Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 2

Ted Nesi
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Happy New Year! 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. Is Gina Raimondo going to be Joe Biden’s commerce secretary? Don’t believe anyone who gives you a confident answer. (Unless it’s Joe Biden himself, or maybe Mike Donilon.) The decisions about Raimondo’s future are being made in Delaware, not the Rhode Island State House, and Wilmington is where the best intelligence is likely to emerge. This hasn’t stopped the Smith Hill rumor mill from going into overdrive: first it was a Christmas Eve announcement (nope), then a Secret Service sighting in Providence (nada), then a much-anticipated 5 p.m. news conference on Dec. 30 (uh uh). So what’s really going on? A canvassing of my best sources suggests Raimondo is indeed in the mix for commerce, just as she was for health secretary — but she’s not a lock by any means, with Meg Whitman among the other names getting floated. Commerce is one of three big jobs Biden still needs to fill, along with attorney general and labor secretary, and the decision he makes about one will likely affect the other; if Biden taps Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be labor secretary, for instance, he may be less willing to install another white New Englander over at the Commerce Department. Time will tell: Biden’s team says to expect more cabinet news next week.

2. This latest round of cabinet speculation provided Senate President Dominick Ruggerio with a chance to use one of his favorite quips: “The only working mill left in Rhode Island is the rumor mill.”

3. As long as Governor Raimondo is in serious contention for a cabinet post, there will be a spotlight on how Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would handle the top job should he succeed her. McKee is loathe to get into a guessing game over the governor’s future, but he was willing to join me on this week’s Newsmakers to share his views about some of the policy challenges facing Rhode Island in 2021, including two of the top issues lawmakers are expected to debate in the new General Assembly session. McKee supports legalizing recreational marijuana, saying, “I think it is time and I think it needs to be regulated.” He’s not sure about Raimondo’s proposal to create New Hampshire-style state-run pot shops, saying he wants to ensure room for entrepreneurship. McKee is more hesitant about another idea gaining ground in the General Assembly: raising income taxes on higher-income Rhode Islanders. “You don’t want to try to cure a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. “Let’s find out where we are right now. It’s far better not to be taxing people than tax people, in terms of a state or a municipal leader. So let’s find out what the deficit is before we jump to any conclusions on what the remedy might be.”

4. Whether Governor Raimondo stays or goes, Dan McKee says he plans to be a candidate for governor in 2022, joining a Democratic field that is also expected to include Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. McKee lags the rest of the early field in fundraising: at last check Magaziner led the pack with $963,000 on hand, followed by Elorza ($733,000) and Gorbea ($329,000), with McKee at $104,000. But the former Cumberland mayor says he’s not worried. “Well, there’s two campaigns that will go on in any election,” McKee said on Newsmakers. “One is the fundraising campaign, and the other one is to getting enough votes to be elected. I’ll do very good in the getting enough votes to get elected … and I’ll be competitive on that first side of the campaign, which is the fundraising.”

5. One issue LG McKee has been spotlighting for months has been criticism about how much money Governor Raimondo has put toward small business relief and how quickly the cash has gotten out the door. The governor and her advisers have pushed back at that, brandishing statistics that show more money given out per business in Rhode Island than in neighboring Massachusetts or Connecticut. Asked for a New Year’s Eve update on how much money has been paid out, Commerce RI spokesperson Matt Sheaff put the figure at $126.7 million, or about 10% of Rhode Island’s $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation under the CARES Act. The lion’s share of that money represents Restore RI grants ($51.9 million) and “pause” payouts ($42.3 million). Sheaff emphasized that this represents only money that has been paid out, and that more payments are in the pipeline. However, McKee thinks it’s time to look at whether even more can be doled out to small businesses, now that the stimulus law President Trump signed Sunday extends how long the governor has to spend the $1.25 billion until next Dec. 31. He points to Massachusetts, where Governor Baker moved money around to allocate another $650 million to business relief this week.

6. The new General Assembly will start its work on Tuesday, with the House gathering at Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the Senate at RIC’s Sapinsley Hall to allow for social distancing. The opening leadership elections will be even more of a foregone conclusion than expected, since both Rep. Liana Cassar and Sen. Gayle Goldin announced this week they will not stand for House speaker and Senate president, respectively. That clears the way for Joe Shekarchi and Dominick Ruggerio. Still, there is plenty to watch on opening day in the House in particular — Shekarchi has not announced staff appointments or committee chairs, saying he did not want to be presumptuous before the actual vote for speaker. State House observers are eagerly awaiting word of who Shekarchi will pick as his chief of staff, one of the most powerful political positions in Rhode Island. With George Zainyeh said to be uninterested, a new name is bubbling up: Ray Simone, who has been with Jack Reed for decades and is currently the senator’s Rhode Island chief of staff. Shekarchi and Simone both declined to comment this week when asked whether he’s taking the job.

7. With Jeff Britt getting a “not guilty” verdict last month, one of the questions Attorney General Peter Neronha has faced is why he went after Britt when others involved in the 2016 Mattiello campaign were clearly aware of the Shawna Lawton shenanigans. Asked that question by Tim White, Neronha said, “Whenever you are doing an organizational case, you try to work yourself up the organizational chain, OK? So when you do that, sometimes you can only go so far.” He said the challenge often comes up “in public corruption and organized crime cases,” pointing back to the prosecution of former Lincoln Town Administrator Jonathan Oster. “You had a co-defendant who we charged him, flipped him, and used him against the town administrator in that case,” Neronha told Tim. “That was an instance where that was possible. That’s not always possible in these cases. I’ll go as far as I can go based on the evidence. … You can’t cut a deal to go after somebody else unless you’re confident you’re going to get that person. If you’re not able to do that, then you just never do that. So you go as far as your admissible evidence will take you. When we’re doing an organizational case, I don’t just stop randomly. We go as far as we can based on the admissible evidence that we have. And that’s what we did in this case.”

8. The 117th Congress will be sworn in Sunday, and our region’s congressional delegation will gain a new face: Jake Auchincloss, the Newton Democrat who is succeeding Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. Auchincloss rolled out his senior staff appointments this week, tapping former Adam Schiff aide Tim Hysom as chief of staff and longtime fixture in Newton politics Dana Hanson as district director. Auchincloss has been appointed to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

9. Meanwhile, the woman who nearly defeated Jake Auchincloss in last September’s Democratic primary for the 4th District — Jesse Mermell — has penned an essay about the financial barriers most people face in running for office. “It shouldn’t take the privilege of homeownership or the sacrifice of incurring personal debt to make seeking public office possible,” Mermell writes.

10. There’s a lot riding on the outcomes of Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs on Tuesday — including whether Jack Reed becomes chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sheldon Whitehouse was in the Peach State this week trying to drum up support for the two Democrats.

11. Here’s the latest data on the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned Thursday, “The hardest month of the epidemic — of the entire epidemic — is going to be January; it’s going to be the next 30 days.” State Rep. Grace Diaz tested positive last Friday and was in Miriam Hospital this week getting treatment. “As a Latina, a Black Latina, I know how we think,” Diaz told my colleague Chelsea Jones. “We think it’s a joke, we think it’s easy, it’s nothing, it will never get to me.” But she says she’s experienced firsthand what the virus can do. “My left lung — it has so much pain,” she said. “It’s like a knife is stabbing me inside all the time.”

12. During vacation I read the new memoir by longtime former Washington Post editor Len Downie. He concludes the book with this passage: “News reporting that pursues the truth has not fundamentally changed during my years in journalism, although the transmission of news and information has been profoundly transformed. In the age of the internet, Americans have a wide range of choices. Everyone, every day, can decide what to read, hear, and see in the digital media universe. I believe that it is important, if not always easy, for an informed citizen to discern which news media are pursuing the truth, and which ones are offering lies. Increasing numbers of authoritarian regimes around the world are preventing their citizens from knowing the truth. A worrying proportion of American politicians and media figures appear to be trying to do the same thing here. We all have a responsibility to prevent that from happening.”

13. “How a real-life monopoly made Monopoly the world’s biggest board game.”

14. Tech innovation may have us on the cusp of another Roaring ’20s.

15. “At the North Pole, 24 time zones collide at a single point, rendering them meaningless.”

16. Why are so many restaurant reviews so vicious these days?

17. Kent Hendricks lists the 52 most interesting things he learned in 2020.

18. Worth your time: Lawrence Wright’s 40-page New Yorker opus on America’s coronavirus failures, “The Plague Year.” It takes up nearly the entire Jan. 4 issue of the magazine — an echo of John Hersey’s 1946 masterpiece “Hiroshima.”

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Catch our weekend shows on your radio 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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