1. How do you solve a problem like the “Superman” building? Rhode Island’s tallest tower, standing in the heart of downtown, has been empty and decaying for nine years. That leaves three options: renovate it, leave it empty indefinitely, or demolish it. The status quo or demolition are both real options — but they don’t seem to be popular ones, at least among top elected officials and preservationists. A privately funded renovation would be ideal, but building owner David Sweetser has insisted the math doesn’t add up without a public subsidy — and state officials say their analysis shows he’s right. None of that proves whether the $220 million deal announced this week, backed with tens of millions of dollars in public money, is the right move. But it does help explain why so many elected leaders from Governor McKee on down are on board with the plan. “I have to say, this plan is really good,” Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I’m not saying it’s perfect, and with my experience in government I’m going to tell you, you’re not going to find the perfect deal. But this deal is really good, because it has a housing component.” Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor argues the state drove a hard bargain with Sweetser, getting him to commit up to $32 million in cash to the project — more than the state’s $26 million contribution — and to allow more income-restricted apartments. And while some have raised eyebrows about how much the city is providing — a $10 million loan at 1%, a $5 million grant, and a 30-year tax break — state officials think that’s money well spent for Providence since the project should help revitalize downtown. That will likely be debated as various public bodies — the Providence City Council, the General Assembly, the boards of Commerce RI and Rhode Island Housing — start to debate and vote on aspects of the plan. And the Pawtucket soccer stadium’s current travails raise questions about whether the $220 million cost estimate will hold. But “plan beats no plan,” as the saying goes, and right now this one has momentum.
2. Much of the initial discussion about the Superman building deal has focused on the potential downside risks: What if there are cost overruns? What if there’s not enough demand for the 285 apartments? What if the developer can’t keep up his end of the bargain? But there is also the potential for “upside risk” — that is, the building proves to be a bigger financial success than expected, with taxpayers underwriting the profits. It hasn’t gotten much attention, but the negotiating team led by Secretary Pryor also tucked a provision into the agreement with High Rock Development that envisions such a scenario. Under the framework released this week, the state is structuring its $26 million commitment to the project as a convertible note — an interest-bearing loan — and if the project performs well enough, a portion of the loan would be repaid with operating cash flow from the building once High Rock has hit certain milestones. The structure is a bit complex, and Commerce RI is only releasing a summary of the note, citing confidentiality. But it calls for at least 12 years of cash-flow payments, or a buyout of those payments by the developer, and also sets out how the proceeds would be divvied up in the event of a sale if the project beats expectations. Another little-noticed provision of the deal: High Rock has to get Commerce’s permission before selling the building or letting an “institutional user” lease over 91 apartments. What’s that about? Word is state officials weren’t happy when Brown surprised them by buying the state-subsidized River House apartment complex from Wexford.
3. State leaders touted the Superman building deal as a big win for affordable housing. Is it? Steph Machado and I took a closer look at how much the affordable apartments could cost you.
4. Few if any political candidates say they ran for office so they could spend a ton of time cold-calling people for money. Yet like it or not, fundraising is a crucial skill if you want to win — and it’s certainly proven to be a strength for first-time candidate Helena Foulkes. The Democratic gubernatorial hopeful has raised nearly $1.9 million since October, a ton of money in Rhode Island; she’s also loaned her campaign an additional $500,000. Foulkes was always expected to have a deep-pocketed operation, and that’s proving to be true. Yet the primary is now less than five months away, and while there hasn’t been any public polling, it’s safe to assume her name recognition is still very low compared with incumbent Dan McKee or rival Nellie Gorbea. While Foulkes has done a number of media interviews, her campaign hasn’t been holding public events to coincide with, for example, the housing plan she released this week. (Her ideas include letting single-family houses built before 1980 become multifamily homes.) That limited visibility has some Foulkes supporters nervous about when she will start trying to make real inroads with rank-and-file voters. The counter from Foulkes’ team: voters are exhausted after the pandemic, they aren’t thinking about the primary yet, and five months is still plenty of time in a small state. It’s unclear how soon her campaign will go on the air with TV ads, but her aggressive fundraising suggests she should have the resources to stay on the air throughout the summer.
5. It’s no small frustration to those around Dan McKee that he is heading into campaign season with not one, not two, but three investigations related to his administration led by Attorney General Peter Neronha. Most of the attention has been on the ILO Group controversy, particularly since it emerged that the FBI and the U.S. attorney had joined the probe. Speaking to Ian Donnis this week, Neronha shrugged off the investigation’s effect on the election. “Look, we always try to move things as quickly as we can,” he said, adding, “What we need to do is exercise our jobs and duties in a way that is adherent to the law and the facts and we’re going to take whatever time we need to do this right.” The governor got better news from Neronha on two other probes that involve his subordinates — one into the Tony Silva Cumberland wetlands controversy, the other into a property owned by DMV Director Bud Craddock. Appearing on 12 News at 4 this week, Neronha told Kim Kalunian that the Silva and Craddock investigations are both “nearing conclusion.”
6. Nellie Gorbea is adding a new face to her campaign team, hiring veteran local reporter Molly O’Brien as her new communications director starting May 2. O’Brien replaces Bianca Suchite, who the campaign says is moving on. Gorbea’s team knows the secretary of state is viewed as an underdog, but campaign manager Dana Walton said Friday she’s optimistic about the outlook. “We are grateful for the efforts of Bianca Suchite and wish her all of the best,” Walton told me. “As we head into the next phase of the campaign — forums, debates, and policy rollouts — we are excited to see Molly in action.” The campaign also seems to be in the field with a poll right now: a Nesi’s Notes tipster reports having just taken a survey with a battery of questions testing positive messages about Gorbea and attacks on her rivals.
7. How’s this for a statistic: in records dating all the way back to the year 1640, no Rhode Island lieutenant governor who was appointed to the position has ever gone on to win a full term in their own right. (Thanks to the state library staff for that factoid.) Sabina Matos hopes to end the losing streak this year, kicking off her campaign Thursday with an emphasis on kitchen-table issues and her immigrant success story. Matos joins us on this week’s Newsmakers to flesh out the case she’ll make to voters.
8. Allan Fung didn’t get a lot of breaks in his two unsuccessful runs for governor — contested primaries, a financial juggernaut in Gina Raimondo, and a dismal environment for the GOP in 2018. But so far he’s getting lots of good news as he makes a bid to succeed Jim Langevin. His fundraising is off to a strong start, with a reported $500,000 haul for the first quarter. The electoral winds are blowing his way, as Joe Biden’s own pollster warns Democrats face “the worst political environment that I’ve lived through in 30 years of being a political consultant.” And now an up-and-coming rival with solid political chops, state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, has bowed out of the Republican primary and backed Fung, leaving former state Rep. Bob Lancia as his only obstacle to the nomination. (As for Lancia, he was at Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday for an event attended by Donald Trump.) In a state as blue as Rhode Island, Fung and his allies can’t take anything for granted. But these are the sorts of developments that bolster his chances of an upset.
9. FEC reports for all the 2nd District candidates were due Friday night, giving us a look at how much cash on hand the top-raising candidates had as of March 31 … Seth Magaziner had $1.3 million … Allan Fung had $533,000 … Sarah Morgenthau had $505,000 … David Segal had $256,000 … and Joy Fox had $168,000. Expense-wise, Magaziner spent almost $100,000 during the quarter, far more than the others. Meanwhile, Morgenthau was still hunting for a campaign manager as of Tuesday, according to an email circulating among Democratic Party professionals.
10. It’s April recess — do you know where your member of Congress is? The Rhode Island delegation is racking up some Frequent Flyer miles during the present break. Sheldon Whitehouse is traveling the farthest — he spent part of this week on the Pacific island nation of Palau with John Kerry, attending the 7th annual Our Oceans Conference. From there, Whitehouse is headed west to join up with a group of other lawmakers who are visiting the Middle East and Asia; he’s due back in the States on April 25. Jack Reed wasn’t too far from Whitehouse — his office says he spent this week visiting military installations related to the Indo-Pacific Command, Special Operations Command Pacific, Pacific Air Forces, and intelligence posts. Reed’s stops in Hawaii included joining the state’s two senators, Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, for a visit to the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility. “Senator Reed made a commitment to tour the site with Senator Hirono and he did that yesterday,” per his spokesperson. Unlike the two senators, Jim Langevin stayed in the Lower 48 for the break — the retiring Democrat’s office tells me he’s been in Texas leading a bipartisan delegation to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s interstellar enterprise, “to gain a better understanding of how innovative space launch technologies can support U.S. national security.” David Cicilline also has official travel planned for next week, but for now his itinerary is still under wraps.
11. With the primaries just five months away, it’s open warfare between Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. Ruggerio used a Chamber of Commerce speech earlier this week to attack the Co-op by name, urging business leaders to get involved in primary races if they want to avoid a leftward shift in the General Assembly. He was also prominently by the side of Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos at her kickoff Thursday, as she faces a challenge from Co-op candidate Cynthia Mendes, a state senator who’s been a thorn in the side of leadership. Mendes fired back at him Wednesday on 12 News at 4, telling Kim Kalunian, “I’m actually glad that Senate President Ruggerio admitted where his allegience is. His allegiance has been, and has consistently been, with large corporations and how he can benefit them.” Ruggerio responded on Friday’s edition of 12 News at 4, telling Kim, “This group is a tax-and-spend group. They don’t care where they get the money, as long as they can give it away to somebody.” He added, “Defund the police? I’ve never heard anything more ludicrous in my life.”
12. When I caught up with Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau last month for a postmortem on the failed CNE merger, my final question for him was about his own future. “As long as the board will keep me around for a few more years, I’m happy to be here,” he said. The board apparently felt differently. On Thursday, Lifespan surprised most observers by announcing that Babineau will step down at the end of May, just shy of his 10th anniversary leading the state’s biggest hospital group. The failure of the CNE merger — after the two hospital groups spent some $28.8 million trying to muscle it through — certainly didn’t help Babineau’s position. But Lifespan is also facing big financial challenges, with its operations on course to lose $63 million by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Voters don’t get a say on who becomes Lifespan CEO, but make no mistake — that decision could have a bigger effect on Rhode Island’s future than some of the offices elected on the November ballot.
13. Politico’s Lisa Kashinsky reports the ACLU of Massachusetts is launching a new “Know Your Sheriff” voter education campaign, out of concern that few residents understand the power and responsibilities of the state’s 14 county sheriffs. There’s little doubt one of their goals is to help draw attention to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the headline-grabbing Republican who ran unopposed in 2016 but has drawn multiple challengers this year. Interestingly, though, an ACLU-commissioned poll shows Hodgson is the only sheriff with high local name recognition — half the 100 Bristol County residents surveyed could name their sheriff, compared with only 17% of voters statewide. While that’s a small sample, it’s a reminder that Hodgson could benefit from longevity in a job he’s held since 1997. Hodgson is set to kick off his re-election campaign next Wednesday at White’s of Westport, with Gov. Charlie Baker as his special guest.
14. A new Boston Fed paper finds that “the Medicaid expansion in Rhode Island appears to have enabled many patients to access medications for opioid use disorder (OUD) for the first time.”
15. David Greenberg examines the arguments against objectivity in American journalism.
17. Happy Easter and Chag Sameach to all who celebrate! And enjoy the warmer weather, everyone.
18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos; a closer look at the “Superman” building deal. 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. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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 and Facebook