Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 16

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. The formal transition in the Rhode Island governor’s office won’t happen for weeks, but already the spotlight is shifting inexorably from Gina Raimondo to Dan McKee. That’s partly because Raimondo has stopped answering reporters’ questions since her cabinet appointment, but more so because power draws attention — and Dan McKee will soon have a lot of power. “I know I need to earn your trust and your confidence and I intend to do that,” the lieutenant governor said Thursday at his first solo news conference. (In a very Rhody move, McKee held the event at Chelo’s in Warwick.) McKee’s schedule has been packed with Zooms and phone calls for the past week — including introductory chats with neighbor-state governors Charlie Baker and Ned Lamont — and the pace isn’t going to let up as he gets to work on a budget plan that needs to close a deficit RIPEC pegs at over $500 million. McKee announced one key appointment this week, tapping his legal counsel Joe Rodio Jr. to chair the transition, and he plans to announce a broader group of transition leaders and advisory committees next week. At the moment, though, Raimondo is still the governor. And with growing concerns about the state’s vaccination plan, Rhode Islanders are understandably alarmed by the idea she could be nominally in charge but out of sight until March or even April. McKee seems less concerned, however, telling reporters he thinks he will be governor by roughly mid-February. And Raimondo’s administration has explicitly said McKee will be putting together the budget due March 11. If that’s going to happen, Biden administration officials will need to navigate Raimondo through a quick and clean Senate confirmation process over the next month.

2. At her briefing Wednesday, Governor Raimondo declared, “I will stay as the governor and continue to lead this state until the moment that I am confirmed.” Lt. Governor McKee echoed her, saying, “There is only room for one governor at a time.” That’s all well and good, but governors usually answer reporters’ questions — and Rhode Island’s current one won’t. She’s not alone, either: up the road in Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the nominee for labor secretary, is also suddenly refusing to take questions. So is this an official gag order from the Biden transition team on two officials still leading their local responses to COVID-19? The transition didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Raimondo spokesperson Audrey Lucas insisted the answer is no. “During this time of transition, Dr. Alexander-Scott and her team at the Department of Health will continue to hold press briefings multiple times each week on our state’s COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout,” Lucas told me. “Lieutenant Governor McKee will continue providing updates on the transition, as he did earlier today. Governor Raimondo is focused on ensuring a smooth transition and continuing to manage the public health response.” She added: “As always, please feel free to reach out to our office with any questions.” If Raimondo has a speedy confirmation process and McKee is governor by mid-February, that’s one thing — though to be clear, there would still be plenty of questions to have asked her over that period. But it will become a bigger issue with each additional day that the interregnum continues.

3. So what does Gina Raimondo have to look forward to as she goes through her confirmation process? This 2000 Brookings Institution publication gives a glimpse of her current reality: “A Survivor’s Guide for Presidential Nominees.” (The chapter entitled “Dealing with the Media” gives a clue as to why all of a sudden the cat’s got Raimondo’s tongue.)

4. At this point, it might be quicker to keep a list of who doesn’t want Dan McKee to appoint them as lieutenant governor — so many people have raised their hands that McKee’s team is asking them all to put it in writing by sending him a letter so they can keep track. Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey said Friday he thinks McKee has appointing authority, but his pick will need to go to the Senate for advice and consent; McKee’s team has not weighed in about that. Advisers to the current lieutenant governor say he plans to create a small committee of three to five people — including Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena and Rosa De Castillo, a policy analyst in McKee’s office — to vet the choices. (McKee’s eventual pick could also serve as a test drive for what it would be like if governors and lieutenant governors ran together on a ticket.) Among those weighing in this week was the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, which urged McKee to appoint a woman as lieutenant governor, noting that otherwise Raimondo’s departure will leave eight of the nine statewide and federal offices held by men. State Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias offered a different idea in a tweet: “Everybody talks about who should pick the LG or who the LG should be. How about not filling it? Save taxpayers a million dollars during this crisis. RI did not fill the LG vacancy in 1928 or in 1945-1946. A LG vacancy did not hurt RI then and it won’t now.”

5. Eric Davis, a professor emeritus at Middlebury College who is as skilled a Twitter user as any Millennial, offered these interesting comparisons in a pair of tweets responding to Rhode Island’s debate over filling the lieutenant governor’s office: “The 6 New England states have 3 different approaches to this issue: VT and RI elect Gov/LG separately; MA and CT elect them as a ticket; NH and ME have no LG, with Senate President next in line if Governor leaves office. Also, in RI (where the term is 4 years), if LG becomes Governor, he/she appoints a successor as LG. In VT (where the term is only 2 years), if LG becomes Governor (formally Acting Governor), there is no LG, and the Speaker of the House is next in line of succession.” (One more note I’d add — under Article IX, Section 10 of the Rhode Island Constitution, if the governor is unable to serve and there is no LG, the House speaker becomes governor.)

6. When Dan McKee becomes governor, he’ll be the first lieutenant governor to assume the role midterm since 1950, when then-Gov. John Pastore stepped down a month after being elected to the U.S. Senate. At the time governors only served two-year terms, so Lt. Gov. John McKiernan only filled Pastore’s shoes for two weeks before the winner of the previous November’s gubernatorial election, Dennis Roberts, was sworn in. Why the brief McKiernan governorship? Pastore had won a special election to finish the term of J. Howard McGrath, who had been appointed attorney general by President Truman in 1949; by getting sworn in a month early, Pastore gained a jump over other senators elected in November 1950 on the all-important Senate seniority rankings. A quarter-century later, Pastore did the same for his own successor: the diminutive Democrat resigned a week early to give John Chafee seniority over the other senators elected in November 1976.

7. Eye on the General Assembly … House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian and Deputy Majority Whip Mia Ackerman will be the first two women to hold the jobs simultaneouslySpeaker Shekarchi is looking to clean House: he’s asked all Assembly employees under his control to reapply for their jobs … the newly released House rules bill for 2021 and 2022 includes new committees on technology and government administration, and adds housing as a top priority of another … House GOP leaders have shrugged off calls for Rep. Justin Price to resign for attending the DC rally and falsely blaming the subsequent riot on Antifa … Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s new slate of committee assignments bestows titles on some freshmen and Republicans … the Senate’s first bill of the year would raise Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $15 by 2024 … a new progressive group called Renew RI just rolled out a $300 million legislative agenda.

8. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Rhode Islanders should keep their eyes on their mailboxes over the next couple weeks as Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office begins sending out mail ballot applications to registered voters for the upcoming special election on March 2, when they will be asked to approve or deny seven separate bond questions for $400 million worth of infrastructure projects. The unusual March election was approved by the General Assembly in December, but raised some hackles among municipal leaders when lawmakers only approved money for the state to run the unplanned election, not for towns and cities. So it was welcome news this week when Gorbea’s office told local canvassers they’ll be allocated a chunk of $233,000 worth of grant money from the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, left over from November’s election. Nick Lima, the elections director in Cranston, tells me his city’s $17,000 allocation will cover roughly 40% to 60% of the costs, describing it as a “most welcome” move. The deadline to register to vote in the election is Jan. 31, and applications for mail ballots must be returned by Feb. 9. You can also vote early in-person starting Feb. 10, or at the polls on March 2.”

9. “Wait till you see what I will do next,” longtime political operative Jeff Britt texted me shortly after being acquitted for his role in the 2016 Mattiello campaign. The State House will be watching — closely.

10. One week from today, Joe Biden will be president — and his predecessor will likely be on trial for inciting insurrection. The second impeachment of President Trump has already been quite different from the first, with a small group of Republicans including Liz Cheney voting to impeach their party’s leader. Congressman Cicilline has been leading the impeachment drive from the start, issuing the initial call for it and co-drafting the article that eventually passed. In fact, Cicilline and his colleague Ted Lieu started working on the article while they were still in lockdown during the attack. Cicilline’s profile will rise even higher when the Senate trial actually begins, now that Speaker Pelosi has named him one of nine impeachment managers who will effectively serve as the House prosecutors against the president. (Cicilline didn’t get the nod last time, though he claimed not to mind.) One sign of how seriously he’s taking the task: the usually camera-friendly Cicilline hasn’t done any television interviews since Tuesday as he and the other managers prepare for the trial.

11. Expect Jack Reed to be in the spotlight next week as Capitol Hill watches to see whether the incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman backs a waiver to let recently retired General Lloyd Austin become defense secretary after ruling out more such waivers when he reluctantly agreed to one for Jim Mattis. Austin’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. (While Reed has not announced his decision, Washington will be shocked if he deals an early blow to the brand-new Biden administration by refusing, and Reed hinted as much on last week’s Newsmakers.)

12. Tim White reports that Rhode Island State Police, Providence Police and Capitol Police are stepping up precautions in Rhode Island following last week’s riot, including by putting an around-the-clock detail outside Congressman Cicilline’s house. A group of Rhode Island National Guard members has also been dispatched to Washington as part of the huge new security presence around Capitol Hill — just the latest demand on the state’s roughly 3,000-strong military branch, which has also been at the forefront of Governor Raimondo’s response to the pandemic for many months. As Rhode Island Adjutant Gen. Chris Callahan acknowledged on this week’s Newsmakers, it’s been a demanding stretch for the Guard. “It’s been a very busy cycle,” he said. “Of our force, in a routine environment about 700 or so are full-time, and the remaining 2,300-plus are part-time and have dual careers. But over the last year-ish now, we’ve had a very significant presence here.”

13. Must-read Q&A from Eli Sherman: “When can I get a vaccine in Rhode Island?”

14. Over the border in Southeastern Massachusetts, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell is less than thrilled at the lack of a mass vaccination site anywhere further south than Gillette Stadium.

15. Eddie Beard, who represented Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District from 1975 to 1981, died this week at the age of 80. I asked retired Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst for a remembrance of Beard to share with Nesi’s Notes readers — here’s Bakst:

Eddie Beard flashed across the Rhode Island political sky, his light shining bright, and then he fell back to earth. And despite several more tries, he could never gain altitude again.

He was blue collar, full of passion, energy, and determination, with a flair for publicity that helped establish this state legislator and congressman as a champion for the elderly and people in state institutions. He was likable but intense, a maverick who feuded with Gov. Phil Noel and other top Democrats.

Beard was an unusual figure in Washington, yet as attracted to the limelight and power as any other pol. He was more than accessible. He would phone me excitedly from the House cloakroom to suggest a story – or a headline. I once asked, “Don’t you have anything better to do than call me?” Sometimes he’d arrive in Providence on a Friday night and install himself in the Journal newsroom to shoot the breeze with whomever was around; he seemed lonely.

Struggling to win a third term in 1978, he grew angry at the Journal’s coverage. He told me, “You’re trying to take my job away from me. How would you like it if I tried to take your job away?” I told him I didn’t think the Founding Fathers meant for him to have the seat for life.

By the next time around voters had tired of him, he didn’t seem to be accomplishing much, the party certainly didn’t rally around him, and he was out. Later he told me, “You have to make some adjustments. You can’t always be on a high. And I was always on a high pitch.”

Some pols are frozen in the ice of indifference. Not Beard. I give him credit. He meant well and he tried to help people. May his memory be for a blessing.

16. Steph Machado talks to Providence’s police chief about a spike in violence in 2020.

17. The FBI is investigating the SBA fraud that Eli Sherman and Tim White uncovered.

18. The Rhode Island Association of Realtors recaps 2020: “Sales statistics released today … point to a single-family home market which saw a year-over-year gain of 5.1% in closed transactions and an increase of 12.3% in median price. At the same time, an already low supply of homes for sale at the beginning of the year dwindled further, falling from 2.6 months of inventory in January to 1.4 months in December. … ‘Today’s buyers are vastly different than those we were dealing with a year ago. They’re looking for more space, home offices and a lower cost of living – all thanks to the ability to work remotely,’ said Leann D’Ettore, president of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.”

19. Massachusetts just created a commission to study the local news crisis.

20. Two good reads on the pandemic from The Atlantic: Amanda Mull on why people are getting more aches and pains, and a look at why Americans still aren’t wearing better masks.

21. Aaron Sibarium sees parallels between the U.S. and Weimar Germany.

22. Cranston’s Jon Pincince on the joys of going for a run.

23. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at URI in 1966: “The appalling silence of the good people is as serious as the vitriolic words of the bad people.”

XXX. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — XXX. 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. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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

An earlier version of this column misstated which congressional district Eddie Beard represented.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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