Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 20

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. The transition in the governor’s office hit a low point this week, with Dan McKee publicly criticizing Gina Raimondo over the vaccine rollout and absenting himself from daily conference calls with the governor and her coronavirus team. Raimondo’s advisers are frustrated, insisting they’ve brought McKee into the decision-making process; McKee’s advisers adamantly dispute that, insisting Raimondo’s team has failed to listen to him. The squabbling and sniping certainly keeps reporters busy. Yet the main reason Gina Raimondo faced so much criticism this week wasn’t Dan McKee — it was her own administration’s record. After getting off to a fast start, Rhode Island appeared to tap the brakes on its vaccination campaign, administering fewer shots in the last two weeks rather than more. By last weekend, the state had an “F” grade from Harvard and was dead last nationwide in per-capita vaccinations. At a time when experts are urging officials to vaccinate as many people as possible before the new variants take hold, those numbers would have set off alarm bells even if Raimondo wasn’t on her way out. The governor’s defenders offer a few responses. First, they argue the rapid decline in hospitalizations shows their hyper-targeted approach is working (though skeptics note COVID-19 cases are plummeting everywhere). Second, they say the opening of the new mass-vaccination sites will rapidly increase the number of shots given out, pointing to the more than 3,000 that were administered on Thursday alone. A rapid ramp-up will certainly ease some of the criticism the administration has faced. Nevertheless, there will always be questions about how the rollout would have gone if Raimondo was fully committed to her current job rather than simultaneously preparing for a new one.

2. Meanwhile, the gubernatorial transition process grinds on. Gina Raimondo could get a Senate confirmation vote next week, putting Dan McKee in the governor’s office by week’s end — or she could get punted into March as other cabinet appointees take precedence. (Appearing on Dan Yorke’s WPRO show Thursday, Senator Whitehouse warned of that possibility.) The governor took no questions from reporters this week, though she has been slightly more visible, holding a Facebook Live with coronavirus officials on Wednesday and tweeting photos of herself out and about. McKee also had a limited public schedule, visiting a Portsmouth clinic on Wednesday and holding two virtual public meetings, while pointedly declining to attend Thursday’s coronavirus briefing. Apart from the timing of the transfer of power, the biggest question about McKee right now is who will work for him — six weeks after Rhode Islanders officially learned he would become their governor, McKee has still not announced any senior staff appointments. His current chief of staff, Tony Silva, is expected to remain in that role while also taking on oversight of coronavirus response. But there’s no word on who will fill jobs such as legal counsel, communications director and senior adviser. McKee is also facing a tight deadline to complete the state budget, which is due to the General Assembly by March 11. It’s unclear whether Congress will have passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill by then, but the answer matters: if lawmakers approve the measure in its current form, it would more than wipe out the entire $500 million deficit McKee is currently facing. That’s one of multiple reasons McKee should have the wind at his back once he takes office.

3. Keep an eye out for another notable Gina Raimondo staffer who’ll be following her to DC.

4. Fresh off his central role as a House impeachment manager, Congressman Cicilline sat down with Tim White and me for this week’s taping of Newsmakers to reflect on what transpired and look ahead. “It was not lost on us throughout the proceedings, the gravity of our responsibility, and the consequences of the work we were doing,” he said. Yet even as Cicilline’s star is on the rise in the House, he and his colleague Jim Langevin face a ticking time bomb: the 2020 Census results are due out in April, and just about everyone thinks one of their two seats is going to disappear under reapportionment. Cicilline insists he hasn’t given the slightest thought to what he and Langevin will do if that happens. “We’re in the middle of the worst public health crisis of our lifetime. … This is not a time to kind of be self-indulgent and start contemplating what my future is,” he said. Apparently, Cicilline and Langevin have not even discussed the hypothetical yet. (Oh to be a fly on the wall when they do!) And with an incumbent Democratic governor on the ticket in 2022, the off-ramp of a gubernatorial run may no longer look as appealing. Stay tuned.

5. Congressman Cicilline will be back in the spotlight next week, when the House plans to vote on the Equality Act, the legislation he has sponsored for multiple years that would add LGBTQ individuals as a protected class under the Civil Rights Act. President Biden praised Cicilline by name in a White House statement Friday, saying, “The Equality Act provides long overdue federal civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, locking in critical safeguards.” While the bill appears certain to pass the House, it faces a more uphill battle in the Senate, where 10 Republicans will need to join all 50 Democrats in support of the measure to break a filibuster. One GOP senator whom Equality Act supporters have had their eye on is Mitt Romney, but he announced this week he cannot support the current draft of the bill unless it is amended to include “strong religious liberty protections.” But Romney’s language is a nonstarter for Cicilline, who said on Newsmakers it would “eviscerate the protections of the Equality Act.” Bishop Tobin joined in the criticism on Friday, tweeting that the bill is “very harmful” and “should be strongly opposed.”

6. Sheldon Whitehouse and Lindsey Graham want U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts to require more financial transparency from Supreme Court justices, or else face action by Congress on the issue.

7. Rhode Island’s coronavirus trends are moving in the right direction, as you can see on Eli Sherman’s WPRI.com tracking page. The 7-day average for new cases peaked at 1,154 on Jan. 10, but has now plummeted to 326 a day. COVID-19 patient hospitalizations peaked above 500 as vaccinations began in mid-December; that number is now down to 177. The test positivity rate fell to 1.7% at the end of this week, the lowest since mid-October. “It’s been a hectic week, but we’ve stayed focused on health outcomes, and there’s a lot of good news,” Josh Block, the governor’s communications director, insisted Friday evening. And if you really want to feel hopeful, read James Hamblin’s new Atlantic piece looking ahead to this summer: “Families will gather. Restaurants will reopen. People will travel. The pandemic may feel like it’s behind us — even if it’s not.”

8. Here’s what Dan McKee had to say about his own vaccine strategy on Friday.

9. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott acknowledged this week there was a need to ‘catch up’ on vaccine distribution in certain hard-hit communities, as data shows lower inoculation rates in some neighborhoods that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. The big exception is Central Falls, which has been given more doses to open eligibility to adults of all ages, resulting in a high vaccination rate so far. A group of community organizations in Providence and elected leaders including Mayor Elorza and Council President Sabina Matos signed on to a letter this week asking for the same treatment in the three Providence ZIP codes with the highest rates of infections and hospitalizations: 02909, 02908 and 02907, which include neighborhoods such as Olneyville, the West End and Elmhurst. The state is accelerating doses to those ZIP codes, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Friday night. An additional 980 doses are being directed to local health centers in those three ZIPs next week, on top of Providence’s regular per-capita weekly allocation of 1,190. The city of Pawtucket, another high-density community, is getting 550 extra doses next week. The Health Department has previously mentioned North Providence and Cranston as potentially being included in this strategy, but those municipalities aren’t getting accelerated allotments yet, Wendelken said. Eligibility for the vaccine expands to people age 65 and older statewide starting Monday.”

10. Over in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker’s vaccine rollout is earning him the worst headlines of his governorship after the sign-up website crashed on launch.

11. Dan McKee’s decision to make his selection of a new lieutenant governor into a public process has now led nearly 80 Rhode Islanders to put in applications for the job, according to an updated list his office released Friday evening. It’s also led to public pressure campaigns: the Victory Fund, an influential LGBT rights group, is calling on McKee to choose former Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush, while Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock and prominent philanthropist Barbara Lee released a joint statement Friday urging him to pick a woman. McKee’s office says he won’t announce details on next steps in the selection process until he is actually governor.

12. Hey, remember when Rhode Island’s two biggest hospital groups announced they were merging? The process is still moving forward behind the scenes, with Lifespan and Care New England executives now saying they hope to reach a definitive agreement by the end of this month. But they won’t say more than that. “Discussions are progressing positively,” CNE spokesperson Jess McCarthy told me this week, “and we will make sure to keep you in the loop when we have an announcement.” Presuming they reach a deal, the regulatory decision about whether to approve creation of a hospital colossus in Rhode Island could emerge as a sleeper issue for the McKee administration. Recall that the lieutenant governor spoke out positively when Brown and Prospect Medical Holdings made a short-lived effort to torpedo Partners’ takeover of CNE.

13. You think Brown has territorial ambitions on the East Side? The school has now staked its claim on Mars, too.

14. Tim White explains what to do if you get a tax bill for fraudulent UI benefits.

15. Benjamin Storrow on Secretary Raimondo, offshore wind and the fishing industry.

16. Jeb Barnes argues it’s a myth that Congress is consumed by legislative gridlock.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersCongressman Cicilline. 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. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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