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Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 29

Ted Nesi
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Happy Leap Day! 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 stories are often the ones you don’t see coming. Coronavirus certainly fits the bill. The first New York Times article about the outbreak appeared on Jan. 6, but only in the past week or so has the epidemic exploded into the world’s top story — and triggered the worst stock market selloff since the financial crisis. A wise assessment of risk, or an overreaction? R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott errs on the side of caution. “We currently have no cases in Rhode Island, but we are absolutely preparing for having cases,” she said during Friday’s taping of Newsmakers. “We are preparing for it being ‘when’ and not ‘if.'” The Health Department has set up a system to gather and follow up on reports about patients, implemented a self-quarantine program, sent providers updates about treatment and testing, and worked to coordinate across the health system. So how should the average person be thinking about it all? “Number one, I am psychologically preparing myself for the fact that this epidemic is going to get worse,” Brown University’s Dr. Adam Levine said on Newsmakers. “We’re going to have more cases in the U.S., we’re going to have a case in Rhode Island — I’m preparing myself to watch your news show and hear about the first cases in Rhode Island so that when it happens I’m not scared and I’m not freaked out. That I think is really important for everyone to think about.” Number two: have a backup plan if you or your family members get sick and need to stay home. “The most important way that we can prevent spread of this disease,” Levine said, “is by people who are sick staying home and not spreading the disease to their coworkers, their schoolmates and their neighbors.” Number three: wash your hands. A lot. “It is the most effective way to prevent yourself from getting this disease and to prevent others from getting the disease from you,” he said.

2. If you want a deep dive on coronavirus and its potential local effects, definitely tune into this weekend’s Newsmakers (or watch it online now) — we covered a lot of ground. I also recommend The Daily’s podcast about the virus with longtime New York Times medical reporter Donald McNeil. “I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m being too alarmist or whether I’m being not alarmist enough,” McNeil said. “And this is alarmist, but I think right now, it’s justified. This one reminds me of what I have read about the 1918 Spanish influenza.” For a different perspective, try this Washington Post op-ed: “I have the coronavirus. So far, it isn’t that bad.”

3. State lawmakers returned to Smith Hill this week abuzz with speculation about the potential outcome of the statewide grand jury investigation into Speaker Mattiello and the Convention Center. It remains unclear how long the probe will last. Despite rumors circulating at the State House, the attorney general’s office confirmed Friday that the grand jury issued no reports of any sort — that is, neither any indictments nor any “no true bills” — this week. The big development was in the political realm, as Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung announced she will challenge Mattiello for his House District 15 seat, setting up a clash between Cranston’s most powerful Democrat and its Republican power couple. It will take some time to see how that race develops — Ian Donnis has a good primer here on the dynamics — but it indicates the speaker will have his third serious re-election contest in a row. At the same time, though, Mattiello’s resiliency should not be underestimated, particularly if the grand jury ends with a whimper instead of a bang. State Rep. June Speakman, a progressive Bristol Democrat, gave a reminder of that Friday on RIPR as she explained why she refused to sign onto a recent statement demanding Mattiello hold a caucus to address the situation. “We have conversations all the time,” she said. “I am free to walk into the speaker’s office whenever — most of us are — free to walk into his office and ask him questions about this all the time.” That said, she added, “I’m not going to ask him about ongoing investigations.” The Rhode Island GOP is hoping that sort of hands-off approach to Mattiello won’t work for Democratic incumbents this fall, and is already flagging the amount of cash they’ve accepted from the speaker.

4. Out with the old: Congressman Cicilline has changed the name of his leadership political action committee (PAC) from “DNC PAC” to “Gun Safety PAC.” It’s now described as “the only congressional leadership PAC dedicated to ending gun violence.” Cicilline’s advisers say the money raised will be contributed to candidates who support universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. (For a primer on leadership PACs, see here.) … Meanwhile, Cicilline is heading to Ohio today to kick off canvassing for Ohio Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, whose Democratic primary opponent is backed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

5. Super Tuesday is, well, Tuesday, and once the votes are counted we should have a much clearer picture of where the Democratic presidential primary is going. Many top local leaders in Rhode Island and Massachusetts have yet to endorse a candidate — admittedly a more timely task in the Bay State, which votes Tuesday. (Rhode Island votes April 28.) The endorsements of the region’s leading mayors offer a reminder of how messy the race remains: Providence’s Jorge Elorza is backing Pete Buttigieg, New Bedford’s Jon Mitchell is backing Elizabeth Warren, Fall River’s Paul Coogan is staying out, Attleboro’s Paul Heroux and Central Falls’ James Diossa are both with Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Gina Raimondo remains the only sitting governor who is supporting Mike Bloomberg, and she visited Boston this week to drum up support even as the billionaire former mayor faced intensifying criticism for helping Bernie Sanders by splitting the center-left vote.

6. Rhode Island and Massachusetts are next-door neighbors, but they’re not mirror images, and a national political lens can help illustrate that. (After all, Hillary Clinton got 60% in Massachusetts but only 54% in Rhode Island.) Investor Conor Sen has posted voter demographic data from 2016 that shows college-educated whites made up 44% of Massachusetts voters but just 34% of Rhode Island voters, a 10-point difference. Non-college whites were 44% in Rhode Island versus 40% in Massachusetts; college-educated non-whites were 3% in Rhode Island versus 6% in Massachusetts; and non-college non-whites were 19% in Rhode Island versus 10% in Massachusetts. That helps explain why election data guru Drew Savicki’s provocative 2040 Electoral College map predicts Rhode Island becoming a GOP-voting red state by that year. Why? Savicki said Rhode Island “passes the Staten Island test,” using a term invented by the blog RRH Elections for “an area with a lot of middle-class relatively secular white ethnic [voters].”

7. The presidential primary isn’t the only election coming up Tuesday. Voters will go to the polls in Providence for the Ward 1 City Council primary, in Central Falls for the (uncontested) special election to replace ex-Rep. Shelby Maldonado, and in Taunton for the Democratic primary to fill Mayor O’Connell’s old seat. In the two Rhode Island races, Secretary Gorbea’s office reminds voters they need to check their polling location because it may be different than usual.

8. Highlights from my Target 12 colleagues this week … Eli Sherman and Tim White dissected the review team report on the Veterans Home messWalt Buteau got the latest update on Pawtucket’s $400 million Tidewater Landing projectSteph Machado did a deep dive on Rhode Island’s worsening shortage of substitute teachers.

9. Is this the year Rhode Island lawmakers will decide they want to raise the income tax on high-earners? The idea has been batted around the State House for years, but this week saw two proposals put forward with influential backers. One is the union-backed Revenue for RI campaign to tax income over $475,000 at 8.99% (up from 5.99%), sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Conley; it would raise an estimated $128 million annually. The other is a more modest proposal from Sen. Ryan Pearson and Rep. Gregg Amore to tax income over $500,000 at 6.99% and steer the money to education (an issue where they’ve already collaborated). The Pearson-Amore idea has the support of former Carcieri administration official Gary Sasse, who argues the proposal is limited enough that it “would not have a negative impact on economic competitiveness” and could provide a boost if it improves K-12.

10. The Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District came into sharper focus on Tuesday night when seven of the candidates met for their first debate, giving an early indication of how they’re positioning themselves. My initial take on how they’re running: Jake Auchincloss is the moderate military veteran; Dave Cavell is the amiable political pro; Becky Grossman is a mom fed up with the NRA; Alan Khazei is the organizer; Ihssane Leckey is the Bernie/AOC torchbearer; Jesse Mermell is the practical progressive; and Ben Sigel is the candidate of inclusion. Auchincloss followed up the debate by announcing the first union endorsement in the race.

11. The American Library Association’s Alan Inouye will be in Cranston on Tuesday morning for a news conference with Rhode Island Library Association President Julie Holden, Mayor Fung, state Sen. Mark McKenney and Cranston library chief Ed Garcia to protest publishing giant Macmillan’s new policy blocking libraries from buying more than one license for newly published ebooks during their first two months on the market. If digital books are the future of libraries, this is sure be a key policy issue going forward.

12. Something Rhode Island could use, too: Tufts is opening a new Center for State Policy Analysis that will provide “rigorous analysis of legislative proposals and ballot questions.”

13. Our latest 12 on 12 digital documentary looks at “The Impact of Opioids.”

14. A great Q&A with 99-year-old New Yorker legend Roger Angell.

15. Eric Asimov reveals the five questions to ask when you’re buying wine.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a closer look at the coronavirus outbreak with R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Brown’s Dr. Adam Levine and Rhode Island Hospital’s Dr. Selim Suner. 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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