Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 6

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. Governor Raimondo said goodbye to Rhode Island on Wednesday night — but the U.S. Senate said, not so fast. Raimondo’s valedictory State of the State, delivered in the tomb-like quiet of a nearly empty House chamber, was a classic farewell address — ticking off her accomplishments with an eye toward the history books, while thanking Rhode Islanders for entrusting her with power. But while it had once seemed possible Raimondo would be out of office by this weekend, that plan has been derailed by a three-car pileup in the Senate: Thursday’s all-night budget resolution debate, the impeachment trial that starts next week, and the week-long recess coming up Feb. 15. It’s increasingly hard to see how Raimondo gets a floor vote before the week of Feb. 22, particularly with Ted Cruz putting a “hold” on her nomination over Huawei. For Rhode Island, that means an even longer period in gubernatorial limbo; it’s as if Raimondo and Dan McKee are in a revolving door that’s gotten stuck halfway. While aides insist the governor remains engaged behind the scenes, Raimondo hasn’t taken questions from reporters since Dec. 22 and no longer attends her own administration’s coronavirus briefings — a source of increasing consternation in many quarters. The White House may be concerned that Raimondo, as a sitting governor, could wind up saying something about pandemic policy that gets ahead of President Biden, but the approach has deprived Rhode Islanders of regular access to their own governor during a state of emergency. With her confirmation seemingly a question of when, not if, Raimondo’s team is going to face more and more questions about why she doesn’t either resume doing her current job in public or step down.

2. So, you may ask, what does it mean that Ted Cruz put a “hold” on Governor Raimondo’s nomination anyway? This 2017 Congressional Research Service report offers a good explanation of holds: “The Senate ‘hold’ is an informal practice whereby Senators communicate to Senate leaders, often in the form of a letter, their policy views and scheduling preferences regarding measures and matters available for floor consideration. … [B]ut ultimately the decision to honor a hold request, and for how long, rests with the majority leader.” Obviously, it’s unlikely Chuck Schumer will go out of his way to assist Cruz in blocking a Democratic cabinet appointee — but Raimondo might be in a more tenuous situation if her party hadn’t won those two Georgia runoff races last month and Mitch McConnell was in charge.

3. Nobody is more eagerly watching the Senate floor calendar these days than Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who just days ago had reason to hope he would be getting inaugurated on Monday but now faces the prospect of at least two more weeks waiting in the wings. McKee’s transition team, led by legal counsel Joe Rodio Jr., has yet to announce any staff picks, though those appear to be getting closer as interviews wrap up. McKee did announce a new 20-member COVID-19 advisory group, and its membership gave a further indication of how much his governorship will be shaped by his identification as a former mayor: six of the 20 spots went to municipal leaders, and the co-chair is Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena (who is also a nurse). Yet McKee’s team is still finding its footing in the spotlight — witness their rapid about-face on withholding documents related to the lieutenant-governor selection process once our Eli Sherman and Tim White filed a public-records complaint.

4. For all the focus on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Gina Raimondo and Dan McKee, it’s hardly the first time a Rhode Island governor has kept the lieutenant governor at arm’s length. Think back to when Republican Don Carcieri was governor: his first lieutenant governor, Democrat Charlie Fogarty, wound up nearly ousting him in 2006; his second, Democrat Elizabeth Roberts, was so out of the loop she didn’t know Carcieri was in Iraq during the 2007 “December Debacle” snowstorm. Carcieri successor Lincoln Chafee went out of his way to bring the lieutenant governor into the fold, noting to reporters soon after his election, “There is a long history in this state of not working well together.” Roberts played a prominent role in Chafee’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act (including the decision to go forward with UHIP). McKee presumably will see his lieutenant governor as a partner at the State House, too, since he will have handpicked the person himself. Perhaps it all will lead the General Assembly to seriously consider having the two offices elected together as a ticket, the way Massachusetts does. Massachusetts also has a different approach to a situation like Rhode Island’s current one: when the Bay State’s then-Lt. Gov. Tim Murray resigned more than a year before the end of his and Deval Patrick’s second term, the office remained vacant until Karyn Polito was elected in 2015 alongside Charlie Baker.

5. Dan McKee got some good news this week as he continues work on the 2021-22 state budget, which is due to the General Assembly by March 11. President Biden made two moves that could help McKee chip away at a budget deficit which RIPEC estimates at roughly $500 million. First, Biden announced he plans to continue providing an enhanced federal Medicaid match for the rest of 2021 due to the pandemic; the math on that suggests it will yield roughly $72 million for the state in the next budget. Second, Senator Reed’s office announced that Biden has agreed to waive the usual 25% state match for FEMA costs related to COVID-19; estimates on how much that could yield the state range from $33 million to upwards of $50 million. Put it all together, and a rough ballpark figure suggests a $100 million swing to help McKee balance the budget. Not that it’s all good news for the incoming governor. A provision in the December stimulus bill will allow businesses to write off expenses paid for with PPP loans — and in Rhode Island, that could conceivably wipe out the whole benefit of the Medicaid and FEMA changes. Still, RIPEC’s Mike DiBiase points out that the budget plan moving through Congress includes $350 billion in state and local aid, and if that becomes law it could close a considerable part of Rhode Island’s budget gap depending on how the money is distributed.

6. If you’ve been following coverage of the gubernatorial transition, you may have seen a quote or two from Andrea Palagi, who is today Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s communications director after originally joining his office as an aide to the late, great Erika Niedowski. If Andrea’s last name sounds familiar, that’s because she is a descendant of Rhody royalty — her great-great-grandfather Pietro Palagi founded Palagi’s Ice Cream Co. all the way back in 1896 after immigrating to Rhode Island from Italy. The Pawtucket company, famous for its ice cream trucks, is now run by Alex Arteaga, who worked with the family for years before buying it outright. “There are still Palagis in the ice cream business today,” says Andrea. “Me, I’m just in the business of eating it.”

7. For the Republican response to Governor Raimondo’s State of the State, the GOP enlisted state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, who represents a northwest Rhode Island district that was held for years by Democrat Paul Fogarty. “Neighbors, Rhode Island has been living on borrowed time,” she said in her address. “Our budget should be a reminder that every government has its limits. That we can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the road.” A 39-year-old daughter of Portuguese immigrants, de la Cruz was a bright spot for the GOP in the 2018 election when she flipped Senate District 23, and is seen as a rising star in the party. As Rep. Brian Newberry noted on The Public’s Radio, “When she ran for the open seat, she ran against the then-Town Council president of Burrillville in the GOP primary; very well-liked, great guy, and she beat him, which was not a vote against him. It was a testament to her political skill and the work that she put into running. And then she beat her two Democratic opponents very handily.” So was she dipping her toe into the water Wednesday on a potential run for higher office? “Not at all,” de la Cruz told me Friday, laughing. “I literally just got here two years ago. It was never a thought of mine to even run for office. I’m honored that my colleagues trusted me to provide the response this year. I’m going to run for re-election in Senate District 23.”

8. Eye on the General Assembly … Speaker Shekarchi appointed House committee chairs and other leadership posts on Saturday; lots of new faces will get gavels … Senate President Ruggerio and his leadership team had to parachute into Senate Labor on Wednesday to avoid defeat of the $15 minimum wage when three Democrats voted no.

9. Eli Sherman explains what’s really going on with Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout.

10. After 30 years in Congress, 24 of them in the Senate, Jack Reed finally secured one of the most powerful posts on Capitol Hill this week when he officially took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The gavel will give him enormous influence over the world’s most powerful military, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars in annual defense spending and stewardship of one of the few “must-pass” measures left in modern Washington, the National Defense Authorization Act. It’s unclear how long Reed will hold the job, with Republicans well-positioned to win back the Senate in 2022. But it will be interesting to see how the senator flexes his new muscle in the coming months.

11. Jack Reed didn’t bat 1.000 on committee assignments, though. Punchbowl News reported Thursday that Reed and other “old bulls” in the Senate — among them, Appropriations Chairman Pat Leahy — were pushing to delay a new caucus rule that will let younger senators pick their subcommittees ahead of senior members who already have powerful chairmanships. That may sound arcane, but in a chamber where seniority and hierarchy are paramount, it matters. The vote was by secret ballot — and Reed’s side lost, suggesting he won’t be allowed to chair the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies while he’s already chair of Armed Services. An intriguing wrinkle: Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the junior senators who has chafed at the monopolization of key committee assignments by senior colleagues, and he won’t say how he voted on Reed’s suggestion. “We won’t be commenting on internal caucus matters,” Whitehouse spokesperson Meaghan McCabe told me Friday.

12. Chairmanships were also announced this week in the U.S. House. David Cicilline is keeping his gavel as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, despite some grumbling from Big Tech about his aggressive investigation of their activities. (Cicilline’s Republican counterpart, Ken Buck, told a local paper he sees room for bipartisan cooperation on the panel.) Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith announced he was creating a new panel that will be led by Jim Langevin: the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems. “As technology continues to advance at an incredibly rapid rate – from artificial intelligence to biotechnology and everything in between – it is critical that the Armed Services Committee redoubles our efforts to bridge the gap between current capabilities and future requirements,” Smith said in a statement.

13. Here’s a dispatch out of Providence City Hall by Target 12’s Steph Machado: “Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley barely got to celebrate his significant fundraising haul in the last quarter of 2020 before it became apparent he had accepted donations tied to state vendors, something he had pledged not to do in October because of his powerful job as director of the R.I. Department of Administration. Smiley had made the pledge to the R.I. Ethics Commission, which memorialized it in an advisory opinion allowing him to start fundraising. Smiley started refunding checks this week after my colleague Eli Sherman and I flagged multiple donations from leaders of companies that have state contracts, so far returning $5,000 to six campaign donors. And then, in a second hiccup for his campaign, a member of the Ethics Commission resigned Thursday after a Providence Journal reporter got wind of meetings Smiley had at her law office with well-known mail ballot guru Ed Cotugno. The commissioner, Emili Vaziriinsists she was already planning to resign prior to the questionable meetings, but the revelation was another negative for Smiley, who has not yet formally launched his campaign. Asked Friday if he regrets making such a broad pledge related to his campaign fundraising considering the headache it later caused, Smiley said he does not. ‘I’m proud of having made the pledge,’ he said. ‘I recognize the unique position I have in state government. People should have confidence in their state leaders, and I want people to have confidence in what kind of City Hall I’m going to run.'”

14. The secretary of state’s office passes along a reminder that Tuesday is the deadline for elections officials to receive mail ballot applications for the special March 2 bond referenda election. There are seven questions on the ballot totaling $400 million, and campaigns are already ramping up for a number of them: Save the Bay is leading a “Yes on 2” coalition; United Way is pushing a “Yes on 3” campaign; a group of 21 arts organizations are backing a “Yes on 6” effort. So far though, no group is making more of a splash than the “Yes on 7” campaign to support Quonset, which will air a 30-second TV commercial just before Sunday’s Super Bowl kickoff. (Full disclosure: the game airs on WPRI 12 this year.) The spot is backed by the Rhode Island Ports Coalition, and features retired Seabees along with a Peacedale Elementary School kindergartner named Sydney.

15. Is RhodeWorks working? Don’t miss my deep dive on RIDOT’s $4.7 billion program.

16. Two good stories from my colleague Anita Baffoni: the sale of Johnson’s Pond in Coventry has residents up in arms and a state senator considering action, while a rumored distribution center in Johnston is moving closer to reality.

17. The Taunton City Council turned heads this week by rejecting a resolution that would have condemned the U.S. Capitol riot, but Mayor Shaunna O’Connell argues it was due to a lack of collaboration leading up to the vote. “They all had their reasons, and I’m not going to criticize people for personal reasons,” O’Connell told 12 News on Friday.

18. WGBH’s Mike Deehan offers five takeaways from Governor Baker’s State of the Commonwealth.

19. Congratulations to my pal Brian Amaral, the newest hire at The Boston Globe’s expanding Rhode Island bureau, where he’ll work alongside a little-known but promising young fellow named Dan McGowan. Rhode Island must be one of the few places in the country experiencing an old-fashioned newspaper war in the 21st Century.

20. The streets of New York City in the 1950s, as seen in rare color footage.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti on RhodeWorks after five years; a breakdown of the governor’s State of the State and the upcoming transition. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sunday at 6 p.m. on WPRO. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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