Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to email@example.com and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. There was at least one clear winner in our new WPRI 12/RWU Democratic primary poll — indifference. None of Rhode Island’s five candidates for governor are cracking 30%. A majority of voters have no favorite in the key down-ballot races. The 2nd Congressional District has its first open primary in 22 years, yet to date the only serious competition Seth Magaziner faces is from “undecided.” Former R.I. Democratic Party executive director Cyd McKenna is among those who think many voters are tuned out after the pandemic and the Trump presidency. “This is the first summer we’ve had since 2019 without mandates, without restrictions — people are living their best lives right now,” McKenna quipped on this week’s Newsmakers. “They’re out. They’re going to restaurants. They’re going to concerts. People are in a good mood.” 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming agrees, and is predicting voter turnout on Sept. 13 could be low. “No one’s paying attention to this election,” Fleming said on Newsmakers. Yet whether voters want to pay attention or not, the calendar isn’t changing; major decisions about Rhode Island’s future will be made 24 days from now by whoever bothers to show up and cast a ballot. The governor’s race could be a particularly wild ride, with three candidates all seeing a path to victory and knowing they can’t take anything for granted to win. Can any of them shake up the dynamic in their sleepy contest? And if turnout is low, who will have the best ground game to turn out their voters when many are staying home?
2. You can’t help but hear the confidence in the voices of those around Dan McKee these days as they assess the state of the Democratic primary. The WPRI/RWU poll puts McKee on top at 28%, and while that’s only a 3-point spread over Nellie Gorbea, it’s a marked improvement from the 20% support he had in the Globe poll released in June. McKee is heading into the final weeks of the race with the most cash on hand, the best-received TV ad, the power of incumbency, and an invaluable ally in the Laborers union’s Armand Sabitoni, who just plowed $500,000 into his own pro-McKee TV ad buy. The glass-half-empty narrative on McKee: after 17 months in office and a strong stretch of campaigning, he still hasn’t persuaded even one in three Democratic primary voters that their party’s incumbent governor deserves a full term. And that is where both Gorbea and Helena Foulkes still see a huge opportunity — particularly since the new poll shows neither one is as well known as McKee. Gorbea in particular has to be taken seriously by Team McKee in the waning weeks — she’s beating him among women, who may make up a larger-than-usual share of primary voters, and she remains within striking distance of the governor despite holding a lower-profile office and having far less money behind her. Some are writing off Foulkes, arguing that her failure to crack 20% support (or even 50% name recognition) after a seven-figure ad blitz shows her campaign doesn’t have a strategy to turn the first-time candidate into a governor. But Foulkes advisers and allies are adamant that voters are still just starting to tune in, so this is still “anyone’s race.”
3. Nobody likes hearing how much money matters in politics, but that distaste doesn’t make it any less true. Just look at Nellie Gorbea, who has built her public persona on a commitment to good government and clean elections — only to now embrace the “red box,” a tactic that ethics watchdogs call illegal and The New York Times calls “brazen.” Gorbea’s campaign is honest about why: they badly need a deep-pocketed outside group like Emily’s List to drop a six-figure sum in Rhode Island to help her counter the better-financed candidacies of Dan McKee and Helena Foulkes. The red box lets them send a direct signal to those organizations about what they could do to help. But there’s a cost: on Friday, Common Cause’s national arm told its 83,000 Twitter followers that Gorbea was trying “to bypass campaign finance law and coordinate campaign plans with independent groups, which is illegal.” To be clear, Gorbea’s campaign is only unique in its blatant use of a red box, not its desire for outside support. As mentioned above, McKee is benefiting from a half-million-dollar outlay by his allies at the Laborers union, while Foulkes has the backing of a super PAC which netted $20,000 from Nancy Pelosi this week. (As an aside, we sure are a long way from the days when then-candidate Seth Magaziner was calling for a “People’s Pledge” in the race for governor.)
4. Will the $60 million taxpayer subsidy for the Pawtucket soccer stadium emerge as a political issue in the coming months? New reporting continues to raise questions about whether the deal is good for state taxpayers, and the WPRI/RWU poll finds just 35% of Democratic primary voters support spending the money. Governor McKee cast the tie-breaking vote for the deal, and has no choice but to continue defending it; his Democratic rivals are trying to find a way to criticize McKee’s plan without seeming to abandon Pawtucket. But Republican gubernatorial candidate Ashley Kalus faces no such balancing act, and is making her oppositon clear. “There’s nothing that suggests that this is going to work out well,” Kalus told my colleague Chelsea Jones on Friday. “They’ve already come back and said that the projections that we started with aren’t going to be the projections. And you can blame a bunch of things, but the reality is that, the developers are one thing … but what matters is that this is public funds.” Pollster Joe Fleming thinks Kalus will keep up the drumbeat this fall, particularly if McKee is the Democratic nominee. “I think this is the issue that she can use in the general election, and really try to run with it and put it around Dan McKee’s neck if he’s the Democratic nominee,” Fleming said on Newsmakers.
5. Seth Magaziner’s rivals for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District haven’t quite run out of time. But the hour grows late, with Magaziner at 37% in the WPRI/RWU poll. Winning barely one in three voters is hardly a ringing endorsement of the only sitting officeholder in the primary, but it still has the makings of a landslide when no Magaziner rival can escape single-digits in public polling. And now Magaziner is going to benefit from a $350,000 TV buy by the League of Conservation Voters on his behalf in the final two weeks. The other Democrats will have at least one more major chance to sway voters on Aug. 30, when they meet for a prime-time debate here on WPRI 12. But Magaziner’s team – and the DCCC – are already more focused on Republican Allan Fung than the intraparty squabble. The Fung team clearly remains confident about his position. This week he was once again hobnobbing with Kevin McCarthy, this time out in Wyoming, despite the predictable attacks from Democrats who say their relationship undermines Fung’s claims to moderation and independence from the Trump wing of the GOP. Notably, though, Magaziner and the Democrats so far aren’t using their financial firepower to try and tarnish Fung’s image with an early negative ad blitz before Fung gets on TV. And Fung isn’t using his own unopposed status in the GOP primary to go after Magaziner early, either.
6. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “It’s been tricky to discern policy differences between the three Democrats running for mayor of Providence, but this week the voters saw a clear disagreement over a hot topic: rent control. Gonzalo Cuervo pitched a 4% cap on annual rent increases as part of a broader housing policy package, citing the skyrocketing rents in Providence as of late. Brett Smiley immediately said he opposes rent control, arguing it results in poorly maintained buildings and can hurt local landlords whose costs are rising due to inflation and tax hikes. Nirva LaFortune said she supports some sort of rent stabilization, but wouldn’t give a number for how much she would cap rent increases when asked by moderator Bill Bartholomew in the WPRO radio debate. New campaign finance reports show Smiley has a significant cash advantage for the final few weeks of the race, even after making a big TV ad buy. He has about $418,000 left in his campaign account, while LaFortune and Cuervo both have about $100,000. Neither LaFortune nor Cuervo had plans to go on the air with TV commercials when I asked this week, but they’ve had plenty of opportunities to get their ideas out there at increasingly frequent debates and forums. They’ll have a busy day on Tuesday: the mayoral candidates will speak at the Providence Rotary Club at lunchtime, then come to our WPRI 12 studios on Tuesday night for a live televised debate moderated by Tim White, Ted Nesi and me. Watch the debate Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Fox Providence or streaming on WPRI.com.”
7. For months, James Diossa was running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for general treasurer, as multiple formidable potential rivals took a pass on the race. Then Stefan Pryor jumped into the contest in May, and Diossa quickly went from the favorite to the underdog. The WPRI/RWU poll shows Diossa gained no advantage from his six months as the only Democratic candidate, and leads Pryor by just one point, 18% to 17%. The anemic support for both men reflects the fact that a stunning 61% of voters remain undecided with just a few weeks to go before the primary. Pryor has now established a clear financial advantage, with $262,000 in his campaign account on Monday, almost $100,000 more than Diossa. On top of all that, the Laborers union just wired $25,000 to a group called Democrats Serve PAC, which is now hitting Diossa with the first real TV attack ad of the cycle. Diossa backers have cried foul, arguing the commercial stretches the truth. But it’s clear the genial former Central Falls mayor has a fight on his hands against the ex-commerce secretary. Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping a nasty primary fight could offer an opening to their candidate, North Kingstown finance director James Lathrop.
8. The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is a little less dull than the one for treasurer, with only a bare majority of voters undecided. Incumbent Sabina Matos leads the pack at 23%, with Deb Ruggiero at 14% and Cynthia Mendes at 9% — a decent lead for Matos, but hardly enough to rest easy. Matos emerged unscathed from last month’s debate on WPRI 12, and decided that was enough, declining an invitation for a second TV debate over on Kenney Drive. Her opponents are seeking to make that itself an issue in the race, with both Ruggiero and Mendes accusing Matos of ducking accountability. But there’s been no sign of wavering by the Matos team, and now she’s being buttressed by a $200,000 TV buy from a group affiliated with the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association.
9. Rhode Island’s housing crisis has put a spotlight on rising home prices, which got me wondering — what’s the most expensive home ever sold in the state? Not long ago I put the question to Kerry Park, spokesperson for the R.I. Association of Realtors, who reported the most expensive sale on record was 626 Bellevue Ave. in Newport, purchased for $30 million last September. The priciest listing at the time was on Block Island: 1776 Corn Neck Rd, on the market for almost $11 million.
10. A new study by the Economic Policy Institute suggests Rhode Island teachers are the least underpaid in the country — but they’re still underpaid.
11. In Massachusetts, the Democratic contest for Bristol County sheriff is starting to heat up ahead of the Sept. 6 primary. The three candidates — Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, Fall River attorney Nick Bernier, and former Somerset Police Chief George McNeil — met Wednesday on WBSM radio for what could be their only debate before voters pick one of them to face longtime Republican incumbent Thomas Hodgson in November. Debate moderator Marcus Ferro reports the three “had very little policy daylight between them,” and it was a civil exchange. But the tone of the race had shifted by Friday, when Bernier and McNeil sent a joint press release criticizing Heroux in response to a mailer sent by the mayor.
13. Another Bristol County race to watch: District Attorney Tom Quinn vs. challenger Shannon McMahon.
14. Is there a more pro-housing municipal leader in Rhode Island than East Providence’s Bill Fazioli?
15. All the news that’s fit to print: The New York Times has discovered New Bedford.
16. One year later, Americans have gotten few answers about the war in Afghanistan.
17. Rest in peace, Barbara Gibbs Barton.
18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Cyd McKenna, Jeff Grybowski and Joe Fleming join Tim White and me for a political roundtable. 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.