Nesi’s Notes: March 24

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. Will Rhode Island’s long UHIP nightmare ever end? If you listen to Deming Sherman, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. The veteran Providence attorney is the court-appointed special master overseeing the SNAP food-stamp program, which he says is the troubled computer system’s biggest problem. His goal: to have the state in compliance with federal rules by June 30. “I can’t guarantee that – nobody can,” Sherman said on this week’s Newsmakers. “But do I have a reasonable expectation that we will meet that standard by June 30? I do.” As my colleague Susan Campbell has chronicled, it’s been a long 18 months for those who use or oversee UHIP, which now has a projected cost of nearly $500 million. Speaking to reporters Friday, Governor Raimondo said Sherman is helping the state keep the pressure on Deloitte, which built UHIP. Asked for her current assessment of the turnaround effort, Raimondo said: “It’s hard to say you feel good, given how challenging it’s been. I’m still as mad at Deloitte as ever, because it continues to boggle my mind how they could mess this up so badly.” Either way, the company’s days in Rhode Island appear to be numbered as its current contract winds down. “I cannot imagine a scenario in which they could prove to us that they should continue our business,” Raimondo said. “They’re welcome to apply, and we will have an open, transparent process. But it is inconceivable to me that they could clear that hurdle.”

2. From Governor Garrahy’s flannel shirt to the “December Debacle,” the politics of snow is nothing new in Rhode Island. Another episode occurred this week as Governor Raimondo and many superintendents took criticism for overreacting to a storm that never really materialized. But the governor expressed no regret on Friday, saying she made the decision based on the best information she had at the time. “I would do the same thing again,” she told reporters, adding that many state workers have thanked her for prioritizing safety. Raimondo rival Allan Fung disagreed, releasing a 15-second video ad late Friday that dinged the governor for having two meteorologists on staff. “What a waste!” Fung tweeted. As for what happened with the forecast, check out our discussion on this weekend’s Newsmakers with WPRI 12 meteorologists Tony Petrarca and Pete Mangione.

3. During her session with reporters, Governor Raimondo confirmed she met last week with Partners HealthCare CEO David Torchiana and Brigham & Women’s President Betsy Nabel about their effort to acquire Care New England. She said the meeting was at their request, and she advised them to “spend the time in Rhode Island to get to know us” if they want the merger approved. “I’m not for it or against it at this point,” she said. Raimondo did make clear she wants to see Partners allay the concerns of Brown University President Christina Paxson, and said she’s encouraged by Lifespan joining the Partners-CNE talks. “We’ve got top-notch care here, and we need to figure out a way to come up with the governance structure to make sure we have a vibrant academic medical center,” she said.

4. National Grid is set to come in for some criticism next week.

5. Newly minted gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown has had little to say so far about the mechanics of his campaign, and a spokesman declined to share a list of staff members when I asked. Still, a couple names have emerged so far. An email to supporters this week listed Meredith Horowski as the Brown campaign’s field director; Horowski’s Twitter account describes her as campaign director with Global Zero, the anti-nuclear advocacy group Brown let until recently. Brown has also been informally advised by a familiar face: Tom Sgouros, a fixture on the Rhode Island left who briefly sought the Democratic nomination for treasurer in 2010 before bowing out to clear the field for (small world) Gina Raimondo. Sgouros was later a senior adviser Raimondo successor Seth Magaziner, and he has written favorably about North Dakota’s state bank, a top Brown priority. “I am happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in what I have to say. So I was glad he came to chat,” Sgouros told me in an email. “But I also like the policy positions Matt wants to put out there. I may have helped him with some details, but he found me because he was already in a similar place. The ideas of ensuring care for one another and better use of our state’s financial strength are worth supporting. … So I’ll help him if he wants more from me, and I think anyone should who cares about our common future together.” Sgouros added that he is not, however, on Brown’s campaign staff.

6. Allan Fung’s new list of more than 50 city and town campaign chairs suggests an effort to show his breadth of support in the GOP, with a number of sitting lawmakers (Brian Newberry, Mike Chippendale, Thomas Paolino) as well as two former party chairmen (Mark Smiley and Mark Zaccaria) among those signing up. One name, however, was removed within 24 hours: Providence chair Hamlet Lopez, after the campaign acknowledged it was unaware of his 2015 arrest for domestic violence. (The charges were later dismissed.) Fung’s campaign manager says he expects a second group of chairs to be announced at a later date.

7. Speaker Mattiello is hiring Michael Cotugno, son of his campaign’s mail-ballot expert Ed Cotugno, as a new member of the House’s constituent services office. The senior Cotugno did not return a phone call asking if he plans to work on Mattiello’s re-election bid again this year. (Cotugno also shares an address with one of the donors who funded Mattiello opponent-turned-supporter Shawna Lawton’s mailer endorsing the speaker; a Board of Elections complaint over that affair remains unresolved after 16 months.)

8. Tim White crunched the numbers and found the General Assembly’s top six Democrats handed out more than $500,000 of last year’s $2 million in legislative grants.

9. Providence Rep. Anastasia Williams was back in the news this week over an alleged State House confrontation with a hearing witness, which brought to mind another controversy involving the veteran Democrat – a Board of Elections case over campaign-finance violations that was referred to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office nine months ago. Asked about the status of that investigation, a Kilmartin spokeswoman said Friday, “The matter is under review.”

11. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The Providence City Council seat on Federal Hill has been held by just three people in the last 40 years – former Mayor Joe Paolino, state Rep. John Lombardi and current Councilman Bryan Principe – but Principe’s announcement this week that he won’t seek re-election later this year guarantees new blood will join the exclusive club. So who is going to run for the seat that produced two council presidents and a majority leader during the tenures of Paolino, Lombardi and Principe? Anthony DeRose, the chairman of the R.I. Democratic Party’s LGTBQ caucus, kicked things off this week by announcing his candidacy on Facebook. Cyd McKenna, who served as the council’s chief of staff from 2015 until December, is widely expected to toss her hat in the ring in the coming weeks. It’s unlikely DeRose and McKenna will be the only Democrats vying for the seat. And while the Ward 13 race might be the most interesting one to follow, there are several other council seats that appear to be up for grabs this year as well. In Ward 8, Councilman Wilbur Jennings has narrowly won two terms by besting multi-candidate fields and he’s hoping to use the same formula to serve one final term, but he’s already facing a challenge from retired firefighter Jim Taylor and Carlos Diaz. Several other candidates are also considering jumping into that race. In Ward 12, Terry Hassett, the longest-serving member of the council, is facing a primary challenge from Kat Kerwin, a gun safety advocate who has been campaigning for several months. Although no one has formally announced a challenge to Ward 9 Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, that South Side seat is known for having multiple candidates. One thing to watch: what kind of role will Mayor Elorza and Council President David Salvatore attempt to play in those competitive council races?”

11. Rhode Island’s four members of Congress are usually reliably party-line votes, so it’s always interesting when one or more of them breaks ranks. An example came this week, when Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse were two of just 10 Democrats who voted against a resolution to pull U.S. troops out of Yemen. They were the only New England senators who didn’t vote in favor of the measure, sponsored by Bernie Sanders.

12. Sheldon Whitehouse teamed up with Iowa Republican Charley Grassley, his chairman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, for a Quartz op-ed about tackling America’s money-laundering problem.

13. Neighborhood Health Plan was the only one of Rhode Island’s major health insurers to lose money last year. The company is heavily dependent on Medicaid revenue, and says it’s concerned about an ongoing squeeze on the $2-billion-plus program.

14. Latino Public Radio is losing its 1290 AM signal due to money trouble.

15. Will Democratic campaign staffers in Rhode Island start unionizing, too?

16. Ethan Shorey on the emotional struggle to merge Woonsocket parishes.

17. CityLab offers more evidence Rhode Islanders aren’t happy campers.

18. Bloomberg View’s Conor Sen makes the case against states subsidizing high-wage jobs to spur economic development.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersDeming Sherman, UHIP special master; meteorologists Tony Petrarca and Pete Mangione. This week on Executive Suite – Lifespan President and CEO Tim Babineau. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. 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 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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