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Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 25

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Speaker Mattiello’s inner circle threw the car into reverse so fast Thursday morning you could hear the tires squeal. They faced two problems: not only was his decision to order an unusual audit of the Convention Center being seen as retribution for a personnel investigation there involving his friend, but it wasn’t even clear he had the legal authority to trigger the audit in the first place. The speaker apparently misjudged House Republican Leader Blake Filippi, who not only refused to sign an after-the-fact letter authorizing what Filippi terms a “vigilante audit” but who instead took the extraordinary step of challenging Mattiello’s power in court, enraging the speaker. Yet one reason Mattiello has held on six years is that he understands the value of a strategic retreat. You can try to end a bad news cycle by flip-flopping on the underlying issue — whether it’s a questionable audit, $1 million for a chiropractor, or retaining a chairman accused of sexual harassment — and seeking higher ground. In this case, Mattiello wants to shift the conversation from how he exercises power as Rhode Island’s most important lawmaker to the Convention Center’s finances and Filippi’s judgment. But Filippi appears to have strong support from members of his caucus, who stood in solidarity with him Thursday — no small thing considering Mattiello’s hitherto warm relations with the GOP. Nor does Filippi seem willing to drop his lawsuit, which challenges Mattiello’s near-total power over the Assembly’s $46 million budget and management. If that case leads to a decision defining the legal extent of a House speaker’s power, it could have far-reaching implications for Smith Hill; so could the Convention Center board’s request for a State Police probe, if investigators take it seriously.

2. So what do the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority’s finances look like, anyway? The quasi-public agency has operated in the red for years, partly by design — the General Assembly created it in 1987 to take on debt (without voter approval) in order to build the Convention Center. So its balance sheet isn’t pretty: the most recent audit showed over $239 million in liabilities, the bulk of it outstanding bonds for the Convention Center, the Dunk and the Garrahy Garage. It gets an annual infusion of over $20 million from the state budget and the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund to stay afloat, but still reported a $600,000 operating loss (before depreciation) for the 12 months ended June 30. In years past the general argument on the Convention Center Authority’s behalf has been that all the facilities are a loss leader for economic activity downtown, bringing patrons into restaurants and hotels. But former House Republican Leader Patricia Morgan was a vocal critic of its operations, as I detailed in this 2015 story.

3. As the Convention Center controversy plays out, Speaker Mattiello is also working to secure the votes for his bill with Senate President Ruggerio on marijuana regulations, mainly in response to Governor Raimondo’s lawsuit against them. Our Steph Machado attended Tuesday’s House hearing on the bill, and it was clear after that many rank-and-file lawmakers have reservations about passing a measure that cultivators — which are, in the end, local businesses — say will put them out of business. Democratic leaders have scheduled committee votes on the bill for Tuesday, so keep an eye out Monday for potential developments.

4. Don’t miss Katie Mulvaney on the potential for big changes at the R.I. Supreme Court.

5. Tim White and Eli Sherman look at why the state doesn’t track the “Blue Cards” that authorize Rhode Islanders to buy handguns.

6. Friday night news: Tampa’s Harrison Peters is the state’s pick for Providence schools superintendent.

7. Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman is the latest Democratic aspirant for Joe Kennedy’s U.S. House seat to visit WPRI 12, joining us Friday to lay out the rationale for her campaign. “I am running for Congress with the fierce urgency of a Mom that is fed up by what is going on in this country,” she said during a taping of Newsmakers. Grossman — whose father-in-law is former state treasurer and Democratic powerbroker Steve Grossman — has kicked off the race as one of its financial leaders, finishing 2019 with $318,000 on hand. Her top issue: gun control, which she ties back to being the mother of two young children, always fearful of a potential school shooting. And like the other candidates, all of whom are from Newton or Brookline, she is trying her best to convince Attleboro and points south that she understands their part of the 4th District, distant from Greater Boston’s wealth and power. “There is a five times differential from the north to the south end of the district in terms of annual median household income,” she said. “A representative for this district should be committed to bringing job growth and economic development and inclusive economic prosperity to those communities that were the hardest hit by the recession and have had the hardest time bringing jobs back to the region.” Meanwhile, the list of 4th District candidates rose to seven this week, as Democrat Ben Sigel joined the race — and yes, he’s from Brookline, too.

8. Three candidates have filed to run for Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell’s old House seat.

9. Washington Watch … David Cicilline got another national profile pegged to his antitrust efforts, this time in Politico MagazineSheldon Whitehouse (and U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell) got criticized by the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and Whitehouse hit back on Twitter) … Jack Reed wasn’t happy with the president’s comments about soldiers hurt in the Iran attack.

10. Eye on the presidential race … Pete Buttigieg had a hiccup in Rhode Island last weekend when his campaign abandoned a fundraiser at the Dark Lady; Bernie Sanders‘ local supporters are trying to capitalize by holding their own event there … the R.I. Democratic Party is holding four workshops next month to explain how to become a convention delegate … secretary of state spokesperson Nick Domings reports 16 candidates had filed for Rhode Island’s April presidential primary as of midday Friday.

11. Candidate Watch … Nathan Biah is running in the Democratic primary for House District 3, challenging incumbent Rep. Moira Walsh.

12. Steph Machado reports a Trader Joe’s may finally be coming to Providence.

13. Eli Sherman reports Rhode Island home prices have now topped pre-recession levels.

14. Former CVS CEO Tom Ryan is among Governor Raimondo’s picks to join URI’s new independent Board of Trustees.

15. A group of Bristolians is launching a new annual event called the Bristol BookFest, described as “a free two-day public humanities program … dedicated to a close reading of a major literary text.” The inaugural event, slated for March 27 and 28, should be of interest to Nesi’s Notes readers: an examination of “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning 1947 classic about a demagogic southern politician. More information, including online registration, is available here.

16. Boston Magazine’s Chris Sweeney has a fantastic profile of ex-Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia.

17. Brown researchers are doing cutting-edge work on the health benefits of mindfulness.

18. Ken Doctor offers 20 thoughts on the future of the news business in the 2020s. On the same topic, here’s why an Arkansas newspaper is giving away iPads to ease the print-to-digital transition.

19. “How I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours.”

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Democratic U.S. House candidate Becky Grossman; a reporter roundtable with Steph Machado, Eli Sherman and Dan McGowan. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back 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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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