1. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked to name the toughest challenge he faced as a leader, he famously replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” It’s a good reminder of how little we know about what the world will look like in a few weeks, let alone a few months, and it’s a truism worth keeping in mind when you analyze the political landscape. A good example was Thursday’s news that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI have joined Attorney General Peter Neronha’s investigation into the multimillion-dollar consulting contract that Gov. Dan McKee’s administration gave to the ILO Group. Little is known about the focus of the probe, but Target 12 confirmed that this week federal and state investigators interviewed multiple people with knowledge of the ILO deal. Still, an investigation is just that — an investigation — and prosecutors may determine no laws were broken; McKee and his advisers have been vehement in their insistence that there was nothing wrong with how the ILO contract came together. Yet no governor wants to see a headline pairing their name with the phrase “FBI investigation,” let alone in an election year — McKee’s opponents pounced on the news, with Helena Foulkes arguing that McKee “cares more about enriching his well-connected friends than serving the people of our state.” And investigations like these operate on their own timetables — will agents wrap up their work soon, or will this still be hanging over the governor as the September primary gets closer?
2. Could Republican Ashley Kalus be taking the oath of office as Rhode Island governor next January? She and her campaign advisers see a path: a nasty Democratic primary ends with a weakened nominee, leaving Kalus as a fresh face for voters to turn to as they make their final decision in the fall. They also think voter discontent with the rising cost of living, President Biden, and state-level problems present an opportunity for a candidate without ties to the state’s political class. It’s certainly plausible to think this year presents an opportunity for the GOP, which dominated Rhode Island gubernatorial elections from 1984 to 2006. But is Kalus the candidate who can capitalize on it? In an interview this week she acknowledged she had never lived in Rhode Island before last year, when her company landed a multimillion-dollar COVID contract from the state, but noted her husband had gone to Brown’s medical school and asserted they’d always wanted to move here. (Public records show the couple own homes in Illinois, where she worked for the governor and where their businesses have been headquartered, as well as Florida, where she voted in 2020.) Many Democrats think Kalus’s lack of established ties to Rhode Island will be enough to disqualify her with most voters. But if Kalus presents well and finds a message that resonates — and backs that message with a significant amount of money, as she suggested she plans to spend — she could get a real look from voters seeking other options. November will also be the first test since 2014 of how the Republican brand plays in Rhode Island without Donald Trump on the ballot or in the White House, though the former president could still be a visible presence in the fall depending on how actively he engages in the midterms. As for Kalus, she declined to say if she wants Trump to run in 2024, but cited Ron DeSantis as her favorite Republican currently in office.
3. And then there were seven. Former state Rep. Ed Pacheco was the first Democrat to signal his intention to run for Jim Langevin’s seat back in January, and this week he became the first to drop out of the race. Pacheco made clear in his statement that the primary reason was his assessment that he’d never be able to keep up with the financial firepower of Democratic rivals like Seth Magaziner and Sarah Morgenthau, who could wind up spending seven-figure sums on their campaigns. “This experience signals for me the need for campaign finance reform, leveling the playing field for everyday Americans to participate in our democracy,” Pacheco said. Fellow Democratic candidate Joy Fox echoed Pacheco later in the day, asking, “When millionaires can just move in and decide they’ll speak for us, how can we expect everyday Americans to make our voices heard?” Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Magaziner made no apologies for his aggressive fundraising. “We need to have a strong campaign on the Democratic side to keep this seat in Democratic hands,” he said. Magaziner also pledged to support changes to fundraising laws if elected, yet used that to buttress his argument, saying, “we know that campaign-finance reform is never going to happen if the Republicans take control of Congress.” Elsewhere in the primary, Democratic candidate David Segal — who is still in an “exploratory” phase — published an essay laying out his progressive platform to accompany an endorsement from the group Blue America PAC.
4. More 2nd District news: Democratic hopeful Michael Neary was just arrested in Ohio.
5. Sheldon Whitehouse was in the spotlight this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee held its confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, reiterating his oft-voiced critique of “dark money” influence on the court. And as has become standard when Whitehouse weighs in about the judiciary, his comments drew plaudits from the left and daggers from the right. MSNBC host Joy Reid was among the fans, tweeting, “@SenWhitehouse is one of the most important voices in the United States Senate. Period.” Radio host Hugh Hewitt was among the critics, joking that he wanted CSPAN to give Whitehouse a 24-hour channel: “He wins votes for @SenateGOP whenever attention is on him.” Yet Whitehouse’s most attention-grabbing moment actually came once Jackson had left the witness stand, when he repeatedly asked Alabama’s attorney general whether Joe Biden was “the duly elected and lawfully serving president of the United States.” The AG — who had joined efforts to overturn the 2020 election — refused to repeat the phase “duly elected and lawfully serving,” only willing to say that Biden “is the president.”
6. Senator Whitehouse also made news for being two days late to disclose stock trades.
7. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed has been among the lawmakers watched most closely during the Ukraine crisis. In interviews this week with defense reporters and NBC News, Reed offered some insight into how he’s thinking about the conflict and its lessons. He said he thinks Vladimir Putin would likely launch cyberattacks before resorting to nuclear weapons, “given that there’s a certain deniability, and it can be managed much more adroitly, the targets, the impacts, etc.” But if Putin were to launch a nuclear or chemical weapons attack in Ukraine, it’s possible hazardous material could drift over the border into a NATO country, potentially drawing the U.S. and its allies into direct conflict with Russia. “If a nuclear device is detonated and the radiation goes into a [neighboring] country, that could very well be perceived as an attack against NATO,” Reed said, adding that how to respond would “a very difficult call” for President Biden and his NATO counterparts. More broadly, Reed is solemn about the fact that the use of nuclear weapons is even being seriously discussed. “I think it would take us into a place we have not been since Nagasaki, where an actual nuclear device was intentionally detonated as part of a military campaign, even if it wasn’t directed at specific targets,” he said. And he points out it isn’t just the U.S. and Russia, but also China, that is maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal. “This is an extraordinarily historic moment,” Reed told the defense press corps. “We will for the first time in the history of the world have trilateral nuclear competition. We have to start thinking about what’s the strategy and how do we do this?”
8. The race for Providence mayor has been somewhat overshadowed so far by the gubernatorial and 2nd District contests, but the battle to lead the capital city is starting to heat up. Three of the four candidates — Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Brett Smiley — met virtually for their first candidate forum on Wednesday, with another on the books for April 12 hosted by the Jewelry District Association. (The fourth candidate, Michael Solomon, said he couldn’t attend this week’s forum due to the death of his father last month.) The race for mayor will be in the spotlight again Monday, when Smiley holds what his campaign is billing as a formal kickoff event at the Wexford building.
9. So far, state Rep. Gregg Amore is the only candidate running to replace Nellie Gorbea as secretary of state this fall, and at the moment there’s no sign he’ll face any serious competition in the Democratic primary. But Amore’s smooth path appears to be an outlier based on this story by The Washington Post’s David Montgomery: “The tumultuous past two years of American politics have made the job of secretary of state arguably a risky one — and one that’s suddenly coveted by both political parties, which see it as key to their future electoral success.”
10. RIPEC is out with a new report examining state spending, well worth a read for wonks and other close observers of Rhode Island government. On Friday, Eli Sherman flagged one notable finding: RIPEC calculates the cost per patient to operate Eleanor Slater Hospital is on pace to top $760,000 a year. Another striking bit of data: spending from Rhode Island’s General Fund has been growing at a faster clip in recent years, with the average annual increase rising from 3.5% between 2014 and 2019 to 5.3% between 2019 and 2023.
11. Quick hits from the State House … Tufts Health Plan missed a state bidding deadline by two minutes, risking hundreds of millions of dollars … three years later, the state’s six new medical marijuana dispensary licenses still aren’t in use … Rhode Island has now secured nearly $190 million in cash from opioid defendants … stabilization money for the Early Intervention program still hadn’t been distributed at the start of this week after more two months (it finally went out Thursday) … Governor McKee touted a bill that would see offshore wind powering about 340,000 homes … the governor’s chief of staff, Tony Afonso, will be taking a medical leave from April 12 to May 20; senior deputy chief of staff Joe Almond will serve as acting chief of staff during Afonso’s absence.
12. Rhode Island’s demographics are changing, perhaps faster than people realize. Take this statistic: the state’s white population shrank by nearly 4% from 2010 to 2020, while the population of all other ethnic groups jumped by almost 27% over the same period. Those figures come from a new study commissioned by Commerce RI and the Rhode Island Foundation looking at strategies for encouraging the growth of local minority-owned businesses. It contains a host of recommendations, from creating a new Community Development Finance Institution focused on businesses owned by people of color to requiring entrepreneurship education for all K-12 students.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — congressional candidate Seth Magaziner; R.I. State Police Col. James Manni. 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 morning.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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