Nesi’s Notes: March 6

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. The Dan McKee era has dawned in Rhode Island. And while the state continues to be led by a Democrat, the new governor is a marked change from his predecessor. Governor Raimondo may have campaigned as Gina from Greenville, but she had an elite résumé — Harvard, Yale Law, Rhodes Scholar, a national Rolodex — and wasn’t always known for a collaborative approach with other Rhode Island elected officials. McKee earned his own Ivy League degree while serving as Cumberland mayor (Harvard Kennedy School), but he is much more anchored in Rhode Island and its 39 communities than Raimondo was; he is also more willing to share the spotlight with fellow electeds. McKee announced a staff of 36 on Tuesday, beefing up his small team from the LG’s office with a personnel contingent that’s strongly rooted in the Blackstone Valley. The backdrop for all of the new governor’s moves is the rapidly approaching 2022 campaign cycle; he has 18 months to convince Democratic primary voters to award him his party’s nomination for a full term. And the 69-year-old has some of the best timing I’ve ever seen in politics: he’s taking office just in time to preside over the mass vaccination of Rhode Island’s population, the reopening of much of the state’s economy, and the distribution of as much as $1.1 billion in money coming to the state under President Biden’s massive relief bill. Those certainly sound like the ingredients for a high approval rating — as long as McKee’s new and untested team can execute during his initial months in office.

2. The inauguration ceremony for Governor McKee will be held Sunday at noon on the south steps of the State House — then it’s back to work for the new leader and his team. Their next big agenda item is release of McKee’s first state budget proposal, due to the General Assembly by March 11. His task is to close a deficit currently estimated at about $329 million; since President Biden’s relief bill has yet to pass, that potentially huge pot of money won’t be available to McKee yet. One of the most closely scrutinized sections of the budget is going to be the plan for Eleanor Slater Hospital, whose long-running financial woes are now drawing much more attention as lawmakers and others express concern about the status of its Zambarano unit in Burrillville. The issues at Slater are complex — they involve federal Medicaid billing rules for psychiatric patients, the long-term care of individuals with complex medical conditions, and the economic health of Northern Rhode Island.

3. When Governor McKee’s office released the salaries of his staff appointees on Wednesday, the top slot went to former state budget officer Tom Mullaney, a state employee for 34 years who is serving as a senior adviser to the new governor. In second place was McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, whose salary was published as $187,421. But when we requested a full breakdown of the new team’s compensation, it turned out Silva’s total had been underreported: he will actually take home $196,792 thanks to a $9,000-plus longevity pay boost. The Department of Administration said there was no effort by the new governor’s office to low-ball Silva’s number, blaming the underreporting on an antiquated HR system that failed to initially flag the chief of staff’s longevity.

4. Providence City Council President Sabina Matos is generating lots of State House buzz as a frontrunner to be Dan McKee’s pick for lieutenant governor, among the more than 70 people who have applied. “I don’t like the term of ‘the frontrunner’ – I think I have always liked being the underdog,” Matos said with a smile Friday during an interview on 12 News at 4. “I think that’s what has worked for me in politics.” The Providence Democrat said she is scheduled to be interviewed for the No. 2 job next week, but gave no hint about what she’s been told regarding her prospects. As for McKee, his office did not respond to a question Friday afternoon about how many of the interviews for lieutenant governor have been scheduled or who will be conducting them.

5. Add Mayor Elorza to the list of potential 2022 gubernatorial aspirants who aren’t ruling out a primary challenge to Governor McKee. “You know, they say that there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen,” Elorza told Tim White on Thursday. “I feel like we’ve had several weeks where decades have happened, and the ground is shifting so quickly. Who knows how everything shakes out? My focus has been and will continue to be, we’ve got this massive challenge in front of us — we have the vaccine, we have the economic recovery, and we have all of the racial and social justice issues in our community. I’m going to stay focused on this and that’s really what’s going to determine what lies next for me.” McKee’s advisers see his potential rivals — Elorza, Nellie Gorbea, Seth Magaziner — as real threats to winning the nomination in his own right next September, and they aren’t wasting time getting ready. Team McKee is actively working with the Democratic Governors Association to professionalize his campaign operation, and interviewing firms to serve as his media and fundraising consultants.

6. Gina Raimondo is officially a member of President Biden’s cabinet, with Vice President Harris ceremonially administering the oath of office to Rhode Island’s now-former governor on Wednesday evening. By then Raimondo had already spent a full day acclimating to her new surroundings, meeting staff and getting briefed. She entered office with plenty of bipartisan goodwill, after a majority of Ted Cruz’s Senate Republican colleagues ignored his criticisms and backed her nomination, confirming her by a vote of 84-15. (Even Mitch McConnell voted for Raimondo.) The Biden administration has quickly made the new commerce secretary visible, having her sit down for an inaugural interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle on Thursday and then booking her Friday on hour three of “Good Morning America.” Notable: after Raimondo suggested President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs have been “effective,” Bloomberg’s Jordan Fabian tweeted, “If you close your eyes, you could mistake new Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo as a Trump admin official when it comes to China.” Following a whirlwind four days in Washington, the new secretary was back home in Rhode Island on Friday night — as evidenced by the beefed-up security detail spotted bringing her home from T.F. Green.

7. The Biden administration is already stocked with plenty of Rhode Islanders in high places, notably Gina Raimondo and Mike Donilon. You can add another name to the list: Wall Street bigwig Mark Gallogly, one of 11 children born to the late Lt. Gov. Edward P. Gallogly and his wife Florence. Axios reports Mark Gallogly has been tapped by John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, to serve on his team as it looks to mobilize capital for green projects.

8. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Eli Sherman: “When Gov. Gina Raimondo became Secretary Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee became Governor McKee this week, it wasn’t only their professional titles that changed. The politicians’ Twitter handles also transitioned, with Raimondo acquiring a new @SecRaimondo account and McKee’s @LGDanMcKee transforming into @GovDanMcKee. The changes piqued interest in the Twittersphere, but they also came with real-world implications. Nick Domings of the secretary of state’s office tells me State Archivist Ashley Selima and her team are in the process of archiving all of Raimondo’s social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium and even YouTube videos – a new precedent. Selima’s team has also asked McKee for an export of his posts while he was serving as lieutenant governor, so that they don’t have to parse them out whenever he ends his time as governor. The records will be preserved in the state’s fast-growing Digital Archives. As for the @GovRaimondo account? It will remain accessible but dormant online with a new Twitter bio: ‘This is an archived account for former Governor Gina Raimondo. 75th Governor of the State of Rhode Island.’”

9. Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than restaurants, hotels and other tourism businesses, so Tim White and I brought on two local leaders to discuss the situation for this week’s Newsmakers: Kristen Adamo, head of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Dale Venturini, head of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. Their comments mixed deep concern about the present situation with optimism about the coming months depending on how things unfold. “I think that we have to give more funding to the hotels, the event venues, the arts community, the downtown merchants,” Adamo said. “Those are the ones that have suffered the most.”

10. The New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli looks at why Rhode Island got hit so hard by the second coronavirus wave.

11. Rhode Island and Massachusetts have done quite well so far in the coronavirus relief fund sweepstakes: the Peterson Foundation estimates they rank fourth and third, respectively, for total federal COVID-19 funding per capita. Rhode Island has gotten $8,726, while Massachusetts has gotten $8,910; by contrast, Utah has only gotten about $5,000.

12. Speaker Shekarchi made his first high-profile policy push on Monday, rolling out a package of legislation he says will help address Rhode Island’s ongoing housing crunch. It’s unclear how much of a difference the bulk of Shekarchi’s bills will make, and like his predecessors he sounds cool to the idea of appropriating significant non-bond money to spur housing production the way neighboring New England states do. But he is clearly focused on the topic. At the same time, there seems to be no consensus on Rhode Island’s long-term growth goals. The state’s population rose steadily during the first three-quarters of the 20th century — it more than doubled from 430,000 residents in 1900 to 975,000 in 1973. If that pace had continued from 1974 to 2020, Rhode Island’s population would be roughly 1.3 million today; instead it’s only a little over 1 million, and the state is on the verge of losing a U.S. House seat because of that. But would today’s Rhode Islanders even want another 300,000 people living here? Would policymakers support the amount of new housing needed to accommodate them? Or is the revealed preference of Rhode Islanders to cap the state’s population at about 1 million for the long term? Part of what got me thinking about all this is a provocative new book by the policy writer Matt Yglesias, “One Billion Americans,” which argues that the country is accepting relative decline by resisting growth. To localize the same thought experiment — what if there were two million Rhode Islanders? Three million? What would that look like?

13. Tim White has the astonishing stats on unemployment fraud in Rhode Island.

14. As expected, Rhode Islanders approved all $400 million in bond questions on Tuesday’s special election ballot. Support ranged from a high of 81% for the transportation bond to a low of 59% for the Quonset/industrial facilities bond. “In times of great crisis, we need to be bold and with these bond measures, Rhode Islanders are spurring local job creation, making ourselves more competitive in the regional and global market and jump-starting a broad-based recovery from COVID-19,” Treasurer Magaziner said in a statement once the results were in. The treasurer’s office is expected to go to market to borrow the first tranche of bond money in early April, with some of the cash hitting the streets as soon as agencies are ready to spend it.

15. Steph Machado talks with City Councilor Nirva LaFortune on a new “Pulse of Providence.”

16. Lockheed Martin’s decision to close its plant in Marion drew little attention when WPRI first revealed it Feb. 26, but that changed this week. Chris McCarthy of New Bedford’s WBSM used his popular radio show to draw attention to the story, and other news outlets began to process the loss of hundreds of jobs in Southeastern Massachusetts. I spoke Thursday with Democratic Congressman Bill Keating, who represents Marion and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and he admitted he found it “irritating” that he didn’t get any kind of heads-up from Lockheed. “They didn’t give a lot of notice to anyone,” he said. But Keating also expressed little concern about the broader effects. “I’m not worried from a regional perspective,” he said. “We’re getting grants, companies are expanding here, we have the ‘blue economy,’ offshore wind’s back on track. … Things are going in a positive direction.” As for Lockheed, Keating added, “They’re going to be the losers.”

17. Amy Walter argues volatility is the new normal in American politics.

18. Adam Gopnik on saving the country’s jazz clubs.

19. Zeynep Tufecki looks at five pandemic mistakes America keeps repeating.

20. Don’t fret, says Amanda Mull: your weird pandemic meal habits are probably fine.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersKristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. 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. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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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