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1. Rhode Island’s 112 lawmakers — down by one following Rep. Shelby Maldonado’s resignation — return to Smith Hill on Tuesday to kick off this year’s General Assembly session. On the surface, continuity is the order of the day: it will be the sixth Assembly session with Gina Raimondo as governor, the seventh with Nick Mattiello as House speaker, and the fourth with Dominick Ruggerio as Senate president. An overarching question is whether relations between the executive and legislative branches will improve or continue to devolve. While the governor struggled to advance her legislative agenda last year, the atmosphere appears even worse now. It’s not just about the frosty Raimondo-Mattiello relationship, either; there is increasing frustration with her administration in the once-friendly Senate, too. Why? There are many reasons. The lawsuit she filed over medical marijuana regulations was taken as a poke in the eye by both chambers. Quite a few lawmakers are still steamed after she mused about using her sizable campaign war chest to target unsupportive legislators in this year’s election. She appears likely to defy Mattiello and Ruggerio by including marijuana legalization in her plan to close a $200 million deficit. And her weak job approval rating gives rank-and-file Democrats little fear of opposing her — and, in some cases, trepidation about supporting her. The situation poses an early test for Raimondo’s incoming chief of staff, David Ortiz, and her new senior adviser, Dan Connors.
2. Advice for Governor Raimondo on this week’s Newsmakers from two former gubernatorial communications directors. From Joy Fox, who held the job under Raimondo in 2015 and 2016: “I think as you start any new year, it’s all about figuring out what those two or three top priorities are, and really just telling stories and communicating and making the case as best you can, using that bully pulpit.” From Lisa Pelosi, who held the job under Lincoln Almond: “A truce. A truce between the governor and the General Assembly. They have not worked well together since she first became governor, and now she’s in her sixth year.”
3. Things may look a little different if you tune into Capitol TV for the start of session Tuesday afternoon. That’s because the House and Senate chambers just underwent $2.5 million in renovations aimed at restoring their luster and upgrading their technology. Visually, observers are likely to notice the new carpets and drapes (that frayed red curtain behind the House speaker is gone), the fresh paint jobs, and the detail work like gold lettering added in the Senate to the seals of the original 13 states. Under the hood, both chambers have new sound systems, including a hearing loop system that will serve people with t-coil hearing aids and cochlear implants. More from the news release: “The renovation also included considerable improvements to technology, including added layers of safety for the voting systems and a full update of both chambers’ antiquated electrical systems — which have had only piecemeal repairs and updates since the building opened nearly 120 years ago. The updates will at last bring the wiring up to code and improve the safety of the public, the members and the building.”
4. Mark your calendars: the governor will deliver her State of the State on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m., and she’ll release her 2020-21 budget proposal two days later.
5. Count WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming among those who think the Rhode Island Republican Party has a real chance to pick up seats in the Assembly this November. He argues GOP Chair Sue Cienki is making the right move by focusing much of the party’s attention on sections of Rhode Island that backed Allan Fung and Donald Trump, particularly in the western part of the state. “If they can find the right candidates — and that’s going to be the key thing — they need to find good candidates, not just names. They need to be able to raise money for the candidates,” Fleming said on this week’s Newsmakers. “And the most important thing is, they’ve got to build an organization for these candidates.” The Republicans aren’t waiting to get started: the party has scheduled four five-hour candidate trainings to be held on successive Saturdays next month.
6. Are truck tolls in actual legal jeopardy? The state is making another attempt to keep the trucking industry’s challenge out of federal court after a setback last month. Matt Allen argued Friday on WPRO that he thinks it’s inevitable tolling will eventually be extended from trucks to passenger cars — and while it’s hard to imagine many lawmakers would want to take such a vote, a court decision voiding a truck-only tolling regime might change the calculus for some.
7. Alex Lavin, the head of the company that threatened to sue if the state didn’t start accepting applications for new medical marijuana dispensaries, says he’s cut ties with State House lobbyist Mark Ryan and his law firm — though Lavin still opposes awarding new licenses through a lottery.
8. A dispatch out of Providence City Hall from Target 12’s Steph Machado: “Seth Yurdin’s surprise announcement that he would resign his Ward 1 seat on the Providence City Council after 13 years has sparked a flurry of interest in the capital city, especially since he represented some highly influential neighborhoods on the East Side and downtown. Yurdin was going to be term-limited in 2022, so would-be candidates who were mulling a run for the open seat in two years now have a short window to decide whether to throw their hats in the ring for a special election. Nightclub owner and downtown resident Anthony Santurri, who recently participated in Council President Sabina Matos’s nightlife safety study group, was the first on Friday to say he’s definitely running. A handful of others, including activist Justice Gaines, who lost to Yurdin in 2018, are considering jumping in. The race is likely to be interesting: Yurdin’s former ward includes much of downtown Providence, the Jewelry District, Fox Point, and the former I-195 land where hotly debated development projects like the Fane Tower are being proposed. Dates for the special election have not yet been set, because the City Council has to formally accept Yurdin’s resignation and declare the seat vacant at its next meeting. Under the city charter’s term limits provision, the new councilperson would only be eligible to be re-elected to two more terms after finishing up Yurdin’s, because he stepped down with nearly three years left in his tenure.”
9. President Trump’s decision to order an airstrike that killed Iran’s General Soleimani quickly drew this tweet from Congressman Joe Kennedy: “We shouldn’t have gone to war with Iraq then. We shouldn’t go to war with Iran now.” The subtext? The U.S. senator Kennedy is now challenging, incumbent Ed Markey, voted in favor of the Iraq war back in 2002 — a discordant note for Markey as he links himself to progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. With the Iraq vote now nearly two decades in the past, it’s easy to forget that quite a few New England Democrats, including not only Markey but also Patrick Kennedy, voted for the war. Kennedy was the sole member of Rhode Island’s delegation to vote yes, with Jack Reed, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Langevin all voting no. (Ted Kennedy, Patrick’s father and Joe’s great-uncle, was among the most outspoken opponents of the war.)
10. For more on the geopolitical fallout from the U.S. operation in Iraq, Robin Wright’s New Yorker article is worth your time.
11. Rhode Island still has a chance of keeping two U.S. House seats after 2020.
12. Retired Projo columnist Charlie Bakst writes in with a smart observation: the U.S. Senate could theoretically wind up with five “Rhode Island” senators after the 2020 election. In addition to Democrats Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, there’s LaSalle Academy graduate Pat Toomey, currently a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, who isn’t up for re-election until 2022. Then there’s Arizona Republican Martha McSally, a Warwick native who is finishing out John McCain’s final term and is facing a tough campaign to win a term in her own right. (She already lost last year’s election to succeed Jeff Flake.) And there’s also Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat originally from East Greenwich — she interned for Claiborne Pell — who is now seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Susan Collins.
13. With the books closed on 2019, it was a mixed year for Rhode Island’s biggest publicly traded companies on Wall Street. Citizens Financial and Hasbro both posted solid gains, and CVS was up. But Textron and IGT basically treaded water, while Twin River and United Natural Foods both lost ground.
14. Over the holidays, an eagle-eyed Nesi’s Notes reader noticed a TV commercial burnishing the image of Green Development, the energy company led by well-known State House player Mark DePasquale. Green Development spokesperson Bill Fischer confirmed the new ad campaign, and said it has multiple goals. “Green is one of the largest developers of renewable energy projects in Rhode Island,” Fischer said in an email. “Because of this position, Green feels a sense of obligation to promote the industry and to raise awareness of its many benefits.” Fischer cited the potential for new jobs, as well as renewable energy’s potential to serve as a secondary source of income for farmers.
15. Climate watch: no state in the country is warming faster than Rhode Island. “Our winters now are not like our winters before,” the state meteorologist tells USA Today.
16. Monday is the centennial of the day when Rhode Island ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, back in 1920. (It was enough of a priority that the General Assembly gave its ascent on the very first day of that year’s legislative session.) Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea plans to mark the anniversary Monday morning by gathering a group of prominent Rhode Island women for a 10 a.m. event in the State Library.
18. Calculated Risk poses 10 big economic questions for 2020.
19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable looks ahead to the new year. 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.