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Nesi’s Notes: April 10

Ted Nesi
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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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. Slowly, unevenly, but palpably, Rhode Island is moving toward a return to normal life. Driving that is the increasing immunization of the population against COVID-19: the number of Rhode Islanders at least partially vaccinated surpassed 400,000 on Friday, and state officials expect 70% of adults to have at least one shot by mid-May. As Dr. Alexander-Scott put it during Thursday’s briefing, “If you want to go to that wedding that’s on the calendar for this summer, get vaccinated and encourage all those who are attending the wedding to do the same.” Proms and graduations will be held this spring, albeit with masks and “pod dancing.” The Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals say music lovers will be back at Fort Adams this summer, though capacity will be limited. The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau just launched a Meet in RI campaign asking local companies and groups to host a future meeting, convention or other event in-state. Still, there’s a long way to go. Hotel tax revenue was down 44% in January compared with last year, while meal-and-beverage tax revenue was down 16%. Employment in accommodation and food services is still 23% below a year ago; 35% of jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation have disappeared. “It’s been catastrophic,” PPAC CEO Lynn Singleton said on this week’s Newsmakers. Singleton is hoping he can raise the curtain on PPAC’s first full-scale production since the pandemic by October, but that will depend on both the health situation and the comfort level of theatergoers. “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “How fast will people come back?”

2. Even as Washington turns its attention to President Biden’s infrastructure and tax proposals, signs of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act are starting to be seen locally. Lynn Singleton joined Senator Reed on Thursday at PPAC to promote the law’s $16.25 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program — although, alas, the SBA website to submit applications crashed immediately. (Singleton says PPAC is ready to submit its paperwork once the website is back up.) The Rhode Island Foundation announced a 15-member panel to brainstorm ideas for Rhode Island’s $1.1 billion Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund allocation, working with RIPEC and the Economic Progress Institute. And in Providence, Steph Machado spotted six new city jobs tucked into the 2020-21 budget that will help City Hall figure out how to spend well over $131 million.

3. And speaking of Steph Machado, here’s a dispatch out of the capital city from Steph: “Adults of all ages who live in the 02906 ZIP code on the East Side of Providence will become eligible for the vaccine come Monday, three weeks after eligibility was opened up to everyone in the city’s three hardest-hit ZIP codes as part of the R.I. Department of Health’s high-density community strategy. Two more Providence ZIP codes were added to the list a week after the first three, and the addition of 02906 on Monday will leave residents of just one lonely Providence ZIP code without the expanded eligibility: 02903, comprising downtown, the Jewelry District and part of Federal Hill.  Data shows 02903 has actually had a slightly higher rate of infections than 02906, but the Health Department’s Joseph Wendelken said the decision was based on other ‘community-level factors’ such as ‘income, unemployment, population density and free/reduced school lunch usage.’ The patchwork of postal-code vaccine eligibility, which doesn’t line up with neighborhood boundaries, has caused some confusion among Providence residents. Councilman John Goncalves, who represents most of 02903, said constituents who live downtown have reached out in frustration over being excluded. Mayor Elorza has previously said he wants the Health Department to make all Providence residents eligible, similar to the policy in other urban core cities like Pawtucket, Central Falls and most recently Woonsocket. It’s not easy to reach residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods to let them know they’re eligible for the shot, as we saw this week when it took several days to fill appointments at a ZIP-based clinic happening today at PCTA (which happens to be in 02903). Being able to say ‘all of Providence can get vaccinated’ could help with messaging to spread the word.”

4. David Cicilline has quietly become one of Capitol Hill’s more prominent Democrats in the debate over gun policy. That was in evidence Thursday, when Cicilline was one of seven members invited to the Rose Garden to witness President Biden sign his new executive orders on guns in person. Cicilline has long been active on the issue, including as a founding member of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (now Everytown for Gun Safety) back in 2006. His focus on the issue in Congress ramped up after 2014, the year he was appointed to the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over firearms regulation. Cicilline became the chief House sponsor of the assault weapons ban in 2015, getting overruled by Nancy Pelosi at a closed-door meeting when he urged his colleagues to take it up after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. Now the president himself is urging Congress to enact Cicilline’s bill, introduced along with California’s Dianne Feinstein, its longtime Senate champion. Cicilline has also made guns a more salient part of his political identity: last year he rebranded his leadership PAC as “Gun Safety PAC.” Its fundraising emails point out: “Rep. David Cicilline’s Gun Safety Political Action Committee (PAC) is the only congressional leadership PAC dedicated to ending gun violence.” The PAC took in about $160,000 over the course of 2020.

5. Barely two months ago, Gina Raimondo was standing on stage at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence speaking (though not answering questions) at the final coronavirus briefing she attended as governor. On Wednesday, she spoke at a rather more high-profile briefing — the daily White House press briefing. Seeing Raimondo at the podium was striking visual evidence of what rarefied air she now finds herself in. She appeared to get through her moment in the spotlight without making any serious gaffes, beyond perhaps seeming a bit too willing to negotiate on the White House’s proposed 28% corporate tax rate, as the gang at Punchbowl News noted.

6. Small world: Secretary Raimondo and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell graduated from Harvard College just two years apart, Mitchell in 1991 and Raimondo in 1993. They didn’t know each other there, but Mitchell is looking to cultivate a relationship now that her portfolio includes NOAA and his city is home to the highest-grossing fishing port in the nation. (Perspective: New Bedford’s boats brought in over $430 million in 2019; Rhode Island’s top port, Galilee, brought in $68 million.) Mitchell told me he spoke to Raimondo last week as part of an introductory call with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and was pleased to hear how much she already knows about the issue. “She’s somebody who, probably unlike anybody else who’s held that position previously, has no learning curve when it comes to the arcana of fisheries regulations and the fishing economy,” he said.

7. Getting people vaccinated is proving to be a challenge in New Bedford. Only 23% of city residents had been at least partially vaccinated as of this week, tied with Springfield for the lowest rate among all Massachusetts cities, according to data crunched by my colleague Eli Sherman. That’s despite the fact that New Bedford has had the 8th-most coronavirus infections per capita. (Fall River is even higher, at 6th-most.) U.S. Sen. Ed Markey trooped through the Whaling City this week to encourage residents to get vaccinated, one week after his colleague Elizabeth Warren did the same. Mayor Mitchell cites “deep-seated” issues hampering the city’s vaccination campaign, including a lack of access to technology for making appointments, language barriers, and jobs with limited flexibility. “We have lots of people who work in industrial settings, who work on fishing boats out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, who cannot readily leave work to go get a shot,” he said.

8. Betty Crowley’s 12 years representing Central Falls and Pawtucket in the Rhode Island Senate came to an end last year when Jonathon Acosta defeated her in the Democratic primary. But Crowley was back in the news this week after the Board of Elections hit her with a $6,000 fine for mishandling thousands of dollars of campaign contributions over the last four years. Crowley’s explanation — that she frequently gave campaign cash to homeless individuals, and didn’t ask for receipts — raised eyebrows at the State House, though she insists it’s the truth. Regardless, it’s the latest example of the Board of Elections’ dogged director of campaign finance, Ric Thornton, serving as one of the most effective watchdogs on Smith Hill.

9. The R.I. Department of Education has done an about-face on the layoffs of the well-regarded teachers at RIC’s Sherlock Center who serve blind and visually impaired students.

10. The Rhode Island Democratic Party’s new chief strategist Kate Coyne-McCoy is looking to bring in some analytical expertise as she seeks to reinvigorate the organization. The party has sent out a job posting to hire a full-time data director, describing the job thusly: “The individual will work across departments and with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to use data to build successful campaigns at the national, state and local levels.” Résumés are due by April 30.

11. As the Lifespan-Care New England hospital merger moves forward, Brown Medical School Dean Jack Elias is moving into a new role as senior health advisor to Brown President Christina Paxston and other university leaders. Elias offered this vision for Providence’s future in a statement about his new job: “I am very excited to play a part in helping to do for Rhode Island what academic health systems have done for Boston, Pittsburgh and other cities across the country. One of the things I talk about is the dream that the next dean will look out the window of the dean’s suite at 222 Richmond and see a mass of biotech companies in the Jewelry District, all of which are making new products based on Brown, Lifespan or Care New England intellectual property, and all of them employing people and turning Rhode Island into a biotech hub.”

12. The Eleanor Slater Hospital mess is moving into a new phase with Friday’s appointment of the secretary of health and human services, Womazetta Jones, as the new head of its parent agency. Eli Sherman gets you up to speed here.

13. Providence native Brian Nichols continues his decades-long rise through the ranks of the U.S. State Department. President Obama appointed Nichols as U.S. ambassador to Peru in 2014, and three years later President Trump made him ambassador to Zimbabwe. Now President Biden has nominated Nichols to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (a job originally held by Nelson Rockefeller under FDR). Nichols is the son of the late Charles Nichols, who founded Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, and the AP reports he’d be “the first Black assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs since Terence Todman in the late 1970s.”

14. Tough but fair from Politico’s John Harris: “Years of covering politics make me think that most people who follow politics from afar have an exaggerated perception of most elected officials. Sometimes this magnification flows from idealism. Civics classes in youth can create a lasting impression that politicians are, or should be, the solons of democratic theory. More often, these days, distorted perceptions flow from cynicism. Even corrupt politicians are supposed to be sinister in an outsized and brilliant way, like Frank Underwood in House of Cards. What both vantage points tend to understate is the pervasive ordinariness of many people who belong to the bottom four quintiles rather than the top one.”

15. Congrats to The Boston Globe’s newest columnist, a scribe of my acquaintance named Dan McGowan. His first piece calls for some leadership on the Providence schools takeover.

16. Karen Tumulty relates how Nancy Reagan helped end the Cold War.

17. Why we all talk like therapists now.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — PPAC President and CEO Lynn Singleton; week in review. Watch 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. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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