1. Rhode Island government — or at least the Rhode Island governor’s office — is in a bit of suspended animation at the moment, with Gina Raimondo on the way out but Dan McKee not yet in. Raimondo has basically disappeared from the public eye, answering no questions from reporters for a month even as major decisions loom over vaccine distribution and the budget. (Her fellow cabinet nominee, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, has gone similarly mute.) McKee’s office was fairly quiet this week, too, issuing few statements and announcing no additional appointments, though the lieutenant governor has been doing some interviews. Behind the scenes, advisers say McKee is focused on meeting with state department heads, examining how to close the budget deficit, and scrutinizing the Department of Health’s vaccination plan. He plans to form a coronavirus advisory group that will include, among others, Brown’s nationally renowned dean of public health Dr. Ashish Jha. Expect to hear more from McKee before long.
2. There is no hotter topic right now than who can get a COVID-19 vaccine and when. Start with a simple fact: there is a basic Econ 101 problem of supply and demand here. Rhode Island officials say the CDC is only sending the state about 14,000 first doses a week; in a state of more than 1 million people, far more are needed to give a shot to everyone who wants one. Just the population of Rhode Islanders ages 65 and older totals roughly 187,000 — even if every shot arriving was directed their way, it would take more than three months to vaccinate them all based on current supply. So until the feds start shipping out more vaccines, it’s going to be slow going. My colleague Eli Sherman has been doing yeoman’s work tracking the data on vaccinations and state health authorities’ complex discussions over who gets prioritized, and we discuss it all in-depth on this week’s Newsmakers. (That includes the explosive controversy over why hospital board members got inoculated early.)
3. On the plus side, Rhode Island’s coronavirus trends continue to move in the right direction now that the holidays are past. Data released Friday shows COVID-19 hospitalizations down 32% since Dec. 15, and the average for daily new cases is 45% below early last month. However, fatalities remain stubbornly high: 51 Rhode Islanders with COVID-19 have died so far this week. And even the current, lower level of hospitalizations and new cases is still well above where things stood as recently as October.
4. One of the circumstances Dan McKee will need to navigate when he takes office is the General Assembly’s effort to reassert influence after nearly a year of allowing Gina Raimondo to make major policy decisions by fiat. That is particularly true in the Senate, which unlike the House is not going through a leadership transition and has hit the ground running in January. One example: the Senate Education Committee has already scheduled a vote on a charter-school moratorium bill that would block six recently approved applications. It will be an early test of McKee’s influence at the State House to see whether he can block or water down a measure that takes direct aim at the policy he’s most closely associated with. Another example: Ryan Pearson, the newly installed Senate Finance chairman, indicated at his first hearing Thursday that the legislature wants to take back control for appropriating how money gets spent after letting Raimondo allocate $1.8 billion (and counting) for coronavirus response with relatively little input up to now. “From the entire chamber and especially from this committee, I know our members want to be engaged and they want to be part of the process and do our constitutional appropriation responsibility,” said Pearson, who is a Cumberland Democrat like McKee but not a close ally of the incoming governor. Pearson floated the possibility that the Assembly will pass multiple supplemental budgets in the coming months to retake control over spending decisions, rather than rubber-stamping moves by the executive branch.
5. A reader asks a good question — does Dan McKee get a budget to pay for transition costs, the way a newly elected governor usually would? Per McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi: “The lieutenant governor plans to work with his existing staff in the lieutenant governor’s office and a group of volunteers to manage the transition and keep costs low. Any incidental expenses will be addressed once he is in the governor’s office.”
6. Gina Raimondo’s nomination for commerce secretary seems to be moving along without any snags, with her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee slated for Tuesday. Barring an unexpected complication or a major screw-up when she testifies, the panel could send her nomination to the floor soon after; witness how fast Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker has been moving Pete Buttigieg’s nomination along this week. Raimondo has taken a variety of steps to prepare for the new job: meeting with senators, filing a required financial disclosure, and reportedly tapping one of Virginia Sen. Mark Warner’s advisers to be her chief of staff. We know she expects to still be Rhode Island’s governor at least through Feb. 3: that is the night her office has scheduled a farewell State of the State address. With Donald Trump’s impeachment trial now slated to begin the week of Feb. 8, she has a narrow window of time to get confirmed before the clash over the former president starts dominating the Senate’s time.
7. Governor Baker on Thursday: “If you told me at the start of all this that I was gonna lose two members of our medical advisory board, the mayor of the city of Boston, the governor of Rhode Island and our secretary of transportation in the space of about 20 days I wouldn’t take that bet.”
8. Jack Reed’s party finally has enough votes to control the Senate — but it still doesn’t have actual control, so Reed still can’t call himself chairman of the Armed Services Committee. As mentioned before in this column, a 50-50 Senate is not the same as a 51-49 Senate — when the vice-president is casting the deciding vote on who should be in control, complex negotiations are required to actually make the chamber function. As of Friday evening, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer had yet to finalize a power-sharing agreement. “I must confess, it’s not exactly clear when the official functional transfer of authority or responsibility takes place,” Reed told me Wednesday. “I hope it’s soon, because we have lots of business to do.” Meantime, and as expected, Reed backed off the hard line he drew in 2017 over giving recently retired generals a waiver to become defense secretary, throwing his support behind Lloyd Austin ahead of the latter’s 93-2 confirmation vote.
9. On Monday evening, David Cicilline and his fellow impeachment managers will troop through Statuary Hall and the Capitol Rotunda to formally present the Senate with their article of impeachment against President Trump. “It’s the most bipartisan impeachment in American history, and we look forward to the opportunity to present our case,” Cicilline told Peacock’s Mehdi Hassan on Friday night, in his first interview since the House voted last week. Cicilline refused to divulge any details about the House’s legal strategy, telling Hassan that doing so “would obviously impact or perhaps undermine our actual effort.” He added, “I was a trial lawyer for 12 or 13 years, and I would never discuss my trial strategy before the case was tried.” (Don’t be surprised if this explosive New York Times story becomes part of their case.)
10. Jake Auchincloss has wasted no time in starting to build a national media profile after just three weeks as a congressman. With the aid of his energetic communications director Matt Corridoni — a Lis Smith protégé — Auchincloss has already gotten a notable amount of press attention for a freshman Democrat hailing from a safe district. It began on Auchincloss’s first day in office, when Axios’s Kadia Goba shadowed the 32-year-old around Capitol Hill for a feature on getting sworn-in during COVID-19. He’s also appeared on MSNBC and been quoted by, among others, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel and New York magazine’s Justin Miller. Ha’aretz flagged him as part of a new crop of pro-Israel Democrats. He’s blanketed local media, too — from big TV, radio and print outlets to hyperlocal ones like Attleboro’s WARA. A theme across the interviews is Auchincloss positioning himself as a loyal Democrat aligned with President Biden, which makes sense for an incumbent who still has a target on his back among some progressives back home in the 4th District.
11. One of the first decisions Merrick Garland will need to make if he gets confirmed as attorney general is how the Justice Department should handle death penalty cases — including the pending trial of Providence’s Louis Coleman.
12. Three stories worth your time out of Providence City Hall from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: the police union has won big raises in its new city contract … Joe Paolino has gotten an initial green light for his plans for the old St. Joseph’s Hospital … and former City Council President Luis Aponte has gotten a new job from Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera.
13. Tim White’s report Monday about Providence’s seven-figure tab for recycling trucks that show up full of trash hit a nerve. It’s clear many people are skeptical about whether they’re really accomplishing anything by carefully sorting their rubbish. And it’s actually a subject Senator Whitehouse has been speaking out about for a while as a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he has partnered with Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan on multiple “Save Our Seas” laws that target marine plastic pollution. “My take on it is that a lot of the recycling that is claimed to take place was actually phony, that stuff went into the blue recycling bin but then it ended up going across the ocean to an Asian country to be dumped and very likely ended up being washed into some river and from there into the sea,” Whitehouse said last fall at the Global Plastics Summit. “I think we need to have a bit of a reckoning on what the recycling system looks like,” he added, “how it really works, how Americans can count when they put something in the recycling bin to have it actually end up recycled.”
14. The Providence Journal is getting a new executive editor: David Ng, a veteran of the New York City and New Jersey newspaper markets (including a three-year stint as New York Daily News executive editor). “The goal of any paper is to be the town square for its citizens whether it’s a city, state or nation, a place where we gather to share our stories and to exchange ideas and debate our opinions,” Ng said on the paper’s website. “It used to be just print but now it’s also a digital town hall.” Ng will be the Projo’s third executive editor since Karen Bordeleau retired in 2015, and he will face the same conundrum as his predecessors: how to preserve the profitable print product as much as possible while building a stronger digital presence, all with a sharply downsized staff and increasing competition from The Boston Globe. The Journal’s most recent circulation report shows the challenge. Weekday paid print circulation fell to 29,957 copies a day as of Sept. 30, with Sundays down to 38,500 copies; both figures were over 200,000 back in 1990. But the report also showed at least one reason for optimism: the paper now has slightly more than 9,000 digital subscribers, up from under 7,000 at the start of 2020.
15. Everybody wants to live in Rhode Island: the median price of a single-family home was up 14% in December, to $325,000, and there was only a little more than a month’s supply of homes on the market. With little political appetite to build more houses, prices could keep rising, too.
16. A bit of Whaling City trivia for you: newly elected San Diego Congresswoman Sara Jacobs is the granddaughter of billionaire New Bedford native Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of tech giant Qualcomm. The city’s Jacobs Elementary School is named after him.
17. Kenneth Baer’s advice for the Biden team? Delete your Twitter accounts.
19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — the latest on the vaccine rollout in Rhode Island; U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. 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 (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. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram