Nesi’s Notes: April 3

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. By selecting Sabina Matos as the new lieutenant governor, Dan McKee has triggered a second round of domino effects across Rhode Island politics, fresh off the ones caused by Gina Raimondo when she accepted her cabinet appointment. McKee’s choice is historic: once confirmed by the Senate, Matos will be the first Afro-Latina and the first person of color to serve as lieutenant governor, as well as only the second woman in the job. Watch for McKee to employ Matos the way Charlie Baker employs Karyn Polito, a regular presence at his side in big moments and a force multiplier for the governor to send across Rhode Island — including in next year’s campaign. The 2022 election will now have incumbents seeking full terms as governor and lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary; barring major errors over the next year, Matos may scare off potential challengers more easily than McKee himself. That means Democrats with their eyes on the governor’s office — Seth Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea and Jorge Elorza — as well as others don’t have the off-ramp of an easy run for LG, to the extent they might have considered it. The effects will also be felt at Providence City Hall, where Matos has served as a counterweight to Elorza. With the City Council losing its president, look for John Igliozzi or Pedro Espinal to seek the mantle of leadership. And the 2022 mayoral race has lost one of its most formidable contenders now that Matos is out, changing the calculus for Brett Smiley, Nirva LaFortune and Gonzalo Cuervo.

2. It’s not hard to imagine an alternative universe where Clay Pell is the new governor of Rhode Island right now. Pell’s surprise entry into the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary mystified many — he faced two top-quality talents, Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras, and hadn’t been tested yet in electoral politics. Plenty of people counseled Pell to run instead for lieutenant governor; the strength of the Pell brand combined with the relatively limited attention that race received might have made him the frontrunner. But he took a pass, leaving Dan McKee and Ralph Mollis to fight it out. McKee won by about 7,000 votes — and now he is Rhode Island’s 76th governor.

3. Our Steph Machado flags something to watch at Providence City Hall: Sabina Matos has said she won’t resign her City Council seat until she is confirmed as lieutenant governor, so will she cast a vote for the new president before stepping down? On a closely divided council, that could matter. Matos’s departure also means another City Council special election, to fill her Ward 15 seat.

4. Sabina Matos’s selection as lieutenant governor means Rhode Island will still have two of its nine federal and statewide offices held by women, with Matos joining Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea on the roster. It was only 40 years ago this year that a woman was sworn into any of those offices for the first time, when Claudine Schneider replaced the late Eddie Beard representing the 2nd Congressional District. The mid-1980s were in fact the high-water mark for gender diversity in those nine jobs, with three held by women simultaneously (Schneider, Arlene Violet and Susan Farmer, all Republicans). The R.I. Democratic Party finally elected a woman to high office for the first time in 1986, when Kathleen Connell won the race for secretary of state. By 1999 all nine positions were once again held by men, and that remained the case until Elizabeth Roberts was elected lieutenant governor in 2006. The last glass ceiling, for both parties: United States senator. (Thanks once again to Steve Frias for fact-checking my history.)

5. Maria Vallee’s career at North Providence Town Hall looked to be in serious jeopardy back in 2013. She’d just been punished by the U.S. attorney’s office and the Ethics Commission for taking an illegal loan to renovate her home using the town’s federal Community Development Block Grant money — while she was overseeing the money as the town’s acting finance director. But Vallee stepped down as finance director during the investigation but stayed on as controller, which gave her union job protections. Mayor Lombardi then opted to keep her employed at Town Hall — and within five years she was back in as acting finance director. Now Vallee is in hot water once again: Tim White and I revealed Thursday night that she’s been taking home two full salaries, pulling in $181,000 last year alone, in apparent violation of the town charter. Lombardi backtracked hours after Tim interviewed him about the arrangement, and North Providence Town Council President Dino Autiello told us the council didn’t realize the extent to which Vallee was padding her pay until Lombardi informed them we had started asking questions about it. “This wasn’t a good story for the town,” Autiello said Friday. Pinning down the numbers for this report was no easy task; it took multiple Access to Public Records Act requests to obtain payroll records detailed and clear enough to show Vallee’s full compensation. That’s a good reminder of why transparency doesn’t just mean providing some sort of document in response to a records request — it means providing records that actually allow the average citizen to scrutinize how their tax dollars are being spent.

6. Next week should be an interesting one at the State House, with Democrats in the House and Senate set to give final passage to the Act on Climate bill despite outspoken Republican opposition. (The headline on one GOP news release this week: “Call McKee or Call Your Heating Oil Company to Say Goodbye.”) Governor McKee has been trying to walk a fine line, expressing support for the bill’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 without fully embracing it. McKee sent a letter to lawmakers this week expressing concern about a provision that will let residents start suing to enforce emissions reductions after 2025, warning it could lead to frivolous lawsuits. But he was quickly undercut by AG Neronha, who told Dan Yorke he doesn’t share those concerns and supports the legislation.

7. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor was one of Gina Raimondo’s most trusted and visible advisers during her time as governor; he was also the indirect target of significant criticism from then-Lt. Gov. Dan McKee last year over the small-business grant programs managed by Commerce. Yet since McKee took over as governor, Pryor has emerged as a seemingly trusted member of the newcomer’s cabinet, and the secretary now says he is considering staying on. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Pryor insisted his solid relationship with McKee shouldn’t come as a surprise. “What people don’t see is that Lt. Gov. McKee and I always had a very good rapport and behind the scenes always had an open channel of communication, because we do share the interest of seeing small businesses and all businesses succeed,” Pryor said. “So even while there were macro conversations occurring, we were calling each other’s cell phones and working out policies, getting the small-business grant programs to function well.”

8. Eli Sherman and Tolly Taylor examine when Rhode Island could reach the “herd immunity” threshold of roughly 70%, allowing Governor McKee to ramp up his reopening plans. At the moment, it’s clear coronavirus trends are ticking up in Rhode Island: average daily cases are up 25% since mid-March, and average daily COVID-19 hospital admissions are up 34% this week. (Our full WPRI.com tracking page is here.)

9. Steph Machado compares the competing plans for marijuana legalization in Rhode Island.

10. Tim White finds mental health calls to Providence Police have nearly doubled in two years.

11. Mayor Elorza released a report laying the groundwork for reparations in Providence.

12. As the debate heats up over how to bolster Rhode Island’s anemic housing production, an interesting bit of insight from Matt Yglesias: “[H]ousing abundance plays a critical role in economic development. Janna Matlack and Jacob Vigdor find that in markets where the housing supply is allowed to expand in response to increased demand, an increase in the number of high-paying jobs in a city benefits everyone. But where the housing supply is tight, new high-earning residents simply reduce the disposable incomes of existing lower-income ones by increasing rents. With housing abundance, working-class people can move to booming areas to get better-paying jobs. With housing scarcity, working-class people flee tech and finance boomtowns in search of affordable housing.”

13. The Volcker Alliance is out with its annual grades for state budgeting practices, and Rhode Island’s number-crunchers can pat themselves on the back. The state got one “A” and four “B”s across the five categories examined for the 2018-19 fiscal year: budget forecasting, budget maneuvers, legacy costs (i.e. pensions), reserve funds, and transparency. That was an improvement from the previous four years, when the state only managed a “C” for budget maneuvers.

14. Meanwhile, Providence’s finance panel just passed a budget before even releasing it.

15. Prior to this week, Elizabeth Warren hadn’t made a stop in New Bedford since the eve of the 2018 election, when she held a rally there en route to a 24-point re-election victory over Geoff Diehl. During much of the time since Warren was running for president — and then being vetted for vice president — but right now she appears likely to stay on as Massachusetts’ senior senator at least through the end of her current term in 2024. I caught up with Warren as she toured a new waterfront vaccination site in the Whaling City, and asked whether she still feels connected to voters on the ground back home in the Bay State despite spending so much time on the national stage. “Each of us has a job to do,” Warren told me. “The mayor does a wonderful job. Our state legislators are out there doing hard work. Our job in Washington is to try to get the resources together to help out in a time of crisis. And to try to get the resources in place to make the investments to build a stronger future for this country.” She added, “That’s the fight I’ve been in for nine years now.” The New Bedford stop was part of a series of events that Warren held in communities across the Commonwealth during this week’s Senate recess.

16. Congressman Auchincloss is calling for a Marshall Plan on global COVID vaccinations.

17. North restaurateur James Mark opens the books to show Eater what it took to keep his establishments going during the pandemic.

18. Sam G. Howard, who writes the Rhode Island Liberator blog and is a passionate vexillologist, just finished redesigning all 39 of the state’s municipal flags. Which city or town will be the first to hoist a Howard?

19. If you haven’t gotten your fill from this column, you can find me on the airwaves a couple times this weekend. I’ll be a guest on “A Lively Experiment,” breaking down the latest on local and national politics along with host Jim Hummel and fellow panelists Wendy Schiller and Bob Walsh; tune in Sunday at noon on Rhode Island PBS or watch online here. Also, I’ll be joining WGBH’s “Under the Radar” for a regional news roundup along with host Callie Crossley and fellow panelists Arnie Arnesen and George Brennan; tune in Sunday at 6 p.m. on 89.7 FM or listen online here.

20. Looking for that perfect Easter gift? For a cool $14 million, you can buy Bing Crosby’s old house in California — he sang “Easter Parade,” after all.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor; 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.

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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