1. Governor McKee frequently cites the current budget’s $250 million in federal money for housing as a sign of his commitment on the issue. But money alone isn’t enough; to really move the needle on Rhode Island’s affordability crisis, McKee’s team will have to tackle a complex series of interlocking challenges, starting with municipal-level red tape. And the weeks since the election have raised serious questions about the administration’s efforts so far. The most visible challenge was the tent encampment at the State House, which highlighted an inadequate supply of shelter beds for a second winter in a row. It also shined an unflattering spotlight on the state’s first-ever housing secretary, Josh Saal, whom McKee hired for $170,000 a year ago as required under a law championed by Speaker Shekarchi. The spotlight grew harsher when Saal’s office announced, the Friday afternoon before New Year’s, he was seeking a consultant “to provide support for the creation of a comprehensive, statewide housing plan” — then missed the next day’s deadline to submit a key report on the housing situation. And when he did belatedly release the report, it had significant omissions and no evidence of fresh fact-gathering. Shekarchi was clearly frustrated on this week’s Newsmakers, saying he believes “very little” of the $250 million has been touched. “We need to know why this money has not been spent, why we haven’t executed and what we need to do to make it better,” he said, adding, “I want more production.” It appears McKee may be getting frustrated, too — asked Friday if the governor retains confidence in Saal, his office didn’t respond.
2. Tuesday’s speeches by Speaker Shekarchi, Senate President Ruggerio and Governor McKee offered a window into their policy priorities for 2023. As you’d expect, Shekarchi emphasized housing, while also saying he wants to bolster the life-sciences sector and protect the environment. Ruggerio made clear once again that the Senate will push for a revamp of the education funding formula, something Shekarchi isn’t sure about yet but said Friday he is willing to entertain. Also on Ruggerio’s list: improving mental health, moving toward universal pre-K, replacing all lead pipes, and blowing up the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. McKee highlighted three goals: raising incomes, matching Massachusetts on education by 2030, and improving health. The governor is expected to offer more details about his vision on Jan. 17, when he will deliver his annual State of the State address, two days before he releases his proposed budget. But Shekarchi is wary of any grand plans for the state’s $610 million projected surplus, after getting a recent warning from two different Wall Street economists that the country could slide into a “severe recession” by the spring. “We may have to look at our expenses,” Shekarchi said on Newsmakers. “I don’t want to cut any programs, so I’m very cautious before we start instituting and spending on new programs.”
3. The award for funniest line of the three swearing-in speeches goes to Senate President Ruggerio, whose four decades on Smith Hill allowed him to offer the freshmen senators a bit of wisdom. “To my new colleagues: today is the best that it gets,” he said. “Today, we get sworn in. Tomorrow, we get sworn at.”
4. Speaker Shekarchi isn’t the only local leader kicking off 2023 with a major focus on housing. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey used her inaugural speech Thursday to make a forceful case that the Bay State needs to change its attitude toward construction of new homes and apartments. “This is the greatest state in the union,” she said. “But people are leaving.” While the high cost of housing is in one sense a positive sign — it shows high demand to live in Massachusetts — she said prices are “out of control” and need to be addressed. Her ideas include creating a secretary of housing, providing tax deductions for renters, and building on surplus state-owned land. (Rhode Island is looking at that last idea, too, with a 13-member House Vacant Property Commission set to start studying it on Monday.) Yet Healey also acknowledged the housing crisis will only be fixed by “the choices and commitments of every neighborhood,” not just at the state level. “Today I’m asking every citizen to join this cause,” she said. “That means building more housing next to transit hubs, taking another look at zoning, and preserving the housing we already have.” Healey isn’t starting from scratch; her predecessor, Charlie Baker, helped enact a new law that has begun cutting state aid for cities and towns which refuse to address local zoning.
5. Attorney General Peter Neronha has never been a shrinking violet, but he still turned heads at Tuesday’s inaugural with a high-energy speech that included a forceful call for his fellow state leaders to figure out a comprehensive plan to stabilize the hospital sector. Multiple people came up to me after the event and wondered if we were seeing the embryonic stage of a Neronha for Governor campaign, though he has always demurred when asked about his interest in the job. (And, of course, the job might not be open since Governor McKee will be eligible to run again in 2026.)
6. Anyone interested in politics has been riveted this week by the struggles of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy as he tried to become speaker, the most drawn-out contest for that position in well over a century. Being a House speaker himself, Joe Shekarchi has a unique perspective on the situation. “I’m shocked that he would actually bring it to a floor vote when he didn’t have the votes — that’s like the cardinal sin of leadership,” Shekarchi said on Newsmakers. “If you want something, you don’t bring it to the floor unless you have the votes or could get the votes.” Shekarchi also thinks McCarthy has only created more problems for himself during the negotiations by ceding so much to dissident Republicans in order to secure their votes. “He’s trying to give away — I don’t want to use the word ‘power,’ but the ability of a speaker to legislate and to govern — just to be called ‘speaker,'” Sheakrchi said. “I wouldn’t want the job without the ability to get things done.” Politico founding editor John Harris has a similar take here.
7. No speaker means no congressmen, and that includes Rhode Island’s David Cicilline and Seth Magaziner, who remained in limbo with their oaths of office on hold until the GOP majority settled on a leader. Among other effects, the situation has delayed the organization of House committees. For Cicilline, that has put off the moment when he must formally announce whether he will seek to stay the top Democrat on the antitrust subcommittee or switch to be the party’s leader on the Middle East subcommittee, since he has seniority on both panels but must choose between them. (All this assumes the new majority will keep the same subcommittees that existed in the last Congress.) Meanwhile, Magaziner still has no idea which committee assignments he will draw — but Cicilline’s recent appointment to the panel which makes those assignments could help him.
8. Jack Reed spent much of this week far from the drama on Capitol Hill. Ukrainian officials revealed Friday that Reed and a colleague, Maine’s Angus King, had crossed the Atlantic to confer with President Zelenskyy about the state of its conflict with Russia and U.S. aid to his nation. Reed has been a steadfast supporter of American and NATO support for Ukraine in his role as Armed Services chairman, and Zelenskyy’s office tweeted out a video of the senator at the presidential palace. “This struggle is our struggle. And Americans recognize that,” Reed told reporters in Kyiv, adding that he and King “want to do everything we can … to expedite the assistance that Ukraine needs to finish this fight successfully.” The issue could be a headache for Reed in the coming months, with some of the GOP dissidents who’ve fought Kevin McCarthy citing Ukraine aid as one of their concerns.
9. Seth Magaziner was declared the winner of the 2nd District race two months ago, but the bills are still coming in. Magaziner sent an email to his supporters on New Year’s Eve seeking donations, writing, “Unfortunately, we didn’t raise quite enough to keep up with the Republican dark money and we did end up with some final bills to pay.” A source familiar reports Magaziner’s campaign account ended the year about $76,800 in the red, but that his team expects to pay it off relatively quickly. After that he will begin fundraising for his first re-election bid, coming right up in 2024. Of course, that assumes Magaziner draws a challenger — Massachusetts’ Jake Auchincloss ran unopposed as a freshman this year and is now starting his second term.
10. Soon after Jan. 6, Senator Whitehouse filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee against Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley in connection with the insurrection. “Since then, no one’s heard much about it,” Insider’s Bryan Metzger reports.
11. The Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus may soon adopt a new name as the General Assembly grows more diverse.
12. Striking finding from Steph Machado in this rundown of crime trends in Providence: last year the city had the lowest number of homicides since 1972.
13. Local talent on the rise … Attleboro High alum Karissa Hand has been named press secretary to Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, after serving in the same role on her campaign; I checked with Hand’s father, retired Sun Chronicle political reporter Jim Hand, and we think she is the highest-ranking Attleboro native in the governor’s office since the late Max Volterra was legal counsel to Mike Dukakis … Another Rhode Islander is joining the team around Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo: Providence native Charlie Andrews has signed on as Raimondo’s press secretary following a number of years in campaign politics. He’s the son of Julie Andrews, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in Rhode Island, and Todd Andrews, a former aide to Jack Reed who later worked for CVS and Brown.
14. Congratulations, Part I: to Rhode Island’s newly sworn-in general treasurer, James Diossa, and his partner, state Sen. Sandra Cano, who welcomed their second child, Alessandro, just two days after Diossa took the oath of office. (Here’s hoping the new baby shares the excellent disposition of his older sister, Arianna Hallel, who drew a lot of smiles as she sat with her dad on stage at Tuesday’s inaugural ceremony.) However, a spokesperson said Friday that Diossa will not be taking paternity leave. “He will be a working parent like many Rhode Islanders across the state and is committed to fulfilling his duties as treasurer,” she said.
15. Congratulations, Part II: to Auditor General Dennis Hoyle, who retired last week after 42 years at the agency. Eli Sherman recaps Hoyle’s career of public service here.
16. Exciting news from Lifespan and Brown on Friday: local researchers have made a breakthrough with a vaccine to treat glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer.
17. Here’s a special dispatch from retired Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst about a man he knew well, former Gov. Lincoln Almond, who died Monday night at age 86: “He wasn’t flashy, but he made a lot of sense, and he was the first politician to point out to me a core truth about Rhode Island’s endless whir of festivals, parades, and banquets. ‘You know it’s a long campaign,’ Almond told me in 1994, ‘when you find yourselves attending annual events twice.’ He was a fierce prosecutor of mobsters and people around Buddy Cianci, and something he said 20 years ago about ethics still would serve as a good guideline for people in public life. As U.S. attorney, he said he would tell his staff: ‘Whenever you’re going to make a decision, or you’re going to do something, you assume it’s going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s Journal. And if you’re proud of it, go right ahead and do it. If you have a question, see me!’ It’s rare to meet a pol as comfortable in his own skin as was Almond. He was low-key, but with a good, dry sense of humor and a great laugh. During the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, when he could have been racing around from delegation to delegation promoting Bob Dole, or himself, I learned one morning that he was at the San Diego Zoo, so I phoned to ask if I could join him. Many pols would have thought this wasn’t the best look, but Almond said, sure, meet him at the snack bar near the monkeys. When I arrived, he reported having seen a koala bear, some gazelles, baby giraffes, and elephants. ‘I didn’t see any donkeys,’ the GOP gov said, ‘although we heard a real weird sound when we first got in here. They must have, you know, seen me coming, but they all hid somewhere. We haven’t seen them!’ His achievements as governor on the economy, etc., have been well chronicled in recent days, though even so I can’t help mentioning the sweetness of his building the Ryan Center at his alma mater URI – God he loved basketball! – and his decency in supporting gay rights. He conveyed stability and symbolized integrity, and to criticism by some that he was lazy or visionless, he told me as his eight years were winding down, ‘It’s all bull.’ He said he enjoyed doing office work and running the state, not going out every night giving speeches, and he declared, ‘You haven’t heard anyone calling up the Journal saying, “I didn’t get a contract because I didn’t contribute to the governor.”‘ In my retirement, as I helped Jorge Elorza in his 2014 race against Cianci, Almond was glad to accept my invitation to join other former U.S. attorneys in a press conference to warn against returning Cianci to City Hall. Not in the best of health, Almond had to participate by phone. But I was not surprised that he was willing to join in. As a matter of fact, the other day I came upon a quote that neatly summed up Almond’s personality and values. At a 2007 Common Cause dinner, he said he’d love a system where, ‘when you touch the ballot box, if a fellow is going to be corrupt it lights up and says, “Don’t vote for him!”‘”
18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Speaker Shekarchi. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12, or listen on the radio Sundays 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