Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 15

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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. In normal times, the resignation of a state Health Department director would not be major breaking news. But these are not normal times, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott was not a normal health director. Alexander-Scott has been a constant presence at the sides of two governors as Rhode Island navigated the pandemic over the last two years, giving her a high profile and winning many admirers (and some critics). “Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is one of the smartest, most capable public health leaders I have met,” Dr. Ashish Jha said Thursday, one of many laudatory statements that came in after the news. In the months since Gina Raimondo left for Washington, it became increasingly evident that Alexander-Scott and Governor McKee had clashing views about how to handle the current phase of the pandemic — and the tension between them was hard to miss, even if they smiled for the cameras. The coolness was reflected in Alexander-Scott’s resignation letter, which included a lawyerly rundown of her unused comp time and said nothing about McKee. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos downplayed the rift Thursday, saying it was natural for any governor to balance health officials’ advice against the counsel of other experts, and that Raimondo did the same thing. Policy-wise, McKee’s team faces an immediate challenge in locating a credible candidate for a tough job in the middle of a crisis, since Alexander-Scott is only staying on for two weeks. With daily case counts trending lower at the moment, there are hopes the omicron wave could be waning and the state could be back out of pandemic emergency mode before long. But the state’s hospital system is still under enormous strain, and the Health Department also faces a major looming decision about the Lifespan-Care New England hospital merger. Then there’s the political fallout: McKee’s primary opponents seized on Alexander-Scott’s departure to renew their criticism of him over the pandemic, with Nellie Gorbea warning of “a real vacuum in leadership.” McKee’s choice of a new health director could turn out to be one of his most important personnel decisions.

2. Brown University President Christina Paxson is putting more of her institution’s political capital behind the Lifespan-Care New England hospital merger. This week Brown released a study it commissioned making the case for the benefits of the proposal, suggesting it would boost the economic impact of academic medicine in Rhode Island by over $3 billion, though the report drew pushback from some health experts. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Paxson was adamant that the merger will benefit not just Brown and the hospitals but Rhode Island as a whole. “I think the arguments for it coming together are so compelling — and maybe it’s the optimist in me — at the end I think the right things will prevail,” she said. For skeptics of the Brown-commissioned study, Paxson points to a new Journal of the American Medical Association article that found NYU Langone Health’s acquisition of a safety-net hospital led to improved quality and safety outcomes. Brown is not a legal party to the actual merger transaction, but it is still playing a crucial role due to its medical school and a promised investment of $125 million in the new system. Paxson declined to lay odds on how likely it is the FTC will allow the merger to go forward (a decision is expected by late February), but she acknowledged Brown’s plans to grow its commitment to academic medicine “will be much harder if the merger doesn’t go through.”

3. The Helena Foulkes campaign is now on its second campaign manager.

4. Could Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins be a statewide GOP nominee this year?

5. Rhode Island’s redistricting panel has approved its proposals for new House, Senate and congressional maps — but that’s not the end of the story. The maps will now need to go through the regular legislative process to win final approval, and House spokesperson Larry Berman says additional changes have been made during that period in the past.

6. Tony Silva, former chief of staff to Dan McKee, got some good news this week when the Ethics Commission voted to reject a GOP complaint accusing him of failing to properly disclose his interest in the controversial Cumberland wetlands property that led to his ouster over the summer. Silva still faces a bigger headache on the topic: AG Neronha’s investigation, which McKee requested while Silva was still holding onto his job. A Neronha spokesperson says that investigation is “still open and ongoing.”

7. The fight at Providence City Hall over Mayor Elorza’s vaccine mandate, which could lead to the termination of up to 80 police officers, ended the week on an anticlimactic note as City Council President John Igliozzi opted against calling a vote on an ordinance to block the mandate. Steph Machado has all the details here.

8. Democrats are facing an uphill battle to retain control of the U.S. House this fall, with public frustration over issues like inflation and COVID taking a major toll on President Biden’s job approval rating. That in turn has ramped up speculation about whether Nancy Pelosi could step aside as House Democratic leader after the election, which would shake up the party’s entire leadership ranks, creating opportunities for various lawmakers to move up to new roles. Among those figuring in the speculation is David Cicilline, who’s been mentioned as a possible leadership candidate in recent articles in The Washington Post and The Hill. (Cicilline served in House Democratic leadership previously, but lost a bid for assistant House speaker in 2020.) Efforts to win these kinds of jobs generally happen below the radar, so unsurprisingly, Cicilline spokesperson Jennifer Bell didn’t have a lot to say when asked about his interest. “The congressman is flattered to be mentioned in these conversations, but we still have a year left of the 117th Congress and the congressman is focused on what we can do now to build on the progress we’ve made under President Biden and since Democrats gained control of the House in 2018,” she said.

9. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann has joined the ranks of Washington opinion writers who see a potential presidential candidate in Gina Raimondo, just a month after Bret Stephens floated her name in The New York Times. Mounting a White House campaign is a much bigger undertaking than getting friendly write-ups from columnists, and it’s unclear how much appetite rank-and-file Democratic primary voters would have for a business-oriented moderate in 2028 (or 2024 if Joe Biden steps aside). But if nothing else, it shows how Raimondo is capitalizing on her new national prominence. Can’t win ’em all, though: Raimondo didn’t make this Washington Post list put together by Perry Bacon Jr. on Friday.

10. Climate change gets much more attention these days than it used to, yet the issue is sometimes still discussed in mostly theoretical terms. My colleague Tolly Taylor drove home the practical effects in a report this week zeroing in on how rising sea levels will affect Barrington. It’s not a distant concern: forecasts show that one stretch of Route 114 will flood every month by the year 2035; by 2050, it will flood twice a day. “I don’t know if we need to build a dike around Barrington to protect it; that’s going to be up to the engineers,” U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Tolly. It’s not just Barrington, of course — Southern Rhode Island has its own challenges from rising sea levels. Managing those effects and making tough decisions about what can be protected figure to be major topics of debate over the coming years.

11. The Nicholas Alahverdian story definitely goes in the “truth is stranger than fiction” file.

12. Eleanor Slater employee Sharon Sousa has filed a lawsuit against the state-run hospital.

13. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson sailed to an easy re-election victory back in 2016, drawing no opponents for a new six-year term. Six years later, and in the wake of Hodgson’s embrace of President Trump, challengers are starting to line up. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux joined the field this week, touting his own experience working in corrections as an asset; another Democrat, Fall River attorney Nick Bernier, had already jumped in. Along with the benefits of incumbency, Hodgson could also get a boost if it’s a good year for Republicans, as early indications suggest it could be. Bristol County is relatively friendly territory for the GOP, at least by Massachusetts standards — Joe Biden won the county by 12 points last year, less than half his 34-point margin statewide.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Brown University President Christina Paxson. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes. See you back here next Saturday.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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