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Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 7

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. For years, Rhode Island leaders’ chief concern about the hospital sector was the health of Women & Infants owner Care New England, which went through well-documented financial struggles in the middle of the decade. Now the concern is CNE’s even bigger rival Lifespan, the state’s largest employer, which this week disclosed a $35 million annual loss and left the door open to potential layoffs. Lifespan cited multiple factors, notably ever-rising costs that aren’t fully covered at the rates paid by Medicare and Medicaid. Yet the broader issue seems to be one Attorney General Peter Neronha has flagged: Rhode Island has no long-term strategy for health care to guide decisions and inform tough choices. The drawn-out death of Memorial Hospital is a good example. Memorial was already losing money in 2013, when it became part of CNE; rather than stabilizing Memorial, the acquisition destabilized CNE, and the hospital was forced to close in 2017. Yet Memorial’s patients, many on Medicaid, still need care — and now they are using Lifespan’s facilities, particularly the Miriam, which Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau tells me is part of his system’s problem. Despite the high stakes, it’s unclear where the topic will fall on the State House agenda in 2020. Asked this week by my colleague Shiina Losciuto about Lifespan’s losses, Governor Raimondo said, “It’s really up to them to decide how to best close the shortfall. I have spoken with them – it seems like they have a plan, and I just wish them the best as they get their finances in order.” The Senate may be more active: its study commission on health care reimbursement rates, which began meeting last month, is due to issue its findings by the end of January.

2. Hanging over the entire hospital discussion is Partners HealthCare, and the question of whether it will reengage in Rhode Island after its deal to acquire Care New England fell apart in the face of a new push for a Lifespan-CNE deal. Partners — soon to be renamed Mass General Brigham — doesn’t lack for cash: it booked a $485 million operating profit during the same period Lifespan lost $35 million and CNE made less than $10 million.

3. A year into her second term, Governor Raimondo is shaking up her senior team. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase is on the way out to head RIPEC, depriving the governor of a seasoned cabinet member with long experience in state government. In DiBiase’s place – temporarily – will be her current chief of staff, Brett Smiley, who is getting an acting appointment at DoA rather than a permanent one requiring Senate confirmation. (Senate President Dominick Ruggerio isn’t pleased about how that would bypass his chamber’s advise-and-consent power with an acting pick; Raimondo aides insist it’s because Smiley isn’t long for the job with his eye on City Hall in 2022, not fear of a tough confirmation fight.) The new chief of staff will be David Ortiz, a mild-mannered former Providence Business News reporter whose pre-Raimondo résumé includes tours of duty with Angel Taveras, Jorge Elorza and Seth Magaziner; it’s the first change in that job since Smiley replaced Steve Neuman back in 2016. In addition, former Senate Majority Leader Dan Connors is coming aboard to replace Ortiz as senior adviser; Raimondo cited Connors’ “strong relationships with Rhode Island leaders in both the public and private sector” as part of his appeal.

4. Here’s a dispatch out of Blackstone Valley from Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “Pawtucket is basking in the glow of a major announcement this week that could potentially bring $400 million of investment, including a new professional soccer stadium, to the banks of the Seekonk River. The proposal has already made a quick leap forward from the starting gun thanks to crucial buy-in from key state and local leaders, along with an enthusiastic private developer, Brett Johnson. And much of the regulatory framework is already in place to make the development work. But like all splashy economic development announcements, the biggest challenge moving forward will be turning the vision into shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky, and keeping everyone on board throughout the process. Appearing Thursday on The Public’s Radio, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said his biggest priority is to hammer out final negotiations over the next 114 days, the time the developer and public officials have to get a deal done. ‘If anything would fall short it would be lack of communication,’ Grebien said. The development could also look much different than what’s proposed if the city isn’t successful in acquiring the Apex site, which is privately owned and has been a sticking point in past efforts to redevelop the area. While the mayor is bullish on the prospects for a deal to acquire the land, he also isn’t ruling out eminent domain if one can’t be made.”

5. Tim White and Eli Sherman discovered the cash-strapped Rhode Island Veterans Home has stopped giving meals to visiting family members.

6. A history lesson from Steve Frias: what Rhode Island’s 1970s fight over cable TV franchises teaches us about marijuana licensing today.

7. President Trump will almost certainly be impeached by the House before the end of the year, and expect Congressman David Cicilline to be a key player as the drama unfolds. Cicilline will appear Sunday morning on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, and will be part of the House Judiciary Committee hearings as articles of impeachment are drafted. He is also being mentioned as one of House Democrats’ potential floor managers when the impeachment trial takes place in the Senate.

8. Sheldon Whitehouse on his trip to Madrid for the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference: “The speaker of the House of Representatives and four powerful chairman took the trouble to haul [rear-ends] across the Atlantic and back for basically one full day there to send a message that we’re still engaged.” (The senator used a more colorful three-letter word for rear-ends.) He added, “We were supremely well-received. I think it really made a difference.”

9. Who says bipartisanship is dead? Jack Reed delivered a floor speech this week in tribute to retiring Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson. After ticking off various laws they wrote together, Reed concluded, “What I want to say is that the measure, the true measure, of an individual is not the sum of their legislative achievements; Johnny’s had many of those. It’s not political victories; Johnny’s had many of those. It’s not success in any one realm of endeavor, either public or private. The truest test of an individual is the sum of their kindnesses, of what they’ve done for and with other people. And by that measure, no one surpasses the gentleman from Georgia. And I thank him.”

10. Senator Reed also took time to trumpet Electric Boat’s new $22 billion sub contract.

11. Another one of the six Democrats from Brookline and Newton who are seeking to succeed Joe Kennedy in Congress is our guest on Newsmakers this week. This time it’s Jesse Mermell, a former top aide to Governor Patrick, who is emphasizing abortion rights and climate change in her campaign. Like all the other hopefuls, Mermell faces questions about how someone from a wealthy Greater Boston suburb can effectively understand and represent Fall River, Attleboro and Taunton. She made her case by citing her roots in rural Pennsylvania. “Fall River’s a big city compared to where I grew up,” Mermell said. “Where I grew up, generations ago coal was king, and then died, and decades ago dairy was king, and died. When I was in elementary school, the paper factory at the end of Main Street lost a shift, and then lost another shift, and was closed by the time I was in high school. I fully understand that that isn’t fishing or jewelry or textiles, but the lived experience is the same. So I can appreciate that people are going to see Brookline next to my name on a ballot and make some assumptions. But my upbringing, my background, my shared lived experience is much more in line with the southern part of the district than it is where I happen to have laid my head the past 20 years.”

12. Illinois congressional candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, a Democrat who nearly defeated Republican Rodney Davis last year, will be in Providence on Monday night for a fundraiser at the home of Brett Smiley and Jim DeRentis. She was supposed to be joined by Congressman Cicilline, but he’s now expected to be in Washington for that day’s House Judiciary impeachment hearing. (And yes, political junkies, she is reported to be a distant relative of Illinois’ legendary Republican U.S. senator, Everett Dirksen.)

13. Candidate Watch … Democrat David Morales will mount a primary challenge against incumbent Rep. Dan McKiernan in Providence’s House District 7.

14. Two events coming up this week are likely to shape the Rhode Island policy agenda going forward. … Today the Rhode Island Foundation is gathering over 300 students, parents, educators, nonprofit leaders and business representatives for a daylong event “to brainstorm tactics to improve pre-K-12 public education in Rhode Island.” Public officials including Governor Raimondo will be on hand at the end of the day to hear what they come up with. The foundation has been working aggressively on the issue since it created the Long-Term Education Planning Committee last year. … Then on Wednesday, the Homes RI coalition is hosting its first-ever Homes RI Summit at RIC, with a goal of advancing an action plan to address the housing crisis in Rhode Island. There’s so much interest in the topic that the event is already sold out.

15. Something fun for my fellow history nerds: ahead of next year’s Census, the secretary of state’s office has created a cool interactive website that lets you look at centuries of Rhode Island Census data down to the municipal level — check it out here.

16. Speaking of history, today is Pearl Harbor Day — did you know the Braga Bridge in Fall River is named for a sailor killed in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack?

17. Rhode Island’s banking sector continues to be highly competitive, with Citizens Bank resurging, Chase arriving, and various community banks seeking to expand their footprints. Among the latter is West Warwick-based Centreville Bank, which is buying Connecticut’s Putnam Bank and planning new branches in Cranston, Warwick and Providence. Appearing on this week’s Executive Suite, Centreville CEO Hal Horvat said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the local economy in 2020. “And that’s the way I’ve felt for probably the last eight or nine years,” he said. “We’ve been on a pretty good run, and I think what’s positive is the fact that it’s been a steady growth rather than some boom that’s ready to bust. And that’s important.”

18. Also on the banking beat: Citizens CEO Bruce Van Saun was named Banker of the Year.

19. Tributes poured in Friday following the death of Joseph F. Rodgers Jr., a Rhode Island Superior Court judge from 1974 to 2009 who served as presiding justice for 18 years. “He was always wise and practical, he moved his cases along fairly, he had no trouble making hard decisions, and he usually had a good-natured twinkle in his eye,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, who practiced before Rodgers both as a private lawyer and as attorney general. Before he took the bench, Rodgers spent seven years as a state senator, and a Nesi’s Notes reader with a good memory shared this bit of history: “Joe Rodgers won his first campaign (a three-candidate Senate primary in 1967) by just 17 votes – proving that every vote matters. Frank Darigan, the retired judge, managed his campaign.”

20. Brown’s Mark Dunkelman has a must-read Politico Magazine piece on Penn Station and America’s infrastructure dysfunction.

21. The Brown Daily Herald’s Isabel Inadomi looks at how Thayer Street is changing.

22. Derek Thompson on how the internet enables being a workaholic.

23. Is our country suffering from an epidemic of unkindness?

24. I’ll be on WGBH 89.7 FM’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley this Sunday at 6 p.m. for their regional news roundup. Tune in!

25. “The joy of living … is in the giving.” The old Toys for Toys jingle still rings true today. So come donate a gift at our holiday toy drive! We’re collecting toys at WPRI 12 HQ in East Providence weekdays through Dec. 20 — more details here.

26. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – 4th District candidate Jesse Mermell; a look at the Pawtucket development plan. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive SuiteRob Russell, general manager, Westport Rivers; Hal Horvat, Chairman/President/CEO, Centreville Bank. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both 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

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