Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 22

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. With a week and a half to go, the Democratic primary to succeed Congressman Joe Kennedy is finally coming into focus. The current consensus sees three candidates as positioned to win: Jake Auchincloss, Jesse Mermell and Becky Grossman. Auchincloss has been the central figure of the campaign all summer, for better (the Globe endorsement) and for worse (nonstop attacks from all sides). He’s heavily focused on the South Coast, this week even touting an out-of-district endorsement from New Bedford’s mayor, and stands out as the only male and only moderate in the top tier. Mermell’s under-resourced campaign has shown impressive hustle, defining her as a Warren-style progressive, capitalizing on her deep connections in Democratic politics, and leading the charge against Auchincloss. That paid off Thursday with a coveted endorsement from Foxboro Sen. Paul Feeney. Grossman’s campaign is in a trickier spot — she polls well, she has a strong base in Newton, and she’s inherited many of her father-in-law’s old supporters, but she’s sometimes seemed handcuffed by her consultants. Grossman pivoted this week, taking a lead on mail-ballot litigation and going on the offensive against Auchincloss at Tuesday night’s debate. All that said, the leading contenders can’t ignore the rest of the 4th District field. Ihssane Leckey’s unexpectedly well-funded left-wing campaign is an ongoing problem for Mermell, who was subjected to harsh criticism from Leckey at the debate over her progressive bona fides. And Natalia Linos is another threat for progressive votes, with unique appeal as a public health expert in the midst of a pandemic. As for the other three men in the race — Alan Khazei, Ben Sigel and Chris Zannetos — they’ll need to shake things up soon if they want to break into the top tier.

2. Many regular Nesi’s Notes readers are Rhode Islanders, and if you’re one of them you may be wondering, why should I care who represents the 4th Congressional District in Massachusetts? Well, for one thing, Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts are deeply intertwined, regardless of how state border lines have been drawn over the centuries. East Providence was part of Massachusetts as recently as 1862, and Bristol County, Massachusetts, is part of the Providence metro area and the Providence TV market. We’ve all been reminded of how interconnected the region is in recent months, as border communities fretted over emergency COVID-19 travel restrictions put in place by Governor Raimondo and Governor Baker. Cross-border collaboration also presents opportunity: Congressman Kennedy has talked about the possibilities there, and more recently he’s worked with Congressman Cicilline on legislation to create a regional economic development commission that would direct more federal resources to the region. Plus, it’s possible that in barely two years Rhode Island will be down to one U.S. House seat — partnering with the lawmakers representing Southeastern Massachusetts could become all the more important then.

3. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate primary that created the open seat in the 4th District looks like it may be headed for a photo finish. Not long ago there were whispers that momentum had shifted so strongly in Ed Markey’s favor it was increasingly his race to lose. But the Kennedy campaign’s morale has improved markedly since the WBZ debate, where Markey struggled to explain his treatment of D.J. Henry’s family and directly criticized Kennedy’s father. That gave the younger Kennedy an opening to embrace the full force of his family legacy, including in a slick new Tad Devine closer TV ad that features old clips of Jack, Bobby (Joe III’s grandfather) and Ted. While Markey’s campaign has always insisted it wouldn’t cede Southeastern Massachusetts to Kennedy — which is one reason the senator agreed to our WPRI 12 debate in June — their travel schedules suggest diverging geographic opportunities. Kennedy’s 4:30 a.m. New Bedford kickoff of a 24-hour campaign blitz Thursday was his third local event this month; Markey hasn’t been here since his mid-July bus tour. (This new forecast may suggest why.) A Survey USA poll gives Markey a slim two-point edge, but pollsters working on all the Massachusetts races admit unusual uncertainty about their turnout modeling because of the shift to mail ballots. The race may wind up in 51-49 territory.

4. How many voters will turn out for the Massachusetts primary? As I mentioned last week, turnout has only topped 1 million votes three times in the last three decades — 1990, 2002 and 2006. As my colleague Eli Sherman reported, over 1 million mail ballots have already been requested this year, and at midweek Fall River had already seen more mail ballots cast than total turnout in the last two primaries. There’s similar anecdotal evidence out of Attleboro: The Sun Chronicle reports roughly one in five registered voters has requested a mail ballot there, and if all were returned it would be the highest turnout in the last 10 primaries. With so many mail ballots to be counted, it’s far from guaranteed we’ll know the winners in the U.S. Senate or 4th District races on the night of Sept. 1.

5. Voter turnout for Rhode Island’s lower-profile Sept. 8 primary is still an open question. As of Friday night, over 45,000 Rhode Islanders had requested mail ballots for the primary; turnout was 70,000 in 2016, 92,000 in 2012 and 66,000 in 2008.

6. As Ian Donnis reported last week, some R.I. House incumbents are up in arms as the SEIU targets them for holding up a bill to establish minimum staffing levels at Rhode Island nursing homes. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House, which instead on July 16 approved a study commission — a classic State House slow-walk. Later in July, sources tell me, the for-profit nursing homes held a fundraiser at the Warwick Country Club for Speaker Mattiello, who is facing a tough re-election challenge from Cranston’s first lady, Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. The Mattiello team declined to confirm or deny the event, with spokesperson Patti Doyle saying in an email, “all recent donations to the speaker’s campaign will be fully reflected in the next campaign finance report. In it, you’ll see the speaker enjoys and is grateful for a broad base of support – from union and business leaders, teachers and healthcare workers, to the young families just starting out as well as our senior citizens.” Pressed specifically on a fundraiser backed by the nursing homes, Doyle reiterated that the speaker’s policy is “to let the public campaign finance report fully disclose all contributions.”

7. The timing of the Jeff Britt trial, set to start Oct. 5, is quite something.

8. Everything is so upside down these days that it’s easy to forget Rhode Island is now nearly two months into its new fiscal year and still without a state budget. There’s no sign that will change anytime soon, with Congress still at loggerheads over a new coronavirus relief bill. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine suggested this week there could be a breakthrough after Labor Day, though even then it’s uncertain what aid for states and cities would be included. For now, state leaders remain in wait-and-see mode. “It would be premature to put a timetable on it at this point,” spokespersons for Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggerio told me in a joint statement. “The leadership of the House and Senate is in close consultation with the governor. They are monitoring progress and awaiting additional guidance from Washington.” Their most trusted source on the situation, Senator Reed, continues to think a deal will be struck, not least because GOP-led states are also struggling.

9. Since we can no longer speculate about Governor Raimondo’s standing in the veepstakes, we can now start speculating about her chances of getting a Cabinet post. The outlook is mixed, judging by the national press: The Washington Post’s Ranking Committee suggested her for treasury or homeland security secretary, but a Politico piece didn’t even mention her. Meantime, while the focus locally has been on Raimondo, it’s worth contemplating whether a member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation could be approached by the Biden team, too. We already know Biden thinks highly enough of Sheldon Whitehouse that he contemplated him for the Supreme Court. Jack Reed is a perennial contender for defense secretary, even if he’s not interested. David Cicilline is an up-and-comer and a leader on the Judiciary Committee; Jim Langevin has expertise in cybersecurity. Also, an administration post could provide a graceful exit for one of the latter two if Rhode Island is indeed losing a House seat in 2023.

10. Speaking of Governor Raimondo, she’s taking her first break in months after a pressure-packed six months dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Her office confirms the governor is taking a few days off next week for her annual trip to Block Island with her family. They usually stay for two weeks, but this year it’s only going to be half a week. (That’s also why Raimondo has moved her weekly coronavirus briefing to Monday, rather than her usual Wednesday time slot.)

11. Rhode Island certainly made a splash at the Democratic National Convention, presenting the nation with a calamari chef who isn’t sold on Joe Biden and a “lifelong Republican” who votes in Democratic primaries. Joe McNamara’s squid gambit was a hit with national reporters and late-night comedians, and it was certainly memorable. But not everyone was pleased. “It was a missed opportunity for Rhode Island and it undercut the ticket’s message,” argues Mike Raia, previously a top adviser to Governor Raimondo. “Highlighting the state economy was a great intention, but the execution turned it into a joke instead of a pitch for the state. Rep. McNamara did little to reinforce the Biden-Harris ticket’s message. … Sure, Rhode Island was trending, but it felt like the country was laughing at us, not with us. I don’t think it helped our nominee and I’m not convinced it’ll help our hospitality industry. But I can only hope I’m proven wrong on both measures.” Another veteran Rhode Island operative shared a similar sentiment, describing it as “malpractice” that state party leaders didn’t ensure the chef was voting Democratic before putting him in prime time. … Meanwhile, the local GOP is getting ready for next week’s Republican National Convention by organizing a Trump Drive-In Rally on Thursday evening at the Exeter farm of Gerry Zarrella, who is co-chairing the Trump re-election campaign in Rhode Island.

12. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “The race between freshman Sen. Sam Bell and Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan in the Democratic primary for Senate District 5 heated up late this week after a mailer from Ryan landed in mailboxes declaring, ‘Sam Bell’s votes hurt our children.’ The mailer said Bell voted against aid to Providence schools and English Language Learners, leading Bell to take to Facebook, calling it a ‘false attack’ and questioning why the mailer doesn’t include a citation or quote to back it up. Ryan defended the mailer Friday, saying she was referring to Bell’s vote against the 2019-20 state budget. ‘He voted against the budget that had these components in it, so therefore he’s voting against this aid,’ Ryan said. ‘For political reasons he chose a no vote, and a no vote has its cost.’ Bell called that ‘disingenuous,’ pointing out his longstanding support for increasing funding to Providence schools, and said he voted against the budget because it didn’t include a 2% Medicaid rate increase for nursing homes, which are now struggling to survive because of the pandemic. For his part, Bell has a mailer arriving soon that criticizes Ryan’s prior support for privatizing the Providence water supply. Earlier in the week I interviewed both candidates for an episode of Pulse of Providence, which you can watch now on WPRI.com. Stay tuned for next week’s episode, featuring the candidates for District 4: Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and registered nurse Lenny Cioe.”

13. Eli Sherman has the latest on the Fane Tower saga, complete with an unusual email.

14. One in 10 Rhode Island coronavirus deaths weren’t caused by COVID-19.

15. It’s Providence Restaurant Week — and so is next week, and so is the week after. If there ever was a time our restaurants needed us, it’s now, so check out the menus and do some dining by Sept. 12.

16. Will the U.K. ever get rid of its unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords?

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – author Mike Stanton discusses his book on Rocky Marciano. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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