Nesi’s Notes: May 12

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’s now been five years since Bank of America vacated 111 Westminster St., leaving Providence’s tallest skyscraper empty for the first time since the Industrial Trust Co. built it in 1927. And it’s now been a year since the bank paid owner High Rock Development an undisclosed sum to settle a lawsuit over its stewardship of the tower. Yet the so-called “Superman” building is still sitting vacant and decaying in the heart of downtown. Will it ever be revitalized? Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor’s office put the building at the heart of its Amazon HQ2 pitch, but that bid was unsuccessful. “Thankfully there continues to be interest from some end users, meaning from some companies that might want to occupy it,” Pryor said on this week’s Newsmakers. “When I say that there’s interest, it’s an active conversation happening now.” (High Rock spokesman Bill Fischer confirmed, “We continue to have dialogue with interested parties regarding the future utilization of the Superman building.” He declined to say more.) Pryor said the building’s “podium” levels are a good fit for modern corporate offices, with roughly 20,000-square-foot floor plates. He suggested one or more companies could occupy the lower stories, with the upper stories devoted to apartments or a hotel. And, he argued, as long as companies are touring the building and expressing interest, there’s no reason to consider tearing it down. “We believe it’s feasible,” Pryor said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a very complicated project. It’s going to take a lot of work on everyone’s part. But the market is showing us that there is interest. That’s what counts.”

2. Speaking of Amazon, Secretary Pryor remains optimistic about Rhode Island’s future relationship with the e-retail giant. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a number of jurisdictions had “disappointing phone conversations” with Amazon execs when they found out exactly why their pitches fell short. But Pryor insisted his conversation was largely positive, with praise for Rhode Island’s “creative” and “very responsive” proposal. “They said, ‘Well, you’ll be hearing from us in the future’ – and indeed we have,” Pryor said on Newsmakers. “We’ve had conversations with them. We continue to have conversations with them, very actively.” So what kept Rhode Island off the short list? The biggest issue, Pryor said, was size – Amazon was concerned about whether the state could handle a rapid influx of 50,000 new white-collar jobs. “It’s like building a mini-city in a short period of time,” he said. Public transportation, housing supply and office stock were all concerns, too. “They said, ‘Really there was no deficiency. It was purely that your scale was not the kind of scale we’re looking for,'” he said. Pryor added that he thinks if Boston gets the nod for HQ2, it would benefit Rhode Island, too.

3. Meanwhile, Aaron Renn offers some lessons from the Amazon HQ2 scramble.

4. The Revenue Estimating Conference shows tax revenue surging $135 million above forecast, welcome news for state leaders as they begin final negotiations over the budget. Coupled with other metrics – the Q4 GDP reading, fairly steady private-sector job growth, a red-hot housing market – the spike in tax receipts is another indicator that the Rhode Island economy is on relatively solid ground. But as legislative leaders were quick to note, that doesn’t mean it will be easy to put together a balanced budget. As noted in this space last month, Governor Raimondo’s budget proposal contained $26.6 million in “scoops” that even she wants removed; it relies on $23.5 million from sports betting that the Supreme Court may not legalize; and it doesn’t include other costs that are now known, such as union raises and overspending by departments. Still, addressing those problems will obviously be easier with more revenue rather than less.

5. It’s increasingly clear that Aaron Regunberg poses a real threat to incumbent Dan McKee in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. The progressive challenger is now sitting on $348,000, more than twice as much campaign cash as McKee. And this week Regunberg announced his 10th union endorsement, adding the 10,000-member Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals to the list. McKee’s campaign said he has not yet announced any labor endorsements. “Lt. Gov. McKee appreciates the tremendous support he has received from Rhode Island union households in past elections,” a spokesman said. “The lieutenant governor has a great deal of respect for the union membership and its leadership here in Rhode Island.” McKee has won tough races before and shouldn’t be counted out. But Regunberg could get a further boost from the high energy on his party’s left. Keep an eye on this one.

6. Susan Campbell on the latest UHIP oversight hearing.

7. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “A few months ago, it looked like nearly every member of the Providence City Council was on track to getting re-elected in November, setting up a scenario where as many as 12 of the 15 councilors would have been term limited in 2022. But the announcements from Ward 13 Councilman Bryan Principe (Federal Hill) and Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier (East Side) that they aren’t running again coupled with several credible Democratic primary races in other parts of the city means the council could see several new faces in January. Aside from the two open seats, former Council President Luis Aponte briefly considered running for the House seat Rep. Joe Almeida appears be retiring from, but he has said he now intends to run for re-election in Ward 10. He’ll face a challenge from businessman Pedro Espinal, who has been flirting with a run for more than year. In Ward 12, newcomer Kat Kerwin appears to be a strong contender against veteran Councilman Terry Hassett, although the council’s longest-serving member has made it clear he won’t go down without a fight. Over in Ward 8, Councilman Wilbur Jennings already has a stacked primary that includes retired firefighter James Taylor, Carlos Diaz and Deya Garcia. Aside from those races, Ward 5 Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, Ward 7 Councilman John Igliozzi and Ward 15 Councilwoman Sabina Matos already have Democratic primary challengers and it appears likely Ward 4 Councilman Nick Narducci and Ward 9 Councilwoman Carmen Castillo will also have opponents this year. While it seems unlikely Council President David Salvatore will have a serious challenge in Ward 14, he’s going to be forced to pick sides in some of the races in an attempt to solidify the eight votes he’ll need to remain president next year. Similarly, Mayor Elorza may want to invest some resources in council races, but he isn’t quite tipping his hand yet.”

8. Mayor Elorza has taken 59 out-of-state trips since his inauguration.

9. The race for governor currently feels like a battle by news release. Some samples from this week. … From Gina Raimondo: “Mayor Fung’s Poor Management Costs Taxpayers” and “Fung Opposes Raimondo Plan to Fix Our Schools.” … From Allan Fung: “Lincoln Republican Town Committee Endorses Mayor Allan Fung” and “Rhode Island Synonyms: UHIP and U-R-Screwed.” … From Patricia Morgan: “Allan Fung Needs to Bulldoze Cranston City Hall.” … From Joe Trillo: “Trillo Criticizes [Raimondo and RIDOT] for Failing to Fix Rhode Island’s Pothole Problem” and “Trillo Concerned Over Rating for Rhode Island Schools.” … From Matt Brown: “Matt Brown to launch campaign at organizing meeting Monday.” … From Paul Roselli: “Candidate organizes forum on single payer health care.”

10. The Rhode Island Democratic Party got a $10,000 donation last quarter from a somewhat surprising source: Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook and author of “Lean In.” A spokesman for Gina Raimondo confirms Sandberg cut the check “as a result of a conversation with the governor.” (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.) While a candidate can only accept a maximum contribution of $1,000 from any individual, political parties can accept up to $10,000.

11. A quote from John McCain’s forthcoming memoir is likely to feature in Senator Whitehouse’s re-election campaign. Discussing his many trips overseas with Lindsey Graham, McCain writes: “Sheldon Whitehouse, another frequent traveling companion and a smart, widely respected senator, had joined us on that July Fourth trip, too.” McCain goes on to say that he liked bringing senators with divergent ideological views on foreign trips because it allowed them to forge personal bonds. Whitehouse would certainly seem to fit the bill; as McCain quipped to me in a 2016 interview, “Sheldon Whitehouse is probably my only friend in the Senate who is a socialist bordering on Communist.”

12. Jim Langevin isn’t happy about a report that new National Security Advisor John Bolton is considering eliminating the White House’s top cyberscecurity job. “I hope that the new national security advisor does not eliminate the position and ensures that there remains an individual focused solely on this critical national and economic security challenge,” Langevin said in a statement. “However,” he added, “I have also long championed legislation to empower the position of cyber coordinator so that it has budgetary authority and can better hold agencies accountable.”

13. The R.I. Democratic Party platform debate, chronicled here by progressive outlet Uprise RI, suggests it may be getting harder to paper over the party’s longstanding ideological fissures.

14. Two items to watch out of Massachusetts: the state Senate wants to electrify the Providence MBTA line by 2022, and a proposed ballot question this fall could slice the Bay State sales tax to 5%.

15. Governing looks at how Detroit is faring post-bankruptcy.

16. This Tim White dispatch from the big Mafia trial is right out of a movie.

17. You think the vinyl revival is a surprise? Reel-to-reel is back, too.

18. Don’t forget: tomorrow is Mother’s Day!

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. This week on Executive Suite – KVH Industries Chairman, President and CEO Martin Kits van Heyningen; Veterans Assembled Electronics CEO John Shepard. 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

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect figure for Aaron Regunberg’s cash on hand.

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

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