Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 14

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. What lies in store as the coronavirus pandemic worsens in Rhode Island? Governor Raimondo and her advisers are anxiously reviewing their options as cases near 1,000 a day and COVID-19 hospitalizations pass 250 people. The governor’s exasperation was evident at her briefing Thursday, when she repeatedly raised the prospect of a second lockdown and called doctors on stage to amplify the seriousness of the situation. “I’m here, I guess, one last time, pleading with the people of Rhode Island to make changes in your life, to wear your mask always, to stop having social gatherings of any kind, period, and to really rein it in,” she said. “That choice is yours.” Raimondo appears loathe to issue another general stay-at-home order, not only because of the economic and social damage it would cause but because it’s unclear if enough people would comply to even make a difference. Thus the search for smaller-scale interventions that might have an impact: closing break rooms, banning parties, ending late-night drinking and dining. Testing remains central to her strategy; her aides say nearly everyone who tests positive goes into isolation as required, whereas adherence to quarantine orders by their close contacts is much more spotty. Not all mitigation steps will be government-directed, either. We saw in March that Americans began to limit their activities even before formal stay-at-home orders were put in place due to growing fears of community spread, and real-time data on credit card spending suggests that could be happening again now. Perhaps it will be easier for people to make sacrifices over the coming months knowing that a vaccine should be widely available by the spring. But make no mistake. Difficult days are ahead.

2. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Eli Sherman: “While Rhode Islanders 80 years and older account for only about 5% of the state’s population, they make up roughly 60% of the state’s coronavirus fatalities. That statistic looms large in light of the Health Department’s disclosure that weekly cases among people 80 years and older nearly doubled to 188 last week. At least 240 new resident infections were discovered over the past two weeks across 24 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, which were once at the center of infections and deaths. ‘We’re very concerned,’ Rhode Island Health Care Association CEO Scott Fraser told me Friday night. Since spring, the industry and state has spent a lot of time and money trying to keep the virus out of long-term care facilities. But Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has acknowledged there’s only so much that can be done when community spread is so high. ‘Many of the people who work in nursing homes are from the community,’ she said last week. Fraser told me staffing is the biggest challenge this time around because it’s so limited, echoing a concern also being voiced by hospital executives, as health care workers grow increasingly exhausted after fighting the disease for more than eight months. ‘If cases continue to rise, which we hope they don’t, and staff tests positive – it’s going to be a challenge to find all the people we can to cover,’ Fraser said.”

3. Amid the gloom, a bit of light (literally): some of my neighbors have already put up their Christmas trees and placed holiday candles in their windows. Wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a lot more of that this weekend. I’m all for it!

4. Joe Shekarchi won’t officially become House speaker until January, but he’s already signaling some of the changes he plans to make once he takes the gavel. “We heard loud and clear from the caucus that the way things are running has to change,” Chris Blazejewski, who will be Shekarchi’s majority leader, said on Newsmakers. “A lot of it was just logistics about how the chamber works, how the bills go through committee, about the committee process — we heard a lot about that. We also heard about remote voting.” Expect to see more women in key leadership positions, potentially even as high up as House majority whip, the No. 3 job. “We have a lot of bright, talented people, and half of them are women,” Shekarchi said. No announcement yet on whether he’ll move on from Leo Skenyon as chief of staff, though that is widely expected at the State House, but Shekarchi gave a strong endorsement to his friend George Zainyeh as a potential replacement. (Zainyeh, who ducked phone calls this week, may of course prefer to remain a lobbyist.) The Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which controls the Assembly’s budget and is currently the subject of a GOP lawsuit, could begin meeting quarterly under Shekarchi, after Gordon Fox and Nick Mattiello wielded its power unilaterally for a decade. As for his top policy priority, Shekarchi said, “Continuing to improve our business climate so that it benefits everybody, top to bottom. We need to create good, high-paying private-sector jobs that will attract good, talented people to Rhode Island. They’ll pay taxes that will fund social services. We have to make the economy of Rhode Island work for everyone.”

5. Rhode Island still doesn’t have a state budget for the current fiscal year, but it sounds increasingly likely that lawmakers will tackle that soon. On Newsmakers, Joe Shekarchi said he thinks the Assembly could reconvene in “early December” to put together what he is calling a “skinny budget” that ensures the state can use its entire $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation from the CARES Act, but that punts bigger policy questions to the 2021-22 budget debate. As mentioned in this space last week, the 2020-21 budget picture isn’t as grim as originally forecast thanks to higher-than-expected revenue and increased federal Medicaid money.

6. Yet any plans for the General Assembly to return will be hampered as long as its staff members continue to test positive. Senate employees went remote earlier this week due to positive cases among their ranks, and on Friday a House spokesperson acknowledged Speaker Mattiello’s deputy chief of staff had tested positive, too, sending the rest of the staff home for part of next week. The offices are set to get a deep clean, per an internal email.

7. Will 2021 be the year Rhode Island legalizes recreational marijuana? The odds are higher than ever, with Senate leadership now open to the idea and a new House leadership team ready to give it a serious look. (Plus, it’s always easier to get lawmakers to take a controversial vote when it’s not an election year.) On Newsmakers, Joe Shekarchi said he thinks the House is “very close” to having majority support for legalization, if it’s not there already. But “even if we decided to legalize it, how do we legalize it, and who gets to sell it, who gets to manufacture it, who gets to distribute it?” he said. “I know that some people think it should be left to the current cultivators and the current dispensaries. The governor feels maybe it should be state-run, like they do in New Hampshire with the liquor stores. I think maybe we can look at a private model — do every mom-and-pop, people who sell cigarettes, should they be able to sell marijuana as well, too? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I know that we need to have hearings on it, we need to get input, so I’m open to that.”

8. One of the biggest changes in the transition from Nick Mattiello to Joe Shekarchi is in the voters they answer to every two years. Mattiello’s House District 15 is famously Republican-friendly, voting 52% in favor of President Trump last week; Shekarchi’s House District 23 in Warwick tips more Democratic, voting 53% in favor of Joe Biden. And of course, Chris Blazejewski represents one of the bluest seats around in Providence’s House District 2, which went 86% for Biden. (Keep in mind, as well, that Shekarchi has a Senate partner in Dominick Ruggerio who just survived a relatively tough challenge from the left, something Mattiello never feared.)

9. By becoming speaker, Joe Shekarchi won’t just inherit control of the House — he’ll also take de facto control of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. And he thinks changes are needed there, too. “The party needs to be restructured and modernized, and I’m willing to do that with the governor and the Senate president and all Democrats, local city and town chairs, many of whom are friends of mine and have already reached out to me and talked to me,” Shekarchi said on Newsmakers. While praising the current staff, he said, “We need to do modeling. We need to upgrade our computer capabilities. We need to do canvassing. The party needs to be brought to the 2021 election cycle right away and quickly.”

10. Next week is a big one for David Cicilline, as the incoming class of House Democrats chooses its leaders for the 117th Congress. The party’s current top three are all in their 80s — Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn — and face no challengers. That has put a brighter spotlight on the race between Cicilline and Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark for the No. 4 spot, assistant speaker. Capitol Hill views Clark as the frontrunner, but Cicilline’s team remains optimistic about his chances. This week he received an endorsement from the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano tweeting Friday, “@DavidCicilline is one of our party’s rising stars who has been at the forefront of our fight for LGBTQ+ equality. He’s done incredible work the last four years leading the DPCC. I know he will make an excellent Assistant Speaker.” The outcomes for assistant speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair will both be closely watched for what they portend about the post-Pelosi era. As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane noted, “How these races shape up will reveal where the House Democrats see the future of the national Democratic Party, as it prepares to work with Biden’s incoming administration knowing that the 77-year-old Democrat once suggested a Biden presidency would serve as its own transition to the party’s next-generation leaders.”

11. Among the new members of the House Democratic caucus voting in the assistant speaker race is Massachusetts Congressman-elect Jake Auchincloss. His team says to expect announcements about his staff appointments “before Christmas.”

12. One of the striking results in this year’s election was how Donald Trump did markedly better in Central Falls, increasing his share of the vote from 15.5% against Hillary Clinton to 26.1% against Joe Biden; over 1,100 Central Falls voters backed Trump this time, up from only 657 four years ago. Similar swings in Trump’s favor were seen in heavily Latino communities all over the country — and The Atlantic’s Christian Paz argues liberals don’t understand what motivated those voters.

13. Rhode Island’s new mayors are starting to pick their transition teams. Warwick Mayor-elect Frank Picozzi announced his team Monday, and Central Falls Mayor-elect Maria Rivera followed suit Thursday. Cranston Mayor-elect Ken Hopkins tells me he expects to announce his transition team on Monday.

14. A changing of the guard at Lifespan: the hospital group’s chief financial officer, Mamie Wakefield, plans to retire early next year, according to an email CEO Tim Babineau sent to staff this week.

15. Not one but two of the biggest names in Rhode Island journalism have just announced their retirements. First was Scott MacKay, who is retiring as Rhode Island Public Radio’s political analyst after a 44-year career in news, including decades as the preeminent chronicler of Ocean State politics. Nobody is better than Scott at putting current political events into historical perspective, whether it’s noting how construction of the interstate highways shaped the politics of Cranston and Warwick or finding a perfect long-ago parallel for the Smith Hill scandal du jour. As others have noted, Scott is unfailingly generous to the next generation of Rhode Island reporters, talking up our work and giving us pointers. We also have special affection for Scott at WPRI 12, where he spent years as a weekly panelist on Newsmakers alongside his dear friend Jack White. Congratulations, Scotty. … Then Friday came news that Providence Journal executive editor Alan Rosenberg will take a buyout, stepping down after nearly 43 years at the statewide daily. While Alan and I never worked together, I’ve been impressed with the way he has reinvented the job of executive editor, transforming The Journal from an institution that operated at a chilly remove into one where top brass explains its decisions. Alan is a true newspaperman in the best sense of the word, and I wish him well in his retirement.

16. Two podcasts worth your time this weekend as political junkies reflect on what went wrong with the polls this year: The New York Times’ Nate Cohn discusses the polling flop on The Daily, and Iowa’s Ann Selzer talks about how she got her state right with The Wall Street Journal (h/t Hillary Lima).

17. Two other recommendations as we dissect the national election results: Ron Brownstein on what it means for the politics of the 2020s, and Amy Walter on the intractability of our partisan divides.

18. Bond Buyer’s Paul Burton recaps the growth of East Providence.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Reps. Joe Shekarchi, the incoming House speaker, and Chris Blazejewski, the incoming House majority leader. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. 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) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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