Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 1

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. What to make of the controversy over Speaker Mattiello intervening in a Convention Center personnel investigation involving his friend? On the one hand, the solid attendance at Mattiello’s Thursday night fundraiser was a reminder that he remains the State House’s most powerful figure; Mattiello campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle reports the event brought in just over $100,000. On the other hand, there’s no dispute that the fundraiser took place under a cloud, with news breaking during the event that Mattiello lieutenant Frank Montanaro Jr. had been interviewed by R.I. State Police earlier that day. Between that unfolding story and an about-face over marijuana, it’s safe to say 2020 hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start the speaker wanted. The big question on Smith Hill is how serious a threat — legal or political — the state police probe poses to Mattiello and his inner circle. It’s clear investigators are taking the matter seriously: detectives have already interviewed multiple people and made two visits to the State House, including Monday’s late-night dumpster inspection. Just because an investigation is high profile, however, doesn’t mean it’s going to be high impact. Still, the uncertainty is already complicating calculations for legislators and lobbyists alike. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Sen. Ryan Pearson described the situation as a distraction. “My hope on this stuff is the various investigations and pieces of this come to an end quickly, because we are a part-time legislature, we’re only here six months of the year, three days a week, and we have a lot of work to get done,” he said.

2. Speaker campaigns are like Fight Club: the first rule of running for House speaker is you do not talk about running for House speaker. Why? Apart from politicians’ frequent reluctance to discuss their true ambitions, the person who is currently House speaker never takes kindly to hearing about credible successors contemplating his sell-by date. Still, Speaker Mattiello’s current troubles have led to much sotto voce speculation about his most likely successors. The potential speaker/leader tickets coming up most frequently: some mix of Joe Shekarchi, Stephen Ucci and Chris Blazejewski, versus Bob Craven and Gregg Amore (not necessarily in that order). Mattiello surely wishes them all luck — just not anytime soon.

3. That list brings another question to mind. Rhode Island got its first woman Senate president 11 years ago and its first woman governor five years ago — when will it get its first woman House speaker?

4. Meanwhile, the Convention Center’s leaders say they want an audit ASAP.

5. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “It’s tough to look at this week’s kumbaya announcement between the state’s two gambling titans, IGT and Twin River, and not see it as a clear victory for the latter. Last June, Twin River – which operates the state’s two casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton – was on the outside looking in as Governor Raimondo championed a new 20-year deal between the state and IGT (formerly GTECH). Today, Twin River has not only successfully made itself part of the lucrative, $1 billion contract proposal, but the deal would guarantee the company a seat at the table on most gambling-related issues for at least another 23 years. (Twin River is currently in the 15th year of what could be a 25-year contract as the state’s casino operator.) Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is being widely recognized as the peacemaker who forced the two companies to the table. Raimondo, meanwhile, is the one saying the deal needs a closer look, and her relationship with Twin River has been anything but pleasant. It took a particularly ugly turn last year when Twin River executive Marc Crisafulli accused her former chief of staff, Brett Smiley, of threatening retaliation if the company opposed the IGT deal. Smiley has denied the accusation, but Crisafulli told reporters Thursday the issue had not been addressed.”

6. Wall Street was among those cheering Twin River’s agreement: the company’s stock closed Thursday at $27.11, its highest share price in six months and up 7% since the start of 2020. (Shares of IGT, which is far less reliant on Rhode Island revenue overall, were little changed.)

7. As she telegraphed in interviews last year, Governor Raimondo is continuing her involvement in national politics post-DGA as one of six co-chairs leading a new group called Organizing Together 2020. The outfit says it plans to build out field operations in six battleground states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) to help defeat President Trump regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. And she’s not the only Rhode Islander involved: Jon Romano, a former senior adviser to Raimondo, has been working behind the scenes for months to get Organizing Together up and running. Politico’s Marc Caputo and Christopher Cadelago have full details on the group and its plans here.

8. Cranston’s mayor has been a Republican for all but six years since 1963, but GOP stalwarts have reason to be nervous about whether they can continue the streak in 2020 as Mayor Fung retires due to term limits. A Board of Elections filing Friday showed Democratic candidate Maria Bucci, a former city councilor, had $61,000 in the bank at the end of last year, giving her a strong start heading into the campaign. (Bucci, who works at the Slater Compassion Center, loaned herself about half that amount.) Another potential Democratic candidate, state Rep. Charlene Lima, has $125,000; a third, City Councilor Steve Stycos, has only $12,000 but would be a credible contender. Among the Republicans, City Council President Mike Farina reported $47,000 in his account, giving Bucci the financial edge among the definite candidates. That soft number may be part of the reason Republican City Councilor Ken Hopkins, who previously ruled out a mayoral run, told me this week he is now considering getting into the race. “An announcement will be coming soon,” Hopkins said. “We are just setting up some logistics.” A third Republican on the council, Chris Paplauskas, also continues to flirt with a bid.

9. The U.S. Senate voted 49-51 on Friday evening to call no witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, all but assuring he will be acquitted next week. Among those who voted in favor of witnesses was Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, one of a small number of senators who was also in the chamber for the Bill Clinton impeachment trial — when Reed voted against calling witnesses. Asked why he took different positions in the two trials, Reed spokesperson Chip Unruh said, “President Clinton testified during his impeachment process and instructed his staff to provide information and documents, which they did. In stark contrast, President Trump refused to do any of that. What Senator Reed, and many others, opposed was forcing Ms. Lewinsky to provide live testimony in the Senate chamber. That is very different than the blockade that President Trump used to prevent any evidence from coming out during the House impeachment inquiry and now the absolute witness blockade Republicans have erected to cover up President Trump’s misconduct.” Also on the impeachment front, Reed was highlighted by The Washington Post for asking one of the seven most interesting questions posed during the trial (about who has been paying Rudy Giuliani’s expenses in Ukraine), and Senator Whitehouse laid out his argument in the National Law Journal about the relevance of the “missing witnesses” rule.

10. Rhode Island’s presidential primary is still nearly three months away, but the candidates are engaging more in the Ocean State. This week Elizabeth Warren’s campaign announced seven endorsements from state lawmakers, while a new list of Pete Buttigieg supporters surfaced, House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi among them.

11. The U.S. Senate primary between Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy III is livening up. Despite spending most of his week locked in the impeachment trial, Markey’s campaign was active, releasing a steady stream of new endorsements, including one from Mike Dukakis. Politico’s Steph Murray also scooped word that a pro-Markey super PAC is preparing for liftoff, spurring complaints from the Kennedy campaign that Markey is trying to have it both ways when he complains about Citizens United. Kennedy’s campaign sought to capitalize on his bilingual abilities, announcing he would hold an entire town hall in Spanish. And of local interest was the Markey campaign’s news release trumpeting endorsements from 20 Massachusetts mayors — the leaders of the region’s two largest cities, New Bedford’s Jon Mitchell and Fall River’s Paul Coogan, weren’t on board. (Attleboro’s Paul Heroux was, though.) The pair are scheduled to meet for their first televised debate later this month on WGBH.

12. Providence isn’t the first local urban school district to face the prospect of a state takeover. The region’s second-biggest city, New Bedford, was heading in the same direction back in 2011, before a multiyear effort led by Mayor Mitchell and successive superintendents stabilized the city’s K-12 system. This week New Bedford’s school leaders put out a new strategic plan, and it may be worth studying for those involved with the Providence effort.

13. Bruce Katz has finished Rhode Island’s new economic development plan, Rhode Island Innovates 2.0, a follow-up to the Brookings report he and Mark Muro put together in 2015 that helped provide the foundation for a number of Raimondo administration policies. You can read the report here.

14. The Super Bowl is on our sister station Fox Providence this year, and Walt Buteau has a good reason for you to stay tuned once the the Lombardi Trophy is awarded — he’ll have a special report looking at the Pawtucket soccer stadium project, showing us the vision for Tidewater Landing from the air, from the ground, and from Mayor Grebien’s SUV. Work on the project continues to plug along behind the scenes, with Fortuitous Partners’ Brett Johnson in town for meetings earlier this week and negotiations continuing over the Apex land.

15. Here’s a dispatch out of Providence City Hall from Target 12’s Steph Machado: “There’s a little more than a month to go before voters in Fox Point, the Jewelry District and downtown neighborhoods head to the polls elect a new city councilor in Providence’s Ward 1. We sat down with all three candidates last week to ask them about the various issues in the ward, and you can watch the videos on our website. The three Democratic men agreed on some issues — they all oppose the Fane Tower, for example — but differed on others. Asked about one of the hottest topics on the East Side — the potential of a progressive or tiered tax structure that taxes higher home values at a higher rate — only Nick Cicchitelli gave a firm ‘no’ on whether he’d support such a property tax structure. ‘It’s not even a thinly veiled attempt to tax the East Side more,’ he said. John Goncalves, a member of the special city commission currently studying the idea, said he could support a progressive property tax, but wants to look at a different models and create ‘predictability and stability’ for homeowners. ‘When taxes constantly change, it creates a scenario where people don’t know how to necessarily budget for their property taxes each year,’ Goncalves said. Anthony Santurri was in the ‘maybe’ category, saying he was against last year’s proposal but could see some ‘middle ground’ this year. ‘We can’t just assume that because someone has an expensive home, that they absolutely have all of the money to afford a raise in taxes,’ Santurri said. I also asked the candidates for their thoughts on improving nightlife safety, the future of Kennedy Plaza and to name one piece of legislation they’d like to see the General Assembly pass; you can see their responses on WPRI.com. The Democratic primary is March 3, and there are no Republicans or independents on the ballot for the April 7 special election.”

16. Mayor Elorza will be on The Weather Channel — yes, you read that right — tonight at 8 p.m. as part of a program looking at how the city is trying to tackle air pollution amid the growing threat of climate change. Here’s a clip.

17. And speaking of the climate, don’t miss my colleague meteorologist T.J. Del Santo’s fantastic new 12 on 12 digital documentary “State of the Bay” — the beautiful drone shots of Rhode Island’s natural wonder alone are worth your time.

18. Tim White will be a guest on this weekend’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” breaking down the latest from the State House along with host Jim Hummel and fellow panelists Bill Lynch and Lee Ann Sennick. Tune in Sunday at noon on Rhode Island PBS or watch online here.

19. Ahead of Iowa, Peter Hamby makes an electability case for Bernie Sanders.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Convention Center Authority executive director Jim McCarvill; state Sen. Ryan Pearson. 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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