1. It’s still unclear whether the massacres of 19 Texas elementary-schoolers and 10 Black grocery shoppers will spur Congress to enact new federal gun laws for the first time in decades. But the two tragedies had an immediate effect in Rhode Island, where overnight gun control went from a backburner issue at the State House to the top priority on Assembly leaders’ agenda. That culminated in Tuesday’s extraordinary action on Smith Hill, where Senate President Dominick Ruggerio used an obscure parliamentary maneuver to push through a ban on higher-capacity magazines despite the Judiciary Committee rejecting the measure just a few hours before. The turn of events brought memories of 2019, when the big issue was abortion and two pro-life legislative leaders — Ruggerio and then-Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — were pressured into passing a law codifying Roe v. Wade despite their longstanding personal opposition to abortion rights. Once again this week it was Ruggerio, who has an “A” rating from the NRA, using his power to enact a policy fiercely opposed by advocates who thought he was on their side. One notable difference this time: Ruggerio — who is facing a progressive primary challenge from Lenny Cioe — voted against the abortion bill in 2019 but cast a vote in favor of the high-capacity magazines ban on Tuesday. Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias argued the outcome should be a wake-up call to right-leaning voters. “Culturally conservative voters cannot rely on Democrats to indefinitely block legislation supported by the base of the Democratic Party,” he tweeted. “Culturally conservative State House Democrats are not a firewall, but a mere speed bump.” Frias has a point: once an issue is in the spotlight, top Assembly Democrats have far less ability to block a bill that has broad party support. Governor McKee is expected to sign the new gun bills into law next week, but that may not be the end of the story — the U.S. Supreme Court’s new conservative majority sounds skeptical of state-level gun restrictions and has the final say.
2. One postscript to Tuesday’s legislative acrobatics: it was a reminder of how Dominick Ruggerio and his successors could face a new dynamic in the Senate once retiring Dennis Algiere is replaced as Republican leader after the election. The No. 2 Senate Republican, Jessica de la Cruz, exercised her right as a legislative leader to vote ex officio on the Judiciary Committee in order to kill the Senate high-capacity magazines bill — just as Ruggerio and his two fellow Democratic leaders used the same power to vote in favor of the bill. But Algiere didn’t attend the committee hearing, and was absent for the floor vote on the bill, as well. While no one has said yet who will replace Algiere — a moderate from Westerly who has led the Senate GOP for 25 years — it’s all but certain to be a more conservative lawmaker who places a higher priority on thwarting Democratic leadership’s plans where possible.
3. With the gun bills now in the hands of the governor and the budget bill done in the House, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio are well-positioned to wrap up the legislative session by their hoped-for end date of next Thursday or Friday. Shekarchi secured the votes of every Democrat in attendance, as well as Republican Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, for the final $13.6 billion budget bill — a relatively uncontroversial document as those things go, in part because the huge amount of money sloshing around Smith Hill let most interest groups score a win. (The few budget tweaks made on the House floor included revamping the car-tax phaseout for East Providence, with its unique Nov. 1 fiscal year, and appropriating $100,000 for the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island.) The major outstanding issues for the two chambers include whether to legalize driver’s licenses for immigrants in the country illegally, whether to incentivize PPL to buy more wind power, and whether to change the law on shoreline access.
4. Don’t look now, but Rhode Island primary voters will cast their ballots less than three months from now — and that means the clock is ticking for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates to push their support into the 30% to 40% range that many observers expect will be enough to win. Helena Foulkes has been the most aggressive among the major candidates over the last month, shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sustained advertising campaign introducing herself to voters; her fourth ad, on the economy, debuted Friday. Foulkes needed to spend the money: our 12 News/RWU poll from just before she went on the air showed Foulkes lagging far behind Dan McKee and Nellie Gorbea. What we don’t know yet is whether her message is breaking through with the 37% of primary voters who were undecided in the poll — or with some of her rivals’ backers. Gorbea has decided she can no longer allow Foulkes to dominate the airwaves, and plans to go on TV with her first commercial next Tuesday — an expensive decision for the candidate with the least money among the three. McKee’s team appears more relaxed about its need for mass media, relying on his continued visibility in regular news coverage as the incumbent.
5. Yet “earned media” — the campaign term for traditional news coverage — can both help and hurt an incumbent. Governor McKee had some terrific news to tout on Thursday, announcing that Rhode Island’s unemployment rate fell in May to the astonishingly low level of just 2.9% — the lowest it’s been since July 1988, when Ed DiPrete was in the governor’s office. “The numbers in today’s jobs report speak for themselves: more people are getting back to work in Rhode Island and we are maintaining our economic momentum,” McKee said in a statement, adding, “This momentum is reflective of the work and policies our administration has prioritized.” If the unemployment rate falls just a little further, to 2.6%, it will hit an all-time record low under McKee’s watch. (Those records start in 1976.) On the flip side, McKee is the only candidate whose decisions in the governor’s office have already drawn scrutiny from federal investigatiors. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha was characteristically circumspect when asked about the status of the joint federal-state probe into the ILO Group contract. “I want to be careful about what I say about this,” Cunha said, calling it “common” for his office to review such issues in partnership with the attorney general. “Whether that review ultimately ripens into some kind of enforcement action — civil, criminal, or otherwise — depends on the outcome,” he said. As for whether the matter will be resolved before the election, Cunha said U.S. Justice Department policy and the U.S. attorneys manual provide clear guidelines about how a politically sensitive investigation should be handled, though there are no hard-and-fast timelines. “The way that we handle all of our investigations and how they’re publicly perceived, so they’re perceived to be fair to everybody concerned — that’s always on my mind,” he said.
6. The financial challenges facing the Pawtucket soccer stadium got mixed up with the Democratic primary for general treasurer this week, as former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa sought to hammer his rival Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor on the issue. It’s quite a soap opera: the governor’s commerce secretary getting criticized by the governor’s candidate for treasurer over a project all three of them support. Pryor has now set a date certain for his resignation, with plans to step down Tuesday; meanwhile, Commerce officials continue to go back and forth with developer Fortuitous Partners over increasing the public investment in the project.
7. This is the time of year when so many bills pass so quickly that it’s easy to miss some. One that flew under the radar was a measure sponsored by Sen. Alana DiMario and Rep. Joe McNamara to have Rhode Island join the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact, or PSYPACT, which will allow residents to access psychological services from providers in other states using telehealth. Considering the long wait lists at Rhode Island’s overstrained providers, it’s a move that could ease access to care — which may be why the bill passed nearly unanimously, with only GOP Rep. Patricia Morgan voting against it. “Through passage of this legislation, we would be joining 33 other states to allow for telehealth services across state lines in participating states with a universal credential through the compact that maintains high standards of patient protection and care,” DiMario said. The Rhode Island Medical Society is pushing a similar bill to have the state join the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which is for physicians but has been more controversial in previous sessions; that bill passed the Senate last month but is pending in the House. DiMario, a mental-health practitioner herself, reports there is also an effort to create an interstate Counseling Compact which she hopes Rhode Island could join as soon as next year.
8. Take a few minutes and watch Tim White’s interviews with five former North Kingstown High student-athletes discussing why they found their ex-coach’s naked testing protocol traumatic. AG Neronha says he plans to decide whether the coach will face criminal charges within weeks, and U.S. Attorney Cunha says he wants to wrap up his civil-rights investigation before the start of school this fall.
9. Three reports on the capital city from our Providence ace Steph Machado … that $7 million ARPA-funded small-business relief program city leaders rushed through last year has handed out next to nothing … Mayor Elorza has to decide whether to veto a controversial tax plan shifting more of the burden to commercial owners, including landlords … Sen. Sam Zurier passed a bill making changes to the state takeover of city schools, but its House prospects are uncertain.
10. Big news for Southeastern New England: the Army-Navy game, one of the biggest events on the sports calendar, is coming to Gillette Stadium in December 2023. The X’s and O’s will happen in Foxboro, but Jack Reed said Providence will benefit, too, including as host to 4,000 Navy Midshipmen. Maybe Reed, a loyal Army fan as a West Pointer, will engage in a little wager with the stadium’s congressman, Jake Auchincloss, who served in the Navy as a U.S. Marine, or Bill Belichick, whose father coached at the Naval Academy for years.
11. Senator Reed’s proposed defense appropriations bill — which could be his last as Armed Services chairman for now if Democrats lose the Senate this November — is $45 billion bigger than what President Biden had originally proposed. But Republicans are once again opposing Reed’s push to have women register for the draft.
12. Providence celebrates PrideFest on Saturday, and ahead of the big event my colleagues Shiina LoSciuto and Ryan Welch dug into the archives for a piece on what it took to hold Rhode Island’s first-ever Pride parade back in 1976. “I just wanted to be myself, but it was really scary,” recalled Billy Mencer Ackerly, who was 25 at the time and among the marchers.
13. Sunday is Juneteenth, the first new federal holiday in three decades, which means a day off for federal workers on Monday. But as with Presidents Day, the spotty observation of Juneteenth could cause some confusion locally. State and municipal offices will be closed in Massachusetts, which is one of 18 states that has made Juneteenth a permanent paid state holiday. But state employees must report to work in Rhode Island, which isn’t one of those 18. At the municipal level, though, Juneteenth is being observed in some Rhode Island communities — city workers will get the day off in Providence and Pawtucket, for example.
15. The NYT’s Luke Broadwater boils down the Jan. 6 Committee hearings so far.
16. Scientists have figured out where the Black Death began: Kyrgyzstan in 1338.
17. The movie “Bambi” is really dark. And the book it was based on is even darker.
18. Why do we Millennials, like, say the word “like” so much?
19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha. 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. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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