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Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 21 & 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 @tednesi on Twitter.

Also, a programming note — Nesi’s Notes will be taking a Christmas break next week. I’ll be back with a fresh column on the first Saturday of 2020. Thank you for reading and reacting in 2019. Happy Holidays! 🎄

1. It was another challenging year for Rhode Island’s Catholic hierarchy. The diocese published a list of priests credibly accused of child molestation; a Boston Globe exposé rocked St. Mary’s in Bristol; state lawmakers voted to enshrine the right to abortion as well as to extend the civil statute of limitations for abuse claims. And taking a longer view, the first two decades of this century have seen a sea change in Catholic practice in Rhode Island, with Mass attendance down 57% and parish registration off by nearly 40%. Yet Bishop Tobin warns against reading too much into those statistics. “They’re very broad numbers, and they’re very soft numbers,” Tobin said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We really don’t know how many Catholics there are in the state. It depends how you define that.” Still, he acknowledged the diocese he’s led since 2005 is being affected by a wider societal shift away from organized religion. “I suppose I share responsibility for that, in some ways, like everybody else does,” Tobin said. “Keep in mind — and I’ve tried to say this 100 times — this is not at all unique to Rhode Island. It’s happening throughout New England. It’s happening throughout the Midwest. It’s happening throughout the Mid-Atlantic states.” Church leaders can point to bright spots: some individual parishes are flourishing, Rhode Island’s growing Hispanic population has injected fresh life into the diocese, and a $50 million capital campaign is expected to hit its goal by year end. As for the bishop himself, he expects to remain at the helm in Cathedral Square until 2023, when he will turn 75 and be required to submit his resignation letter to Pope Francis. “It may or may not be accepted right away,” Tobin said. “That’s in the pope’s hands at that point.”

2. Speaking of Pope Francis, Bishop Tobin got to meet him face-to-face for the first time last month when he traveled to Rome for an “ad limina” visit along with his fellow New England bishops. The prelates spent over two hours in conversation with Francis, who spoke Italian and used a translator, during their meeting at the Apostolic Palace. “The impressions were very positive, very strong,” Tobin said on Newsmakers. “Gosh, he was relaxed, he was very humble, he was very humane. He just entered into a good conversation with, as he said, his fellow bishops, his brother bishops. And it was very clear at the very beginning — he said, ‘I don’t have a speech to give, I don’t have an agenda to follow today.’ He said, ‘This is your opportunity. Whatever you want to ask about — questions, issues — if you want to criticize the pope, that’s OK, too, because we learn when we’re criticized.’ … I think the bishops felt very comfortable, and the pope did everything he could to welcome us, to make us feel comfortable, and just to enter into that kind of conversation. You didn’t get a sense at all that the pope is some kind of ideologue that sometimes he’s portrayed as in Catholic culture or the common culture today in the media. You get a sense that as a man he has very deep convictions, but he’s very comfortable with those. He doesn’t want to fight with people. He doesn’t want to challenge people, in a negative sense. Just a man who’s very comfortable in his own skin and deeply believes what he believes, and wants to share that vision with others.”

3. That sound you heard last Friday was heads exploding among Rhode Island’s Catholic Democrats when Bishop Tobin tweeted this: “Used to be that the impeachment of the president signaled a national crisis. Now it’s become so very partisan that it’s just a political sideshow. Our leaders have to do better. We need to pray for our country.” While Tobin emphasized he was not taking a position on impeachment, critics suggested he was giving cover to President Trump and his allies, who have dismissed the entire process as partisan and illegitimate. By contrast, the evangelical publication Christianity Today made national headlines days later when it published an editorial urging Trump’s removal. On Newsmakers, Tobin distanced himself from the president. “Just a reminder, as I’ve said publicly before — I didn’t vote for President Trump for a couple reasons. And I probably would not vote for him again, although I’ll have to see the alternatives I suppose,” he said. “So I’m not necessarily 100% in the President Trump camp. But just the process has been so divisive for our country and so predictable and so partisan, it’s been discouraging.”

4. Amanda Milkovits recaps Bishop Tobin’s comments on the Bristol scandal she uncovered.

5. Kim Kalunian sat down with Governor Raimondo for a year-end interview that will air as next weekend’s edition of Newsmakers. Asked to list her biggest accomplishments of 2019, the governor cited bringing the Tidewater Landing project to Pawtucket, expanding pre-K, and cementing the Affordable Care Act in Rhode Island law. Biggest regrets? Failing to enact bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles, and failing to get Lifespan and Care New England to merge. “I’m still hopeful on both of those things,” Raimondo said. “I’m not giving up.”

6. You’ll be hearing a lot about the “TCI” climate proposal — Eli Sherman has a primer here.

7. The Rhode Island Veterans Home will be getting some legislative scrutiny next year.

8. A number of Rhode Island politicos are hard at work on presidential campaigns. Veteran Democratic operative Mike Donilon — brother of Tom and Terry — is continuing his long association with Joe Biden as a key pilot of the former VP’s White House bid. This week Politico’s Ryan Lizza called Donilon “Biden’s most trusted confidant and strategist since 1981, whom a colleague describes as Biden’s ‘alter ego’ and the ‘soul of the campaign.'” And two experienced millennial operatives have both signed on with Mike Bloomberg’s nascent campaign: Gabe Amo, an alum of the Raimondo administration and the Obama White House, was given a senior headquarters role as regional deputy director for the east, while his fellow Raimondo alum David Allard is now Bloomberg’s organizing director for New York.

9. It was no surprise that Southeast New England’s four congressmen — Democrats David Cicilline, Jim Langevin, Joe Kennedy and Bill Keating — voted Wednesday to impeach President Trump for his actions regarding Ukraine. But it’s still interesting to read the rationales they provided for posterity. Cicilline’s speech is here; Langevin’s speech is here; Kennedy’s speech is here; and Keating’s speech is here. From here the focus moves to the other side of Capitol Hill, where Rhode Island’s two senators are demanding that Mitch McConnell allow witnesses to testify at Trump’s trial.

10. A bigger surprise, perhaps, was that three of those four Democrats delivered President Trump a big win the same week they were impeaching him — David Cicilline, Jim Langevin and Bill Keating all voted in favor of the USMCA trade deal. Cicilline’s vote was particularly noteworthy, because of not only his antipathy toward Trump but also his policy views on the economy. “Governing means making tough decisions,” Cicilline said. “But the choice before us today was very simple. It was a choice between whether to continue under the deeply flawed NAFTA agreement, or to finally make some improvements to a bad trade deal that Congress never should have approved a quarter century ago. For me, that is an easy choice.” Taking the opposite view was Joe Kennedy, who voted no (amid his primary challenge against progressive U.S. Sen. Ed Markey). Kennedy’s take: “The rising generation faces two deeply intertwined crises: an economy that increasingly prices them out of basic economic security and a planet on the brink. Given the stakes of those fights today, our country can no longer indulge in international agreements that do not aggressively seek to combat both.” Now the measure goes to the Senate; Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have not yet said whether they’ll support or oppose it.

11. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Earlier this week we debuted our latest 12 on 12 Digital Original, ‘The Business of Cannabis.’ It’s a detailed examination of Rhode Island’s cannabis industry, giving an in-depth look at the money in this growing market. Something I found striking as I did research for the special report over the last couple of months is which people wouldn’t talk to me for the story. None of the three existing medical marijuana dispensaries, which made a combined $53 million in revenue last fiscal year, agreed to be interviewed or would give us an on-camera tour of their facilities. We also know that dozens of potential applicants are lining up to try and get the coveted six new licenses for a marijuana dispensary, known as a compassion center, and I spoke to a lot of them on background during the course of my reporting. But they all stopped short of being willing to talk on the record about their aspirations. (We have since interviewed one prospective dispensary owner; stay tuned for that story.) Sometimes in journalism, the list of people who won’t talk to you can be the most revealing (among those on that list: Speaker Mattiello). Fortunately, lots of other people did talk to us, and we got inside access to some really interesting places — so if you have some spare time over the holidays, we hope you’ll watch The Business of Cannabis. It’s up right now on WPRI.com. Tweet or email me your thoughts!”

12. Central Falls Rep. Shelby Maldonado, a third-term Democrat, surprised political observers this week when she announced she was resigning to take a job in New York with AIPAC. Maldonado’s House District 56 seat isn’t exactly friendly territory for Republicans — Donald Trump got just 13% of the vote there in 2016. So far only one candidate has filed to succeed Maldonado: Democrat Joshua Giraldo, who is Mayor Diossa’s chief of staff. Giraldo has quickly lined up a lot of support: state Sen. Betty Crowley sent a news release endorsing Giraldo on Thursday night, and nearly all of Central Falls’ elected officials are co-hosting a fundraiser for him Dec. 27 at La Casona. The special election is March 3, with a primary on Feb. 4 if necessary.

13. The General Assembly’s annual Christmas parties were last weekend. Speaker Mattiello’s fête for reps and their spouses was held Dec. 15 at the Chapel Grille in Cranston, paid for by Mattiello and Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi using their campaign accounts. Senate President Ruggerio threw a celebration for senators the day before, at the Squantum Association in Riverside, also paid from his campaign money.

14. Lifespan executives say they’re already making cuts to prepare for single-payer health care.

15. ZipRecruiter thinks Providence-New Bedford will be a Top 10 job market in 2020.

16. If you’ve heard Christmas music playing lately, you’ve probably heard Attleboro native Ray Conniff.

17. Matt Ridley argues the 2010s have been “the best decade in human history.”

18. Very good advice for 2020 from Austin Kleon: your output depends on your input.

19. WPRI 12 is losing two good ones this week. Susan Campbell and Steve Nielsen are leaving the station for new opportunities in Phoenix after nearly a decade with us here at the Big Dozen. (Rumor has it they won’t have to do quite as much snow coverage in Arizona.) I started at WPRI shortly before Susan and Steve arrived — I like to say that, professionally speaking, we “grew up” together — and I’m going to feel their loss keenly. They’re both excellent journalists. They’ve both taught me a lot about broadcasting. Most importantly, they’re both wonderful people and tremendous friends, not to mention fabulous parents to their little boy, Cormac. Break a leg, guys. We’ll miss you.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersBishop Tobin. 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) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. 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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