1. It’s been clear for a while that Dan McKee and his advisers are pursuing what’s known as a “Rose Garden strategy” in his bid for a full term, keeping the governor above the fray and focused on his day job while avoiding the campaign rough-and-tumble for as long as possible. Now it seems they are looking to extend that approach even longer, with McKee pulling out of next week’s RIPEC gubernatorial forum despite his staff agreeing to it months ago. “I’ll engage in these debates and forums once everybody has signed their name on the line that they’re running,” McKee told reporters — suggesting he won’t appear with his rivals before July. So far, though, it’s not clear if the current strategy is paying dividends for McKee. The new Morning Consult poll shows his job approval rating slumped to 42% over the winter, down from 60% last summer, while his disapproval rating rose more than any other governor’s. (One observer notes the poll was mostly finished before news broke of the FBI joining the ILO investigation.) Contrast McKee with fellow Democrat Ned Lamont of Connecticut, whose Morning Consult approval rating only dipped to 57% and who had an 18-point lead in his re-election race this week. With no public polling in the Rhode Island campaign so far, it’s hard to say how McKee’s numbers translate into electoral support — after all, Gina Raimondo never did well in Morning Consult’s polling yet still romped to re-election in 2018. And McKee continues to have the advantages of incumbency, which pays off in news coverage and institutional support. But he also gets the disadvantages, like this week’s stories about DMV Director Bud Craddock. And other candidates are becoming more active, with Republican Ashley Kalus already airing TV ads and other Democrats expected to follow soon.
2. Morning Consult’s poll grabbed attention not only because of the sharp drop in Dan McKee’s net approval rating but also because so far it’s the only public polling of Rhode Island voters that has taken place this year. Morning Consult shared a more detailed breakdown of the numbers with me, and it shows McKee has suffered particular damage with independent voters. The share of independents who approve of his job performance has slumped from 64% last summer to just 36% this winter, while the share who disapprove has jumped from 17% to 48%. He’s also slipped with Democrats, but not as sharply, with his approval rating falling from 76% to 60% and his disapproval rising from 10% to 20%. For comparison purposes, the same poll found Jack Reed at 51% approval with independents and 75% approval with Democrats. As it happens, Morning Consult wasn’t the only organization peddling polling this week. On Friday, Nellie Gorbea’s campaign released a polling memo showing the results of a survey she conducted earlier this month. According to Gorbea’s pollster, veteran Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, their initial test of candidate strength in the primary showed Gorbea at 30%, McKee at 24%, Matt Brown at 10%, Helena Foulkes at 7%, and Luis Daniel Muñoz at 1%. That’s an improvement for Gorbea from the polling memo she released last fall, which had McKee on top at 26%, followed by Gorbea at 24%, then-candidate Seth Magaziner at 16%, Brown at 6% and Foulkes at 4%.
3. So what exactly happened with Dan McKee’s participation in Thursday’s RIPEC gubernatorial forum? No one disputes that McKee’s representatives confirmed his participation — RIPEC’s emails show CEO Mike DiBiase first reached out to the governor’s office inviting him on Jan. 10, and McKee’s scheduler confirmed on Feb. 16 that the governor would attend. The scheduler effectively confirmed for a second time on March 30, when she emailed RIPEC to say she had “received approval” for them to send out a draft press advisory and Save the Date that had been forwarded for review; both spelled out that McKee would be appearing alongside Nellie Gorbea, Matt Brown and Helena Foulkes. The governor’s team acknowledges those exchanges, but says the staffers who signed off on his participation did so “in error.” They also say McKee’s red line on candidate events before the June filing deadline is nothing new, pointing to the answer he gave at his February campaign kickoff when asked if he would debate: “Once we know who everybody is, once we all declare, certainly that’s what I expect to do this summer.” But RIPEC officials were under the impression that McKee was participating in the forum until just recently. And the event was no secret, mentioned in this column back on March 5, for example. It’s unclear why it took so long for the governor’s staff to realize they had committed him to a high-profile event he was not willing to do.
4. It turns out Governor McKee won’t even be in Rhode Island when the RIPEC forum takes place — his office confirmed Friday he’s going on vacation with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary. (Again, it’s unclear why his staff had committed to an event being held on a day when McKee wasn’t even going to be in Rhode Island; his office didn’t respond to a question about that.) The governor left the state Friday night and will be back for public events on May 9, according to spokesperson Matt Sheaff. “During this time, he’ll be in regular communication with his senior staff,” Sheaff added.
5. Republican Ashley Kalus is staying on TV for at least two more weeks. The GOP newcomer has rolled out a second commercial, this one featuring the former Golden Gloves champ in a boxing ring, and her media firm reports she’s shelling out $182,000 to air the spot on broadcast, cable, radio, regional sports and streaming outlets. That brings Kalus to nearly $300,000 in advertising over just three weeks, with six months to go before the November election. Her name recognition should be quite a bit higher by mid-May.
6. State House types: you won’t want to miss this one — WPRI 12 will broadcast Tim White’s latest big Target 12 investigative report Thursday night at 5.
7. The 2nd Congressional District race heated up this week as Republican Allan Fung formally kicked off his campaign, lashing President Biden and Congressional Democrats over inflation while promising a bipartisan approach if Rhode Island voters send him to Washington. The National Republican Congressional Committee gave Fung a seal of approval, naming him to its “Young Guns” program of promising candidates nationwide, and House GOP up-and-comer Elise Stefanik gave Fung her endorsement. Democrats like Seth Magaziner and DCCC strategists hope that Fung’s bear hug from national Republicans will also be his downfall, believing they can tie him to Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy in order to keep wavering voters from flipping the seat. But Fung thinks he will have an effective counter to that oft-seen 2017 photo of him in a “Trump” hat by shifting the focus to the unpopular current occupant of the White House. (Not that Fung has the GOP nomination locked up — fellow Republican Bob Lancia indicated Friday he won’t go quietly, issuing a news release that argued the former Cranston mayor left behind a deficit for his City Hall successor Ken Hopkins.) Meanwhile, David Segal continues to tap into support from the national progressive community as he position himself to win over left-wing voters, touting an endorsement this week from the Communications Workers of America — the first union endorsement to go to a Democrat other than Magaziner.
8. Ohio police have released video of 2nd District Democrat Michael Neary’s recent arrest.
9. Two weeks in, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos is already looking for a new campaign manager.
10. On the road again: fresh off a trip to Texas, Jim Langevin is heading west once more. Langevin’s office reports he is heading to California next week as leader of a bipartisan congressional delegation to Palmdale and Silicon Valley, where lawmakers “will visit various defense industrial base entities, as well as government organizations focusing on innovation and advanced tech – such as quantum science, directed energy, artificial intelligence, and tactical aviation.” … Sheldon Whitehouse just returned from a round-the-world journey that took him to Palau, India, Nepal, Qatar, and Berlin over the course of two weeks. Local press coverage included a photo of Whitehouse wearing a turban with Sikhs in Punjab; he also met up with members of the Rhode Island Air National Guard serving at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where he and Cory Booker took a photo with a stuffed animal named Charlie that belongs to the son of a staff sergeant. On Friday, Whitehouse was traveling once again, this time to Arizona for the McCain Institute’s annual Sedona Forum. He is scheduled to moderate a forum Saturday about carbon border adjustments with Louisiana U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Mohammed Chahim, a European Parliament member from the Netherlands.
11. As Steph Machado reported Thursday, Providence residents are experiencing some sticker shock as they open their new property assessments, with soaring values leading to fears of soaring taxes. Mayor Elorza used his final budget address Tuesday to propose a new residential rate and a higher homestead exemption, potentially shifting more of the burden to multifamily homes. The tax debate is sure to figure in the contest to replace Elorza between Democrats Brett Smiley, Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Mike Solomon. Cuervo, a former deputy secretary of state who worked for two previous mayors, made clear on this week’s Newsmakers he isn’t going to cede the wonk-for-mayor label to Smiley, rattling off statistics about the per-mile costs of replacing sewers and paving roads. “We have to get better at actually fixing potholes,” Cuervo said. “Every city in the Northeast has a pothole problem. The difference is that many other cities are fantastic at addressing it quickly — they get to them quickly and they solve them, whereas here we kind of let them simmer until they become craters.”
12. Eye on Massachusetts … Jesse Mermell has formally ruled out a Democratic primary rematch against Congressman Jake Auchincloss, giving the freshman lawmaker a clear path to re-election. Mermell, whose father just passed away after a long illness, said in a statement: “As I navigate helping my Mom during this time of transition, and processing my own grief, now is not the time for another campaign.” Asked about Mermell’s decision by The Sun Chronicle, an Auchincloss spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on the personal decisions of individual constituents.” … Auchincloss’s predecessor Joe Kennedy III was back in our region this week for an event in Fall River, where he endorsed former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. Campbell is facing two credible opponents in Shannon Liss-Riordan and Quentin Palfrey, as all three seek to succeed outgoing AG Maura Healey (the favorite to replace Gov. Charlie Baker). Politico notes Campbell was the only one of the three spotted at New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell’s State of the City address this week.
13. It was a big week for big personnel announcements. At the Rhode Island State Police, Governor McKee made history by appointing Lt. Col. Darnell Weaver to succeed James Manni as colonel, putting a person of color at the helm of the state’s leading law enforcement agency for the first time ever. State Rep. Karen Alzate, chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said: “Today is truly a special day for both current and past members of the caucus due to the fact that the Black and Latino Caucus has advocated for more diversity within the State Police, particularly within the higher ranks, for many years.” And in Washington, President Biden announced he has nominated Lara Montecalvo to succeed O. Rogeriee Thompson as the Rhode Islander on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at the recommendation of Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. Montecalvo was one of two public defenders Biden nominated on Wednesday, as the White House seeks to bring more diversity of background to the bench. Whitehouse, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me Friday night he thinks it’s “extremely likely” that Montecalvo will be confirmed before the end of this Congress.
14. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Two people in one job? That’s the case for one of Rhode Island’s top cabinet positions, ever since Governor McKee told Ana Novais she’d be taking over as interim Secretary of Health and Human Services on April 18, two weeks before the official end of outgoing Secretary Womazetta Jones‘ tenure on May 1. Asked about the unusual arrangement, state spokesperson Kerri White insisted that Jones hadn’t left early, saying, ‘Ana was brought on as acting secretary a little early to ensure a smooth transition and operation of services.’ Jones will be using paid time off through the last week of her job, White said, and her final day is still scheduled for the first of May. As for Novais, she will continue to receive the same salary she did as assistant secretary: $174,411.”
15. Monday night at 5, I have a report airing on WPRI 12 about another aspect of Rhode Island’s housing crunch: the rental crisis, with apartments scarce and prices soaring. Rhode Island native Andy Boardman, now at the Urban Institute, flagged a statistic that helps explain the problem: the state ranks dead last in the country for new housing units per capita. With Rhode Island’s population growing faster than previously estimated, the lack of new construction is a recipe for price inflation.
16. The New England First Amendment Coalition is kicking off a series of free online classes showing how newsrooms across the region use appeals to fight for public records in their states. Our own Eli Sherman will be batting leadoff Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. with a look at Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act — registration is free and open to the public. The series’ sponsors include local support from the Rhode Island Foundation.
17. I’ll be appearing on WGBH’s “Under the Radar” this weekend for a regional New England news roundup, along with host Callie Crossley and fellow panelists Arnie Arnesen and Steve Junker; tune in Sunday at 6 p.m. on 89.7 FM or listen online here.
18. This week on Newsmakers — Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo; 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. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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