Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 28

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. How did a neighborhood fight over a 0.13-acre lot in Cumberland turn into the biggest political headache of Governor McKee’s first six months in office? One reason is the underlying facts: his chief of staff, Tony Silva, has spent years trying to build on a property that is 93% wetlands despite local opposition, and Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter became uncomfortable enough with Silva’s personal lobbying that he reported it to McKee. There were always going to be questions about whether someone in as powerful a job as chief of staff to the governor should be pressing a lower-ranking official for help with a private financial matter. Another reason, though, is that the governor and his team have poured fuel on the fire in how they’ve handled the controversy. Silva gave my colleague Tolly Taylor a nearly 500-word statement back on Aug. 8, insisting he’d given up any financial interest in Canning Street in April 2020 — yet our open records request to Town Hall later discovered him still texting the mayor for an impromptu meeting about the land a year later. McKee himself caused whiplash by defending Silva so staunchly on Tuesday, then on Wednesday asking AG Neronha to conduct an independent investigation. The story also led to a closer examination of Silva’s financial disclosures, triggering a GOP ethics complaint and forcing him to give up a $7,500 part-time gig in Cumberland that had previously flown under the radar. As of late Friday, Silva was still in place as chief of staff and there was no word he would take a leave of absence, let alone step down, while Neronha conducts his investigation. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” Silva told Tim White on Wednesday. The governor must now decide whether Silva is still the right choice to serve as his top aide despite the “shadow” McKee says this affair has cast on his office.

2. So who is Jeff Mutter, anyway? A 61-year-old Democrat and PC grad who used to work for his family’s auto business, Mutter is currently serving his second term as mayor of Cumberland. (It’s actually the town’s first four-year mayoral term, after residents voted to change the municipal charter.) As Ethan Shorey has reported, Mutter has been on the political scene in Cumberland since 1996, when he was first elected to the Town Council; he later served on the School Committee, as well. He won the mayor’s office in 2018, defeating two-term incumbent Bill Murray in the Democratic primary amid divisions among local party leaders. Murray was close to McKee, whom he’d succeeded as mayor when the latter became lieutenant governor in 2014. Yet despite the heartburn Mutter has caused for the governor this week, it doesn’t appear there is a history of bad blood between the two. Speaking at Mutter’s inauguration, McKee was quoted as saying, “I was introduced to Jeff in 1996 and I can tell that there is not an individual more responsible for Cumberland’s robust financial condition and recovery than Jeff Mutter. Back then we figured it out and got it down. … He is a friend of mine and a friend of Cumberland.” For his part, Mutter told us McKee never intervened on behalf of Silva regarding the Canning Street deal.

3. Central Falls students went back to school on Friday, kicking off the academic year in Rhode Island — and beginning a nail-biting period for state and education leaders as they hope to avoid any possible disruptions caused by the delta variant. The trends this week are mixed: the seven-day average for new infections has dipped to 276 cases, but hospitalizations are up to 127. “This surge is different than winter,” Dr. Jay Schurr, who heads the Rhode Island Hospital emergency department, warned Thursday. “There are no extra staff.” Another difference between this surge and previous ones is the increased political controversy around how the governor should respond. Senate Republicans issued a statement this week decrying Governor McKee’s declaration of a new state of emergency, urging the General Assembly to terminate it. “It is time to stop this executive runaway train and for the elected senators and representatives who talk to their constituents on a daily basis to decide whether to enact any new policies related to the pandemic,” the GOP caucus tweeted. It wasn’t just Republicans: Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat, spoke out publicly against the emergency order as well. Meanwhile, Glocester school officials have taken the first steps toward a legal challenge against McKee’s K-12 mask mandate.

4. With September around the corner, attention will be turning to how Rhode Island should spend the state’s $1.1 billion allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. None of the money has been touched yet, and state lawmakers say they’ve acted to ensure the governor’s office can’t spend it unilaterally, unlike last year’s $1.25 billion CARES Act deposit, which Gina Raimondo doled out largely on her own. A 15-member panel created by the Rhode Island Foundation has spent the summer gathering ideas for how the money should be spent, working in concert with RIPEC and the Economic Progress Institute. They’ve heard from about 150 people representing various organizations, commissioned five focus groups, and plan to do a series of community meetings as well. “The process has been much more robust and inclusive than I think I originally imagined,” Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg told me Friday. He says the panel is on track to issue a final report by “early fall,” and expects it to propose three to five “big ideas” that the state could tackle with the money. “These need to be investments that deliver enduring change,” he said. Steinberg was coy about what he thinks the final ideas will be, but he did single out one issue as likely to make the cut: “Housing. That’s not a secret, but it comes up all through different aspects of this.” He also emphasizes that the federal regulations around the money say states should prioritize projects which support the communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. And he wants to make sure that implementation and oversight gets as much attention as whatever programs are created. “The real test is, can we do what we say we’re going to do?” Steinberg said. “None of us wants to be here in five years, saying, ‘What happened to that billion dollars?'”

5. Speaking of the General Assembly — Speaker Shekarchi is taking his time deciding whether to bring reps back to Smith Hill for a special session before the end of the year to tackle marijuana, LEOBOR or American Rescue Plan spending. “No decisions have been made if, or when, there may be a fall session,” House spokesperson Larry Berman reports.

6. The field is set for the special election to replace Gayle Goldin in Providence’s Senate District 3. Steph Machado has the lowdown on the six Democrats and one Republican who are seeking the seat. (Goldin herself can’t make an endorsement due to her new status as a Biden administration appointee, though a district committee made up of her allies can award the Democratic Party endorsement.)

7. A fun research project from Eli Sherman and me: we drilled down into the U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data for 2020 to see which Rhode Island communities were net gainers and which saw net decreases during the pandemic. (The story has a map so you can look up your own ZIP code, too.)

8. The R.I. Department of Labor and Training is beginning to figure out how it will implement Rhode Island’s newly enacted pay equity law, which Bristol Democrat Susan Donovan successfully got through the House this year after a long effort. The law, which takes effect in January 2023, bans wage discrimination based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age or country of origin, and gives workers new options to challenge their pay. DLT will hold three Zoom sessions seeking input on the issue next month, and is accepting public comment through Oct. 15, with the final regs scheduled to be out by Dec. 7. Meanwhile, PBN reports employers are being encouraged to conduct wage audits now in order to give themselves a defense against potential future litigation.

9. Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss acknowledges the evacuation from Afghanistan has been less than perfect. “We are winding down a two-decade conflict in a country known as the ‘graveyard of empires,'” he said on this week’s Newsmakers (taped just as reports began to come in about the devastating attack on the Kabul airport). “This withdrawal was always going to be messy. … Of course there have been mistakes.” But Auchincloss remains adamant that President Biden made the right decision in ordering U.S. forces to withdraw from the country, saying a commitment of 20 years and $2.3 trillion has proven the nation-building mission there can’t succeed. And his strongly held view is shaped by what he saw on the ground as a Marine lieutenant patrolling Helmand Province in 2012. Biden “came into office facing a wrenching fork in the road,” Auchincloss said. “It was go big or go home. He could either surge U.S. troops into Afghanistan to counter the Taliban fighting season and mark a third decade of conflict in a counterinsurgency that could not succeed, or he could tell a hard truth to the American people, that there was no political endgame for this mission, and we had to hand Afghanistan over to the Afghans.”

10. Still, there is no masking the pain of the withdrawal, especially for Afghans who helped Americans. Among those trying to get someone out is U.S. Marine Corps Major Thomas Schueman, a student at the Naval War College, who told Kim Kalunian on Friday he had to make constant phone calls in an effort to rescue his former interpreter, Zak. “I was essentially running a command operation center at my kitchen table in Middletown,” Schueman said.

11. One year ago at this time, Jake Auchincloss was in the final week of a photo-finish primary race against Jesse Mermell and a half-dozen other rivals to win the Democratic nomination to succeed Joe Kennedy III in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. Loathed by left-wing activists, Auchincloss nevertheless eked out a 1-point victory and went on to easily defeat Republican Julie Hall in November. The closeness of the Auchincloss-Mermell contest has left many progressives itching for a rematch, but as times goes by, the chances of such a challenge succeeding look slim. Auchincloss has lashed himself tightly to President Biden since arriving on Capitol Hill, and he’s voted with the House Democratic caucus 100% of the time. Nor will the 33-year-old Newton Democrat be caught napping. Well aware he has a target on his back, Auchincloss has already raised nearly $1.5 million for his re-election campaign. He’s now turning his attention to a newly created leadership PAC, MA 4 Dems PAC, that will raise money to help Democrats in their uphill battle to keep the House majority next year. And he’s landed a big name to serve as the special guest for the PAC’s first event next month: Nancy Pelosi.

12. Rest in peace, Charlie Watts. Did you know the great Stones drummer had a Rhody connection? Nesi’s Notes reader Bill Shields passed this nugget along: “A little-known fact is that he was a somewhat regular visitor to North Kingstown, where his daughter owned a house until just a couple of years ago. It is located on A1A/Old Boston Neck Road, just north of the Jamestown Bridge exit.” The New York Times even ran a feature on the house in 2017.

13. Give blood: the Rhode Island Blood Center is facing a dire shortage of Type O.

14. Don’t miss my colleague Patrick Little’s interview with A.J. Quetta, the Bishop Feehan hockey player who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury in January.

15. Henri wasn’t as bad as feared, but it did provide a reminder of how damaging a hurricane can be, even if it’s been 30 years since Rhode Island experienced the full brunt of one. After I got the deck chairs packed away last weekend I picked up a book recommended to me by Eli Sherman: “The Great Hurricane, 1938,” by Cherie Burns. It’s almost unfathomable to read what it was like for people to bear the brunt of a fierce hurricane with no notice.

16. Making dinner plans this weekend? Good news: Pawtucket-Central Falls Restaurant Week kicked off Friday and continues through Sept. 19. As for the food on offer, you’ll find everything “from Guatemalan, to Mexican, to Colombian, to American, to Salvadoran, and more,” reports CF Mayor Maria Rivera.

17. Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes is taking next Saturday off for Labor Day Weekend.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Congressman Jake Auchincloss. 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 on Sept. 11.

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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