Nesi’s Notes: May 8

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. When I first reported that Vice President Harris would be paying a visit to Rhode Island, the initial reaction I heard from many people was, “That’s cool.” Their follow-up: “But why?” Rhode Island is one of the smallest states, after all, and Rhode Islanders aren’t exactly wavering swing voters who need to be won over; they’ve picked the Democrat in every presidential and congressional race for 10 straight elections now. “I really do believe that Rhode Island is part of what happens and how Rhode Island is impacted by the moment is a real measure of how the country is doing,” Harris told me Wednesday when we talked one-on-one at the Wexford building, adding, “I love being here.” Still, it seems unlikely Rhode Island would have been quite so high on the VP’s early travel itinerary if one of her administration’s cabinet members wasn’t the state’s former governor. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was by Harris’s side throughout the visit, getting a chance to show a hometown crowd her new status in Washington. (Raimondo is still living in Rhode Island for now — though she’s expected to move to D.C. eventually — and is using an office in the federal courthouse when she’s not in Washington.) The Harris visit renewed speculation in some quarters that Raimondo might be keeping her profile high ahead of a future run for U.S. Senate, but color me skeptical — highly skeptical. Raimondo likes executive roles, not legislative ones, and has never expressed the slightest interest in a run for Senate. She’ll have plenty of doors open to her down the line as a former cabinet secretary, too. And regardless, it could be a long time before Rhode Island has an open Senate seat, with Jack Reed just starting a new six-year term at age 70 and Sheldon Whitehouse a senatorial spring chicken at 65. And when one of them does step aside, David Cicilline may try to switch chambers.

2. You can watch my full interview with Vice President Harris on this weekend’s edition of Newsmakers. Tim White and I also pull back the curtain a bit on what it takes to coordinate with the White House for even a short interview once your request is accepted.

3. Secretary Raimondo will make her debut on the network Sunday shows this weekend, doing an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson — more evidence of how widely she is being deployed as a media surrogate for the administration so far.

4. They say an Army marches on its stomach, and a similar principle holds for the White House entourage — whenever the president or VP travels, someone has to feed the staff, security and press pool. For Kamala Harris’s team, that job went to Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches on South Main Street — but the popular lunch spot didn’t know it when they were making the meals. “I had no idea,” said Julianna Fonseca, whose family has owned Geoff’s for a quarter-century. Fonseca told me she first got a call Monday from a man advising her a sizable order would be coming in Wednesday. When they spoke again Tuesday night, he mentioned that he’d need to pay for the order in two different ways, citing government rules; Fonseca still didn’t suspect anything. (“People’s finances are their own thing — if the credit card works, I don’t really care whose it is.”) Once the order came in — 20 sandwiches and 10 salads — Fonseca made the food along with her father, then got in the car to deliver it to Davol Square. She hadn’t heard that Harris was in town, but began to realize something was up when she saw police cars lining the streets. On arrival she tried knocking on the front door, only to get reprimanded by an officer who said she couldn’t go in. “I’m just delivering food,” she said. The officer asked, “Do you have someone you can call? You should call them.” Fonseca’s contact told her to come around to another entrance, which is when she noticed “Secret Service” emblazoned on the jackets of people in bulletproof vests around the building. “I thought, someone’s got to be very important in this building.” Her contact took the food inside but didn’t disclose his organization. “It wasn’t until I had gotten back to work that I received a text from the contact and he sent a message saying, ‘A big thank you from Vice President Harris’s team — we wanted the best sandwiches in Providence!’ And then I started fangirling.” Among the beneficiaries was Ed O’Keefe of CBS News, the network pool reporter on the trip, who tweeted: “I can report the sandwiches by (Geoff’s), procured for the traveling press pool on our behalf by the advance team, are indeed superb.”

5. Most of the discussion around the 2020 Census in Rhode Island has been about the now-settled question of whether Rhode Island would keep two U.S. House seats. But as important if not more so for state politics over the next decade will be how the maps of all 113 General Assembly districts get redrawn. “The first rule of redistricting is, the districts have to be almost exactly equal in population,” Common Cause’s John Marion said on this week’s Newsmakers. “So depending on where those [additional] people are, and we don’t know yet in the state — for instance, downtown Providence has a lot of new residents, we suspect — there’s going to be district line shifts. And there are going to be fights, quite frankly, among the legislators and city councilors in the capital city.” The Census Bureau says it will deliver redistricting data by Aug. 16, roughly six months later than usual due to the same delays that affected the announcement about the House seats. “It’s really compressed, which is going to give them a chance for some funny business,” Marion said of state leaders, noting he doesn’t expect the public to see preliminary maps until October or November. “We’re going to have to be ready to react, and the community’s going to need to be paying attention.”

6. Learn something new every day. Veteran operative Devin Driscoll points out that the term limits provision in Rhode Island’s state constitution, adopted in 1992, only bars more than two consecutive terms. That means a former two-term officeholder could, in theory, come back and seek a third term in his or her old office just so long as the person waited at least four years before the new campaign. (“Yes,” concurs John Marion, “that’s my reading of the amendment.”) Maybe the GOP can lure Don Carcieri back for one more run in 2022? He’s the same age as President Biden.

7. Rhode Island Liberator writer Sam G. Howard observed this week, “The budget is yet to come, but it seems like it’s shaping up to be one of the most progressive General Assembly sessions since, I don’t know, the Bloodless Revolution? Certainly the most progressive in my short political memory.” Howard has a point. This week alone the House approved a minimum-staffing mandate for nursing homes, a $15 minimum wage (by 2025), a permanent Rhode Island Promise free-tuition program, and a ban on gender rating in health insurance; the Senate has already passed all four. Governor McKee has signed the Act on Climate law and a ban on housing discrimination based on source of income, as well. Chalk it up to Nick Mattiello’s defeat, progressive victories in last year’s elections, and shifting winds inside the Democratic Party.

8. Also moving through the General Assembly this month — after more than two years of discussion and negotiation — is a revised bill granting IGT and Bally’s a new 20-year contract to run gaming for the state. Eli Sherman has all the details here. Speaker Shekarchi, who hammered out the final deal, gave this review: “The legislation increases revenue to our state and preserves critical jobs. Along with the Senate, we have taken several steps to enhance the legislation on behalf of the taxpayers.” GOP Rep. Brian Newberry tweeted this alternative take: “The floor vote on this will be a real test of sincerity for every so-called ‘progressive’ Democrat who ever campaigned against ‘corporate welfare’ ‘insider deals’ ‘backroom deals’ etc etc.”

9. Tolly Taylor discovered a loophole that lets Rhode Island cities and towns collect unpaid car taxes dating back decades.

10. Friday’s jarringly weak U.S. jobs report refocused attention on the deep hole that remains in the labor market due to the pandemic, Rhode Island very much included. The state’s employers had 466,900 jobs on their payrolls in March, down by more than 35,000 jobs versus a year earlier; there were also 23,000 fewer Rhode Islanders in the active labor force. Nor has the pain been equally felt. Data presented to the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference shows employment was down 25% as of February among low-wage Rhode Islanders (those making $27,000 or less), compared with only 2% among high-wage workers (those making at least $60,000). Longer-range trends are also a cause for concern. In a report on Rhode Island’s economy last month, analysts at Moody’s wrote: “More challenging for the state’s economic growth prospects, the prime working-age population (ages 25-54) has declined consistently for most of the last two decades. This erosion is reflected in falling labor force participation rates. Historically higher than the U.S. average, Rhode Island’s labor force participation has been declining more rapidly than the nation.”

11. On a brighter economic note, Fidelity Investments this week announced plans to hire 500 new employees at its Smithfield campus for the company’s personal investing business, a mix of entry-level and managerial jobs. Governor McKee called the announcement “encouraging and welcomed news as we begin Rhode Island’s economic recovery.” Somewhere Lincoln Almond must be smiling, since wooing Fidelity to Rhode Island was one of his major accomplishments as governor. “Fidelity Investments has thrived in Rhode Island since 1998,” Fidelity exec Rick Metters told me in an email. The company now employs 3,200 people in Rhode Island, making it one of the state’s largest employers. And unlike with previous Fidelity expansions in Rhode Island, the company is not receiving any taxpayer incentives this time. “Our priority is to instead leverage our work with the state to move quickly to find the best talent possible and to fill these roles in order to be there for our customers during this challenging time,” Metters said.

12. Senator Whitehouse gave a wide-ranging interview to The New Republic expressing frustration that the Biden administration isn’t doing more to investigate the actions of the Trump administration.

13. Did you know Justice Breyer was one of Jack Reed’s advisers at Harvard Law?

14. Here’s a dispatch out of federal court from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “A lot has happened since the Fall River Herald News revealed during Jasiel Correia’s first term in office that the young mayor was under federal investigation: he’s been arrested and indicted twice, recalled and re-elected on the same night, ousted by Paul Coogan, starred in a documentary about himself on a now-defunct streaming service, and is now standing trial in Boston federal court after numerous pandemic delays. The corruption scandal has been top of mind in Fall River for years, and is now in the homestretch; a jury will get the case on Monday afternoon and begin deliberating on each of 24 counts against Correia. (The 29-year-old has pleaded not guilty.) The trial — which consisted of 36 witnesses and mountains of documents over nine days — included some truly stunning testimony, including a claim from a local convenience store owner that Correia took a cash bribe in his city vehicle in exchange for initial approval for a marijuana store. Still, the trial may have left its Zoom audience of hundreds wanting more; we did not get to hear from former chief of staff Gen Andrade, who has pleaded guilty to her role in the case and was apparently present for many of the events depicted at trial, nor did Correia himself take the stand. Closing arguments are set for Monday morning.”

15. Meet all five candidates running for the open Providence City Council Ward 15 seat.

16. Good news for history lovers and legal scholars: Rhode Island’s State Library has landed a $50,000 federally funded grant to continue digitizing the state’s Public Laws. Dating back all the way to 1750, the Public Laws are the most-used collection in the library, whether by members of the public doing research or General Assembly lawyers reviewing legislative history. The $50,000 will be used to first digitize the 1993 Public Laws, continuing backward from there; the library will also get to keep the equipment purchased for the project, allowing its staff to use it for other digitizing efforts afterward. “Government should be accessible and transparent for all Rhode Islanders. We accomplish that by modernizing how we do things and by making smart use of available resources,” Secretary Gorbea said in a statement. “State Librarian Megan Hamlin-Black and her team continue to do an outstanding job of fulfilling that mission and serving the public.”

17. EcoRI’s Celia Hack has a fascinating deep dive on the two climate coalitions — Renew Rhode Island and Climate Jobs Rhode Island — competing for influence at the Rhode Island State House these days.

18. Handy with a brush? You could get $50,000 to paint Governor Raimondo’s portrait.

19. If you consume political polling, you should read this Data for Progress autopsy on 2020.

20. Does the British monarchy have a succession problem? Anna Isaac thinks so.

21. Congratulations to all my WPRI 12 colleagues who won Murrow Awards this week, including my Target 12 colleagues Tim White, Eli Sherman and John Villella for their investigation of fake SBA loans during the pandemic. Tune in Monday evening for a fresh investigation from the same trio — this one revealing new problems at the highest level at Eleanor Slater Hospital.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersVice President Harris; Common Cause executive director John Marion. 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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