Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 21

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. What went wrong in Afghanistan? It’s a question that must be asked about not only the chaotic evacuation of the past week but also the entire American military commitment over the past two decades. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Jack Reed offered this answer: “Very succinctly, the capacity of the Afghan government and military forces — and they’re linked — was overestimated, and the capacity of the Taliban was underestimated.” Reed has visited Afghanistan 18 times since the war began and is preparing to chair Armed Services Committee hearings on the topic. He agrees that “the buck stops” with President Biden for the botched evacuation, yet also argues the roots of the present crisis go further back. He points to President Trump’s 2020 peace deal, which he says empowered the Taliban and destroyed coalition morale by setting a date for American withdrawal, and President Bush’s pivot to Iraq in late 2001, leaving the mission in Afghanistan incomplete. “I think we lost the most critical time in 2002 and 2003,” he said. For now, Reed won’t say Biden made a mistake by ordering the withdrawal, suggesting it’s too soon to tell. But others in the region’s all-Democratic congressional delegation aren’t waiting to pass judgment, and two of them stood out on the national stage this week. Jim Langevin grabbed attention as one of the first Democrats to assail the Biden administration in harsh terms, writing in Foreign Policy: “Look at what 2,500 U.S. soldiers, intelligence, and air support working with the Afghan military were able to hold back for so many years. The consequences of our decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display for the world to see. It didn’t have to be this way.” Meanwhile, Jake Auchincloss has been ubiquitous on the airwaves as a full-throated Biden defender, citing his own Marine Corps service in Afghanistan for credibility. “The fact that after 20 years and $80-plus billion the Afghan military was incapable of fighting for more than a week on its own two legs is really indicative of the fact that there was no political endgame,” Auchincloss told The Hill.

2. Rhode Island is continuing to feel the effects of the delta variant, with fresh COVID-19 cases averaging about 300 a day and hospitalizations hovering around 100 patients. That was the backdrop for the state K-12 council’s surprise vote Tuesday night to effectively do an end-run around Governor McKee and institute its own (legally dubious) mask mandate. McKee began the week still skeptical about using his authority to mandate masks, pointing out that most districts were moving in that direction on their own, but by his Thursday briefing he had reversed course. The governor also used that forum to pick a public fight with General Assembly leadership, telling them to reconvene and undo limits they placed on his emergency powers as part of the budget in June. Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio fired back almost immediately, insisting McKee had mischaracterized the budget language and chastising him for failing to tell them what he would say when he telephoned them just before the briefing. Central to their conflict: federal money. The budget language left McKee wide latitude to issue emergency orders on health and safety — hence the mask mandate — but handcuffed him when it comes to spending the state’s $1.1 billion American Rescue Plan Act allocation. That’s no accident: Gina Raimondo spent almost the entire $1.25 billion from the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund on her own, and while legislative leaders acquiesced at the time, they don’t want executive-branch appropriations to become a habit. At the end of the week, McKee told Steph Machado he plans to meet with Shekarchi and Ruggerio on Monday to hash things out. “We’re still looking to make sure that we get some of the federal dollars out to help our businesses and our housing issues and our child care issues,” he said.

3. With Henri en route, my 12 News colleagues have you covered with everything you need to know to prep for the storm. We’ll have updates in our TV newscasts all weekend, of course. You’ll want to bookmark our WPRI.com weather page, where our meteorologists publish regular updates; we also have a smartphone weather app you can download. And all our meteorologists are on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Considering a hurricane hasn’t made landfall in Southern New England in 30 years, you might want to refresh your memory by taking a look at our Storm Ready page, too.

4. As New Englanders stockpile bread and milk, many are recalling the last time a hurricane hit Rhode Island: Hurricane Bob, 30 years ago this week. It remains a vivid memory for top advisers to then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun, who was still in his first year in office at the time. David Preston, who was Sundlun’s communications director, remembers how much they relied on an after-action report about Hurricane Gloria in 1985 that the administration of Sundlun predecessor Ed DiPrete had put together. “That was enormously helpful,” he said. “It walked through a timeline. It walked through all the legal work that needed to be done, the emergency declarations.” (Those declarations were drafted by a young legal counsel named Sheldon Whitehouse.) One challenge for Sundlun’s team as Bob approached? No governor: Sundlun was one of multiple state chief executives stuck in Seattle for the National Governors Association summer meeting as the storm approached. He was still on the West Coast the day before Bob was set to make landfall, a Sunday, and this was a pre-internet era. Thus Lt. Gov. Roger Begin started holding meetings with Sundlun’s aides that Sunday evening, issuing the emergency declaration and going on TV around 10 p.m. to urge preparation (all while trying to avoid an Al Haig moment, since he was not close to the governor). Sundlun touched down in Rhode Island Monday around 9 a.m., arriving on the last flight that came in before the winds got too strong, and he soon ordered roads closed and I-95 barricaded at the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders. Rhode Island went on to suffer significant damage and major power outages from Bob, but no lives were lost. “I attribute that to some degree to Begin’s leadership early on,” Preston said. “I really can’t overemphasize the skill that he showed stepping in and filling a vacuum in an awkward situation.”

5. Spotted: Secretary Raimondo was in attendance last week at a fundraiser in Providence for mayoral candidate Brett Smiley, her former top aide. The event was co-hosted by her former senior adviser Meredith Curren and her husband Andy Moffit.

6. State Sen. Gayle Goldin’s long-rumored departure for a Biden administration job removes one of the chamber’s leading progressives, as well as a lawmaker who was willing to challenge Senate leadership before that became common. And the special election to fill her District 3 seat on Providence’s East Side has already attracted two credible candidates: RI NOW President Hilary Levey Friedman, who started raising money months ago in anticipation of a potential vacancy, and schoolteacher-activist Geena Pham, who is running under the banner of the Rhode Island Political Coop. If no other major candidates jump in, the race is likely to be characterized as a mainstream-vs.-outsider contest, though ideologically no one is going to mistake either candidate for a Republican. The Democratic primary, which will almost certainly be decisive, is set for Oct. 5. Meantime, Goldin’s departure also clears the field for state Rep. Gregg Amore as he prepares to kick off a 2022 bid to succeed Nellie Gorbea as secretary of state. No other candidate has stepped forward so far, and Amore has worked assiduously in recent months to line up support from colleagues and labor unions. His kickoff is tentatively set for Sept. 15 at East Providence High School, where he’s taught for decades.

7. Speaking of the General Assembly, Eli Sherman has put together a great set of maps showing which House and Senate districts added the most new residents in the last census — giving us an indication of which areas will be getting more representation next year. As Common Cause’s John Marion told Eli, “Some districts are going to have to shed significant amounts of people in order to meet the requirement of equal population, particularly in Providence and Central Falls, and that’s going to enhance the power of those communities because there will likely be more representatives and senators in the urban core of Rhode Island.”

8. And speaking of Eli Sherman, here’s a dispatch from Eli himself: “In a big-data world, privacy is hard to come by. That’s why the U.S. Census Bureau decided to riddle the government’s biggest data dump with a series of errors, which they claim will help ‘strike a balance between data protection and precision.’ For the non-wonks out there, what the feds are doing is scrambling some personally identifiable information – such as age and race – at the city-block or neighborhood level in order to make it more challenging for data-crunchers to compare that against other big data sets and use it to create highly accurate profiles of tens of millions of Americans without their consent. For the wonks, the effort looks similar to past Census privacy-protection strategies that added variation to the datasets at census-block level. But this time they argue it will be far more precise and less disruptive to demographic analysis, because they’re using a mathematical concept known as ‘differential privacy.’ While the intentions may sound noble and the fuzziness is supposed to be targeted enough not to blur nationwide trends, some demographers argue it’s an exercise in futility because there’s already so much data available out there. In May, a group of Harvard University researchers took the criticism a step further, saying ‘the injected noise makes it impossible for states to accurately comply with the One Person, One Vote principle.’”

9. If you’re looking to take a deeper dive into the new Rhode Island census data, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office on Friday rolled out an interactive Census Data Explorer tool.

10. Will the Providence body-cam footage released this week rekindle efforts to reach a legislative compromise on changing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights before the end of the year?

11. The high-profile records battle between South Kingstown’s Nicole Solas, the local school committee, and now the teachers union will go before a judge on Monday.

12. Public defenders are assailing Bristol County DA Tom Quinn for his muted response to the Fall River Police Department drug evidence debacle.

13. Welcome to the family, The Hill.

14. Every wonder who sings the Block Island Ferry song? Kim Kalunian found the answer in 2015.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. 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. 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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