Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to email@example.com and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. Storm clouds are gathering on Rhode Island’s economic horizon, but it’s still unclear if the state will experience only passing flurries or a full-blown nor’easter. Close observers point to some concerning signs. URI’s Len Lardaro sees “mounting evidence” that the state’s economy is slowing in employment data, and calculates that the unemployment rate was 5.2% in December when adjusted for labor force participation. RIPEC’s Mike DiBiase had a similar takeaway from the latest employment report, warning that “the news generally is not very good,” and pointing out that the state is still down by over 10,000 jobs versus before the pandemic. (Massachusetts has made up nearly all of its pandemic job losses, while Connecticut is still lagging.) Some companies are now cutting jobs as the Fed’s inflation-fighting crimps profits: Hasbro just announced it will eliminate roughly 1,000 jobs worldwide due to disappointing holiday sales, with a small percentage of the layoffs in Rhode Island. Many forecasters expect a recession this year, though others think the economy will slow without shrinking. Speaker Shekarchi has been the loudest cautionary voice on Smith Hill, counting himself among those who expect a recession, and saying the potential for a downturn will be front of mind as the House starts reviewing Governor McKee’s $13.7 billion budget proposal.
2. Sheldon Whitehouse returned Sunday from a trip to Ukraine, where he visited President Zelenskyy along with his Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal. Whitehouse was already on Zelenskyy’s radar before the trip; during the lame duck session, the Ukrainian leader engaged in a successful bit of last-minute lobbying to get Mitch McConnell on board with a bill co-sponsored by Whitehouse and Graham. “The backstory was that we had a bill clogged up,” Whitehouse told Kim Kalunian and Kayla Fish during a live interview Wednesday on 12 News at 4. “It was bipartisan — it seemed to have a lot of support — we couldn’t quite identify who was blocking it. But what it would do is it would take the money that we have allowed and encouraged the U.S. government to grab from the corrupt [Russian] oligarchs, and instead of just seizing it and freezing it, it would allow it to be diverted over to Ukraine so that the taxpayers have less of a responsibility and the people who caused this war have more of a responsibility. And obviously President Zelenskyy likes that idea, and so we were able to organize him making a call to Leader McConnell, the head of the Republican Party. And that broke the logjam, and the bill got into the omnibus and it is now law.”
3. Speaking of Senator Whitehouse, he has seen the biggest increase in his stature so far among local lawmakers as the 118th Congress starts getting down to business. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer formally named Whitehouse the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, giving the Rhode Islander a full-committee gavel for the first time in his 16 years on Capitol Hill. Amusingly, Whitehouse has spent years publicly bemoaning how useless he finds the panel, which was created in the 1970s in a less-than-successful bid to rationalize the spending decisions of the powerful Appropriations Committees. Whitehouse has described the Budget Committee as “preposterous and meaningless,” even a “nullity,” saying in 2018: “We don’t do anything in this committee.” That said, he’s also repeatedly looked for ways to make its work more useful. Rhode Island native Andy Boardman, who is now at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and has tracked the Budget Committee for years, cited two ways he expects Whitehouse to make use of his new gavel. “One: A committee chair is a big soapbox. With this new position, expect Whitehouse to build attention and proposals around his core issues, like how climate change threatens the federal budget,” Boardman told me. “Two: Whitehouse’s record suggests one of his focuses will be trying to move the committee away from the partisan gauntlet it has become for budget brawls, and instead reasserting the committee’s historically intended role of budgetary air-traffic controller – unifying appropriations, spending and tax policies around some shared objectives. Republicans’ hostage-taking on the debt limit could give him an opportunity to show off some ideas later this year.”
4. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries announced Friday he has named newly elected Congressman Seth Magaziner to two committees: Homeland Security and Natural Resources. Neither is among the House’s most powerful panels, but that isn’t necessarily a knock on Magaziner — no freshman got a spot on high-profile panels like Appropriations, Energy & Commerce or Ways & Means. Additionally, Magaziner was added to House Minority Whip Katherine Clark’s whip team as a regional whip tracking the votes of the New England delegation. The 2nd District Democrat also made good on a campaign promise by co-sponsoring a bill to ban members of Congress from trading stocks.
5. Rhode Island certainly doesn’t lack for influence in the nation’s capital these days, with Gina Raimondo serving as commerce secretary, Jack Reed leading the Armed Services Committee and Mike Donilon at the president’s right hand as his senior adviser. Another Rhody transplant with a big White House gig is Pawtucket native Gabe Amo, a special assistant to the president who serves as the administration’s lead liaison with the nation’s mayors. My photographer Corey Welch and I visited Amo in Washington to get an up-close look at what it’s like to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — here’s our profile of him.
6. Jake Auchincloss just gave the first-ever congressional speech generated by AI.
7. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Tim White: “When he was just 6 years old, Hugh Clements and his family were forced out of their Smith Hill triple-decker because the state wanted the land for government buildings. He moved to Coventry, and his childhood home became a parking lot across from the State House. Two decades later, in 1985, Clements returned to the capital city to take an oath as a Providence patrolman. ‘I only wanted to be a Providence police officer,’ Clements told me in an exit interview at police headquarters this week, following his selection as the new head of the federal COPS program. Clements spent years as a beat cop, then joined the Detective Bureau, doing undercover work like gun stings targeting members of organized crime. He also helped to dismantle the feared gang The Latin Kings. And he estimates he’s investigated nearly 100 homicides, most of them solved. ‘There’s one or two that still bother me,’ he said. Initially reluctant to join the brass, Clements eventually accepted a position as a district commander at the dawn of the city’s community policing movement. On Friday he walked out the door of headquarters for the final time, removing the ‘1’ badge from his shirt after 12 years as colonel. (As Dan McGowan discovered, you have to go back the Civil War era to find a chief who led the department longer.) Having covered law enforcement for nearly a quarter-century, one point about Clements stands out to me: his ability to balance the importance of police accountability with letting his rank-and-file know he had their backs. Clements was the perfect antidote to his predecessor, Col. Dean Esserman, who certainly rubbed many at the department the wrong way. Former Mayor Jorge Elorza, too, said and did things that raised the ire of officers, as did Commissioner Steven Paré. Clements successfully forged relationships within the community, even during the unrest of 2020, and was a full-throated supporter of body-worn cameras despite grumblings within the ranks. But he was also the first to remind people just how hard a job policing is, and what it’s like to have to make a split-second decision. ‘I never forgot the struggles of the job,’ he told me. ‘When you’re out there at 2:30 in the morning on a car stop, or 10:30 at night in the north end, the south side, the West End. Policing in this type of environment … it’s difficult.’ The displaced kid from Smith Hill never forgot what it was like to be a beat cop. And his leadership showed it.”
8. Bernie Buonanno is out as Rhode Island Convention Center Authority chairman, at the request of Governor McKee; Buonanno’s daughter, Helena Foulkes, challenged McKee in last year’s election. Buonanno says McKee relayed the request through AFL-CIO President George Nee, who serves as the authority’s vice-chair. No word yet on who will be the new chairman, but McKee press secretary Olivia Darocha said, “The office is working to fill this seat and will have an announcement in the coming weeks.”
9. Eye on Smith Hill … state reps have spent the month of January nervously awaiting word from Speaker Shekarchi about their committee assignments, usually out by now; the lists are due next week following passage of the House rules package … the Rhode Island Senate will continue tiptoeing into the 21st century by doubling the number of hearing rooms fitted out with broadcast capabilities … Senate GOP Leader Jessica de la Cruz joined 12 News at 4 for a live interview on her 2023 agenda.
10. Speaker Shekarchi welcomed an unusual visitor to the House to give a lecture on Thursday: famed historian Douglas Brinkley, who spoke to reps and other guests about states’ roles in advancing environmental policy, keyed off his 2022 book “Silent Spring Revolution.” Shekarchi said the inspiration for the invitation came from Democratic National Committeewoman Liz Beretta-Perik, who met Brinkley through her service on the Library of Congress foundation board. She said Brinkley was impressed by Rhode Island’s recent efforts on environmental policy, including the 2021 Act on Climate, as well as the comity on the House floor between Shekarchi and GOP Leader Mike Chippendale. “It was a pleasure to see them highlight all their hard work,” Beretta-Perik said. You can watch Brinkley’s remarks to the House here.
11. Ronna Romney McDaniel just won re-election as Republican National Committee chair despite challenges from opponents who pointed to the 2022 midterm results to criticize her leadership. Three Rhode Islanders had a vote in the race: state GOP Chair Sue Cienki, National Committeeman Steve Frias and National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick. Cienki and Sennick have yet to respond to a question about who they supported in the race, but Frias confirmed he voted to give McDaniel another term. “There were various reasons why Republicans underperformed in 2022, but McDaniel was not one of them. The RNC did its job in 2022,” Frias said in an email. “The two main reasons why Republicans did not do better in 2022 was the Dobbs decision, which increased Democratic turnout, and former President Trump’s high-profile involvement in the midterm elections, which cost us swing voters. Hopefully we will realize this before the 2024 election.”
12. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “In his State of the State address, Governor McKee made a promise about the future of the aging school buildings where Providence students learn: ‘I’m proud to say that soon, Providence will have 50% of its students in new facilities.’ The pronouncement came shortly after the state-run school district came out with a brand-new construction plan, abandoning previously announced projects and proposing to build several new or ‘like-new’ K-8 schools with voter-approved school bond money. In addition to new construction, the plan calls for closing two elementary schools this spring and a middle school in 2025. I was curious about the governor’s math, so I asked his administration for the list of school buildings and enrollment numbers they used to come up with the 50% stat, and to define ‘soon.’ After repeated requests, the answer finally came Thursday night — and it turns out the timeline for fulfilling this promise is about seven years away, during the 2029-30 school year. The math is a little fuzzy. RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente says 7,300 Providence students are expected to be in ‘high-quality learning spaces’ by 2030 at both existing schools (PCTA, Classical High School, Nathan Bishop Middle School, William D’Abate Elementary School) and new or ‘like-new’ K-8 schools (Narducci Learning Center, Spaziano Campus, Pleasant View Elementary School, Mary Fogarty School, Harry Kizirian School, Gilbert Stuart School). Based on current enrollment of 20,700 students, that would only account for a little more than a third of Providence students. Morente said enrollment is projected to drop to 16,800 by 2030, a significant decrease. But even if that happens, it would still mean only 43% of Providence students would be in those school buildings based on RIDE’s own numbers. That’s still short of the governor’s promise, but Morente said RIDE thinks there will be enough bond money to do ‘additional school enhancements’ that would bring the total to over 50%.”
13. Also from Steph Machado: the new I-195 Commission chairman, Marc Crisafulli, is skeptical about whether the Fane Tower will ever get built, and wants to get more money for the rest of the vacant highway land. Read Steph’s full report here.
14. Rhode Island still has more than 35,000 lead water pipes, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio wants all of them gone within 10 years.
15. Veteran Democratic strategist Greg Maynard argues the Massachusetts Democratic Party is no longer fit for purpose in what has effectively become a one-party state. How many of his criticisms also apply to the Rhode Island Democratic Party?
16. One of the great works of American literature, “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” is now over 30 years old.
17. Two great reads from The Washington Post challenge the conventional wisdom on consumer products and the environment: single-use coffee pods may not be worse than traditional coffee pots, and modern home appliances are vastly more efficient than assumed.
18. Next Tuesday would have been the 108th birthday of one of Rhode Island’s greatest musicians, the late jazz trumpet legend Bobby Hackett — and even if you don’t know his playing, you’ll likely recognize his name because it graces the theater at CCRI in Warwick. Listen to Hackett here backing up Tony Bennett on “The Very Thought of You.” (And to learn more about Hackett, here’s his NYT obit.)
19. This week our newsroom said goodbye to a true WPRI 12 legend, Danielle North, who stepped down as our morning anchor nearly a quarter-century after she first joined the newsroom. As I said on Twitter, there is nobody in news with a bigger heart than Danielle — or a bigger personality! She will be enormously missed, both on air and behind the scenes. The morning team put together some lovely tributes to Danielle to mark her departure, which you can find here. Happily, Danielle handed over the reins to a perfect successor in the AM anchor chair, Kait Walsh, a Southeastern Massachusetts native who’s been with us since 2017.
20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Providence Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sunday at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). 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. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook