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1. When Governor Raimondo ascends the House rostrum Tuesday night to deliver her State of the State address, she’ll command the brightest spotlight Rhode Island gives its chief executive all year. And while academics debate how much a set-piece speech can really change the political weather, it certainly offers an opportunity. “The most successful States of the State don’t actually dig into details of policy – that’s what the next six months of session and hearings and debate are for,” says Mike Raia, who wrote Raimondo’s last three addresses when he was her communications director. “To me, the speech was a Nicene Creed for our team and administration for that calendar year: it was an opportunity to outline priorities, evangelize the governor’s policy beliefs, and define her theory of leadership.” Rhode Islanders know Raimondo well at this point, so she’s unlikely to surprise anyone in a big way, though Raia said he is expecting her to try and “take back some of the narrative.” Early word is that economic development and education will once again be pillars of the speech. But a third issue, long bubbling under, will likely move to center stage: housing, and how to end Rhode Island’s long post-recession construction drought in order to make homes more affordable for families up and down the income spectrum. What else to watch? “Politically, I’m going to be watching to see how aggressively she challenges the General Assembly and leadership,” Raia said. “She drew a line in the sand in her end-of-year interviews indicating that she was prepared to be more aggressive with the legislature this year. That’s a tough dance in the State of the State though, because she’s standing on the speaker’s dais and the State of the State by nature should be inclusive.”
2. I also asked Mike Raia to describe what exactly the lead-up to the State of the State is like behind the scenes for a governor and her (or his) staff: “I would typically start working on the speech – outlining, researching, interviewing agency heads and communications staff – around the time of the fall Revenue Estimating Conference and would have a very incomplete, long, and fragmented sketch of a draft for initial feedback in early December. From there, I typically handed off the day-to-day duties of my job to my deputy (David Ortiz in ’17 and ’18; Jennifer Bogdan in ’19) so I could focus on the speech and its rollout. This was the first year in three years that I was able to be home with my family for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. By now, the speech should be close to locked but it won’t be final until the morning or early afternoon of speech day. (The governor and I rewrote the closing stanzas of last year’s speech around 10:30 p.m. the Sunday before it.) The gov’s comms team – and the governor herself – will have long hours at the State House through the weekend rehearsing with the governor and rewriting sections for delivery.”
3. The governor isn’t the only state leader who kicks off the year with an agenda-setting speech. As is customary, Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggerio each gave introductory remarks on the first day of the legislative session laying out their priorities for the year. The biggest headline was Mattiello indicating the House is likely to enact new gun laws this year, after being the graveyard of many such bills in years past — details on that here. (A new coalition has already sprung up to advocate on the issue, similar to the one that pushed for last year’s new abortion law.) Also making Mattiello’s list: stepped-up oversight of DCYF and the Veterans Home, year four of the six-year car tax phaseout, ensuring the “stability” of the state’s hospitals, education and school safety. On the Senate side, Ruggerio said, “Education remains at the top of our agenda.” Another Senate priority, one Ruggerio admitted is a “complex challenge,” is housing. “We need to explore ways to remove barriers to the construction of new housing and the rehabilitation of older housing,” he said. Along with additional funding for affordable housing, Ruggerio is interested in potentially incentivizing cities and towns to allow new housing construction; just last week Mayor Fung told the Cranston Herald the cost of additional residents has made him more wary of development.
4. On the other side of the aisle, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi has his own ideas about what the General Assembly should do this year — not all of them in line with Speaker Mattiello. Speaking on this week’s Newsmakers, Filippi suggested the car tax phaseout — at $113 million and counting — should be up for debate. “If we are at the point where the choice is between maintaining, let’s say, the car tax phaseout versus raising taxes, I would get rid of the car tax phaseout,” Filippi said, arguing the policy isn’t fair to all communities. “Charlestown, South Kingstown, Block Island and Westerly weren’t nailing people on the car tax,” he said. “I’m sure it’s popular in Cranston, where they weren’t responsible and they were nailing their citizens with high car taxes.” The House’s top Republican also dissents on marijuana — not only on recreational legalization, which he supports but both legislative leaders are against, but also their newly filed bill to let the six new compassion centers grow unlimited cannabis. “Then we shouldn’t have created these licenses for the cultivators,” he said. “We should be thinking five or 10 years down the line and have a goal that we’re trying to get to — not have fits and starts and redos and undermining people who invested in the state.” Filippi’s own ideas for closing the deficit include eliminating the DMV, whose services he argues could be handled by municipal workers at city and town halls.
5. Speaking of Blake Filippi, his name comes up periodically when casting about for potential 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominees — so Tim White asked if he’s interested. “I’m flattered, but I’m not considering it at this point,” Filippi said on Newsmakers. “I love being minority leader. I love this job. I think it’s too early. Right now I’m not considering it.” Our natural follow-up: does “right now” mean he might consider it later? “This business is crazy. I don’t know how people can plan three years ahead. I really don’t. I love the job I’m doing now. I love serving the state. If there’s other opportunities, possibly, but I just don’t see it at this point.”
6. Friday night news: R.I. Supreme Court Justice Gilbert Indeglia is retiring, opening up a vacancy on the high court for the first time in a decade.
7. The Jeff Britt trial could see a parade of big names take the witness stand.
8. The hitherto sleepy 4th Congressional District race in Massachusetts got a jolt of energy this week as the six Democrats announced their year-end fundraising totals, providing some differentiation between the six Newton and Brookline Democrats vying to represent Attleboro, Taunton and Fall River. As expected, City Year founder Alan Khazei – who has made unsuccessful statewide runs before – is the leader financially. Somewhat more surprisingly, Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss took second place, capping a good run for him after his WBUR op-ed on Iran got some buzz. Trailing the top two were Becky Grossman, Jesse Mermell, Dave Cavell and Ihssane Leckey. Money isn’t everything in politics, but it could make a real difference in a race with such a crowded field, two TV markets, and the all-consuming U.S. Senate primary going on at the same time. One local endorsement that might have an impact: Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, a popular incumbent who has weighed a bid himself.
9. Lincoln Chafee is a presidential candidate again, this time as a Libertarian candidate, four years after he sought the Democratic Party nomination. Bill Weld is also in the presidential race again, this time as a Republican candidate, four years after he was the Libertarians’ VP nominee. Chafee and Weld have always marched to the beat of their own drummers, but it’s still striking to see these two paragons of old-school Yankee Republicanism drifting between political affiliations like men without a home. Then again, that’s what they are — the East Coast GOP they once represented is largely extinct, with the national party increasingly defined by Southern-oriented, Trump-dominated populism, not WASP noblesse oblige. They see the connection themselves: Weld confirmed the pair conferred last month, and he counseled Chafee to go for it.
10. Joe Biden’s campaign manager, Greg Schultz, is expected in Providence on Tuesday evening to provide an invitation-only briefing for top local supporters of the former VP.
11. NYT superstar Jonathan Martin explains how to analyze the presidential race (via David Plouffe’s podcast): “There are two things that we in the press often watch when it comes to candidates. We watch their feet, and we watch their bank accounts. And that’s to say, don’t listen to what they say — watch where they’re spending their money, and watch where they’re spending their time, because that’s the more revealing indicators than what their rhetoric actually is.”
12. Roll Call looks at a potential Cicilline-Langevin showdown in 2022.
13. From the inbox … via Aaron Regunberg: “Rhode Islanders to Hold Rally for Bernie Sanders” (today at the Columbus Theatre) … Alex Miller is joining Advocacy Solutions … Gerry Harrington and Chris Vitale are adding Cecelia Pelkey to their team as Stephanie Federico departs for Cox … Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, is the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers’ Legislator of the Year.
14. One of Rhode Island’s more successful tech startups is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. InsureMyTrip, the Warwick-based travel insurance website, now has roughly 100 employees and is looking to expand internationally. Founder and CEO Jim Grace acknowledges the company has experienced some of the same challenges finding enough tech talent as other companies, but says they’ve found ways to adapt. “What we try to do is we try to create a culture, first, that’s attracting people, and also retaining people — people stay with us a long time,” Grace said on this week’s Executive Suite. “The next thing we’ve done is worked with a lot of the local schools — CCRI, URI and others — as a feeder into us. But we’ve been very successful, too, in drawing people out of Boston, out of Connecticut and other areas into our area. You know, people sometimes go to Boston and other areas for a little bit more money, but they also get burned out and they don’t enjoy it. So what we see is people coming down back to us, and if you’ve got all the right stuff in place, you’ve got an environment where people are attracted to it and you can grow.”
15. Two reasons to celebrate Rhode Island’s community newspapers. East Bay Media Group publisher Matt Hayes, third generation of his family to run the company, penned this great letter in its opening editions for 2020. “As we head into a new decade, I am happy to report that your local newspaper company is doing well,” he writes. And John Howell is celebrating his 50th year as publisher of the Warwick Beacon, still going strong. Howell joins Tim White and me on this week’s Newsmakers to reflect on his long career in newspapers – and to show off the cutting-edge Radio Shack computer used to file articles back in the 1980s.
16. East Side Monthly’s Robert Isenberg looks at Rhode Island’s new newspaper war.
17. Garrett Graff thinks Twitter helped stop a full-blown war with Iran.
19. The secret to a great vacation? Meticulous planning, says Josh Barro.
20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Minority Leader Blake Filippi; Warwick Beacon publisher John Howell. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – InsureMyTrip founder and CEO Jim Grace. 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.