Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 4

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. All of a sudden coronavirus cases are rising rapidly in Rhode Island. The state reported over 1,100 new cases on Wednesday, the highest total since Jan. 8, and the seven-day average is up 70% over the last two weeks. After seeing the numbers on Friday I called Dr. Ashish Jha, Brown’s nationally renowned dean of public health, to get his take on the situation. “I’m not surprised,” Jha told me, adding, “I think we should be concerned.” One factor he cited was Thanksgiving: since testing sites were closed for the holiday, “catch-up” testing took place in subsequent days; also, the holiday meant some infected people couldn’t get a test, so they gathered with family and unknowingly spread the virus. Another factor: seasonality. “It’s getting cold, and while we have a great vaccination rate, it is not nearly good enough for delta,” Jha said. Only about 71% of Rhode Island’s 1.1 million residents are fully vaccinated, “and for delta you need something closer to 90%,” he said. One way Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate appears to be helping is with severe disease: COVID hospitalizations are averaging about 167 patients right now, compared with 440 patients a year ago. Jha also points with hope to the experience of Vermont. The state recently experienced a major surge in cases, “but then it sort of hit a wall because they do have high vaccination rates,” he said. “So we do kind of have brakes in the system built in with high vaccinations.” Still, Jha said he supports additional mitigation measures, particularly masks. “Indoor masks can make an enormous difference,” he said, urging officials to begin “promoting indoor mask-wearing right now, when case numbers are as bad as they are and our hospitals are pretty stretched.” He also said it’s vital to get more children vaccinated before the holidays, and for adults to get their booster shots. “People are tired of mitigation,” Jha said. “Unfortunately, the virus is not tired of us.”

2. Nearly two months after launching her campaign for governor, Helena Foulkes remains an enigma. She’s held no public events, issued few news releases, and mostly been defined by her critics. The 57-year-old Democrat started trying to change that this week, joining Tim White and me on Newsmakers for her first television interview as a candidate. (She also taped an interview with public radio’s Ian Donnis.) “I should start by saying — because I know you guys are going to hit me with a lot of questions — I am still figuring a lot of things out,” Foulkes said at one point. “I don’t have a 17-point plan, so I think I am different from other politicians in that sense.” She made clear her campaign will focus on jobs and the economy, touting as an asset her experience in the private sector as a top executive at CVS. “It was really in the last year that I saw us stalling out, and I thought to myself, you know, we need to get this economy moving again,” she said. “And I did not think that the current governor knew how to do that, knew how to move us forward. That was really the moment I started thinking about things.” Yet her quarter-century at the drugstore giant has also put her on the defensive, including over a $500 donation to Mitch McConnell in 2014 and a recent federal jury decision against CVS over opioids. In the McConnell case, she acknowledged she made the contribution as CVS sought to make inroads with Republicans in Washington; on opioids, she insisted she and other CVS leaders were duped by Purdue Pharma and did everything they could once they realized the scope of the crisis. For now it’s still hard to judge what impact Foulkes will have on the crowded primary. She’s expected to post an enormous fundraising quarter, which will give her the resources to get her message out next year. But how many of Rhode Island’s Democratic primary voters are open to nominating a former corporate executive as their party’s standard-bearer? (Tim White has interview highlights here.)

3. One immediate effect of Helena Foulkes’ entry into the race was that it denied Nellie Gorbea the distinction of being the only female candidate in the Democratic primary. Yet that didn’t stop Gorbea from scoring a noteworthy win this week by securing the endorsement of Emily’s List, the influential group that supports pro-choice Democratic women. “Emily’s List is proud to stand with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea as she runs to make history once again as governor of Rhode Island,” Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler said in a statement, alluding to the group’s previous endorsements of Gorbea. A key question is how much Emily’s List plans to do for the secretary of state beyond issuing one press release in early December. Helping her with fundraising — or funding an independent expenditure group that attacks her rivals, as Emily’s List did to the tune of over $700,000 in last year’s Massachusetts 4th District primary — could make a material difference. Butler offered no details, saying only, “The entire Emily’s List community is ready to help Secretary Gorbea win this important election.”

4. One politician who won’t be running for Rhode Island governor next year: House GOP Leader Blake Filippi, who’s been talked about for months as a potential Republican nominee. Filippi announced his decision in a tweet Friday, saying he intends to seek another term representing his current district in Southern Rhode Island. While Rhode Island GOP Chair Sue Cienki had talked Filippi up in the past, on Friday she pointed to an upside in his decision. “From a party perspective I’ve always felt it’s hard to move chess pieces off a chessboard,” she said. “When you remove a chess piece, that’s not always the best strategy. You want to keep people where they are.” (Remember: Filippi represents a Democratic-leaning House district that Republicans might lose without him as their nominee.) So who will be the GOP candidate for governor? Former RITBA Chairman Dave Darlington is still considering the idea, but Cienki hinted someone else is in the wings. “The timing is right for a strong Republican candidate to step forward, based upon what we’ve seen nationally happen and based upon what we’ve seen happening in the state,” she said. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for a Republican to actually win the governorship.”

5. Thursday’s contract ratification vote by Council 94, the largest state workers union, ensures most of its members will receive $3,000 in bonus payments tied to their vaccination status between now and next July. Governor McKee and his aides said little about the structure or financing of the payments before the vote, but after the results were in the administration released an estimate putting the maximum cost of the Council 94 bonuses at $9.6 million. “The two $1,500 payments qualify for use of federal funds, and that is the administration’s preferred option; however, the General Assembly ultimately appropriates funding and approves the funding source,” said Department of Administration spokesperson Derek Gomes. That $9.6 million figure is only for Council 94’s roughly 3,200 members, however; the assumption at the State House is that most of the state’s roughly 14,500 employees will wind up getting the bonus payments in the end. That could easily cost well over $25 million, depending on how many qualify, and the policy has drawn bipartisan criticism. In a joint statement Thursday, House Republicans said: “The union’s role is to negotiate the best deal for their members – and they clearly have. On the other hand, it is up to the governor to advance the best interest of all taxpayers – and he has failed.” McKee had brushed off such state sentiments in the week, calling the agreement “good for the taxpayers” and saying, “Stipends are normally used inside of contract negotiations.”

6. Massachusetts lawmakers also rolled out a type of bonus structure this week as part of their $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending bill. Here’s how CBS Boston describes the Bay State plan: “The compromise plan calls for bonuses of between $500 and $2,000 for essential employees who worked in-person – not remotely – during the state of emergency that was declared on March 10, 2020 and lasted for more than a year. A ‘Premium Pay Advisory Panel’ will determine which essential workers qualify for the bonuses. Eligible employees may include health care, long-term care and home care workers, childcare workers, educators and education staff, farm workers, grocery store workers, food production facility workers, social workers, transportation workers, utility workers and technicians and foster parents. … Bonuses would be issued no later than March 31, 2022.”

7. Beacon Hill’s move to start spending ARPA funds could increase the pressure on Rhode Island lawmakers to do the same, with the state still sitting on $1.1 billion in few-strings-attached dollars as well as a projected $618 million budget surplus. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told me Thursday they plan to take action “in the near future,” with Governor McKee’s $113 million proposal from October as the starting point. Nor has McKee been alone in pressing them to act. As Eli Sherman reported earlier this week, social-services agencies are sounding the alarm over an ever-more-dire staffing shortage, while lawmaker and LG candidate Cynthia Mendes has spent the week sleeping outdoors at the State House to call attention to homelessness.

8. The draft maps to redraw all 113 General Assembly districts are finally out. The redistricting panel is taking feedback Monday evening at Smithfield High School.

9. Joe Shekarchi doesn’t exactly lack for campaign cash heading into the 2022 election, with nearly $1.5 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. (The only person with more is gubernatorial hopeful Seth Magaziner.) The House speaker will be putting some more money in the bank Tuesday, when David Cicilline hosts a campaign fundraiser in Washington to benefit Shekarchi. The luncheon will be at Charlie Palmer Steak, an habitual D.C. spot for such gatherings, and carries a suggested contribution of $1,000, per an invitation.

10. No bit of Rhode Island political journalism got more people talking this week than Daniel Marans’ 3,000-word Huffington Post deep dive into the civil war between the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and rival progressive groups. If you missed it, you can find the article here.

11. Jack Reed is currently at risk of being the first Senate Armed Services Committee chairman in 60 years who failed to get the “must-pass” annual defense policy bill — known as the NDAA — through the Senate. Reed isn’t shouldering much of the blame on Capitol Hill, though, with his Republican committee counterpart Jim Inhofe instead pointing the finger at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for waiting too long to bring the bill up for a floor debate. This week, blame started shifting to a group of Senate Republicans who have blocked the bill because they want votes on issues such as China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and the president’s vaccine mandate. Reed’s advisers still sound confident that a path will be found to get the NDAA done before year’s end, with one option being a so-called “ping pong” strategy between the House and Senate. Defense News explains how that would work here.

12. Sheldon Whitehouse frequently rails against the influence of “dark money” in politics, and he’s repeatedly introduced a bill — the DISCLOSE Act — he says would address the issue. Yet of late his argument has been somewhat complicated by the fact that liberals, not conservatives, are now the biggest beneficiaries of dark money. As Rachel M. Cohen writes in a new American Prospect piece, that fact has put Whitehouse at odds with some of his usual allies, who fear a chilling effect from the level of transparency he is seeking. “I think the ACLU is just wrong on this,” Whitehouse told Cohen. “While there are very, very rare circumstances like when NAACP members needed protection from Jim Crow state-sponsored violence, when there’s not a record of a specific threat, democracy is better served and citizens are better served by knowing who is behind political messages.”

13. The ACLU may not be happy with Sheldon Whitehouse, but he still has a big fan in his Massachusetts colleague Elizabeth Warren. Asked Tuesday at a Georgetown event to name her favorite senators, Warren thought for a moment, then responded, “I love Sheldon Whitehouse. I really do. The guy is, like, totally into climate — total nerd — but also into the influence of dark money and the risks associated with dark money. He’s terrific.” She went on to also name Oregon’s Jeff Merkley before the interviewer cut in and said, “You’re only naming people who didn’t run against you for president.” Warren shot back: “It’s a short list.”

14. Steph Machado takes an in-depth look at why gun violence is on the rise in Providence.

15. Lifespan and Care New England were profitable this year, thanks to federal relief funds.

16. Charlie Baker’s shock decision to forego a third term, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s decision to exit with him, has scrambled the political scene in Massachusetts heading into 2022. Donald Trump’s candidate for the GOP nomination, Geoff Diehl, now has a much clearer path to the nomination — and big-name Democrats like Maura Healey and Marty Walsh have much more motivation to run for the job. There could also be domino effects locally since not one, not two, but three of our region’s mayors are all in the mix to potentially seek higher office. Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell has already confirmed she may challenge Diehl for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux has previously ruled out seeking another mayoral term in 2023, while acknowledging he’s not done with politics. And over in New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell is widely seen as a likely candidate for higher office down the road. Recall that when Healey and Baker were both in New Bedford on the same day recently, Mitchell opted to hang with Healey, though he insisted that was only because she asked first. Would Healey consider Mitchell as her running mate? Being a former prosecutor, Mitchell has another option should Healey run: attorney general. “I’m happy in my current position,” he told me Friday evening. “Being the mayor of New Bedford has offered considerable gratification over the last 10 years, and so it’s an honor to serve here. If I intend to run for some other office, I’ll make those intentions plain to everybody.”

17. Longtime Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson has a 2022 challenger: Nicholas Bernier.

18. Did Bristol County’s DA retaliate against an attorney for talking to Tim White and Eli Sherman?

19. A fun one: Kim Kalunian and Corey Welch went behind the scenes at the huge U.S. Postal Service processing facility on Corliss Street to see what it takes to sort an avalanche of holiday mail.

20. Dec. 7 is the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II. But did you know one of the region’s most prominent bridges is a memorial to one of the sailors killed in the attack? Johnny Villella and I will have his story Monday night on WPRI 12.

21. Traveling to Europe anytime soon? Then go visit the continent’s 11 greatest cathedrals.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes. 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.

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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