Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 6

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. What, if anything, do Tuesday’s dreadful election results for Democrats portend for their fortunes locally in 2022? Possibly nothing — off-year elections are different from midterms, and a year is a lifetime in politics. But it’s worth contemplating the alternative, and what should really worry Rhode Island Democrats are the results in New Jersey. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was supposed to win easily in a state that gave Joe Biden a 16-point win over Donald Trump; instead Murphy squeaked through by barely 2 points. Plus, the Garden State’s most powerful state lawmaker was one of multiple Democrats who lost seats the party had held for years. “The most shocking thing was the huge increase in the Republican turnout in the southern part of the state,” pollster Patrick Murray told New York Magazine. “These are the working-class voters that Democrats have counted on in the old days, and they were sending a message that they felt that the party has just disappeared from them. Many of these are folks who supported Joe Biden just last year — they were never fans of Donald Trump — but they’re certainly not fans of what they see as a Democratic Party that’s obsessed with pleasing every progressive whim.” Rhode Island remains a blue state: Biden beat Trump by 21 points in 2020. But it doesn’t look nearly as blue as Massachusetts, which Biden won by 34 points. And last year’s results suggested erosion of the Democratic brand in places like Providence and Central Falls. We’ve seen before how Rhode Island Democrats struggle in bad midterm years for their party: David Cicilline only won his seat by 6 points in 2010, and Gina Raimondo only won the governor’s office by 4.5 points in 2014. True, both candidates had their unique flaws. But when the national political winds changed, so did their numbers — Cicilline rode Barack Obama’s coattails to a 12-point re-election victory in 2012, and Raimondo easily won her second term in the Trump-dominated midterm of 2018. If voters remain as gloomy as they are right now well into 2022, that could give a lift to the eventual Republican nominee for governor, plus offer Republicans a shot at some of the Trump-friendly General Assembly seats currently held by Democrats. That said, let’s see the new district lines before making any final judgments.

2. Speaking of redistricting, when are we going to get our first gander at Rhode Island’s proposed legislative and congressional maps for the next decade? The redistricting commission has two more hearings to go, one on Monday in Warren and another on Nov. 15 about how to count prisoners at the ACI. “After the information is digested from that hearing, we anticipate the maps will likely be ready for public release in early December,” spokespersons for the General Assembly tell me. “Meetings will again be held on the road throughout the state for the public to weigh in on the maps.” Over the border, draft maps are already out in Massachusetts; more on that fallout below.

3. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Seth Magaziner is the financial leader in the Democratic primary for governor, with Dan McKee and Nellie Gorbea well behind him. That picture didn’t change on Monday, when campaigns disclosed their financial status as of Sept. 30. In fact, the reports showed each of the three leading Democrats netted about the same amount of new cash for the quarter after expenses — around $80,000. That leaves Magaziner on top with $1.6 million in cash on hand, followed by McKee ($800,000), Gorbea ($749,000), Matt Brown ($59,000) and Luis Daniel Muñoz ($6,000). The cash totals for Gorbea and Brown were inflated, however, because both also disclosed significant balances for unpaid bills — if they’d paid all their vendors, Gorbea would be down to $711,000 and Brown to $14,000. As for the newest Democratic candidate, Helena Foulkes? She doesn’t have to file her first report until early next year, but is said to be raising money at a brisk pace so far.

4. Last Saturday I ran down some of the big names on Seth Magaziner’s finance committee, billed by his campaign as high-level donors who were exclusively supporting him in the race. Among the names was Joan Sorensen, the philanthropist and longtime Brown University benefactor. But when I looked at the list again this week, Sorensen’s name was gone. What happened? “It was a staff error putting her on the list,” says Magaziner spokesperson Patricia Socarras, “but Joan has supported the campaign.”

5. The North Kingstown School Committee is meeting behind closed doors this morning to grapple with the allegations against former high-school basketball coach Aaron Thomas that were first exposed last Friday by my colleagues Eli Sherman and Tim White. Our latest update on the widening scandal includes a scathing critique of North Kingstown officials from the principal of the school where Thomas wound up getting a new job after the high school nudged him out.

6. Steph Machado and Amanda Pitts have everything you need to know about the drama at City Hall over City Council President John Igliozzi’s effort to oust City Clerk Shawn Selleck. Plus, catch one-on-one interviews with Igliozzi and Selleck on Steph’s latest Pulse of Providence (now available as a podcast).

7. After you went to bed last night, the U.S. House finally passed the long-delayed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on a bipartisan 228-206 vote. Local Democrats David Cicilline, Jim Langevin, Jake Auchincloss and Bill Keating all voted for the measure, but six of their progressive colleagues did not. The White House estimates the bill will provide Rhode Island with $1.5 billion in highway aid, $378 million for water infrastructure, $272 million for public transportation, $242 million for bridge repairs, $100 million for broadband, $45 million for airports, $23 million for electric-vehicle charging stations, $11 million to battle cyberattacks and $2 million to prevent wildfires. The state will also be eligible to apply for competitive funding available through other programs in the bill, and Amtrak is getting an additional $6 billion earmarked for the Northeast Corridor.

8. Rhode Island’s $1.1 billion American Rescue Plan Act allocation is starting to burn a hole in some pockets at the State House, who say lawmakers are taking too long to begin doling out funds. Governor McKee has been making that case more aggressively in recent weeks, putting pressure on House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to act on his $113 million proposal. McKee got some partial good news this week when Senate Finance Chairman Ryan Pearson suggested the Senate could authorize some ARPA spending after Thanksgiving, though in the House nobody is ready to commit to a specific timeline. Speaking ahead of a Senate hearing next week, where he’ll testify about his organization’s recommendations, Rhode Island Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg reiterated his concern about managing the new spending. “Accountability is not just counting the beans. Right? It’s not just, did the money go where it’s supposed to?” Steinberg said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We have a problem expediting it to get out the door. Look at some of the programs from the last year or so. They were announced, and then you look, and they had trouble getting it to people. … We need expediters.”

9. An eye-opening look at the patients served by Eleanor Slater Hospital.

10. Voters in Southeastern Massachusetts seemed satisfied with their incumbent mayors on Tuesday, with Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan and Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux both receiving over 60% of the vote in low-turnout municipal elections; Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell ran unopposed. But if you look ahead to two years from now, the mayoral contests in 2023 could be more interesting. New Bedford will have a race for mayor for the first time since 2019 now that the city has moved to four-year terms; incumbent Jon Mitchell said on a recent Newsmakers taping he hasn’t decided yet whether to seek a sixth term. In Fall River, Coogan’s vanquished opponent Cliff Ponte hinted during his concession speech he may run again. And in Attleboro, Heroux has promised this third term as mayor will be his final one — which means Attleboro will have its first open race for mayor since 1983. Each of Attleboro’s last four mayors (Kevin Dumas, Judith Robbins, Kai Shang and Brenda Reed) lost re-election.

11. When we asked Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss over the summer what he thought of removing the half of Fall River he represents and pairing it with New Bedford in Bill Keating’s 9th District, Auchincloss said bluntly, “I want all of Fall River.” At the time it sounded like he was just playing to the home crowd, but it turns out that’s exactly what he got: the legislative maps released this week united Fall River voters in Auchincloss’s 4th District, splitting the two South Coast cities entirely. Keating sounded shocked, and his criticism of the plan was quickly echoed by New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell as well as Auchincloss’s predecessor, Joe Kennedy. State Rep. Carole Fiola — an Auchincloss ally — pushed back on Friday by organizing a joint statement from a group of Fall River notables expressing support for the change and confidence in Auchincloss. Notably, though, no state senators were signatories — and there’s buzz on Beacon Hill that resistance to the new maps may be higher in the Senate than the House.

12. Sunday marks the end of Daylight Saving Time, but it wouldn’t be if Sheldon Whitehouse had his way. On Friday, the senator used the annual set-back-the-clocks routine to tout the Sunshine Protection Act, a bipartisan bill led by Marco Rubio on which Whitehouse is the lead Democratic sponsor. The senators argue moving the clocks around twice a year is disruptive, dangerous and costly. “It’s time for Congress to take up this bipartisan legislation to make Daylight Saving Time permanent and give Rhode Islanders an hour of afternoon sunshine back during the dark winter months,” Whitehouse said in a statement. (For a pro-DST point of view, read Josh Barro.)

13. Veterans Day is Thursday, so ahead of the holiday we invited two local leaders in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to join us on Newsmakers: Larry Connell, director of the VA Providence Healthcare System, and E.J. McQuade, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Providence office. We asked Connell what the biggest shift has been at the VA hospital to care for the growing cohort of veterans who served in the wars since Sept. 11. “Mental health is probably the primary driver in this generation,” he said. “And that’s countrywide,” he added. “I mean, we need a lot of mental health services around the country.”

14. Nesi’s Notes readers will recognize Matt Sheaff as an oft-quoted name in stories about Rhode Island government, first as spokesperson for the R.I. Commerce Corp. and more recently as senior communications adviser to Governor McKee. What you may not know is that Sheaff has undergone a physical transformation during his years in Rhode Island, losing a significant amount of weight and becoming an avid runner after he got a wake-up call about his health from a burst appendix. That effort will reach its culmination this Sunday when Matt runs his first marathon. “If you had told me that I would be running the New York City Marathon three, five or 10 years ago I would have said you’re crazy,” Sheaff told me. “It’s hard to put into words the fullness of what this race means to me — it’s certainly a bookend on a journey I started to take back my health, but it’s really transformed into so much more than that.” Like so many accomplishments in life, this one happened step by step. “At some point, my doctor suggested I pick a goal that was non-numerical,” Sheaff said. “So I said, I’m going to run a half-marathon. I ran that half-marathon two years ago last weekend. And then after that — I said to some friends that I’m going to run a full.” An acquaintance who is also a running coach guided him through 15 weeks of preparation. “I did almost all of my training runs in the morning,” he said, “and to get 8 or 10 miles done in the morning before colleagues start emailing or calling means usually starting at 5 a.m.” His pre-run fuel: two big glasses of supermarket-case Starbucks dark-roast unsweetened iced coffee, plus a cinnamon raisin English muffin with peanut butter. Sheaff credits his friends and most of all his partner, Mark, for their support along the way. “I’ll be carrying each one of you with me as I make my way through the five boroughs to the finish line in Central Park,” he said.

15. Will Rhode Island ever find a solution for the abandoned Roger Williams Park Mausoleum?

16. Here’s a lovely reflection on the writing life by George F. Will, who at age 80 is nearing his 50th year as a Washington Post columnist: “The kind of people who seek out written arguments are apt to bring to the written word a fund of information and opinions. Having a self-selected audience of intellectually upscale readers allows the columnist to assume that his or her readers have a reservoir of knowledge about the world. So, he can be brief … without being superficial.”

17. An illuminating Bloomberg article explores how billionaires pass on their wealth tax-free.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg; Larry Connell, director of the VA Providence Healthcare System, and E.J. McQuade, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Providence office. 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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