Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 13

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. If you ask Gov. Dan McKee, the only issue with the ILO Group contract is the news coverage. “You cross the line when you start talking negatively about people who volunteer and then people that are working with me,” McKee told Ian Donnis last week. But if you ask a host of others — the attorney general, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the former director of the Department of Administration, rival candidates for governor — the process that led up to ILO’s $5.2 million deal warrants the scrutiny it’s received. That sentiment was widely expressed following our report Monday night revealing that the blueprint for what became the ILO contract was written by McKee confidante Mike Magee, whose own subordinate had founded ILO the day before. On Twitter, state Rep. David Place pointed out that ILO was subsequently the only company whose initial bid on the contract was anywhere near what the governor was seeking. “Anyone looking at how this played out could see how it went down,” Place tweeted. “The least experienced, but best connected, bidder was able to just read the Governor’s mind and know what he wanted?” Many State House observers — including some supportive of McKee — say they are surprised he didn’t cancel the contract due to the controversy over the procurement process. (One suggested that if ILO is as skilled as McKee says, they should easily win a rebid.) But the governor is adamant that his administration did nothing wrong in selecting ILO, and insists he needs the company’s expertise on issues including the Providence schools takeover.

2. Our latest on ILO: why the company initially avoided a standard 1% fee for similar contracts.

3. A little over a month ago, state GOP Chair Sue Cienki declared that her party would have a “very formidable, electable candidate” for governor by the end of October. It’s now Nov. 11 — and there’s still no declared Republican candidate for governor. What happened? “Well, I was under the impression that a formidable candidate would formally announce before then,” Cienki said on Newsmakers. “In talking behind the scenes, there are lots of things that go on — getting your consultants, your vendors, everything in place — and making a conscious effort of exactly when you’re going to launch a campaign.” While speculation about the GOP nominee has centered on House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, he still sounds uncertain about taking the plunge. “I’m being honest,” Filippi told Kim Kalunian this week. “I don’t know what that drop-dead date is. Things are fluid. Things change all the time.” He added, “We’re not in a crowded primary like our Democratic colleagues. We’re not. We’re in a Republican primary, and it’s a different calculus.” But senior Republicans say Filippi — as well as Dave Darlington, the former RITBA chairman who is also mulling a bid — aren’t their only options. Nor is governor the only office on the ballot next year. Cienki says her phone has been “ringing off the hook” since the GOP’s strong showings last week in Virginia and New Jersey, with would-be candidates expressing interest in offices up and down the ballot. “People are frustrated,” she said. “And they see that anybody can win.”

4. Another potential candidate to keep an eye on: former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is viewed as increasingly likely to run for general treasurer next year. It’s an intriguing possibility. With his existing name recognition from two gubernatorial runs, plus 12 years as the popular mayor of the state’s second-largest city, Fung could give the Republicans a shot at winning a non-gubernatorial general office for the first time since 1994. That’s in part because so far the race for treasurer hasn’t attracted a formidable Democratic contender along the lines of Gregg Amore in the contest for secretary of state.

5. Nesi’s Notes Pop Quiz: Who were the last two Republicans to win one of the four general offices other than the governorship? (Hint: they won the same year.) Answer at the bottom.

6. The sheer quantity of cash sloshing around the Rhode Island State House these days is hard to comprehend, particularly for those of us who came of age when the discussion always seemed to be about stemming red ink. It’s hard to tell right now whether Rhode Island’s reoccurring revenue and reoccurring expenses really match up — all the federal money throws off comparisons. But at least for the next couple years, lawmakers are more likely to be fighting over how to spend money than how to save it. The twice-a-year Revenue Estimating Conference this week projected state general revenue will total $4.68 billion this fiscal year, which is $274 million more than the same experts predicted in May; that total is expected to grow by $69 million next fiscal year. And of course, Rhode Island is still sitting on its $1.1 billion in State Fiscal Recovery Fund money — part of nearly $3 billion coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act — not to mention the billions more that will be forthcoming after President Biden signs the infrastructure bill on Monday. Finance Committee Chairmen Marvin Abney and Ryan Pearson sought to manage expectations this week, saying in a joint statement, “We will continue our work to assess the multitude of proposals and identified needs for both one-time and ongoing resources to ensure a lasting recovery.”

7. Among those who’ll be on hand with President Biden at the White House for Monday’s infrastructure bill signing: Governor McKee, per an advisory from his office late Friday.

8. Eli Sherman and Tim White have new reporting that pushes the timeline of the North Kingstown coach scandal all the way back to the 1990s. Meanwhile, on Friday a lawyer for the victims alleged that two former students told North Kingstown school officials back in 2018 that they were naked with the coach — corroborating a Nov. 4 report by Eli and Tim, and contradicting with the School Committee claimed just last Saturday.

9. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “Providence’s 2022 mayoral race is still getting started, with the four announced Democrats doing lots of ‘meet and greets’ in recent weeks, and plenty of time left for others to jump in the race. Now Gonzalo Cuervo is making a play for the vote-rich East Side with a new four-page letter set to hit the mailboxes of thousands of voters in that neighborhood this upcoming week. ‘Spending a lifetime working in Providence’s diverse communities has given me unparalleled insights into our city’s unique dynamics, significant challenges, and great opportunities,’ Cuervo writes in the letter, which reads as an autobiography of his life and career while pitching himself to politically active voters who already have two other candidates as neighbors, Brett Smiley and City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune. ‘The East Side is up for grabs,’ Cuervo insisted Friday night when I asked why he was targeting those voters with the new mailer. ‘There are a lot of people on the East Side who might be familiar with two of my opponents and not so familiar with me. This letter is an introductory mechanism.’ Smiley, a second-time mayoral candidate, has received more donations from fellow East Siders than people who live in the rest of Providence, while also raking in cash from outside the city to build his current war chest of $427,105 as of Sept. 30. LaFortune, who grew up in South Providence but now represents one of the East Side’s three council wards, is also seeing the bulk of her donations from Providence residents on the East Side; she currently has $141,568 on hand. Cuervo, a South Providence native as well who now lives in Mount Pleasant, currently has most of his campaign’s donations coming in from outside of the East Side, suggesting a need to build more support there. (Cuervo has $213,138 on hand.) Michael Solomon, who lives in the Elmhurst neighborhood and has so far mostly self-funded his campaign with a $250,000 loan, started fundraising in September and has received $30,000 from donors, including 10 Providence residents.”

10. Eli Sherman has an eye-opening look at how concerns about Medicaid billing shaped patient admissions and discharges at Eleanor Slater Hospital over the last decade.

11. Jack Reed is gearing up for the biggest undertaking of his Senate Armed Services chairmanship so far, shepherding the annual defense policy bill through the Senate. The bill — known as the NDAA, short for National Defense Authorization Act — is often described as one of the “must-pass” pieces of annual legislation in Congress, which gives lawmakers an incentive to get their pet priorities added to it. As Roll Call reports, those proposed amendments range from an Afghanistan commission to chimpanzee relocation. But it’s still unclear when, exactly, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will let Reed bring the NDAA to the floor — to the frustration of Senate Republicans. But Reed’s GOP counterpart on Armed Services, Jim Inhofe, shielded the Rhode Islander from blame. “I have talked to him on a daily basis. He has told me that on a daily basis he approaches his leader [Schumer] and he has not been successful in getting it done,” Inhofe told Politico of Reed. “He has done everything that he can do and he did not come back with a reason that this postponement has taken place.” Right now Beltway observers expect the Senate to take up the NDAA before the Build Back Better Act.

12. A good catch by Punchbowl News from deep inside the 2022 spending bill drafted by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, whose chairman is Jack Reed: “Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats want to spend $10 million in taxpayer money to help colleges or other institutions get ready to take their personal papers when they leave office.”

13. “I didn’t think this was going to be a big deal.” That was how Rep. Mike Moran, co-chair of Massachusetts’ redistricting commission, summed it up Tuesday as he listened to hours of testimony for and against his panel’s plan to split off Fall River from New Bedford in the state’s new congressional maps. It’s abundantly clear Beacon Hill leaders didn’t expect anywhere near the amount of pushback they’ve gotten from Bill Keating, Joe Kennedy, Jon Mitchell and a host of other South Coast notables. At the same time, they can correctly point out that the region isn’t speaking with one voice about what it wants — Fall River’s mayor and two of its state reps say they like the new maps, which would put the whole city in Jake Auchincloss’s 4th District. (Fall River is currently split between that district and Keating’s 9th District.) However, Keating and Kennedy are among the many — including some other Fall River elected officials — who argue that slicing a district line through the South Coast will only further diminish the clout of a region that’s rarely front of mind in the state’s corridors of power to begin with. During a TV appearance last weekend, longtime political analyst Mary Anne Marsh characterized the change as “the Jake Auchincloss incumbent protection plan,” saying, “It doesn’t help New Bedford, it doesn’t help Fall River, it only helps Jake. Every single congressman including Joe Kennedy … has always opposed splitting these two communities up or splitting Fall River in half, but not Jake.” Yet Jack Spillane, the region’s savviest observer, sees a deeper divide behind the district dispute. “The truth is that even though a district built around the similar demographics and needs of Fall River and New Bedford makes all the sense in the world, it does not bridge the long-running competition and suspicion that have sometimes existed between the two cities,” Spillane wrote in the New Bedford Light.

14. Speaking of New Bedford, don’t miss this Boston Globe series on the city’s strengths.

15. Want to be inspired? Watch Kim Kalunian’s profile of Manfred Steiner, an East Providence resident who just earned his Ph.D. from Brown — at age 89.

16. Self-recommending: David Remnick on Paul McCartney.

17. Answer to the Nesi’s Notes Pop Quiz: Attorney General Jeff Pine and General Treasurer Nancy Mayer were the last two Rhode Island Republicans to win an election for a non-gubernatorial general office, back in 1994. (The party did subsequently win the governor’s office in 1998, 2002 and 2006.)

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki; a reporters roundtable with Eli Sherman and Steph Machado. 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. See you back here next Saturday.

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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