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Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 15

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. When Speaker Mattiello and his inner circle decided to order an unusual audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center just before Christmas, they presumably never guessed their actions would trigger a grand jury investigation, a legislative lawsuit, and a bright spotlight on the speaker’s powers — but here we are. Prosecutors trooped Convention Center leaders and the auditor general before grand jurors this week as they probe for potential criminal activity, with more witnesses still to come. And while the outlook in that case remains murky, there’s no disputing it has already jolted the State House. (It even gave Joe Biden’s campaign fodder to knock Mattiello after the speaker switched his endorsement to Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday.) Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Blake Filippi renewed his call for reform of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services after the Assembly’s other four leaders spurned his request for a meeting. “Their refusal to even meet demonstrates why our lawsuit is necessary,” Filippi told reporters. Control of JCLS is one of the most powerful weapons in a speaker’s arsenal, giving him enormous power over how the Assembly’s budget — poised to hit $53 million this fiscal year — gets spent. (They never use the entire amount; the Assembly’s actual spending on itself last year was just under $41 million.) One clear winner from all this: Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Senate leaders have long griped about their chamber’s unequal treatment on JCLS, with the House getting three votes but the Senate only two, and now Filippi is bringing new attention to the complaint. Ruggerio has given Filippi mild encouragement without backing him entirely, giving Mattiello reason to seek ways of keeping the Senate president at bay. One olive branch the speaker could choose to extend: passing the bill that would give the Senate advice-and-consent power over the education commissioner, the commerce secretary and the health and human services secretary.

2. Rep. Anastasia Williams’ Thursday night speech was the talk of Rhode Island politics Friday.

3. Tuesday’s muddled outcome in the New Hampshire primary — three top candidates all within six percentage points of each other, and two erstwhile frontrunners in single digits — has upped the chances Rhode Island’s 26 delegates could actually matter in the Democratic nominating contest. As The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein wrote, “the results illuminated the inability of any of the contenders to build a coalition broad enough to span the party or establish much separation from rival candidates.” That could mean a long slog by the various campaigns to collect every last delegate in preparation for, believe it or not, a contested convention. Rhode Islanders will go to the polls as part of what’s sometimes dubbed the Acela Primary, voting April 28 along with Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. Nor should it be a surprise if candidates decide it’s worth their time to campaign in Rhode Island. Donald TrumpHillary ClintonBernie Sanders and John Kasich all visited in 2016, Mitt Romney held a triumphant rally in Warwick in 2012, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both showed up in 2008 (back when Rhode Island’s primary was still the first Tuesday in March). The secretary of state’s office reports all the major candidates now have enough certified signatures to qualify for the ballot in Rhode Island. The deadline to run as a delegate for one of them is Feb. 27, and the deadline to register for the primary (or disaffiliate) is March 29.

4. Remember the Barrington River Bridge? The one that RIDOT finished in 2009 three years late and $10 million over budget? The one I reported in September already needed repairs, which RIDOT told me would cost only about $100,000? Well, the Barrington Times says the cost of that repair job is now $2.2 million.

5. Eye on 2022: Lt. Gov. Dan McKee says he’s hosting a fundraiser March 5 at Cafe Nuovo, “as I begin a journey over the next two years to move our great state forward,” per an email to supporters. The invitation says, “Let’s Play Two In 2022!” McKee has some catching up to do in the fundraising department: he raised only $4,000 in the fourth quarter, finishing with $15,000 on hand. Compare that with some of his potential Democratic rivals: Seth Magaziner had $734,000, Jorge Elorza had $690,000, and Nellie Gorbea had $193,000.

6. The Rhode Island Foundation has tried to fill what many see as a vaccuum around long-term policy planning in the state by convening high-powered task forces on two critical challenges: education and health care. Now both groups have released short, easily digestible reports outlining their proposed goals and solutions — you can read the education report here and the health report here. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg said while the two issues were tackled separately, he was struck by what they had in common. “It’s well documented that a child who is not healthy is not going to learn well when they’re in school,” he said. “It’s well documented that the better your education, that more educated people tend to be healthier. And then you have the equity piece. So on health care, it’s called disparities — the differences of some groups doing better than others — and on education, it’s called the achievement gap. They all come from the same place — whether there’s housing, whether there’s food, whether there’s transportation. So there’s a lot of overlap.”

7. WPRI 12 alum Dan McGowan had a headturner in The Boston Globe the other day, reporting on some still-early discussions about a complex plan to save the Superman building that would involve estate taxes and the Rhode Island Foundation. Neil Steinberg didn’t want to reveal too much about the idea on Newsmakers, but said, “It is an iconic building. It needs to be transformed for the benefit of downtown Providence. … I’m an old banker. I understand finance. We’re located downtown. Even in the past, when there have been ideas around, people have asked us about the ideas. The only thing I will say is what I said there — we’re in some preliminary discussions about saving it. That’s different than acquiring it. We’re not taking our endowment money and buying the thing. If there are ways that we can be helpful, if there’s a role for philanthropy, then we would do it. But it’s very, very premature, and we’re not in any discussions with the owner of the building.” Steinberg worked in the building for years when he was at Fleet Bank, where he finished his career as Rhode Island president. One thing he’s clear about: he does not support dynamiting the 92-year-old structure. “I’ll be the guy in chains when they try and knock it down,” he quipped.

8. Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin has a Republican opponent for the November election: former state Rep. Bob Lancia, who announced his candidacy on Tara Granahan’s WPRO show. Lancia filed his paperwork last Friday, listing Mike McCauley of the Salt Lake City firm McCauley & Associates P.C. as his treasurer. Langevin starts out as the favorite: he had over $1.2 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, and will now have an excuse to raise more. It’s also a presidential year, which boosts turnout, usually a positive for Democrats in a blue state like Rhode Island. Still, the 2nd Congressional District is somewhat friendly territory for a Republican, at least compared with David Cicilline’s 1st District.

9. Speaking of David Cicilline, his ongoing antitrust investigation into Big Tech won praise from an unexpected source on Friday: Peter Navarro, the architect of President Trump’s trade war. “This committee appears to be doing a very substantive investigation of how market power is affecting the American people,” he told The Hill, explaining why he pressed House investigators to force testimony from Amazon CEO (and Trump enemy) Jeff Bezos. It came after a tough few days for the hitherto bipartisan effort after Republicans cried foul over House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler suggesting he already wants the tech giants broken up.

10. Republicans aren’t usually big on state mandates, but Rep. Brian Newberry is making an exception for a proposal he put forward this week: requiring civics education in Rhode Island schools. He says his bill would require that school students learn about the key documents of the founding era — the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers — “so they may better understand the principles upon which our great nation was founded.”

11. Tim White and Eli Sherman have filed a dismaying in-depth report about conditions at the new R.I. Veterans Home in Bristol, a topic they’ve been tracking closely since Veterans Day. The problem is so concerning that U.S. Sen. Jack Reed — who is usually loathe to weigh in on state-level policy issues — is publicly questioning Governor Raimondo’s proposed solution. “There is a [cost] sharing by the veterans already and my instincts, although I’m not involved in state budget negotiations, would be to look at other ways to fix these financial issues,” Reed told Eli on Friday.

12. Steph Machado has the details here about Mayor Elorza’s State of the City speech.

13. Did you know Rhode Island government is still using typewriters and dot-matrix printers?

14. The “Blue Economy” is advancing on both sides of the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border: UMass Dartmouth just landed its biggest research grant ever, $4.5 million from the Navy for the school’s Marine and Undersea Technology (MUST) program. It’s the sort of cross-border priority that Joe Kennedy and David Cicilline think a regional economic development commission could help advance.

15. The initial Newport Jazz Festival lineup is out, and it already looks great.

16. John Houle suggests some marketing lessons to be learned from Mike Bloomberg’s campaign.

17. Charlie Mahtesian breaks down how President Trump has changed the electoral map.

18. Charles Bethea looks at what happens when the local news disappears.

19. How a botched ESPN headline led this PC grad to the priesthood.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg; political roundtable. 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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