Nesi’s Notes: March 30

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. It didn’t get a ton of attention at the time, but Fox News — which has a respected polling operation — and the AP published a state-by-state analysis of last November’s election that offers insights into Rhode Island’s gubernatorial race. Rather than conduct a traditional in-person exit poll, which is notoriously unreliable, Fox surveyed about 140,000 voters, including 779 in Rhode Island, and combined that with other data to paint a picture that appears consistent with pre-election WPRI 12/RWU polling. The Fox/AP analysis shows the Rhode Island electorate skewed female last year (women made up 55% of voters) and older (two out of three voters were at least 45 years old). Unsurprisingly considering she won by double-digits, Governor Raimondo came out on top with most voter subgroups, showing particular strength with Democrats (86%), Trump disapprovers (75%), lower-income voters (64%) and younger voters (58%). The gender gap was huge: Raimondo beat Allan Fung by 25 points among women, 57% to 32%, but she won men by only four, 48% to 44%. Among Catholic voters, who made up close to half the electorate, the race was nearly tied: Fung 47%, Raimondo 46%. It was also a fairly close contest among whites, still the lion’s share of voters in Rhode Island: Raimondo 48%, Fung 42%. Another number that sticks out is the favorability rating for each candidate: while Raimondo finished at 54% favorable, Fung was down to 43% by the end. The survey also provides some important context about middle-of-the-road voters, often seen as the pivotal force in an election. Independents who said they don’t lean toward a party broke for Fung, 47% to 33%. But self-described moderates, a far larger group, went for Raimondo 52% to 33%.

2. Senator Whitehouse says he accepts Robert Mueller’s conclusion that there was no criminal conspiracy between President Trump’s campaign and the Putin government, but argues that doesn’t mean the end of the Russia-related controversies swirling around the White House. The first thing we need to do as a Congress is to understand what the contours were of what Mueller actually looked at and what he actually decided, Whitehouse said on this week’s Newsmakers. Whitehouse is particularly interested in whether Mueller probed a pro-Russian change to the 2016 GOP platform involving Ukraine. I think this Ukraine thing — I may be dead wrong about it, but it seems to be sitting out there like such a ripe prosecutive target with all the people involved, with all the motivations involved, with it being pro-Russian — all of it, he said. There’s an odor coming off of it, and my Spidey-sense is tingling. Whitehouse has also taken issue with Attorney General Bill Barr’s conclusion that there was no obstruction of justice by the president, again saying Congress needs to see Mueller’s full report and associated documentation to draw its own conclusions. Still, the senator seemed to acknowledge that Mueller’s underlying conclusion about collusion has stabilized the president’s political position. “In the same way that you have to make any case that you’re going to prosecute, you’ve got to make your case to the American people and to their representatives in the House of Representatives about impeachment, he said. “In the House, impeachment is the verdict. It’s not the beginning. And so you’ve got to look at all the conduct and figure out what happened. If it is a close enough call that somebody with the integrity of Bob Mueller couldn’t make that call and kicked it over to Attorney General Barr, that’s probably too close a call for impeachment.

3. For another perspective on the Mueller report, I reached out to Rhode Island native Ian Prior, who ran Brendan Doherty’s 2012 congressional campaign and served as a senior DoJ spokesperson from March 2017 through July 2018 under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Here’s what Prior had to say in an email: “Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein are actually proving that they are committed to transparency and are willing to go far beyond what they are required to disclose from the Mueller investigation; but they will do so while also respecting the law and Department of Justice policies on releasing derogatory information about unindicted third parties. In the 1990s, the Clinton investigation was done under the independent counsel law, which required a comprehensive report to Congress. That law expired in 1999 and was replaced by the special counsel regulations, which only require that the attorney general inform certain congressional committee chairs and ranking members (1) whether the investigation has concluded, and (2) if there were any instances where the special counsel made a request of the attorney general that was denied. Attorney General Barr did that last Friday. But he also provided Congress with a detailed letter over the weekend summarizing the main points from the report and has promised to provide the report to Congress within weeks. The special counsel regulations do not require Barr to do this, but allow him to do so provided that he does so in accordance with the law. Therefore, the public should expect that, while the report will be released, there will and must be redactions of information solicited during a grand jury, classified material, and derogatory information about unindicted third parties.

4. Big day for the Rhode Island GOP: members of the Republican State Central Committee meet at 10 a.m. for the party’s biennial leadership election. The key race is the contest to succeed Chairman Brandon Bell, featuring four candidates: Sue Cienki, Bob Lancia, Rebecca Schiff and Mike Veri. Bell reports about 228 people are eligible to vote, though usually the actual turnout is between 175 and 190. The outgoing chairman also gave a frank interview to Ian Donnis where he indicated he is backing anyone but Schiff, who is supported by two-time gubernatorial nominee Allan FungUpdate: Cienki is the winner.

5. Governor Raimondo is headed to Florida next week for her first out-of-state trip in her capacity as Democratic Governors Association chair. Her office reports she will be in the Sunshine State on Tuesday and Wednesday, but DGA spokesperson David Turner declined to share details about her plans. “As DGA Chair, Governor Raimondo is committed to raising the resources necessary to elect Democratic governors across the country who will expand access to health care, create jobs, and grow their states’ economies, he said. “That’s the purpose of her trip to Florida.

6. The Rhode Island Foundation announced Friday it is committing another $250,000 to fund local outreach ahead of the 2020 Census, on top of the $125,000 the foundation has already spent. “We’re making investments in Census 2020 outreach and education efforts because we know that this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to learn about the communities we serve, ensure fair representation, and encourage civic participation, says the foundation’s Chris Barnett. “And, we’re calling on other local funders, public officials, and the business community to join us. Invest with us in this effort. In an email, Common Cause’s John Marion noted that Census Day is exactly a year away Monday. “The Rhode Island Foundation’s timely investment and leadership in making sure every Rhode Islander is counted is much-needed because our state has a lot to lose, Marion said. “Approximately one-third of our state budget comes from federal funding tied to Census-derived data. The co-chairs of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, are hosting a rally Tuesday in the State House rotunda to draw more attention to the issue.

7. The trucking industry is appealing to keep its federal toll lawsuit alive.

8. The governor’s team doesn’t share legislative alarm over the budget yet.

9. New Bedford Congressman Bill Keating had a career milestone this week.

10. Ever heard of a “virtual kidnapping“? Scary story from Susan Campbell.

11. As you may have heard, Friday was Dan McGowan’s last day at WPRI 12. After six years with us — and more than 200 “weekly dispatches” for this column — Dan is joining The Boston Globe as the first reporter hired for the paper’s coming expansion in Rhode Island. In an email Friday, Globe editor Brian McGrory told me, “We’re thrilled to bring on someone with Dan’s many talents and insights, as the Globe continues to explore how we might best serve a smart and committed Rhode Island readership. (You can sign up here for Dan’s soon-to-launch Globe newsletter.) McGowan is like a younger brother to me, so I can’t claim to be an objective observer. But I’m certain you won’t find a harder-working reporter in the land. He lives and breathes his job — not only his beat at Providence City Hall, but the critical work of adapting to the fast-changing demands for journalists to survive in the digital age. And you can’t pigeonhole Dan: he’s just as comfortable breaking down the nitty-gritty of municipal water transactions as he is swapping political gossip with Silver Lake old-timers. Working with Dan has made me a better reporter. He’s also just a damn good guy; I’ve seen him handle enormous challenges with courage, optimism and good humor. WPRI was lucky to have him; Rhode Island is lucky to have him. So rather than make McGowan file one last dispatch, I thought I’d pose a few questions about what he’s learned over his time here.

You’ve been covering Providence City Hall comprehensively for more than half a decade. Taking stock, what do you think will be the biggest issue in the city over the next five years?

McGowan: This won’t surprise anyone, but almost everything comes back to the city’s finances. It wasn’t that long ago that Providence was legitimately at risk of running out of money and truly difficult decisions had to be made. When you’re closing schools or raising taxes or changing pensions, real people are affected. For lots of reasons – a strong economy and changes made prior to his taking office being at the top of the list – the Elorza administration has been able to run the government without having to make some of the moves that actually affect the average resident. That may have to change in the coming years. The school department is facing huge deficits and the rising costs of retirement benefits will make it more difficult to avoid cuts. The mayor has proposed monetizing water as the answer to many of Providence’s problems, but he hasn’t put forward many other options. Over the next few years, he’s probably going to need to put some other ideas on the table. And unless the city hits Powerball, none of those options are going to be popular.

Based on what you’ve learned as a City Hall beat reporter over the years, what is the biggest misconception you hear about Providence politics?

McGowan: That all it takes is courage to fix everything. Change isn’t easy. And even the right decisions can be painful. That doesn’t mean elected officials or city employees deserve a break from the media or the public (they don’t). But it’s why it’s so important to dive in and truly understand why people make the decisions they make and why they don’t pull the trigger on other ideas.

You’ve also reported extensively on Rhode Island education policy during your time here. How has the local education landscape changed since you first started covering the beat?

McGowan: This kind of mirrors the national climate, but leaders pulled back on a lot of the significant education reform efforts that were being discussed early in my time as a reporter here. There’s a legitimate argument to be had about the pros and cons of those decisions, but it does feel like for several years a lot of our leaders and stakeholders stopped having serious conversations about improving schools. That seems to have changed a bit following the recent RICAS scores and it seems like new Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is planning to make education a front-and-center issue again.

Facebook is widely seen these days as harmful to local news. But you’re a dissenter on that point to some extent, based on your experience running your popular PVD Politics group. What have you learned from that about news and social media?

McGowan: Hot take: I remain bullish on Facebook. One of the most important things about being a journalist today is to meet people where they are. And they are on Facebook. If you’re between 25 and 50, you’re almost certainly using that platform on a near-daily basis. Those people are going to be our readers and viewers for the next several decades. We can’t just ignore them because management at Facebook hasn’t been strong. Through my Facebook group, I’ve been able to share my reporting and have serious conversations with thousands of loyal members – people who aren’t going to stop reading the news tomorrow. I feel like I’ve also been able to connect with younger people new to Providence who might not have known how fun city politics can be if they hadn’t joined my group. I do worry about Facebook cashing in on the backs of local news outlets while doing very little to support them, but it’s encouraging that attitudes at the major social companies appear to be changing on this issue.

You’re starting at The Globe on Monday, but you won’t be working in Boston. What can people expect from you in your new job? (Other than a relentless battle with me for scoops — bring it on, pal!)

McGowan: I hope I’ll be doing a lot of the same work I’ve been lucky to do for the last six years at WPRI. I’ve learned from you how to be wonky and still explain things in a way that helps people understand how government works. That work is really important and I can’t just leave that all to you. I’ll never stop caring about City Hall and I’m excited to show my face around the State House a little more. And education has always had a special place in my heart. I’m going to stay focused on that. This is going to be a great experiment for The Globe, but I’m fortunate to be working at an institution that cares deeply about journalism. I’m just going to try not to screw it all up.

12. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSenator Whitehouse. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Blue Cross & Blue Shield of R.I. President and CEO Kim Keck. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both 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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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