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Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 22

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. The biggest question around the State House right now is just what you’d expect: where is this grand jury investigation going? At least nine people have now testified about why Speaker Mattiello ordered an unauthorized audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center at the same time he was expressing frustration about a personnel investigation into his friend who worked there. Notably, while top Mattiello lieutenants Leo Skenyon and Frank Montanaro Jr. both testified under oath before the grand jury this week, the speaker himself has not received a subpoena — potentially an ominous sign. From a legal perspective, the decision to launch an investigation confirms nothing about whether criminal charges are coming, let alone if actual wrongdoing occurred. Politically, though, the mere existence of an investigation can be damaging regardless of whether prosecutors ever bring an indictment. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.) The fact that both Joe Biden and Maine U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon have now spurned support from Mattiello — who, remember, is de facto head of the state Democratic Party — shows how out-of-staters are interpreting the headlines. For Mattiello, a key task will be avoiding defections from members of the House Democratic caucus once lawmakers return to Smith Hill next week. Even if he manages that, though, there will be a cloud over the speaker’s office so long as the grand jury is still investigating — even more so in an election year. And all this is separate from House GOP Leader Blake Filippi’s aggressive pursuit of a lawsuit over the speaker’s unilateral control of the legislative leaders committee, another source of uncertainty for Mattiello’s team.

2. The Rhode Island Democratic Party has unexpectedly lost its executive director, Cyd McKenna, less than a year after she started the job. (McKenna is taking a position on Mike Bloomberg’s Rhode Island campaign team.) The news alarmed a number of former party staffers, coming so close to the presidential primary as well as the Democratic National Convention — and while the people who control the party apparatus are consumed by a grand jury investigation. “The RIDP needs a strong, competent executive director — especially at a time when the chairman’s interest in day-to-day party operations is the lowest it’s been in decades — to ensure the delegate allocation plan is followed, the delegation certified, and the eventual nominee has an apparatus designed to win,” said one experienced party hand. “These are not little tasks, and they require more than cursory attention from the third floor of the State House.”

3. It’s easy to see why Mike Bloomberg is an appealing presidential contender for Gina Raimondo. Not only is he a political supporter of hers and a fellow product of the financial sector, but he also subscribes to her theory of electioneering — use huge amounts of money to blanket the airwaves with TV ads and organize on the ground. And certainly, being the first Democratic governor to endorse him has put Raimondo permanently in the billionaire’s good graces. But her political bet didn’t look as good this week, with the Bloomberg campaign taking a one-two punch from widely reported accusations of sexism followed by a subpar debate performance. Raimondo defended him to Rhode Island reporters Tuesday, saying, “I think he has apologized for many of those comments. I know he’s apologized for his mistaken policy on stop-and-frisk. And he has said that he’s learned from this, and frankly that’s what I want in a leader — somebody who acknowledges mistakes, who learns from them, and leads. … I’m behind Mike Bloomberg because I think he has the best chances of defeating Donald Trump.” Raimondo remains the only sitting governor who has endorsed Bloomberg, even after she made the case to others at a private meeting in Washington earlier this month — will any of them follow suit?

4. Voters in Providence’s Ward 1 go to the polls in a week and a half for a likely decisive primary to determine if Nick Cicchitelli, John Goncalves or Anthony Santurri should be their next city councilman. Steph Machado has what you need to know about this week’s two debates.

5. Add Cranston City Councilor Steve Stycos to the list of those likely to run to succeed Allan Fung as mayor. “I will probably enter the Democratic primary, but have not made an official announcement,” Stycos told me in an email Friday. “I expect to make a decision in March.”

6. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien says all systems are go on the $400 million soccer-anchored Tidewater Landing project in his city. “I think you’re going to see some action late March, early April,” Grebien said on this week’s Newsmakers. And he sounds increasingly optimistic about finally getting a deal done to acquire the Apex site, a thorny challenge that his administration has struggled with for years. “It’s always coming down to dollars,” he said. “Nobody wants to do eminent domain, but we’ve made it clear that if we have to, we will. We’d much rather have a collaborative approach. We’re down close to probably within a million or two million dollars of gap in the discussions, the difference of what they feel the price is. The challenge is, I’m obligated to protect the residents’ dollars — it’s an investment — and they want top price.”

7. Kim Kalunian has details on a new report showing the toll Memorial Hospital’s closure has taken on Pawtucket and its neighbors, particularly their most vulnerable residents. “We have a crisis of our health care providers in Pawtucket and in the Blackstone Valley,” Mayor Grebien warned on Newsmakers, saying it’s time for state leaders to “step up” and help solve the problem.

8. Here’s a dispatch from Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “Want to know how much it costs for a top lawmaker to fight an ethics complaint in Rhode Island? Just ask Governor Raimondo, whose campaign finance filings show she’s spent at least $79,000 so far having Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie LLP defend her against a complaint filed last year by Rhode Island Republicans. GOP leaders claim Raimondo violated the state ethics code when she entered into a tentative $1 billion contract agreement with gaming tech company IGT at the same time she was working with its former chairman – Don Sweitzer – to raise millions of dollars for the Democratic Governors Association. Raimondo also tapped Providence-based law firm Duffy & Sweeney LTD to help with a legal response filed with the Ethics Commission in September, and her campaign paid the Providence firm about $4,500 in December. (It wasn’t immediately clear whether that spending was directly related to the ethics complaint.) How much the legal fight over ethics will end up costing her all told will depend on how the ethics panel handles the matter in the coming months. The commission is expected to meet again in early March.”

9. Eye on Congress … Washington Post foreign policy eminence David Ignatius took a closer look at the annual Munich Security Conference, where Senator Whitehouse has co-led a bipartisan delegation for a number of years now … Congressman Cicilline called President Trump’s newly named acting director of national intelligence, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, “basically an internet troll” on prime-time cable.

10. The Ed MarkeyJoe Kennedy U.S. Senate primary shifted into higher gear Tuesday night as the pair met for their first televised debate. (You can read my five takeaways from the faceoff here.) While it’s always risky to bet against a Kennedy in Massachusetts, so far it looks like the 39-year-old congressman has found a worthy opponent in the wily 73-year-old veteran of Capitol Hill. As Politico’s Stephanie Murray said on this week’s Newsmakers, “The big reaction that came out of this debate was that it wasn’t quite clear why Kennedy is challenging Senator Markey.” The Kennedy campaign tacitly conceded that critique, putting out a lengthy memo within 36 hours of the debate acknowledging how much the two agree while suggesting “the key difference in this race comes down to how each candidate sees the role of a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.” In another boost for Markey, a UMass Lowell poll out Friday showed the pair in a statistical dead heat, after early polling had put Kennedy up double-digits. Meanwhile, the race to replace Kennedy in the U.S. House of Representatives got even more crowded, with nine Democrats from Brookline and Newton now competing for the 4th Congressional District seat. Political watchers are keeping an eye out to see whether the situation entices a late entrant from the Fall River, Attleboro or Taunton areas. “In a race where you’ve got the Newton and Brookline vote split in the way that it appears to be, there could be an opening for someone from Bristol County, although no one has stepped forward at this point,” UMass Dartmouth’s Mike Goodman said on Newsmakers.

11. Common Cause’s John Marion offers this election-year warning for Rhode Island (via email): “For months, experts have been predicting that the November 2020 election will have record turnout. While this should be a cause for celebration, for some election administrators it is more a cause for concern. Some states, like Rhode Island, continue to use antiquated absentee ballot systems as a de facto form of early voting. In 2011 the Rhode Island General Assembly changed to state’s ’emergency voting’ law to allow pretty much anyone to cast a ballot in the 20 days prior to the election. The results have been staggering as people have flocked to their city and town halls to vote early. But all of those ballots must be processed by hand at the Board of Elections and that takes time. Michigan has a similar system and their secretary of state is warning there will be problems. Specifically, she’s warning that it may take days to get unofficial results. The same is true in Rhode Island. As we saw after the Iowa Caucus debacle, when people don’t get results quickly they become suspicious and resort to filling the void with disinformation. That feeds cynicism. We are once again asking the General Assembly to pass an early voting bill that would solve this impending problem.”

12. How about that 30-year Treasury yield? Look out below!

13. Our own Caroline Goggin shares her harrowing story of surviving a stroke at 27.

14. Drew Harwell argues Nest and Ring have helped normalize surveillance in America.

15. Melinda Fakuade explores the rise of 1-800-Flowers.com.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersMayor Grebien; a Massachusetts politics roundtable with Stephanie Murray and Michael Goodman. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive SuiteVin Graziano, president, RISE Engineering; Ara Karafian, chairman/president/CEO, SMMA. 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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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