Nesi’s Notes: June 12

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 me on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. Providence’s plan to borrow upwards of $700 million to shore up the pension fund has received a rather chilly reception in its initial vetting at the State House, with Treasurer Magaziner calling it a “risky” proposal and “a gamble” in testimony to the House Finance Committee. Tellingly, Senate Finance has yet to even schedule a hearing on the bill — a signal of where it falls on legislative leaders’ priority list as the session enters the homestretch. Mayor Elorza admits he’s facing serious skepticism, but he’s adamant that a bond is Providence’s best available option to address a $1.2 billion problem. “This is a ticking time bomb for the city,” Elorza said on this week’s Newsmakers. The crux of his argument is that Providence no longer has meaningful wiggle room on its pension obligations — he says a 2012 judicial consent decree and a 2020 state Supreme Court ruling effectively lock in the payments, unless city retirees wake up one day and volunteer to cut their own benefits. Since the money has to be paid either way, he argues, the city might as well engage in some financial arbitrage by borrowing the money upfront and attempting to make enough investing it in the financial markets to help cover some of that $1.2 billion. “If you’re against this, then I assume you’re against this because there’s a better option out there,” Elorza said. “And we need to push and ask — well, if not this, what are we going to do?” One criticism the mayor has taken to heart: that city residents should get to vote on such a huge transaction in a referendum before it goes forward. “I’m very flexible,” he said. “If that’s what’s stopping this from going forward, I’m happy to put it to a special election and put it to the voters.”

2. The crisis atmosphere surrounding the Providence schools seemed to ease a bit this week with the widely applauded appointment of Dr. Javier Montañez as interim superintendent. (Montañez, principal of Leviton Dual Language School, has quite a backstory — he grew up in Providence, at one point was even homeless, yet eventually got his doctorate in education.) With the schools still under state control, Governor McKee clearly plans to take a strong hand in managing the situation — no surprise considering his passion for improving underachieving schools. McKee indicated this week he wants to create a new office that will be part of the effort, telling The Globe’s Dan McGowan, “In that scenario, I’ll be acting like the mayor of Providence.” Yet the actual mayor — Jorge Elorza — says the state is still just nibbling around the edges of the problems in Providence after a year and a half, and argues that won’t change unless McKee and his advisers use their power to change seniority protections in the teachers union contract. “Let’s just get on with it,” Elorza said on Newsmakers. “I know it’s a tough decision. I know it’s going to be messy. I know people are going to flip out. They’re going to be really upset. But it’s got to be done for our kids.” That argument not only enrages union members — it also angers progressives, who think the mayor’s rhetoric is disrespectful to organized labor. Elorza’s response: “When I think about supporting unions I think about the little guys banding together and taking on the powers that be, taking on the empire. That’s a righteous cause that I can get behind. But what has happened specifically with the Providence Teachers Union is, the Providence Teachers Union has become the empire. They’re acting like the powers that be. They’re looking to protect their advantage and to protect their privilege.”

3. Dan McKee celebrated his 100th day as governor on Thursday with a daylong series of events and photo ops around the state. For obvious reasons, he’s now viewed as the man to beat in next year’s Democratic primary — the House speaker and Senate president are co-hosting a fundraiser for him later this month, and a top Democratic Governors Association official was in town this week to lay out how the DGA can help McKee in next year’s primary and, if he gets there, general elections. Other candidates are continuing to put their teams together. Nellie Gorbea has hired Jennifer Burton for media consulting, Celinda Lake for polling, Pivot Group’s Trish Hoppey for direct mail, and Blueprint Interactive for online fundraising and social media; Burton and Hoppey have been with Gorbea since 2014, while Lake and Blueprint joined after her 2018 re-election campaign. Seth Magaziner has hired longtime adviser Katie Nee in a part-time role as campaign coordinator, while bringing on Gina Raimondo’s longtime finance director Kate Ramstad as a full-time fundraiser; he has both Seth Klaiman and LeeAnn Byrne on the official side, too. As for Jorge Elorza, he’s still seen as likely to run, but he doesn’t sound like he’s in as much of a hurry as the others. Asked on Newsmakers when he thinks he’ll make a decision, Elorza told Tim White, “I don’t know — maybe three, four, five months from now.” One thing he’s not interested in: switching gears and running for general treasurer or secretary of state instead. “What I like about this is just putting a problem-solving hat on and fixing problems,” he said. “And you can do that best at the executive level.”

4. Dan McKee is an incumbent Democratic governor, but he inherited the office rather than winning it — which means he can’t count on the Rhode Island Democratic Party working to support him in next year’s primary. “I don’t have the answer to that question,” the party’s chief strategist, Kate Coyne-McCoy, told me Friday. Referring to Nellie Gorbea, she said, “Today I have one announced candidate in the governor’s race. I fully expect Governor McKee to seek re-election, and Seth Magaziner and Jorge Elorza — there’s for sure more to come.” So who will decide if the party assists McKee against his rivals? “That decision is well above my paygrade,” Coyne-McCoy said. “And that decision won’t be made anytime in the next three months. I don’t know when it will be made. The state committee will have a meeting and we’ll sort that out.” (It’s worth recalling that the state party is controlled by the House speaker, though Joe Shekarchi has emphasized he wants to take a more consensus-oriented approach to its actions than Nick Mattiello did.)

5. Food for thought — in Rhode Island’s last two Democratic primaries for governor, candidates showed up well after this point in the cycle and shook up the race: Matt Brown in 2018 and Clay Pell in 2014. So there’s plenty of time for the field to expand beyond the four names above.

6. Peter Neronha makes no secret about how he approaches the job of the attorney general: use the office’s power to the maximum extent possible for what he views as the maximum good. That approach means he’s sometimes willing to endure high-profile defeats. One example was the acquittal of political operative Jeff Britt after Neronha prosecuted him in a campaign-finance case with money laundering — an aggressive charging decision that appeared partly aimed at sending a deterrent message to other Rhode Island political insiders. Another example came this week, when Neronha’s office won a guilty verdict in the “racist rant” trial of a South Kingstown woman — but lost its bid to apply the rarely used hate-crime sentencing enhancement. The AG has vowed to appeal, while also calling for reforms of the hate-crime statute, which he says is poorly drafted. (The statute triggers a mandatory-minimum sentence, as well, and few judges like having their hands tied by one of those.)

7. Tim White reports Rhode Island State Police troopers will soon begin wearing body cameras.

8. Eye on Congress … David Cicilline unveiled his panel’s long-awaited legislative package to rein in Big Tech on Friday … Sheldon Whitehouse made news seeking SCOTUS travel records and expressing concern about climate policy in the infrastructure talks … Jack Reed is bringing back his annual fundraising weekend in Newport, per Punchbowl NewsJim Langevin’s team helped the Narragansett nonprofit Love Your Library wipe out nearly $15,000 in IRS penaltiesJake Auchincloss signed onto a high-profile statement from a group of Jewish House Democrats criticizing Ilhan Omar for comments about IsraelBill Keating says the House infrastructure bill could help pay for the $2.2 billion replacement of the Cape Cod bridges.

9. With coronavirus on the wane, Governor Baker has announced he will end the state of emergency in Massachusetts as of Tuesday. But Governor McKee still isn’t ready to take that step — he just signed an order extending the state of emergency in Rhode Island until July 9. That is an increasing source of frustration in the General Assembly, which largely accepted Governor Raimondo using those powers last spring but where an increasing number of lawmakers think it’s well past time to return to the normal constitutional balance. (Notably, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio told me Friday that McKee didn’t brief them on the decision to extend the state of emergency, and declined to express support for the action.) In his public comments, McKee himself sounds unhappy about extending the order, suggesting he’s gone along with it at the urging of state agencies worried about things such as temporary staffing. “I asked that same question,” McKee told my colleague Alexandra Leslie when she asked him for the rationale behind another extension, adding, “It will sunset very soon.”

10. Steph Machado has the latest on whether Rhode Island will legalize marijuana this year. (Late Friday, the Senate scheduled a committee vote for next week on a revised version of its own bill — but not a final compromise with the governor and the House.)

11. The Rhode Island Foundation wants your ideas on how the state should spend its $1.1 billion windfall under the American Rescue Plan Act. The deadline is July 15 — you can submit yours here.

12. Next week is a big one for Gina Raimondo: she’s making her first overseas trip as commerce secretary, traveling to Brussels on Monday to meet up with President Biden and other administration officials for the U.S.-E.U. summit. They plan “to discuss strengthening the transatlantic partnership and economic and digital cooperation,” per her office. The White House continues to show confidence in Raimondo, sending her onto “This Week” with George Stephanopolous last weekend and making her the point person on the semiconductor crisis, one of the biggest problems hampering the economic recovery.

13. The Whaling City saw the launch this week of a startup news outlet, the New Bedford Light, founded by a group that includes alums from the New Bedford Standard-Times, now owned by Gannett and much diminished from its glory days. (CommonWealth’s Bruce Mohl has details here on their hopes for the site.) Among those who signed on to the new venture is Jack Spillane, who spent 21 years at the Standard-Times, many of them as an editor and influential columnist. Now he’s writing a column for the New Bedford Light, and his debut piece, on the toll taken by coronavirus in the city, brings the story of the pandemic back down to the human level. Take the time to read it.

14. New Bedford leaders aren’t happy about federal officials’ decision to open the stretch of ocean water called the New York Bight to wind farm development. “It is disappointing that in refusing to adopt even the slightest refinements proposed by commercial fishermen to the New York Bight wind energy areas, BOEM missed an opportunity to strike a fairer balance between the interests of the fishing and offshore wind industries,” Mayor Mitchell said in a statement Friday night.

15. Politico’s Lisa Kashinsky on the political problems Governor Baker faces in 2022.

16. I just finished reading “The Hardest Job in the World,” a great book about the presidency by CBS News correspondent John Dickerson. This passage struck me as wise counsel for voters, whether they’re picking presidents or governors: “Political combat encourages quick disqualifications of those who would seek to lead us, but every leader is flawed. ‘We want to believe the mythology, that the leader is 10 feet tall, never scared, never wrong, has the answer to all our questions. That’s never correct,’ says Stanley McChrystal. ‘We’re very disappointed when we see how they are in private because it just doesn’t match part of the mythology that we have, but the reality is that every person is a human being.’ The question in campaigns then is to identify what we think are the disqualifying characteristics, not simply if a candidate happens to have any flaws.”

17. My colleagues Mike Montecalvo and Johnny Villella have a great “Street Stories” profile of WPRO’s Matt Allen, a lifelong Bristolian, who talks about the honor of being a marshal in the town’s legendary 4th of July Parade.

18. Ben Jacobs on the heated debate over Puerto Rican statehood – among Puerto Ricans.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersMayor Elorza. 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 next Saturday morning.

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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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