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Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 8

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. Speaker Mattiello’s political problems deepened this week after we confirmed the existence of a grand jury investigation into whether he threatened Convention Center leaders over a friend whose job was in jeopardy. At least six people — including Mattiello’s two closest advisers, Leo Skenyon and Frank Montanaro Jr., though so far not the speaker himself — have been called to testify next week. So what does that tell us? Certainly, grand jury activity is no guarantee in and of itself that someone is getting indicted. “Grand juries are powerful investigative tools — they’re not just for indictments,” says Tim White, a 14-year veteran of the Rhode Island law enforcement beat. “Sometimes they’re simply the most efficient way for prosecutors to gather information as they look into potential criminal behavior.” That said, Attorney General Peter Neronha would not be wasting a grand jury’s time on the Convention Center controversy if he didn’t think it was serious — which helps explain the heightened anxiety on the third floor of the State House. Neronha refused to confirm the existence of the investigation when I asked him about it Friday, but he told me, “What I can say is that we use the legal processes for legitimate reasons. We’ve got too much work to do to waste our time doing things that aren’t worth our time.” Remember, too, the Convention Center case isn’t the only legal proceeding Mattiello has to worry about. The lawyer for his indicted former aide Jeff Britt confirmed Thursday that case is likely to go to trial — and Britt has little incentive to take a plea deal if it would leave him a convicted felon.

2. The swirl of controversy around Speaker Mattiello has also raised the odds he could have another tough re-election fight this fall as he seeks to hold onto his GOP-friendly House District 15 seat in Western Cranston. And this time he may have an opponent with a citywide political operation behind her: Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, wife of outgoing Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Fenton-Fung confirmed Friday she is now taking a serious look at a run against Mattiello rather than a bid to succeed her husband at City Hall. “I, like so many other neighbors here in District 15, am disgusted by the behavior of Speaker Mattiello and his team in yet another scandal requiring a criminal investigation,” she told me in an email. “My focus has shifted as of late due to overwhelming support by many in the district who want a change, and we’ll see where that leads us in the weeks to come.” WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming thinks Mattiello should view Fenton-Fung as a more serious threat than previous GOP nominee Steve Frias, who himself gave the speaker a run for his money in 2016 and 2018. “I think the difference is Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung can probably raise a lot more money with her husband than Steve Frias could in the past elections,” Fleming said, noting the mayor’s solid fundraising base from multiple gubernatorial and citywide campaigns. “Frias has had a sizable amount of money for a House district, but compared to the speaker it was minuscule.”

3. Gina Raimondo’s endorsement of Mike Bloomberg on Wednesday was an illuminating moment in her political career. “It was an easy decision,” she said when I met with her and Bloomberg for a joint interview (airing on this weekend’s Newsmakers). The upsides for her are considerable: she cemented her status as a key Bloomberg ally, got on the bandwagon just as his bid was suddenly becoming more plausible, and will be in the permanent good graces of a multibillionaire no matter how his campaign ends. The political downsides are limited — Joe Biden and his advisers won’t be sending her a Christmas card this year, but aligning with Bloomberg won’t do much damage to her image considering she was already dismissed as a “Wall Street Democrat” by the Bernie Sanders wing of her party. She’s also likely to be a useful surrogate at gatherings hosted by his fundraising-like Committee for Mike operation. And the timing means she’s likely doing some private lobbying on Bloomberg’s behalf at this weekend’s National Governors Association meeting in Washington. As for Biden, his campaign didn’t do itself any favors in its response to Bloomberg, botching distribution of a Thursday news release about the former VP’s Rhode Island endorsements — a news release that labeled James Diossa the mayor of “Cedar Falls.”

4. Eye on 2022: AG Neronha told reporters this week he will never run for governor — a comment that ricocheted around Rhode Island political circles. “That’s the most Shermanesque statement I’ve seen in a long time about his plans in 2022,” said Mike Raia, who was a senior adviser to Governor Raimondo’s 2018 campaign. “That’ll give a handful of Democrats a reason to breathe easier. It may also keep a handful of Dems up at night.”

5. Cranston mayoral hopeful Mike Farina landed an early and head-turning endorsement this week, landing the support of the city’s powerful firefighters union. It’s noteworthy for the union to back a Republican, and even more so to make the decision this early and with multiple other credible Democratic and Republican candidates likely to get in. One thing that may have helped Farina is his openness to adding a fire station in Western Cranston. “Now, and over the last decade, there has been significant development in Western Cranston,” Farina told me in an email. “We need to look at the impact, need and of course it would need to be done in a fiscally prudent manner. It would help rescue response time so it’s something we need to research before we make a final decision. A substation might be a good option also, again we should do an impact study and needs assessment.”

6. The Providence Journal has posted its final circulation report for 2019, and the trends remain grim. Print circulation on Sunday, the most profitable day of the week for newspapers, fell 17% in 2019 compared with a year earlier, down to about 44,000. And Monday-Friday print circulation hit a new low of just 34,000, down 15% versus 2018 levels. The numbers are even starker over a longer time horizon: the Journal’s print circulation has plunged by half in just five years. Looking to the future, digital Projo subscriptions are nearing the 5,000 mark, up about 9% from 2018. Still, that’s a far cry from The Boston Globe’s 128,000 online subs, even if that paper covers a far larger geography. All this comes as the Projo’s latest owner, the newly expanded Gannett, needs to pay off a $1.8 billion loan at an 11.5% interest rate over the next five years.

7. Striking stats in Rhode Island Housing’s briefing for the new Senate Housing Commission: nearly a third of Rhode Island housing was built before World War II, and a recent study ranked the state as the third most highly regulated construction market in the country. Here’s the full presentation.

8. Most of the discussion in Rhode Island around the post-2020 redistricting has been about whether the state will lose one of its two congressional seats. But also important is how, exactly, the state will go about redrawing the district lines for its 75 House and 38 Senate seats. Right now those districts are heavily gerrymandered, which is one of the ways State House Democrats protect their legislative supermajorities year after year. Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP rolled out a new campaign this week called “Redraw Rhode Island” that would shift control of the process from Democratic leaders in the General Assembly to an independent commission — they have an informative new website here.

9. And speaking of informative new websites, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (who supports that independent redistricting commission idea) just unveiled a new Lobbying and Legislation Data Exploration Tool — something that is sure to come in handy as the Assembly session heats up. While data on lobbyists and bills has always been available publicly, a quick test drive suggests this tool makes it significantly easier to slice and dice the information. Have at it, reporters and data geeks.

10. Will lawmakers create a program to cut the municipal tangible tax?

11. Congressman Cicilline held an interesting district event Monday at East Providence’s Weaver Library, where librarians bemoaned alleged price gouging by publishers that they say is making it unaffordable for them to offer patrons e-books. As one glaring example, Rhode Island Library Association President Julie Holden points to an eight-week embargo against libraries that Macmillan Publishers put in place last fall. “They told me that some of the largest publishing companies are taking advantage of their market position and licensing e-books to libraries under unfair terms, often for shorter periods and at much higher prices,” Cicilline says. “They are also limiting the number of copies libraries may purchase and prohibiting them from buying e-books at all during certain periods right after publication.” It could be potential fodder for a future hearing before the Cicilline-led House Antitrust Subcommittee.

12. Ian Donnis digs into just how much money legislative leaders spend on food.

13. Health care consolidation continues apace in Rhode Island, with Lifespan and Coastal Medical formally entering talks about a potential tie-up on Thursday and word from Lifespan’s Tim Babineau that Brown Physicians and Lifespan Physicians Group could join forces, as well. Appearing on this week’s Executive Suite, UnitedHealthcare of New England CEO Stephen Farrell expressed some general trepidation about the trend. “Consolidation has always been a challenge in health care delivery relative to cost,” he said. “We’re a free market society. There’s always value to competition.” On the hottest topic of all — whether Lifespan and Care New England should merge — Farrell sounded agnostic. “It’s not about the name on the back of the jersey,” he said. “What’s really important, though, is how do you get better health care quality? Can they come together and provide efficiencies? Can they address the social determinants of health? Can they improve quality, lower cost, make the system more simple? I always say, that’s all interesting, but we’ve really got to maintain focus on what the important things are.”

14. Dan McGowan has an intriguing scoop about the future of the Superman building.

15. Annals of local government: Attleboro city leaders are in a long-running battle over, believe it or not, a volunteer traffic study commission.

16. Buyer beware: not every restaurant on GrubHub wants to be on there.

17. Florence Hazrat on the past and future of punctuation marks.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg; a political roundtable previews the New Hampshire primary. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – UnitedHealthcare of New England CEO Stephen Farrell. 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

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