Nesi’s Notes: June 26

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. Suffice to say Bailey’s Beach Club has never had a week like this in its 124-year history, with the club pilloried from coast to coast as effectively a segregated institution — all thanks to the membership of Sheldon Whitehouse’s family. Bailey’s and Whitehouse insist the organization does count people of color among its members, with the club criticizing “false and inaccurate” reports suggesting otherwise. Still, Bailey’s is undoubtedly a bastion of wealth and privilege, with exclusion its historic raison d’etre. (Look at who signed this week’s email to members: an Austrian prince who is the son of Sunny von Bülow.) Whitehouse’s wife, Sandra, is by most accounts the bigger Bailey’s devotee of the two, and she seems to have no interest in giving up their membership. But Whitehouse likes to spend time at another exclusive Newport institution — the Ida Lewis Yacht Club — which he admits shows the same lack of diversity as Bailey’s. “Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry,” he said. All the negative headlines have given Whitehouse a black eye, and allies grumble that he helped dig his own grave in his initial response to Kate Nagle’s questions about Bailey’s. Will it matter electorally? There’s reason for skepticism: the third-term Democrat doesn’t face Rhode Island voters again until 2024, and Claiborne Pell, another Bailey’s habitué, had no trouble winning six Senate terms despite his status as a Newport swell. At the same time, this is an era with low tolerance for hypocrisy, and the Bailey’s episode should serve as a wake-up call to Whitehouse and other wealthy Democrats about what happens when their private lives diverge from their public rhetoric.

2. Now that the House has made quick work of the $13.1 billion budget bill, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio are eyeing a final dash of legislating in order to wrap up the regular General Assembly session next Thursday. The relatively brief budget debate, and the unanimous Democratic support for the final product, offers evidence that Shekarchi has a solid handle on his caucus after some choppier waters early in the session. A huge surplus makes that easier: progressives didn’t make a stink about a lack of tax increases since so many of their priorities got funded anyway, while moderates were pleased they didn’t face an up-or-down vote on taxing the wealthy. Over in the Senate, there were more examples of why Ruggerio has lately been dubbed “Green New Donny.” The upper chamber passed two long-sought, long-stalled progressive priorities: marijuana legalization and licenses for undocumented immigrants. (Ruggerio has reason to watch his left flank: progressive Lenny Cioe, who gave him a tough primary challenge in 2020, is already running again.) While neither marijuana nor licenses is going to get a House vote next week, Shekarchi has signaled both issues could be taken up during a special session come the fall.

3. Next week should be a crucial one for Eleanor Slater Hospital, with Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones expected to deliver her report and recommendations on the situation there. While Slater’s parent agency has been part of Jones’s portfolio for more than two years, Governor McKee has indicated he trusts her to take an honest look at the current situation. The rot runs deep, as laid out in a damning new Joint Commission report that painted the state-run hospital system as dangerous, decrepit and dysfunctional. It surely doesn’t help that Eleanor Slater has suffered ongoing turmoil in its management ranks. Tim White and Eli Sherman detailed Thursday how an obscure state policy allowed a top Slater executive — Chris Feisthamelto survive two layoff attempts since last October; he now appears to be back in the fold under McKee, showing up to testify at a recent hearing. Much of the blame for the Eleanor Slater mess rests with Gina Raimondo and her aides, who were supposed to be minding the store as these problems festered and worsened. But responsibility will now begin to shift to McKee as he puts forward a plan of his own and picks the personnel to implement it.

4. If you missed it earlier in the week, take the time to read Steph Machado’s full report on the student absenteeism crisis in Providence schools. One first-grade teacher told Steph, “I had a student who showed up the first four or five days, and then just stopped showing up. Did not show up at all. Would answer the attendance question, and would sometimes submit work, but did not come to Zooms. So did not receive any instruction at all.” An after-school program director recalled, “I was hearing, ‘Hey, I’m in a two-bedroom apartment with my family, I share a room with siblings. There’s no way I’m able to focus in class.'” It’s sobering to contemplate the lasting damage from this lost academic year, and it’s hard not to think we could be dealing with the fallout from the pandemic for a long, long time.

5. Here’s how Providence plans to spend $42 million of American Rescue Plan money.

6. David Cicilline still has a long way to go before he gets to attend a presidential signing ceremony for his high-profile legislative package regulating Big Tech. But he still notched a significant interim victory this week, as the House Judiciary Committee cleared the bills on bipartisan votes, sending them to the House floor. It’s unclear whether any of the measures will get final votes; as Politico’s Benjamin Din wrote Thursday, “Now comes the real antitrust fight.” The industry is taking the threat seriously enough that Apple CEO Tim Cook called Speaker Pelosi directly to lobby against Cicilline and his allies. Nor are all top Republicans are on board. Jim Jordan led the counterattack on the committee, and GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy pointed to Cicilline himself to raise doubts, saying the Rhode Islander “actually wanted to remove President Trump from Twitter even earlier” than the platform did. But Ken Buck, the antitrust subcommittee’s top Republican, went out of his way to praise Cicilline “for his leadership and dedication to bipartisanship during the investigation and the legislative drafting process.” And the chair of the U.S. Senate committee on antitrust issues, Amy Klobuchar, described Cicilline and Buck as part of the “small but mighty group” working to make progress on reining in the tech giants.

7. Count Nancy Pelosi among those opposing Jack Reed on the military sex-assault bill.

8. Rosanne Somerson took over as RISD’s president in 2014 at a time of some turmoil, following the unexpected midyear departure of her predecessor, John Maeda. It was a major shift, transferring the corner office from a shake-things-up outsider to someone who’s been affiliated with the school since she enrolled there in 1972. With Somerson retiring next week, I sat down with her Wednesday for an exit interview that airs on this week’s Newsmakers. Fostering financial stability has also been a focus for Somerson, who overhauled and expanded RISD’s fundraising operation, resulting in multiple years of record donations and a significant boost in financial aid. Plenty of students will need those scholarships: a RISD education now carries an annual price tag of $77,000. “We deeply understand this conundrum,” she said. “It’s a very expensive model of education.” At the same time, she says it’s a misconception to think RISD is churning out starving artists who can’t afford to pay their student loans. “Our students are doing incredibly well,” she said. “We did a survey, the first alumni survey in 12 years, a couple of years ago, and our students were in the very top percent of entrepreneurship successes — higher than MIT and Harvard and other institutions that have a lot of entrepreneurial success.”

9. The field is set for Rhode Island’s 18th-largest municipality, Lincoln, to pick a new leader after incumbent Joe Almond stepped down to join the governor’s office. Six candidates filed declarations by Friday afternoon’s deadline to run for town administrator, the top position at Lincoln Town Hall. There won’t be a primary: the only Republican to pull papers was Sen. Tom Paolino Jr., while the only Democrat was former state Rep. John Barr II. But four independents filed to challenge Paolino and Barr in the Sept. 7 special election: John Picozzi, Philip Gould, James Spooner and John Cullen. All six hopefuls will now need to collect enough signatures to make the ballot. The Valley Breeze’s Nicole Dotzenrod has more on the race here.

10. Remember coronavirus? Eli Sherman is still diligently updating his WPRI.com tracking page with the latest data released by the R.I. Department of Health, and it’s worth taking a look at where Rhode Island stands. The suppression of the virus since the vaccine campaign ramped up and warm weather returned is a sight to behold, with the state now averaging fewer than 20 new COVID-19 cases a day, and hospitalizations lower than they ever got last summer. Virus transmission isn’t the only thing that’s crashed, however. The pace of vaccinations has plummeted since its May 17 peak, with little more than 2,000 doses being administered a day over the past week. About 40% of Rhode Islanders still haven’t gotten a shot when you look across the entire population (remember that children under 11 are still ineligible). But even among eligible residents, about one in four have yet to be vaccinated. That could pose a challenge come the fall, or if the delta variant begins to cause trouble.

11. Count Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating among those who aren’t happy with how the federal government handled the decision-making around opening the New York Bight — a key stretch of the Atlantic coast — to wind farms. “The congressman is disappointed that the voices of New Bedford scallopers who spend a significant amount of time fishing near the New York Bight lease areas, the very definition of stakeholders, could not be heard during the siting process,” Keating spokesperson Chris Matthews told me. Back in 2018, Keating sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) urging them to include New Bedford and Rhode Island fishing fleets in the discussions, to no avail. “Congressman Keating remains adamant that all stakeholders should have their voices heard where they fish, regardless of which state their home port is in,” Matthews said. Asked about the criticism, a spokesperson told me, “BOEM works with all ocean users and stakeholders, including the commercial fishing community and state and local government agencies, throughout the offshore wind planning process to avoid or reduce potential impacts from offshore wind energy development.” The bureau also noted that the fishing industry can still provide feedback as part of the pending sale process for offshore-wind leasing rights.

12. Democrats are alarmed about the advanced age of their cohort on Capitol Hill.

13. Preparations for Rhode Island to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States, coming up in 2026, continue moving along. Earlier this month Governor McKee signed a law creating the Rhode Island Semiquincentellial Commission, a 30-member panel that Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea will lead. “Commemorating these historical events offers us the opportunity to have thoughtful conversations about their role in our nation’s founding,” Gorbea said in a statement earlier this month, adding, “It is also a great opportunity to spur tourism locally and and reap its economic benefits.” The new state budget earmarks $100,000 to fund the commission’s activities, and it should begin meeting this fall once all the appointments are made to fill its seats. (If you think Rhode Island is getting a bit of a jump on things with five years left before 2026, take a look at Congress, which created its own semiquincentellial commission back when Barack Obama was still president.)

14. If you’re one of my fellow history buffs, here are two fun follows for your Instagram feed: the CBS News Archives, and Mike Ferguson’s PVD Now & Then.

15. Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiles the activist who put critical race theory in the spotlight.

16. Andrew Kaczynski on how social media helped him grieve the loss of his baby girl.

17. Programming note: Nesi’s Notes will be taking next Saturday off due to the Fourth of July Weekend. Happy Independence Day! Make sure you watch the Fred Astaire firecracker dance.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — RISD President Rosanne Somerson. 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. See you back here on July 10.

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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