Nesi’s Notes: April 28

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. This was one of the wildest weeks in Rhode Island politics over my 10 years as a reporter here. And top of the list was a story that broke late Tuesday night: Speaker Mattiello’s PAC illegally spent $72,000 on his 2016 re-election campaign, and two of his top advisers have ignored subpoenas from the Board of Elections in a separate controversy. To put that $72,000 in misused funds in perspective, it’s twice as much as Mattiello opponent Steve Frias spent on his entire campaign. (Mattiello spent an additional $400,000 that year out of his own campaign account, though not all of it was on his own race.) The Board of Elections isn’t fining the speaker, with one member, Steve Erickson, saying they appreciated his cooperation. Mattiello told reporters it was just an accounting error: “It’s picking the checkbook on top, versus the checkbook below.” Others strongly disagree. “This was far more serious,” argues Common Cause chief John Marion. Former Cranston City Councilman Don Botts tweeted incredulously, “File your campaign report late? $25 from a personal payment method. Misappropriate $72,000 from your PAC and violate contribution limits? $0 and you get to use your campaign account to pay your PAC.” GOP Chairman Brandon Bell and Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan both went so far as to say Mattiello should resign. There’s certainly no sign that will happen – indeed, not even Morgan’s fellow House Republicans agree Mattiello should stop down. Yet the story could still have legs. It’s now emerged that Mattiello’s PAC also failed to file its required reports on time (though the committee won’t be fined for that, either). And the Board of Elections is in the process of scheduling “show cause” hearings to decide whether Mattiello’s advisers will be held in contempt – all with the election now barely six months away.

2. Former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha, the only announced candidate to succeed Peter Kilmartin as attorney general, is calling the revelations about Speaker Mattiello’s 2016 campaign “deeply concerning.” Neronha told me, “Election laws exist for a reason – to level the playing field for all candidates and ensure that the public can rely on the outcome of elections. It’s also important that how a campaign is funded be transparent, and transparent in real time. Everyone needs to play by the rules, and when they don’t, it’s critically important that those with campaign and election oversight take significant steps to make sure that there are consequences.” Steve Erickson complained on Twitter Friday that the current AG’s office isn’t partnering with the Board of Elections enough on enforcement. Neronha said that while he isn’t familiar with the specifics of the situation, as AG he would seek to establish “close and productive working relationships” with the Board of Elections as well as the Ethics Commission, “so that when issues involving public officials come up in those forums, investigations can proceed quickly and effectively.”

3. After nearly four decades in Rhode Island politics, Lincoln Chafee still retains his capacity to surprise. Nobody was expecting the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat’s Wednesday bombshell that he will seek a rematch against Sheldon Whitehouse to win back his old Senate seat. Whitehouse aides were as stunned as anyone else by the decision. So can Chafee actually win? Anything’s possible, but Whitehouse will be heavily favored: he’s an incumbent with more than $3 million in the bank, 70% of Democrats rated his job performance as excellent or good in our February poll, and he’s generally a party loyalist. But Chafee is more than a nuisance challenger: he’s a former governor and senator, independently wealthy, and has nearly universal name recognition. He also hopes to focus on Whitehouse weak spots such as staying neutral on the Burrillville power plant and supporting Hillary over Bernie. But Chafee has his own vulnerabilities, from his Russia-friendly views to his troubled term as governor, not to mention his fairly recent arrival in the party. Key questions: Will Chafee spend real money on his campaign? Will any major groups endorse him? … On the Republican side, meanwhile, Robert Flanders is beginning his paid media push, going up with a new radio ad that a spokeswoman says will remain on the air until the Sept. 12 primary. The other GOP candidate, Bobby Nardolillo, made a fundraising trip to Washington this week as he tries to close the large gap in resources separating him from Flanders.

4. If that Lincoln ChafeeSheldon Whitehouse rematch wasn’t enough for you, a third star of the 2006 U.S. Senate race is also jumping back into the fray: Matt Brown, who made his bid for governor official this week. It’s not often that an incumbent is happy to gain a primary challenger, but this may be the exception. Governor Raimondo’s advisers were deathly afraid of the damage Brown could do to her in the fall election if he ran as an independent progressive. They aren’t thrilled to have him challenging her in the Democratic primary, either, but it appears to be the least bad scenario for her. (Two other candidates, Burrillville Land Trust President Paul Roselli and former Rep. Spencer Dickinson, are also running.) The calculus for a Raimondo-Brown bout is somewhat similar to Whitehouse-Chafee. She is a well-funded incumbent in decent shape with her party, while he is a progressive outsider trying to capitalize on the Bernie Sanders movement. There are important differences, though, which suggest why Brown may have a stronger shot than Chafee. Raimondo’s excellent/good rating among Democrats was 55% in February, about 15 points below Whitehouse. And she is vulnerable not only on the Burrillville power plant but also other issues such as pensions, tax incentives and UHIP. There are clear upsides for Brown in entering the primary, too. He may be an underdog, but if he somehow manages to win he will be the nominee of the state’s dominant political party and instantly competitive in the fall. He will get a platform for his views in front of the audience most friendly to them. And if Raimondo goes on to lose the November election, he won’t face intraparty recriminations for acting as a spoiler.

5. Oddly enough, it’s possible Lincoln Chafee’s decision to run for Senate could inadvertently boost Gina Raimondo in the primary – by forcing Sheldon Whitehouse to ramp up his own campaign even faster. Whitehouse and Raimondo are expecting to share the top of the ticket this fall, so the two incumbents’ teams have already established a close working relationship – they even use the same office. Being forced into a primary could force them to step up their collaboration further.

6. One Democrat who won’t be backing Gina Raimondo in the primary: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. The first-term Democrat worked for Matt Brown back when he was secretary of state and remains friendly with him, but she’s also a potential future candidate for higher office who could face blowback for endorsing him over the incumbent. Jen Burton, a spokeswoman for Gorbea, said she plans to sit out this year’s primary altogether. “Secretary of State Gorbea will not be getting involved in the 2018 primaries and is focused on ensuring that all eligible Rhode Islanders exercise their right to vote,” Burton said in an email. Burton added that there is no bad blood between the two, saying: “She and Governor Raimondo have spoken recently on several occasions and have an excellent working relationship.” (Gorbea herself faces no announced Democratic or Republican challengers so far.)

7. Allan Fung’s gubernatorial campaign released its first-quarter fundraising numbers on Friday, reporting about $191,000 in contributions during the first three months of the year. Fung spent a bit more than half the money he took in, leaving him with $316,000 on hand as of March 31. “I am very pleased to have another solid quarter,” he said. While Raimondo is expected to have at least 10 times more money than that when she files her own report next week, Fung’s aides point out that he is seeking public-matching funds, and will therefore receive a second cash infusion from the money he raises now if he wins the primary. (He can get a maximum of $1.18 million from the state through that program.) Meanwhile, Fung continued his out-of-state fundraising efforts this week. On Tuesday night, former Springfield City Councilor Anthony Ravosa hosted what an invitation described as “a small, sit-down fundraising dinner” for Fung at Pagliuca’s Ristorante in Boston’s North End. Tickets were $500 and $1,000. (Also across the border, Fung is co-hosting a fundraiser in Seekonk this Tuesday to benefit Jacob Ventura, the Attleboro Republican in a rematch against Democratic state Sen. Paul Feeney; Feeney defeated Ventura in last year’s special election to replace Jim Timilty.)

8. Two more incumbent Democrats retiring: Rep. Jared Nunes and Sen. Marc Cote.

9. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “While all eyes were on state politics this week, another candidate tossed his hat in the ring for Providence mayor. This time it was retired educator Robert DeRobbio, a Democrat who pledged to focus on schools and ethics as he seeks to unseat Mayor Elorza. Both DeRobbio and community advocate Kobi Dennis appear to be longshots, especially since the mayor is expected to have close to $700,000 cash on hand when he files his first-quarter fundraising report next week. DeRobbio told reporters he’s loaned himself $50,000 and hopes to raise around $400,000 for the campaign, while Dennis has struggled to raise funds. Barring something unforeseen, the biggest question left in the race appears to be whether state Rep. John Lombardi will jump in. The Federal Hill Democrat, who still serves as a municipal judge and ran in 2010, has acknowledged polling the race, but his allies say he plans to take the next four weeks to see if he can raise the money needed to run a credible campaign against Elorza. The mayor is expected to formally launch his re-election campaign in the coming weeks.”

10. Also from Dan McGowan: a breakdown of Providence’s proposed budget.

11. Back on Tuesday, it seemed like Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian’s decision to leave City Hall to lead RIPTA would be the week’s big political story – and even if it got overshadowed by other news, it’s still a major change for Rhode Island’s second-biggest city. Avedisian has led Warwick since winning a special election in 2000 – one triggered by the appointment of another man in the news, Lincoln Chafee, to fill his late father’s Senate seat. In recent years Avedisian has also been the most prominent member of the state GOP’s dwindling John Chafee wing, which Avedisian notes once included names like Ron MachtleyLila Sapinsley and Susie Farmer. The mayor is timing his official exit for mid-May, which means Democratic City Council President Joe Solomon will take over as acting mayor through the fall election. Solomon was quick to say he’s running to be the permanent mayor, and a number of other Democratic possibilities – most notably House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey and state Rep. Joe McNamara – quickly ruled themselves out. But the Warwick Democratic Party is known for its competing factions, so Solomon could face a challenge in the primary. On the Republican side, meanwhile, longtime party fundraiser Tony Bucci tells me he’s considering a bid for mayor, and will likely make a decision in the next week. One name you can rule out, though, is Joe Trillo – he gave me a flat “no” when I called Friday to ask if he was interested in a run for mayor. Trillo insists he remains committed to his independent bid for governor, and plans to self-fund. (As for Avedisian, he said he does not expect to endorse anyone as a successor, saying it would be inappropriate as head of a quasi-public agency.)

12. Scott Avedisian sees one of his most important tasks at RIPTA as convincing more people to ride the bus. “We need to reach that audience of people and convince them that taking the bus to work is appropriate and that it will be convenient and efficient and effective and that we will move you to where you need to be, on time, without incident,” he said on this week’s Newsmakers. Express service is one option, he said, or “maybe it’s a different kind of bus – maybe it’s got bigger seats with Wi-Fi available so you can work on your way into the office. We need to pick niche riders, much like we did at the airport. … There are lots of people who I think we can capture as riders who are currently not getting on the bus.”

13. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is up for re-election this year, and with two months to go before the filing deadline he’s yet to draw any challengers. But the first-term Democrat is raising enough money to be ready for a competitive race. Magaziner collected about $160,000 in contributions during the first quarter, giving him $567,000 on hand as of March 31.

14. Should Providence allow a 46-story tower to be built on the 195 land?

15. Tim White on the 30th anniversary of the unsolved “Highway Killings.”

16. Nearly 17 years of war have eroded the morale of many soldiers.

17. May is Mental Health Month – here’s what MHARI has planned.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian; a reporters’ roundtable. This week on Executive Suite – Ross-Simons founder Luxury Brand Holdings Chairman & CEO Darrell Ross and President James Speltz. 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. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. 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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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