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Nesi’s Notes: June 27

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. Rhode Island’s candidate declaration period has come and gone, and the electoral picture for this fall is now in focus. In the General Assembly, roughly one-third of incumbents are unopposed, giving those members an all-but-certain shot of returning to Smith Hill in January. There’s little doubt the most closely watched contest will once again be in Cranston’s House District 15, where Republicans are putting up Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung against Speaker Mattiello after previous GOP nominee Steve Frias’s narrow 2016 and 2018 losses. The speaker faces continued uncertainty about what if anything will come out of the Convention Center grand jury investigation, while Fenton-Fung may feel a headwind from the top of the ticket if President Trump’s numbers don’t improve. Another theme in the filings: comeback bids. I count 10 former lawmakers who are seeking to return to the State House, among them Republicans Doreen Costa and Anthony Giarrusso and Democrats Jeanine Calkin and Spencer Dickinson. (As Tim White pointed out on this week’s Newsmakers, in a year when in-person campaigning activities will likely be limited, pre-existing name recognition could be important for incumbents and challengers alike.) And political junkies won’t have to wait for the November election to track some interesting results: it looks like there will be roughly three dozen contested Democratic primaries on Sept. 8, some in districts that haven’t seen competitive races in years. Those will pose the first test for the recently formed Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a progressive group whose members are mounting challenges in 17 districts.

2. One of the quirkier races this year is in House District 46 up in Lincoln, where Republican incumbent Jack Lyle has filed for re-election — as an independent. “The party that I grew up in had a very big tent under which a variety of interests and views comfortably discussed issues and ultimately at times agreed to disagree. Unfortunately, that party no longer exists,” Lyle told me. “As one who views himself to be a moderate on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters I feel, as Ronald Reagan once said, that my party has left me.” Still, Lyle said he will caucus with the GOP if re-elected, and his Republican colleague Brian Newberry was quick to vouch for him. Lyle faces former Democratic state Rep. Mary Ann Shallcross-Smith, who ran as an independent in 2012 but is seeking the Democratic nomination this year, along with Republican John Cullen.

3. Along with the contests for General Assembly, Rhode Island’s mayoral races should be interesting this fall. The biggest prize on the map is Cranston City Hall, where Mayor Fung is exiting after 12 years due to term limits. And he doesn’t lack for would-be successors. Among Fung’s fellow Republicans, City Council President Mike Farina handily won the GOP endorsement this week even though Fung is supporting a different city councilor, Ken Hopkins. (It’s already getting heated between them.) The Cranston Democratic City Committee declined to endorse between Maria Bucci and Steve Stycos, leaving it to voters to decide who should carry the banner for a party that has rarely controlled the mayoralty in the last half-century. There’s also an open mayoral race in Central Falls, where incumbent James Diossa is term-limited, too. City Council President Maria Rivera is the favorite, racking up endorsements from Diossa and others, but two candidates who unsuccessfully challenged Diossa in the past — Joseph Moran and Tia Ristaino-Siegel — have also filed. Multiple incumbent mayors are seeking new terms, as well: Warwick’s Joe Solomon (who drew three opponents), Pawtucket’s Don Grebien (who also drew three), Woonsocket’s Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (challenged by fellow former Rep. Jon Brien) and Cumberland’s Jeff Mutter (challenged by Daniel Alves). In North Providence, though, Mayor Lombardi is unopposed.

4. National analysts rate Jack Reed as one of the least vulnerable U.S. senators in the country, but he’s still got a re-election race on his hands: Republican Allen Waters and independent Lenine Camacho have both filed paperwork to challenge him in November. (Waters lost the state GOP’s endorsement on Thursday, however, after reports surfaced about a past domestic assault allegation.) With $3.1 million in his campaign account, Reed won’t lack for resources to ask Rhode Islanders for a fifth six-year term. Matt Bucci piloted him to his 70.6% victory in 2014, but this year the role of Reed campaign manager is falling to Erin Arcand, a Rhode Island native and Brown graduate who was previously the community affairs coordinator in Reed’s Senate office. While the senator never takes a race for granted, Arcand told me, “He’s concentrating on his job, not the campaign.”

5. Did you know: Lincoln Chafee was America’s most bipartisan senator of the last quarter-century, according to the Lugar Center. Jack Reed ranks 144th out of 250, while Sheldon Whitehouse ranks 220nd; across the border in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren ranks 195th, while Ed Markey ranks in the bottom 10.

6. Congressman Langevin is leading a bipartisan push for a federal cybersecurity czar.

7. Senator Whitehouse and Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy were frustrated by the lack of funding for coastal states in the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act that passed the Senate this month, and are looking for ways to advance their shared priority going forward. “My environmental friends say, ‘You’re right, Sheldon, just help us with this and we’ll help you with coasts.’ And then you don’t,” Whitehouse said in a floor speech. “I don’t begrudge our landlocked colleagues their funding,” he added. “I do begrudge them refusing me the opportunity to do something for our coasts.”

8. Even as the country sets daily records for new coronavirus cases nationwide, the virus remains quiescent in Rhode Island, with a 1.1% test positivty rate and under 100 hospitalizations Friday. One question now worrying Governor Raimondo and her advisers: how much can the smallest state insulate itself from a rising tide of disease elsewhere in the country?

9. How quickly things can change. Just a decade ago, Rhode Islanders voted overwhelmingly to keep “and Providence Plantations” as part of the state’s official name. This week, just a month after the George Floyd protests began, state leaders ordered the phrase removed from all official state documents even before calling a new referendum this November. (One of the few dissenters was state Sen. Elaine Morgan, who argued the voters should speak first and also questioned the cost.)

10. Rhode Island’s revised 2019-20 state budget is now the law of the land, and the process of putting it together led to lots of smart analysis from the legislature’s fiscal advisers. Example: the Senate Fiscal Office used its overview to remind legislators that the bill is coming due for the Rebuild Rhode Island program, a centerpiece of Governor Raimondo’s economic-development strategy. The Commerce Corp. has awarded $154 million in Rebuild tax credits so far to subsidize construction projects since the program launched in 2015, but the General Assembly has only set aside about $35 million to actually pay for that. (It would have been nearly $60 million, but lawmakers rerouted $25 million from the Rebuild RI Fund to close the post-coronavirus budget shortfall.) Senate Fiscal estimates lawmakers will need to include an average of $25 million a year in the budget to cover the cost of Rebuild tax credits from 2021-22 through 2025-26.

11. The final budget for the General Assembly itself is $43.8 million this fiscal year, an increase of 11% from the $39.3 million state lawmakers spent on themselves last year. (As a comparison, the budget for the governor’s office was actually cut 2% year over year, reduced to $5.5 million.)

12. Speaking of the General Assembly — when will we see legislators’ faces on Smith Hill again? “We don’t have a date yet,” reports House spokesperson Larry Berman, “but we are coordinating with the Senate to bring both chambers back sometime in July to consider school bond and local bond issues that need to be placed on the ballot, as well as the ‘Plantations’ issue and likely a limited number of other matters. The secretary of state’s office has informed us that referendum questions and bond bills must be transmitted to their office by Aug. 5. The Assembly will then come back again to consider a budget, which is looking more like August, as we await guidance from Congress on federal relief. Finance Committee budget hearings need to be held first, but can’t be scheduled yet until Congress acts and we have a better picture of our finances.”

13. Switch to a mostly vote-by-mail system appears to have boosted turnout in Rhode Island’s presidential primary: 125,000 ballots were cast this year, way above the last two noncompetitive years (23,000 in 2012 and 39,000 in 2004). The results suggest that campaigns may need to reassess their turnout expectations, and thus their strategies, if elections move toward more mail ballots.

14. The Providence beat might be the busiest in Rhode Island right now, and our Steph Machado is all over it. Her latest stories include the city’s pre-budget tax bills and debate over police spending, the ongoing tension over a firefighter’s claims of racial profiling, and the state’s long-awaited “Turnaround Action Plan” for city public schools.

15. Tim White and Eli Sherman investigated Fall River police officers’ tradition of Friday afternoon drinking — and the chief stepped down before the story even aired.

16. Are you passing your time during the pandemic by “doomscrolling” through social media? Experts warn it’s bad for your mental health.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend 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

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong number for Rep. Lyle’s district and misstated Senator Whitehouse’s legislative partner.

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

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