Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 5

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. Never say never, but Governor Raimondo’s emphatic statement that she won’t be President-elect Biden’s health and human services secretary makes it significantly more likely she finishes out the last two years of her term — a scenario some of her top aides have long said was more conceivable than many believe. True, the fact that she keeps popping up on national short lists illustrates the esteem for her within Biden’s inner circle since her VP interview; it’s transition officials, not Raimondo’s advisers, floating her name to outlets like NBC, Politico and CNN. So it can’t be ruled out that she will be offered something else. Yet Raimondo is hardly the only accomplished, ambitious Democrat whose services Biden can tap right now — and the outcry on the left each time her name bubbles up shows her nomination would not be universally well-received. The governor also has good reasons to see appeal in staying in Rhode Island. She will enjoy a radically altered landscape at the State House in 2021 — Nick Mattiello will be gone, replaced as speaker by her former campaign manager Joe Shekarchi, while in the Senate Dominick Ruggerio is looking to advance an ambitious policy agenda. The governor’s own political standing has strengthened in 2020, with 61% of voters approving of her handling of the pandemic as of last month (though that was down from 74% in April). The economy should be on the upswing next year as widespread availability of a vaccine brings the pandemic to an end. Her advisers also say she simply enjoys her job, relishing the ability to call the shots and — when successful — positively affect the lives of a million people. Plus, Biden will still be president when her term ends in 2022; if he is looking to refresh his Cabinet after the midterms, the timing could be right for her to head to Washington then.

2. Governor Raimondo won’t lack for high-level contacts in the Biden administration. Among the president-elect’s appointees this week was Cecilia Rouse, tapped to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. Rouse, currently dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, was one of the governor’s professors when she was a Harvard student, and Raimondo put Rouse on the new URI Board of Trustees earlier this year. (Small world: Rouse took over her current job at Princeton from Christina Paxson when Paxson left to lead Brown.)

3. The speculation about Governor Raimondo going to D.C. got me wondering about past Rhode Islanders in the Cabinet, so I turned to my trusted source on all such questions, Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias, who is an encyclopedia of Ocean State history. My initial thought was that Raimondo would be the first Rhode Islander in the Cabinet since John Chafee served as President Nixon’s Navy secretary from 1969 to 1972, but Steve pointed out that Chafee’s position had lost its cabinet rank in the late 1940s. That makes the most recent full Cabinet member from Rhode Island J. Howard McGrath, who was a major player in state and national Democratic politics during the FDR/Truman era, and who served as attorney general under Truman. It “turned out to be a disastrous appointment,” Frias notes, since Truman eventually forced McGrath to resign amid a corruption investigation. (And speaking of McGrath, I’m looking forward to reading the recently published biography of him by RWU Professor Debra Mulligan, “Democratic Repairman.”)

3a. After this column was published Saturday morning, honorary Nesi’s Notes editors Charlie Bakst and Scott MacKay both pointed out a Rhode Islander who went into the Cabinet more recently than Howard McGrath, except he came from the private sector rather than electoral politics: G. William Miller, an Oklahoma native who moved to Rhode Island to lead Textron, then served as Fed chairman and treasury secretary under President Carter.

4. Around the middle of this week, when Rhode Island’s political class was energetically debating how things would change under a Governor McKee, it struck me that we are approaching the end of an era when Gina Raimondo has been the dominant political figure at the State House. For the last decade — including when she was general treasurer, spearheading the 2011 pension overhaul — much of state politics has revolved around Raimondo. What will change when she exits center stage? Who will try to fill the vacuum — and who will succeed?

5. Eye on 2022 … Seth Klaiman’s departure from Jim Langevin’s office to become chief of staff to Seth Magaziner is another sign the Democratic treasurer is gearing up to run for governor … Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has forged a real bond with small business advocates amid the pandemic, something that could give him a boost when he runs for the top job … former Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski says he won’t be a candidate after taking a new gig as CEO of Baltimore-based US Wind (though he’ll still be a Rhode Island resident) … Allan Fung, who’s considering a third gubernatorial foray, hosts a fundraiser Dec. 16 for Georgia GOP Senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue; special guest is Chris Christie … Providence City Councilor Nirva LaFortune told Ian Donnis and Steph Machado she’s “exploring” a 2022 mayoral bid and will make a decision next year.

6. Rhode Island set new records for coronavirus this week, and that’s nothing to celebrate. As our WPRI.com tracking page shows, the average for new cases is up to 1,148 a day; hospitalizations remain above 400; and 1,413 Rhode Islanders with COVID-19 have died since March. On Friday I interviewed Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to get her take on why Rhode Island is suffering disproportionately in the second wave compared with the rest of New England. “Rhode Island is really no different than any other place in the country where people have moved indoors, brought the virus with them — many people are asymptomatic, so that virus is being spread to others,” Birx said. “Any time you take your mask off indoors is a chance that you are spreading virus and there’s a chance that you’re getting infected with virus.” You can watch my full interview with Dr. Birx here.

7. Cities and towns, rejoice: Steph Machado reports General Assembly leaders won’t approve the governor’s proposed cuts to the Distressed Communities Relief program in the 2020-21 budget. The budget bill could pop as soon as next week, if House Finance wants to adhere to the seven-day waiting rule for a floor debate and leadership still wants to hold final votes the week of Dec. 14.

8. Nearly $2 billion in PPP loans were given out in Rhode Island — here’s who got them.

9. Count Citizens Financial Group CEO Bruce Van Saun among those feeling bullish about the U.S. economy in 2021. “I’m optimistic,” Van Saun told me in an interview airing on this week’s Newsmakers. “I think as we look forward, not only do we have a high prospect of further stimulus from the federal government, but we’ve had massive improvement on the health front in terms of these vaccines and treatments. And so I think we’ll see a lot of benefit from that over the next few months.” He added, “I think we just need to be patient. The next couple of months could be a bit trying, but I think things will look up from there.” Van Saun and I also discussed how Citizens is dealing with record-low interest rates, how the company is feeling about its lucrative iPhone financing deal with Apple, and what’s planned next by the Partnership for Rhode Island group he serves on with fellow local CEOs.

10. The pandemic has been a major financial challenge for both of Rhode Island’s biggest hospital groups, but it hasn’t had the same effect on their bottom lines. Rhode Island Hospital parent Lifespan booked a $21 million profit for its 2019-20 fiscal year, bolstered by almost $190 million in federal and state CARES Act funding, enough to more than offset its pandemic-related losses. Women & Infants parent Care New England wasn’t so lucky, reporting a $13 million loss for 2019-20 due in part to the fact CARES Act dollars were less likely to go to specialty hospitals like W&I or Butler. Meanwhile, the two organizations’ leaders continue talks over a merger (again), with a goal of reaching a definitive agreement by the end of January.

11. Eye on the congressional delegation … Jack Reed and Jim Langevin celebrated wins in the final military budget bill, with Reed highlighting continuation of the two-submarines-a-year quota and Langevin flagging inclusion of his National Cyber Director bill … Sheldon Whitehouse’s battle with Dick Durbin over the top post on Senate Judiciary kept making news, including in The Washington Post and Politico … Whitehouse’s bill to help the nuclear energy industry got criticismDavid Cicilline’s remarks at an international hearing on Big Tech regulation drew headlines … Cicilline and Langevin joined Joe Kennedy and Bill Keating in voting to decriminalize marijuana.

12. Big news in Rhode Island tech: Upserve has been acquired for $430 million.

13. Important tax alert if you’re working from home at a cross-border job.

14. My former colleague Nneka Nwosu Faison on being a Black journalist in New England.

15. Don Seiffert on the latest staff cuts at the region’s Gannett newspapers.

16. Rich Yeselson looks at the future of labor unions after the 2020 election.

17. Allan Roth on the seven biggest shockers from his years of financial planning.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Citizens Financial Group Chairman and CEO Bruce Van Saun; week in review. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio 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

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