Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes will be taking a break next week for Thanksgiving. Look for the next edition here at WPRI.com on Dec. 3.
1. Even the gloomiest of green-eyeshade types has to admit it: Rhode Island state government is flush with an unprecedented amount of cash right now. A report out this week shows the state is on pace to run a $610 million budget surplus in the current fiscal year, thanks to surging tax revenue, generous federal aid and widespread job vacancies. Certainly, there are important caveats to remember when interpreting that number. Pandemic-related federal support through Medicaid and FEMA is likely to end soon. A recession is possible, though not inevitable. And there are still concerns about the state’s underlying fiscal health which federal money and rising tax receipts have obscured. All that means Governor McKee and his staff have an important task ahead as they put together his 2023-24 budget proposal, which will set the terms of debate for how the surplus should be spent. (It’s a different story in Massachusetts, where the surplus automatically triggered nearly $3 billion in tax refunds under state law.) So far McKee and legislative leaders have been aligned on putting one-time money mostly toward one-time uses, like paying down old pension debt. But they are also going to face pressure to make permanent commitments, whether in the form of new spending programs or new tax cuts. The challenge will be differentiating what is really sustainable over the next decade, as economic conditions change, versus what appears affordable now but only due to temporary circumstances.
2. Governor McKee, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have given a number of speeches looking ahead in recent weeks, including at last month’s RIPEC dinner as well as various election-related events. One thing that stands out: all indicate K-12 education will be a top priority in the new legislative session next year. McKee used his victory speech to make a headline-grabbing commitment that Rhode Island will meet or exceed Massachusetts on student proficiency by 2030 — an ambitious goal to say the least.
3. Katie Nee Zambrano, who managed Seth Magaziner’s successful congressional campaign, expressed confidence about his path to victory throughout the 2nd District race — but says she never took the race for granted. “I was nervous every single day,” Nee Zambrano said during this week’s taping of Newsmakers. “I’m paid to be nervous, and if you’re not ‘running from behind,’ you’re not doing the right things and you’re not motivated enough. So I was very, very nervous.” A low point for the Magaziner team was early October, when back-to-back polls from WPRI 12 and The Boston Globe showed Magaziner still trailing Allan Fung. “We knew from the day that Seth Magaziner announced he was going to run, we knew this was going to be a really hard race,” she said. “We knew we were closing a name ID gap. The reality is, a lot of us know our mayor, and we don’t really know what the treasurer does.” Yet by the morning of Election Day, she says, she was “pretty sure” Magaziner would win. “We never were up in any poll — even our own poll, even a little bit closer to Election Day,” she said. “But we were closing. And we felt like we had a message that was really resonating with voters. We knew that the mail-ballot applications that had been drawn really favored Democrats, and we knew Democrats were really getting excited and starting to realize that there was a lot at stake here and the race was really close, and they had to turn out. So I think both knowing we had the right message and knowing we were executing on the ground, I felt really good going into Election Day.”
4. As I wrote the day after the election, Republicans in Rhode Island (and Massachusetts) face a gloomy outlook when it comes to winning big races after their across-the-board wipeout in 2022. But Bob Walsh, the former teachers union leader and longtime Democratic strategist, thinks the GOP had opportunities this year — but picked the wrong races. “If the Republican Party came to me and said, ‘Tell us what to do,’ I could have guaranteed them two statewide seats,” Walsh said on this week’s Newsmakers. “They would have run Ashley Kalus for lieutenant governor and Allan Fung for general treasurer, and they would have taken those jobs.” Wait a minute, I responded, wouldn’t Fung have faced the same problem that he did in his run for Congress as a candidate for treasurer, with his strength just causing Democrats to redouble their efforts to hold the seat? “Maybe not, but there was no way you’re going to let a congressional seat go. No way — national attention,” he said. “And as much as we love the national party, they were a little distracted trying to keep Congress, and they weren’t going to dump a lot of money and resources to keep a treasurer’s seat, when we’ve got the guardrails already in place in the Rhode Island General Assembly to stop real mischief from happening anywhere from any down-ballot officer.”
5. With every federal seat in Rhode Island and Massachusetts held by a Democrat, this week’s big developments on Capitol Hill — their party keeping the Senate but losing the House, plus Speaker Pelosi’s retirement — will have ripple effects for the local delegation. Jack Reed is a big winner, since he’ll keep his gavel as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and will also get a bump in seniority on the Appropriations Committee. (Reed has an unusual special dispensation from his caucus that lets him serve on two powerful committees instead of only one.) Sheldon Whitehouse could get a gavel for the first time, too: he’s in line to succeed Bernie Sanders as chairman of the Budget Committee, a panel Whitehouse has long served on and long criticized. Over in the House, David Cicilline is currently on the outside looking in as a new generation of Democrats ascends to the top positions; he lost his own 2020 leadership bid to Massachusetts’ Katherine Clark, who is now in line to replace Steny Hoyer as the party’s No. 2. No word yet on whether Cicilline will pursue another position or bide his time in the minority. Jake Auchincloss, who will be starting his second term in January, remains too junior to expect any major positions, but he’s been a vocal supporter of the likely new Democratic leadership team of Hakeem Jeffries and Clark, which could give him a seat at the table.
6. Via Politico Playbook: “SPOTTED at a party Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald hosted in her Georgetown home to celebrate Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s new book, ‘The Scheme’ ($27.99) on Tuesday night: Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), David Brock, Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt, Margaret Carlson, Matt Miller, E.J. Dionne, Norm Ornstein, Ian Millhiser, Ruth Marcus, Josh Gerstein, Jane Mayer and Bill Hamilton and Kenneth Vogel.” (Fun fact: Grunwald was Myrth York’s media consultant when York beat Whitehouse in the 2002 gubernatorial primary.)
7. Rhode Island’s two incoming general officers, Secretary of State-elect Gregg Amore and Treasurer-elect James Diossa, are settling into transition office suites the state has leased in Providence at 33 Broad St., an office building owned by Joe Paolino. There is also $350,000 in the current budget to pay their staff members and other transition expenses. Amore has tapped two fellow Democrats as transition co-chairs, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera and Providence Rep. John Lombardi, and transition manager Erich Haslehurst says they are looking to cast a wide net for advice as they prepare to succeed Nellie Gorbea. “It’s very important to the secretary-elect that this not be a symbolic transition,” he told me. To that end, Amore’s team is putting together a series of working groups that will bring together individuals with expertise in each of the Department of State’s big divisions — elections, business services, and so on. Those names are expected to be announced after Thanksgiving, along with senior staff appointments. So far no word from Diossa on any similar decisions.
8. Some stories from my colleagues … Steph Machado’s digs into the online election that saw NAACP Providence President Jim Vincent ousted from his longtime post … Steph also examined why thieves stealing catalytic converters has rapidly become a huge problem … Eli Sherman and Sarah Guernelli discovered Rhode Island leads the country for identity theft … and Steven Matregrano shares a story of goodwill between Rhode Island political rivals.
9. As Dan McGowan noted in his Globe column last month, Rhode Island is going through major leadership transitions in some of the state’s most influential jobs right now. Lifespan announced Friday the hiring of a new CEO, John Fernandez, who will replace Tim Babineau early next year leading the state’s top hospital group. Fernandez’s counterpart at No. 2 hospital group Care New England will be Dr. Michael Wagner, who takes over on Dec. 1 from outgoing CEO Dr. James Fanale. The changes at the top come after the hospital groups just signed a major deal with Brown University to unify their research activities for the first time. Separately, the Rhode Island Foundation is continuing its search for a successor to CEO Neil Steinberg, who is due to step down next May. The foundation has formed a search committee and just posted a job description for the role.
10. Michael Kruse on the coming Donald Trump vs. Ron DeSantis GOP clash.
11. Here’s a dispatch from retired Providence Journal political scribe M. Charles Bakst, a Fall River native, who upon learning of Nancy Pelosi’s retirement was stirred to write about long-ago House Speaker Joe Martin: “Democrat Pelosi of California has served 20 years at her party’s helm – eight as House speaker and 12 as minority leader. Republican Martin, who came from North Attleboro, served 20 at his party’s helm – four as speaker and 16 as minority leader – through the presidencies of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower. A dramatic difference: With Republicans about to take over in the House, Pelosi, 82, was free to remain as Democratic leader and is giving up power on her own. In the 1958 elections, Republicans, already in the minority, were rocked by further, massive Democratic gains; Martin wanted to remain as minority leader, but in a brutal caucus vote in early 1959, his GOP colleagues dumped him. It rocked Martin, then 74, to the core. Now he was just a rank-and-file member and he assumed that when his two-year term ended he would leave Congress, ending a political career that began with his election to the state legislature in 1912. But he chose to keep running for Congress – and, at least for a while, he kept winning. In a 1960 memoir, ‘My First 50 Years in Politics,’ Martin wrote, ‘While I would never be leader again, the experience that had come from nearly 50 years in politics had taught me a great deal that I could still do for people. Other assets than leather lungs are needed in government.’ He actually felt liberated, and he focused on constituent service. I treasure my copy of Martin’s book, which he inscribed to my father, a Fall River lawyer: ‘To Lester Bakst, a good friend through the years. Best wishes, Joseph W. Martin Jr.’ Martin, who had an office in the Fall River post office, was deeply rooted in Bristol County. Even when he was a power in Washington, he remained editor and publisher of North Attleboro’s Evening Chronicle, which merged later with the Attleboro Sun, now the Attleboro Sun Chronicle. His memoir has pictures of him with the likes of Eisenhower, Speaker Sam Rayburn, and other celebs, but the best is a classic of Joe, phone to his ear, on election night in the crowded Chronicle digs. In 1958, when I was in the ninth grade at Phillips Academy, Andover, I had an English assignment to write about my most unforgettable character. I wrote about Martin. Of course I didn’t actually know him, but he was a huge name in our house and it was easy enough to look him up in the school library. My father sent the essay to the congressman. He replied with a nice note, and returned the paper so my father could keep it. Martin was a legend in his time, but, alas, he stayed on too long. In 1966, his health waning, Margaret Heckler defeated him in a primary. He died two years later at age 83. Pelosi was the first woman speaker, a master tactician and achiever, deserving of all the praise she is receiving. But Martin had a nice run too and he shouldn’t be lost in the shadows of history.”
12. Thursday is Thanksgiving, so it’s a good time to express gratitude — and one of the things I’m grateful for is all of you who read this column. I think I have the best job in news, and it’s only possible because all of you care enough about current events in our corner of New England to check in each Saturday and provide an audience for this kind of compendium. Thank you, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday.
13. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Katie Nee Zambrano and Bob Walsh break down how Democrats topped expectations on Nov. 8. 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 (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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 and Facebook