide elected leaders is leaving office at the close of this year: Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the Pawtucket Democrat and former rep who has now served two terms as the state's top prosecutor. Kilmartin's final month kicked off with a media storm after the Projo's Katie Mulvaney reported about 1,300 felony cases were not prosecuted by the AG's office between 2009 and 2015. During Friday's taping of Newsmakers, Kilmartin said many of those were not prosecuted for reasons such as a lack of evidence, not due to an oversight, and his office is now reviewing them all. "I want to get this done before I leave, because I don't want that hanging out there that there was something done that was done wrong or improperly," he said. "I want to get a handle on it. And if I have to come back to you on my last day in office and say, 'Boy, that was worse than I thought it was,' I'll do that. I'll take responsibility." Reflecting on his legacy, Kilmartin expressed pride in his efforts to upgrade the AG's office operationally, including by investing in technology, which he said will benefit his incoming successor, Democrat Peter Neronha. Yet it's clear the AG's office is going to look significantly different come January. Neronha - who coasted to victory with no real opposition and has big ambitions - is making major personnel changes, most notably replacing longtime Deputy AG Gerald Coyne with Adi Goldstein, who is currently Governor Raimondo's senior legal counsel. Another key hire is Stephen Dambruch, who was Neronha's No. 2 in the U.S. attorney's office, as chief of the criminal division. Kilmartin said Neronha has the right to shape his own team, but suggested Coyne and his other departing colleagues will be missed. "There is a lot of institutional knowledge and history there that in some ways is irreplaceable," he said. "There is always a learning curve."

2. The rapid rise and fall of Laufton Ascencao was quite a turn of events. The 25-year-old Democrat made a name for himself as a progressive organizer, managing the campaigns of Reps. Moira Walsh and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell among others, before his own successful campaign this year to win the House District 68 seat representing Bristol and Warren. Ascencao's victory was short-lived: he submitted a letter of resignation Friday, bowing to public pressure after Warren Democrats revealed he had lied to them and forged an invoice to cover up a promised-but-unsent campaign mailer. That sets up a wintertime special election in District 68 to replace him, and lots of potential candidates are already lining up. Even though Ascencao will never be sworn in, he will still have an impact. Not only did his departure reduce the anti-Mattiello "Reform Caucus" membership from 21 to 20, but the group's decision to issue a statement denouncing him clearly didn't sit well with everyone involved. Walsh tweeted that she would not have signed onto the statement "if given the choice," and while she acknowledged Ascencao's mistakes, described herself as heartbroken over what had happened. Addressing her allies on the progressive left, she wrote, "I'm glad everyone is happy with his choice, but can we stop with the eating our own stuff?" Ranglin-Vassell also tweeted that while she still wants to see reform in the House, "I am no longer associated with any formal or informal group(s) including the Reform Caucus."

3. Roughly $11 million was spent re-electing Governor Raimondo. My look at the post-election campaign-finance reports.

4. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com's Dan McGowan: "The most ironic thing about Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris being considered the deciding vote on the future of the Hope Point Tower is that Ward 11 – her council district – actually included the former I-195 land until voting boundaries were redrawn in 2012. Now she finds herself in a prime political position as her vote appears to be the difference between sustaining or overturning Mayor Elorza’s veto of a zoning change for the proposed 46-story skyscraper. She spent much of this week hearing from power players across state and city government, and by Thursday her colleagues were confident enough that she would help them override Elorza that they scheduled a special council meeting for next week. If Harris does indeed flip from a Fane opponent to a supporter, the natural question will be, what changed? We may never know. Critics, of course, believe a backroom deal must have been cut between the councilwoman and supporters of the tower. But those close to Harris – like South Providence Neighborhood Association President Dwayne Keys – insist her initial opposition had more to do with a lack of information than it did with a deep concern about spot zoning. As she takes the weekend to mull her decision, Harris can expect her phone to continue to ring."

5. And here's a bonus dispatch from Dan McGowan: "Attorney General Peter Kilmartin doesn’t feel guilty that the criminal case against Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte didn’t wrap up prior to the veteran Democrat winning a sixth term in office last month. During Friday's taping of Newsmakers, Kilmartin noted that former FBI director James Comey was ‘vilified’ for his role in the 2016 presidential election and said he has not ‘and will never encourage us to do something because there's an election.’ Aponte was forced by his colleagues to resign as council president after he was charged with embezzling from his campaign account last year, but his next court date isn’t scheduled until Jan. 8, the day after he is sworn in for what will be his final term. Kilmartin said he believes the public ‘knows the allegations against Aponte and there's enough out there for the public to know what the accusations are and for the public to make at least as much of an informed decision as they can.’"

6. The market plunge hasn't been kind to shares of Rhode Island's biggest publicly traded companies. Hasbro is down almost 8% year to date, as is Washington Trust, according to MarketWatch. Textron is down nearly 10%. Citizens Financial is down 21%. United Natural Foods is down a stunning 70%. One exception: CVS Health, which is holding onto a 2% gain for the year. Another (at a much smaller scale): KVH Industries, the Middletown maritime tech company, up about 7%.

7. During this past legislative session, T.F. Green executives and the airlines engaged in a fierce fight over the airport's proposal to levy a new 6% tax on jet fuel. The legislation failed to pass before adjournment, and it sounds like airport leaders won't be trying again in 2019. "It didn't fly," R.I. Airport Corporation CEO Iftikhar Ahmad said on Dan Yorke State of Mind this week, though he continued to defend the proposal as a way to restructure fees at Green, not raise them overall. "We weren't looking for money," he said.

8. If you've caught any episodes of "This Old House" lately, you might have seen Jeff Sweenor, founder and CEO of custom-home company Sweenor Builders down in South County. (And if you haven't, that's a Rhode Island house he built on the cover of the current "This Old House" magazine.) Sweenor joins me on this week's Executive Suite, talking about the latest and greatest home-building techniques as well as how sea-level rise is affecting construction in coastal Rhode Island. One of the industry's biggest priorities right now, he said, is attracting the next generation of trades workers. "We're able to take kids coming out of high school, or coming out of college in some cases, and really show them a career path, show them a lifelong career, and it's not just a passing job that fulfills your time between you graduate from college and you find a job," he said. "There's a real-life education in construction and there's a real future." As part of that effort, the Rhode Island Builders Association has created a Real Jobs RI program that provides training to bring younger workers getting into residential construction.

9. A big deal for Brown U., and for economic development in Rhode Island: the school just announced the largest expansion of Brown's Department of Computer Science in its 40-year history, with 15 new faculty members being added. Student demand is driving the growth: the number of Brown undergraduates awarded a degree in computer science jumped from 48 in 2010 to 248 in 2018, and today one in six undergrads have a declared a concentration in the subject. The Brown Daily Herald editorialized, "The meteoric proliferation of undergraduate interest in the discipline is a true testament to the intellectual value, interdisciplinary utility and wide-ranging applicability of a Brown education in computer science."

10. One of the stories about George H.W. Bush repeated most frequently this week was the tale of his heroism during World War II, when as a 20-year-old he was shot down in the Pacific during a combat mission. (My colleague Steve Nielsen filed a story about Bush's training here in Rhode Island, featuring video of his rescue at sea.) Coincidentally, this week was also the 75th anniversary of another famous future politician's most harrowing World War II experience: Gov. Bruce Sundlun. (In fact, Sundlun enlisted in the Air Force 77 years ago today - the day after Pearl Harbor.) Sundlun was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium on Dec. 1, 1943, and the story of his escape through France to Switzerland reads like a movie script. You can hear the tale yourself in this PDF of his memoir (pages 22-29) posted by former Sundlun aide David Preston.

11. If you're looking for something to listen to while you run errands this weekend, we have two WPRI 12 folks on podcasts this week: I sat down with WPRO's Matt Allen to talk about how I wound up in this line of work, and Kim Kalunian did the same with Bill Bartholomew. (Tim White was a previous guest on Allen's show, too, and Dan McGowan appeared on Bartholomew's.) They're all available on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts.

12. Can you guess the most influential movie of all time?

13. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Sweenor Builders President and CEO Jeff Sweenor. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

An earlier version of this column said KVH Industries is based in Portsmouth; it is based in Middletown.

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