1. Say this for Jim Langevin: he knows how to keep a secret. The 2nd District congressman stunned Rhode Island politics on Tuesday when he announced his retirement, and now his fellow Democrats are scrambling to figure out who might be the party’s strongest contenders to hold the seat. At the moment the landscape looks highly unsettled; with Nellie Gorbea and Joe Shekarchi both taking a pass, it’s unclear whether there will be a big name who gets crowned the early frontrunner in the primary. While that presents an opportunity for the various state lawmakers and others considering a run, it could also incentivize lots of candidates to get in and stay in, making it harder for any individual to capture voters’ attention. Kate Coyne-McCoy, the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s chief strategist, says time is short, particularly when it comes to fundraising — she estimates a successful candidate will need to raise roughly $2 million through November to mount a successful campaign. Money isn’t everything, but anyone who wants to seek the seat is going to need to grapple with whether they have the network and stamina to raise the resources required to mount a campaign, especially if they start out with little name recognition. And what will a majority of Democratic primary voters be looking for? A Langevin-like establishment Democrat? A progressive champion? A business owner? A woman? A person of color? A familiar face? A fresh one? Electability could also figure in the debate among Democrats, since Republicans hope to be in a position to compete for the seat come the fall. The GOP will always face an uphill battle in a blue state like Rhode Island, but the 2nd District is friendlier territory for Republicans than the 1st. And a viable GOP nominee could get support from national groups, partly because Rhode Island is a less expensive media market to try and make an impact. Buckle up for this one.
2. So who’s going to run in the 2nd? Among Democrats, former Rep. Ed Pacheco is poised to be first out of the gate, with a planned launch on Monday. Cranston Sen. Joshua Miller has been having serious discussions and is expected to decide next week. Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee told me Friday she is “very serious” about a potential run, and Rep. Teresa Tanzi said earlier in the week she would consider a campaign if she didn’t see a strong woman candidate emerge. State Sen. Sam Bell said Friday the timing is terrible for him because his infant son is struggling with health challenges. Still, he said, “I am definitely considering this seriously. … I don’t much relish the prospect of being in Congress or running for it, but if the machine comes together behind a deeply problematic candidate, and it is necessary for me to run, I will.” NEARI union leader Bob Walsh said he is considering a run, adding, “I am also weighing what is best for the Democratic Party to keep this seat in Democratic hands.” Former State Police Col. Brendan Doherty said earlier in the week he’s considering it, too, and former state Sen. James Sheehan expressed his interest in a news release Friday. Some are encouraging Gabe Amo, a Rhode Island native who is currently serving in the White House, to move back and run for the seat. Those are some of the names that are circulating publicly, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list — phone lines are burning up as party insiders jot down names and compare notes. Republicans already have a declared candidate in the race — former state Rep. Bob Lancia, who had been making a second run at the seat after losing to Langevin in 2020. Much of the focus so far has been on Allan Fung, who has the voter base and fundraising network to be instantly competitive, and who says he’s seriously examining his options. Another possibility: state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, whose profile has risen in recent months as she spoke out against state coronavirus mandates. She told me Friday she is “taking a serious look at it.”
3. The simplest way to think about the geography of the 2nd Congressional District is that it encompasses western Rhode Island, yet if you look at a map, the district really encompasses the bulk of Rhode Island. Land doesn’t vote, though, so the campaign is going to focus on the most heavily populated parts of the 2nd. And that means a lot of attention will be paid to the half of Providence in the 2nd, along with Warwick and Cranston — nearly 48% of the district’s residents live in those three cities, according to an analysis of the map proposed by the state’s redistricting panel. After that, the biggest population centers are Coventry (6.5%), South Kingstown (5.8%), West Warwick (5.7%), Johnston (5.4%) and North Kingstown (5.1%).
4. Talking with Jim Langevin about his decision on Tuesday, what came through was his exhaustion with the demands of the job, especially travel. “I’ve burned the candle at both ends for a long time,” Langevin said, one of two times he used that metaphor. While he denies that he was concerned about being back in the minority next year, Langevin certainly knows what that change in status would mean: Democrats have only been in the majority for eight of his 22 years in the House. Undoubtedly, a key part of Langevin’s legacy will be the way he broke barriers for individuals with disabilities — he was the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, as his own office highlighted in the headline of its Tuesday news release. His longstanding focus on cybersecurity has come to look prescient as the issue becomes a top-tier concern for governments, companies and individuals, with The Washington Post dubbing Langevin “a cyber legend” in a tech-focused write-up on his departure. Langevin’s shifting position on abortion over two decades was symbolic of the Democratic Party’s increasingly limited appetite for anti-abortion voices. And the low-key lawmaker has been durably popular with the voters, never losing a race since he first ran and won in 1986 as a delegate to a state constitutional convention.
5. Another domino effect of Jim Langevin’s big announcement: the race for governor won’t be the only prizefight in Rhode Island this year. While only half the state’s voters can cast a ballot in the 2nd District, an open congressional race will draw gobs of attention and money. That could be good news for Dan McKee, who will continue to benefit from the advantages of incumbency while voters (and reporters) divide their attention. The addition of a congressional race on the ballot makes the primary math more complex for all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, since they will have to adjust their turnout calculations to account for voters being turned out by the 2nd District candidates. (Will alliances form?) At the same time, with no candidate for governor switching to a bid for Congress, Langevin’s news has had less immediate impact on the gubernatorial contest than it could have. There was also more evidence this week for how expensive the gubernatorial primary could get, with Helena Foulkes announcing she took in just over $1 million during the fourth quarter. None of the other candidates have released fundraising figures yet, and their reports aren’t due until the end of the month.
6. It takes a lot to upstage the State of the State, but Jim Langevin managed to do it on Tuesday, stealing some of the spotlight away from Dan McKee as the governor delivered the prime-time address for the first time. McKee was gracious about the timing, ad-libbing praise for Langevin from the podium, even if his advisers would have preferred that Langevin had waited a day. McKee has yet to formally kick off his gubernatorial campaign, but the State of the State offered him a pomp-and-circumstance opportunity to lay out his vision for Rhode Island’s future — a vision he has plenty of money to fund, thanks to federal relief dollars and a huge state surplus. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to strengthen Rhode Island’s economic recovery and propel our state into the next decade with strength,” McKee said. Housing is emerging as a centerpiece of the administration’s strategy for the future, getting the most prominent mention in the speech after the opening section on the pandemic. The governor has earmarked $250 million in the new budget to tackle the issue, from support for developers to subsidies for down payments. McKee and his aides also used the speech to highlight a number of initiatives that already have support in the General Assembly, such as restoring Medicaid coverage for undocumented children and programs aimed at fighting climate change.
7. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Disregard any rumors that a portion of the $250 million proposed in Governor McKee’s budget for housing will go toward saving the Superman building. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor told me on this week’s Newsmakers that ‘none of this housing money’ will be spent on the defunct skyscraper in downtown Providence. But it’s not all bad news for people who hope the influx of so much one-time cash might breathe new life into the state’s tallest building, which has now sat empty for nearly a decade. Pryor also said the state wants to ‘bring the Superman building back to life,’ and that ‘there are negotiations underway for that purpose.’”
8. The State of the State always shows which policies a governor wants to showcase; the actual budget documents, released two days later, paint a fuller picture of the state’s finances. OMB Director Brian Daniels said this year’s state budget plan is more like three budgets in one: a federal ARPA budget, a state surplus budget, and then the normal annual operating budget. State leaders are working with a staggering amount of money at the moment, with a combined $26.6 billion in spending envisioned for the current and next budget years. You can find our full breakdown of what’s in the budget here. (The wonks’ favorite provision? An early payoff of $62 million in pension contributions that the state deferred back in the early 1990s, a move which will save an estimated $6 million annually over the next decade.)
9. The news that Tom McCarthy will follow Nicole Alexander-Scott out the door at the R.I. Department of Health signals a clear changing of the guard at the agency, nearly a year after Dan McKee inherited Gina Raimondo’s team there. The potential for a leadership vacuum at the department has certainly concerned some observers, with the COVID-19 pandemic still a major part of daily life and the state’s hospitals straining to provide adequate care. At the same time, there is hope that Rhode Island has now passed its omicron peak, with the seven-day average for new cases down 38% from the peak on Jan. 9. The hope is that the new Health Department leadership’s main task will be figuring out how Rhode Island manages endemic COVID, rather than a pandemic, though new variants are always a possibility. The governor’s office announced Friday that McKee has tapped a group of experts to help him find Alexander-Scott’s successor: Dr. Megan Ranney, Dr. John Stoukides, Dr. Bradley Collins, Dr. Kristina Duarte, Dr. Abdul Saied Calvino, Dr. Heather A. Smith and the Rev. Dr. Chris Abhulime.
10. The Rhode Island GOP has filed a complaint alleging that the state redistricting panel violated the Open Meetings Act repeatedly during its months of work; legislative leaders deny the allegation. Now the complaint is before AG Neronha’s office.
11. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Tim White: “It’s not easy to take down the top dog of a criminal operation, but on Friday the state police and attorney general’s office did just that. The president of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, Joseph Lancia, had a change of heart and decided to plead no contest to three counts that he shot at a truck driven by a nemesis of his as it lumbered past the biker club’s Providence headquarters in 2019 (and separately that he knocked out a bouncer at a strip club). The evidence against him was solid: the clubhouse’s own surveillance system recorded the misdeed. While it may seem like a run-of-them-mill criminal prosecution, it was an important one for state investigators. Tensions have been rising between rival biker gangs in New England and authorities are concerned that innocent people could get caught in the crossfire. Taking the president of the undisputed biggest outlaw biker gang off the street, at least for his five-year sentence, could shake things up and distract the crew from another street war. Hells Angels members made a clear show of strength in court Friday, packing the gallery with full-patch members there to show support for their boss. Attorney General Peter Neronha made it a point to try and diminish the group’s allure after the hearing, saying that regardless of ‘pop culture,’ the public is safer with the outcome of the Lancia case.”
12. My colleague Tolly Taylor has been keeping a close eye on staffing challenges at the R.I. Department of Human Services, where call center wait times have been a major source of complaints among SNAP beneficiaries and advocates. (DHS announced late this week it has reopened all in-person services.)
13. The number of people arrested by R.I. State Police troopers for driving under the influence has more than doubled over the last two years.
14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and OMB Director Brian Daniels. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 and Facebook