Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 14

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. Five months into his tenure, Governor McKee is facing his biggest leadership test so far. Not so long ago it looked like he had perfect timing, taking office as vaccinations ramped up and COVID-19 cases fell to very low levels. But the delta variant has disrupted that smooth trajectory, triggering a midsummer wave of infections and hospitalizations just weeks before the start of school. Now McKee is facing tough decisions about whether to reimpose mask mandates. His hesitation was visible at Tuesday’s briefing, where he sat unmasked alongside Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, and COVID response chief Tom McCarthy — all of whom wore masks. McKee rivals Nellie Gorbea and Seth Magaziner both took aim at the governor for failing to institute a statewide K-12 mask mandate, though others noted Charlie Baker and Ned Lamont have similarly left the decision to local districts. Yet by Friday, McKee’s team had ordered masking in all state buildings — and a K-12 mandate was actively being discussed. “I’m concerned now, given some of the conversations we’ve seen at school committees over the last week, that we’re not being direct enough about the masking requirements,” McCarthy told me on this week’s Newsmakers. With General Assembly leaders making clear to McKee he has the legal authority to take such a step, and 34 lawmakers urging him to do so in an open letter Friday, the decision rests with him. “I don’t think the governor’s taking anything off the table,” McCarthy said.

2. With the pandemic now well into its second year, it’s no surprise people are dispirited to see case counts and hospitalizations on the rise again — particularly here in the Northeast where so many have gotten vaccinated. Tom McCarthy, who was appointed COVID czar during the transition between Gina Raimondo and Dan McKee, sees a light at the end of the tunnel despite the current setback. “At this point, with vaccines and treatments, we know that we can get on the backside of this, the backside of delta, in the next 45 to 60 days,” he said on Newsmakers. “This isn’t like where we were last winter, where we were waiting on vaccines and we didn’t know what that timeline looked like. So an extra bit of vigilance to ensure our students can learn in person safely, we can continue to do the things we enjoy, and we’ll all be in good shape.”

3. Benjamin Wallace-Wells examines the fast-changing research on breakthrough cases.

4. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Rhode Island’s redistricting process will soon be in full swing now that the U.S. Census Bureau has released detailed population data for municipalities and General Assembly leaders have named the panel that will redraw the state’s political maps. The new numbers show the population increased in 36 of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns between 2010 and 2020. And like much of the rest of the country, Rhode Island’s urban areas, including Providence and Central Falls, have realized some of the biggest gains; some more suburban areas, such as East Greenwich and Cumberland, also saw a large influx of new residents. Looked at a bit closer on the political side, House districts represented by Reps. Joshua Giraldo, Edith Ajello and James McLaughlin saw the largest percentage increases since the last time maps were drawn in 2012. On the Senate side, districts represented by Sens. Jonathon AcostaMaryellen GoodwinGayle Goldin and Sam Bell saw the biggest gains. Thanks to Providence College’s Adam Myers and Common Cause’s John Marion for helping me crunch those numbers; stay tuned for more this week.”

5. Another key holdover from Gina Raimondo’s administration is heading for the exits: R.I. Office of Management and Budget Director Jonathan Womer, who is stepping down Aug. 27 to take a job at Brown. His departure comes as Governor McKee is taking the initial steps to start putting together a state budget proposal for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which will be the first one he gets to shape from start to finish. The House Fiscal Office estimates the administration will need to close a roughly $200 million deficit, although that figure doesn’t take into account the untapped $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act dollars the state is currently sitting on. In a letter to his cabinet directors this week, McKee laid out his priorities: “I recommend a FY23 budget that applies a strong emphasis on: supporting small businesses that drive Rhode Island’s economy and create jobs; improving education and child care systems; ensuring that equity is a guiding principle throughout our budget; empowering our partners in all 39 cities and towns; expanding access to mental health and substance use disorder services; ensuring that criminal justice and human service programs continue to focus on equity and social justice; and continuing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic effects.”

6. The family of the governor’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, pulled the plug Friday on a years-long effort to develop a wetlands property in Cumberland; my Target 12 colleague Tolly Taylor had aired an investigation into the issue the night before.

7. Eye on Congress … Republicans are pushing back at Jack Reed’s effort to make women register for the draft … Sheldon Whitehouse proposed a 20-cent tax on virgin plastic to reduce pollution … David Cicilline could see his antitrust bills usurped by alternatives negotiated between Amy Klobuchar and the White House … Jim Langevin touted the new Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative in a Lawfare op-edJake Auchincloss and his wife welcomed a new baby daughter, Grace (congrats!) … Politico reports Bill Keating held “an Oak Bluffs meet-and-greet fundraiser” on Martha’s Vineyard on Friday.

8. The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has revived questions about whether President Biden was right to pull the plug on the two-decade American military effort there. As chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of Biden’s fellow Democrats, Jack Reed’s views on the matter have been closely watched. When I spoke with him back in April, just after the president announced his decision, it took some prodding before Reed gave his muted support to the pullout. Speaking to reporters Friday, Reed acknowledged “concern and surprise” about how quickly the Taliban is making gains, while noting, “I don’t think anyone was under any illusion that the Taliban would go to the peace-talks tables and sit down.” He also said reports that Afghan forces “are surrendering and not fighting shows problems with their leadership and disposition. What the Afghans have to do very quickly is stabilize their lines — contract them to what they can defend effectively — and then to work with the United States, at least until the end of August, to coordinate air power so we can stabilize, hopefully, the country.” So was Biden’s decision a mistake? “I think at some point the American people would demand that we, after 20 years of war, of significant investments, would end our presence there,” he said. At the same time, he argued the international community still needs to be “proactive in trying to avoid a situation in Afghanistan which would be intolerable.”

9. Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts doesn’t have term limits for governor. Nevertheless, it’s unprecedented for a Bay State chief executive to win a third consecutive term. Will Charlie Baker break the mold? The durably popular Republican still hasn’t said if he’s going to run again, but he’d start out as the odds-on favorite if he does. Yet that hasn’t stopped multiple candidates from already announcing they’re running regardless of what Baker does, including former state Sen. Ben Downing, one of three Democratic contenders so far. (Rhody connection: Downing, like his father and brother, is a Providence College grad, Class of ’03.) Downing is trying to turn Baker’s popularity into a vulnerability, arguing the governor hasn’t used his political capital to make the sorts of bold changes Massachusetts needs to position itself for the future. A Pittsfield native, Downing is also a critic of the way Beacon Hill often overlooks places like New Bedford and Fall River, something he saw up close during his years representing Western Massachusetts. “It’s absolutely real,” Downing told me on this week’s Newsmakers. “The dominant political conversation at the Statehouse is a Boston-centric conversation. It’s important — it’s the capital — it’s the biggest city in the region. It’s important. But what it misses out on is the opportunities presented by those other communities, and the fact that some of the challenges Boston is facing come from us not building stronger economies outside the area.”

10. With the end of World War II now 76 years in the past, fewer and fewer veterans of the conflict are still around to share their stories. But one of them was on hand for Pawtucket’s annual Victory Day commemoration this past Monday: Leo Beland, a 98-year-old Central Falls native who landed on Omaha Beach and was wounded fighting Nazis in France. When my colleague Matt Paddock asked Beland why he thought Rhode Island should continue marking Victory Day, he replied, “There’s a lot of guys that are still over there, and they’re not coming back. If we don’t honor them, who’s going to honor them?” Take five minutes and watch Beland’s full conversation with Paddock — you’ll marvel at not only his heroism, but also his acuity two months before his 99th birthday. (You can also listen to my Q&A with WGBH about the history of Victory Day here.)

11. Congratulations to Warwick’s Tara Monastesse, this year’s winner of the $60,000 Rhode Island PBS Scholarship for aspiring journalists. Monastesse has already had some of the best training in the business since she interned at the Warwick Beacon for the great John Howell.

12. Longtime Nesi’s Notes readers won’t be surprised to hear how sad I was at Friday’s news that Tony Bennett, 95, is retiring from touring as he battles Alzheimer’s. (He’d been scheduled to play a gig in Connecticut next month.) Happily, CBS taped Bennett’s final concert alongside Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall last month, and it’s set to air on WPRI 12 later this year. Bennett has been around so long it’s easy to take his longevity for granted. His first recording session for Columbia Records was in April 1950; he’ll release his final album for the label this autumn, 71 years later. He had his first No. 1 hit single back in 1951; how many artists on the current Billboard Hot 100 will still be popular in the year 2091?

13. Side note: Columbia Records has quite a track record of signing artists who’ll be around for the long haul. Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand both signed with Columbia in 1962, and both of them are still recording for the label today. Which artists that got a record deal this year will still be with the same label in the year 2080?

14. Susan Murray on how color TV changed the way Americans view the world.

15. Did you know New Bedford played in a formative role in the life of Frederick Douglass?

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Tom McCarthy, executive director of COVID-19 response at the R.I. Department of Health; Ben Downing, Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. and noon 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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