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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes is taking the next two weeks off for a summer break. Thank you for reading, week in and week out!

1. At this point, the only people in Rhode Island politics who dispute that Dan McKee is the frontrunner for governor are the ones on his rivals’ payrolls. Rhode Island is one of the most vaccinated states, with a steadily reopening economy, a falling unemployment rate, and money piling up on Smith Hill; a new poll pegs McKee’s approval rating on coronavirus at 60%. His fundraising has picked up now that he’s the incumbent, with his campaign expected to report about $310,000 raised during the second quarter. He’s got a durable geographic base in the Blackstone Valley. He holds orthodox Democratic Party positions, but is temperamentally a moderate. And a man who saw organized labor defect to his Republican opponent eight years ago is now in the good graces of union leaders from the Laborers’ Armand Sabitoni to NEARI’s Bob Walsh. As Walsh told me Friday, “Keeping labor neutral and progressives divided when you have a strong approval rating and have built decent working relationships, showing you’re at least listening to the concerns of the groups, is a pretty good strategy.” Apart from all that, the anti-McKee vote could be split five ways if Matt Brown joins Nellie Gorbea, Seth Magaziner, Jorge Elorza and Luis Daniel Muñoz in seeking the Democratic nomination. Our political analyst Joe Fleming estimates such a crowded field could allow McKee to win with as little as 35% to 40% of the vote in the primary. To be sure, plenty could change in the next 14 months. The field could shrink. One of the non-McKee contenders could unexpectedly catch fire. The public mood could shift. Indeed, right now McKee’s most important campaign staffers are probably his official team in the governor’s office — his success or failure in the job will be the determining factor for many voters.

2. If Dan McKee is the Democratic nominee, will he face a viable Republican nominee on the November ballot? R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki is insistent that he will, arguing the governor had to sign too many progressive bills already to stay in his party’s good graces, which will create an opening for the GOP. “We will have a candidate. We will have a very good candidate who I think will do very well,” Cienki said on this week’s taping of A Lively Experiment at RI PBS, where both of us were on the panel alongside Jim Hummel and Rob Horowitz. Cienki, a realist, knows the party is struggling to regain its old strength in gubernatorial races — after winning the governor’s office in four straight elections from 1994 to 2006, the GOP hasn’t gotten more than 37% since. One thing she’s clear about: “You don’t want to go through a primary — let the Democrats kill each other on the other side.” As for the continued speculation that Blake Filippi will run, Cienki was enthusiastic but vague, saying, “He would be a very attractive candidate and certainly one that has a lot of respect from both Democrats and Republicans.”

3. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio says it was a bit of a different experience doing end-of-session negotiations with Dan McKee and Joe Shekarchi this year rather than Gina Raimondo and Nick Mattiello. “It’s easier to work with two other people who aren’t at each other’s throats,” Ruggerio said smiling on this week’s Newsmakers, where he was joined by Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey. Ruggerio expects the Senate to return for a special session this fall to tackle judgeships — likely back in the Senate chamber, not at RIC — and he’s hopeful the House will be on hand as well in order to tackle issues like marijuana and an initial appropriation of American Rescue Plan Act funds. Asked to name his top priority for the $1.1 billion in federal relief money, Ruggerio didn’t hesitate: “Affordable child care.” McCaffrey for his part said affordable housing should also be high on the list.

4. Dominick Ruggerio has been a state lawmaker for four decades now, and he’ll be 73 years old when voters go to the polls next fall. But when I asked whether he’ll seek another term in 2022, he left no wiggle room. “I am absolutely, positively going to run again,” he said on Newsmakers. Ruggerio survived a close primary race last year against progressive challenger Lenny Cioe — who is now seeking a rematch — but the Senate president insists past isn’t prologue. “I just think that was a different type of election,” he said. “No one knew what to do. You didn’t know whether to go house to house. … It was not the campaign that I normally run. But this year it will be different.” The pair also won’t be facing the same electorate they did in 2022 — not only will turnout be higher due to the statewide primary, but the upcoming redistricting process means Senate District 4 will be redrawn. Legislative leaders plan to appoint the apportionment commission over the next few weeks, before the first round of local-level census data is released in late August. Asked whether he will have his district adjusted to include more voters in his hometown of North Providence and fewer from the leftier precincts of Providence, Ruggerio demurred — but he didn’t say no.

5. Amid Delta variant concerns, Eli Sherman took stock of the COVID-19 situation in Rhode Island.

6. Staff news, Part I: Sam Goodstein, who has been Senator Whitehouse’s chief of staff since Mindy Myers left nearly a decade ago, is stepping down this month to become an executive vice president at the lobbying shop Venn Strategies. “With nearly two decades of experience at the highest levels of the Senate, Sam will be an enormous asset across our firm’s practice areas,” Venn Strategies said on social media. Josh Karetny, a Rhode Island native who has been Whitehouse’s legislative director, will serve as acting chief of staff. (Side note: Goodstein’s departure highlights the longevity of his counterpart over in Jack Reed’s office, where Neil Campbell has been chief of staff since 2004.)

7. Staff news, Part II: Rich Luchette, who has been Congressman Cicilline’s spokesperson for much of the last decade, left the 1st District Democrat’s office on Friday for a new gig that has yet to be announced. “Rich has been part of my team for a long time and has been critical in helping me successfully communicate about my work and being sure my constituents are well informed about what’s happening in Washington,” Cicilline told me Friday. “It’s impossible to overstate how much I have appreciated his extraordinary work over these many years. I will miss his intellect, his biting wit, and his excellent work.” (The congressman added, “I will not miss his embarrassing support of the Bills!”) Cicilline press secretary Matt Handverger will be manning the phones until the office finds a new communications director.  

8. Staff news, Part III: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos has fleshed out her team as she settles into the job. According to a list provided by her office, Matos’s team is made up of Ernie Almonte, chief of staff (earning $163,147); Barry O’Connor, senior policy and special projects ($84,259); Johanna Petrarca, senior advisor for government affairs and diversity director ($68,000); Billy Kepner, communications director ($66,511); Katia Lugo, executive assistant and special projects ($64,000); Sarah Achille, policy analyst and special projects ($61,585); and Grace Sneesby, junior policy analyst ($40,100). The LG’s office noted that Almonte has stopped taking his pension and will receive no additional retirement benefit due to his time working on the LG’s staff.

9. U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson is moving to senior status after a trailblazing career.

10. Eye on Congress … Susan Collins gave Jack Reed some cover on Kirsten Gillibrand’s military prosecutions billSheldon Whitehouse’s SITE Act to build more long-range electric lines got a glowing writeup from Matt YglesiasDavid Cicilline exploded at a fellow Democrat from Silicon Valley for undermining his Big Tech antitrust pushJim Langevin urged new sanctions on Russia to punish ransomware attacks … HuffPost took aim at Jake Auchincloss over prescription drug policy … R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and former state Sen. Tom Coderre are testifying about overdoses next Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

11. The map-drawing process has already kicked off in Massachusetts, with the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting scheduled to hear testimony about Jake Auchincloss’s 4th District on Monday and Bill Keating’s 9th District on July 29. A group calling itself the Southcoast Coalition on Redistricting, affiliated with the Coalition for Social Justice, has a proposal to put all of Fall River into Keating’s district rather than continue to split it between the two. Their argument: “Giv[e] all of the residents of Fall River – given its racial diversity, immigrant population and high number of working class folks – the power of a unified voice at the ballot box. We also propose that all Fall River residents gain the ability, at the congressional level, to vote with New Bedford, another increasingly racially diverse, immigrant city with high numbers of working class folks. Both cities share voting patterns and needs. Finally, balancing out the population losses numerically in CD-04 and CD-09, is a solution that we believe will make voters and legislators across the South Coast happier, more unified, and better able to elect the kind of representation that each respective municipality and District wants and deserves.”

12. Speaking of New Bedford, these are exciting times for leaders in the Whaling City. Over the past week and a half, the city has seen three announcements regarding economic development and offshore wind: a soon-to-open Bristol Community College job-training institute, a deal to redevelop the old Cannon Street power plant for offshore-wind staging, and a project labor agreement for Vineyard Wind. The latter announcement, on Friday, drew a host of notables to town including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey as well as White House climate czar Gina McCarthy. “New Bedford,” declared Markey, “is the Silicon Valley of the Blue Economy in Massachusetts.” It will be years before we can judge whether the industry has lived up to the promises New Bedford residents are hearing, but these are the sorts of developments that will fuel continued optimism.

13. Pawtucket native Gabe Amo, deputy director of President Biden’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, had his name pop up in the White House pool report twice this week — on Monday as part of Biden’s meeting about rising crime with Attorney General Merrick Garland and New York City mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams among others, and again on Wednesday as an attendee at a presidential meeting with a bipartisan group of governors and mayors. (Amo’s old boss, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, was also at the latter gathering.)

14. Coming up Monday, Steph Machado will release a new episode of Pulse of Providence featuring an in-depth interview with mayoral hopeful Gonzalo Cuervo. Among other topics, Machado quizzed Cuervo about the state takeover of Providence schools. “I think the state takeover has not gone well,” he said. “I think one of the problems has been that there isn’t a sense of openness and trust throughout this process. What we’ve seen is a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of accusations, a lot of negative energy. … I think the state needs to begin to demonstrate some results quickly. And if those results aren’t demonstrated, then I think that the city should take action.” The full episode will feature his thoughts on the proposed pension bond, how to spend federal ARPA funds, police reform, voter ID and more. (And if you missed them, check out Steph’s previous Pulse of Providence interviews with Brett Smiley and Nirva LaFortune.)

15. Talk about inspiring: check out this profile of the valedictorian of Bristol Community College reported by my colleagues Sarah Guernelli and Johnny Villella. A daughter of addicts who is herself in recovery, Katherine Haley is now headed to Brown University and just got honored by Glamour magazine — which led to a surprise Zoom with First Lady Jill Biden.

16. George F. Will on the crisis in Major League Baseball: “More pitches and less contact. Longer games (13 minutes 17 seconds longer than a decade ago) and less action. No wonder fans who have been neurologically rewired by their digital devices’ speeds are seeking other entertainments. Major league attendance has fallen 14% from its 2007 peak.”

17. Why do Americans find forgiveness so hard these days?

18. A look at the 75-year love story of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey. 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 on Aug. 7.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) 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