Nesi’s Notes: June 13

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. The coronavirus pandemic is looking quite different right now depending on where you live. States including Arizona, Florida and North Carolina all set records for new cases on Friday, forcing their leaders to grapple with balancing reopening against public health. In Rhode Island, though, there are no signs of a new outbreak, fitting the trend in much of the Northeast. As my colleague Eli Sherman’s data tracker page shows, Rhode Island is seeing fewer than 100 new cases a day, with a positivity rate below 4% throughout the first two weeks of June. New hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients are hovering around 10 a day, versus well over 30 a day during late April and early May. The daily number of COVID-19 deaths, a lagging indicator, also appears to be easing after averaging over a dozen a day for more than a month. At Friday’s briefing, Governor Raimondo sought to balance optimism about the state’s trajectory with a warning against complacency. “The virus hasn’t gone away,” she said. “Our numbers aren’t trending in the right direction because we have a cure, or a vaccine, or the virus is gone. It’s tending in the right direction because we’ve changed.” Next week’s data will be telling: it will incorporate two weeks of Phase 2 of reopening, giving a sense of whether increased activity is leading to more transmission. If the numbers remain encouraging, there’s little doubt Raimondo will go to Phase 3 around July 1 — which could include social gatherings as large as 100 people.

2. Jon Romano, who served as a senior advisor to Governor Raimondo at the State House and then on her 2018 re-election campaign, is back on her team in Rhode Island. The Department of Administration has hired Romano on a temporary basis to assist with federal stimulus efforts, state spokesperson Amanda Clarke confirmed Friday. “In that capacity, he is working with Commerce and others on economic recovery initiatives as we work to build a stronger and more resilient Rhode Island,” she said. Romano had previously been working on Organizing 2020, an effort to create a campaign apparatus for the eventual Democratic nominee co-chaired by Raimondo.

3. The General Assembly’s 113 members will make their much-anticipated return to the State House next week to wrap up one of history’s strangest legislative sessions, after normal business came to an abrupt halt in early March due to coronavirus. The legislative agenda for the week is limited, with the biggest item on the to-do list being passage of a 2019-20 supplemental budget to bring revenue and expenses back in line for the current fiscal year before it ends June 30. Expect to see some creative uses of federal COVID-19 funding to plug the roughly $235 million hole when the budget bill gets posted around 3 p.m. Monday, a day before House Finance takes it up. Passage of a full 2020-21 budget is being pushed further into the summer pending action by Congress, where there appears to be increasing likelihood of some sort of additional stimulus bill with state and local relief money. Other measures expected to cross the finish line are two gun bills (the 3D/ghost guns ban and hometown background checks) as well as a one-time reduction in signature requirements to run for Congress. Some lawmakers have spoken out to argue the signature mandate should also be lowered for General Assembly candidates, but so far there’s no sign that’s going to happen. In addition, the Senate has plans to begin examining the issues brought to the fore by the George Floyd protests, with a hearing Monday night on AG Neronha’s civil rights investigations bill and the expected creation of a task force to study reforms of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

4. RIPEC’s Mike DiBiase offers some advice for lawmakers as they craft the budget, while GOP Rep. Brian Newberry is questioning this year’s unorthodox process.

5. The possibility that Governor Raimondo could be in Washington next year as part of a Biden administration has political watchers mulling over the way ascending to the governor’s office would position Lt. Gov. Dan McKee for the 2022 Democratic primary, which is expected to have quite a few credible contenders. It also raises another question — what would happen to McKee’s current job? A McKee spokesperson points to 1997, when the lieutenant governor’s office became vacant following Bob Weygand’s election to Congress: in an advisory opinion, four members of the R.I. Supreme Court advised Governor Almond that he had the power to appoint a replacement. (Justice Lederberg dissented, calling it a grant of “extraordinary executive power.”) Almond named fellow Republican Bernie Jackvony, who served for two years but lost the 1998 election to Democrat Charlie Fogarty.

6. Candidate Watch … Providence Board of Licenses chair Dylan Conley is mounting a surprise primary challenge against Congressman Langevin … Reps. Mike Morin of Woonsocket and Dennis Canario of Portsmouth won’t be seeking re-election in November; Canario was facing a Democratic primary challenge from Michelle McGaw … Rep. Deb Fellella of Johnston will seek a new term, she told me Friday … Rep. Deb Ruggiero of Jamestown is running again, with a primary opponent in Rick Lombardi Jr. of the Middletown Town Council … former West Warwick Town Council President Geoffrey Rousselle will seek the Democratic nomination in Senate District 9, where incumbent Democrat Adam Satchell is retiring … Maria Bucci officially announced her bid for Cranston mayor.

7. Voter turnout surged in this year’s delayed Rhode Island presidential primary, with about 124,000 ballots cast in total (102,000 Democratic ballots and 22,000 Republican ballots). Most of the voting happened by mail, though there was a split between the parties — 86% of Democratic ballots were cast by mail, compared with 69% of Republican ballots. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea welcomed the results. “The unprecedented number of mail ballots in the presidential primary shows Rhode Islanders had an overwhelmingly positive response to this safe and secure voting option,” Gorbea said in a statement. “Election officials across the state are now reviewing the primary and working together to make sure we’re ready for an increased demand for mail ballots this fall.”

8. Our Target 12 team has full coverage of the debate over defunding the Providence police: Steph Machado recaps the City Council’s four-hour committee hearing here, while at this link she and Eli Sherman explore how the police spend $86 million a year.

9. The first two Democratic primary debates between Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy were cordial, even polite. That made it all the more striking when Markey used the very first question in our WPRI 12 debate on Monday night to mount a frontal assault on Kennedy’s early work in the office of a conservative Republican district attorney, labeling the congressman “a progressive in name only.” Markey was on the offensive for much of the debate, though Kennedy pushed back by citing the incumbent’s long record on Capitol Hill. With the two men agreeing on most policy issues, the race remains a muddle, though it’s certainly apparent now that Markey won’t go quietly. For Kennedy’s team, the continued challenge is firmly defining why he thinks Markey deserves to be ousted — even after months of remarks about the need for change and more energy in the Senate seat, many voters say his rationale is a puzzle to them. For Markey’s team, the problem remains the same — they face an opponent with strong name recognition and significantly more money, as well as a nearly four-to-one in advantage in union endorsements. Kennedy’s campaign went back on TV with its second ad this week, while Markey has yet to take to the airwaves.

10. At least the Markey-Kennedy primary only requires you to keep track of two candidates. The 4th Congressional District primary to replace Kennedy currently has nine Democrats on the ballot — many of them credible contenders. With many voters seemingly tuned out and coronavirus restricting campaign activities, there’s reason to think the SEIU Massachusetts State Council’s endorsement of Jesse Mermell could be an important development. “If there’s one union endorsement to get in Massachusetts then it’s SEIU,” longtime Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh told me Friday. “They are the most effective on-the-ground organizers, and get-out-the-vote operations like that can be the difference in any race and especially a crowded one like MA-04. In addition, it’s the most diverse union. Given the fact the primary is on Sept. 1 for the first time, in the midst of the pandemic, during a protest for civil rights, SEIU is uniquely suited to communicate, organize, persuade voters, especially voters of color and their allies, to cast a ballot in the primary. And that could be the difference between winning and losing a congressional seat.”

11. Eli Sherman looks at how coronavirus has hammered the South Coast fishing industry.

12. The Hill examines how Senator Whitehouse is leading Senate Democrats’ fight over judges.

13. Edward Hopper, the painter for our socially distanced times.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – the best Monday night’s WPRI 12 Markey-Kennedy U.S. Senate debate. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both 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.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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