Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 7

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. We wake up today to dramatically altered political landscapes in Washington and in Rhode Island. As I write this Friday night, Joe Biden is on the cusp of securing enough Electoral College votes to defeat President Trump. While it would be out of character for Trump to quietly retreat from public life à la George W. Bush, he presumably won’t continue to dominate American life after leaving the White House the way he has for the last half-decade. That alone will be a significant change. The return of a Democratic administration could also give more influence to leaders from the reliably blue Northeast, though Republicans’ high odds of retaining the Senate will limit that to some extent. A key question is whether Biden and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who served together for years, find common ground on any significant policy areas, or if the next two years are a stalemate. Back home, meanwhile, Cranston voters’ ouster of Speaker Mattiello from the House of Representatives will shift the dynamic in the State House’s ruling triumvirate, as Governor Raimondo looks across the negotiating table at Joe Shekarchi, a man who was her own campaign manager a decade ago. Shekarchi is a canny operator and won’t want to be Raimondo’s lapdog, but their relationship will be much warmer than the one she had with Mattiello; he’s the only speaker she’s had as governor. And while the leadership of the Senate isn’t changing, Dominick Ruggerio and Mike McCaffrey both signaled Friday night they plan to move policy to the left following progressive primary victories — including by backing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

2. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Eli Sherman: “Joe Biden won Rhode Island easily, but it wasn’t all bad news for President Trump. While his share of the vote – about 39% — looked almost identical to four years ago, his total votes actually increased by 15,000 thanks largely to turnout reaching a record high. Trump also saw notable gains in communities with high rates of Latino and Hispanic residents, including Central Falls, which swung 20 percentage points in his favor. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa tells me the president’s pro-life stance, along with his relentless attempts to label Biden’s Democratic Party as socialist, resonated with city voters who are both religious and unnerved by the idea of socialist regimes.”

3. Over the border, President Trump did relatively well in Bristol County, too.

4. And here’s a bonus dispatch out of Central Falls from Eli Sherman: “Speaking of Mayor Diossa, the second-term Democrat is leaving office because of term limits. He’ll be succeeded by City Council President Maria Rivera, who won an overwhelming victory last week to become the first woman ever to serve in the city’s top job. Diossa says Rivera, who he endorsed, will bring ‘new energy, new excitement and new ideas’ to a city that continues to bounce back nearly a decade after filing for bankruptcy. During his eight years at the helm, Diossa worked to steer the city onto more stable financial ground, making him a popular up-and-comer in the state’s Democratic Party. Diossa tells me he expects to announce his future plans publicly before leaving office in January, but it’s safe to say the political scene hasn’t seen the last of him. ‘This whole experience has inspired me to do work and what I love in helping the people,’ he said. ‘It’s fair to say I’ll consider higher office.’”

5. Some important elections context from Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion: “Every voter in Rhode Island votes on a hand-marked paper ballot. That means we have a record of every vote cast. Rhode Island is considered a ‘voter intent’ state, so it’s what’s on the ballot that counts. And thanks to a law passed in 2020 we manually audit the outcome of the election using a risk-limiting audit. That means humans, not machines, examine a sample of ballots to determine whether the election yielded the correct winner. We are one of only two states that does that audit statewide *before* we certify results. That means if the audit catches an incorrect outcome it will be corrected via a full manual recount before the result is finalized. The entire process is by design open to the public. You can watch them examine the ballots, read the code of the software used, the whole nine yards. There is literally only one other state in the nation (Colorado) where voters can have this level of confidence that the election results reveal the actual winner. That will all happen in a couple of weeks and I hope some of these folks who question the integrity of our election system, and by extension the outcome of our elections, will join me in observing that process. If you want to learn more we published an 80-page report with the leading scholars on election auditing in the nation.”

6. Of course, if Joe Biden were to pluck Gina Raimondo for his cabinet, Joe Shekarchi would find himself cutting deals with a Governor McKee. (There’s already speculation about McKee’s potential pick for lieutenant governor, with Joe Polisena and James Diossa among the names being floated.) Raimondo was less than forthcoming about her interview last spring for the vice presidency, so it’s understandable if Rhode Islanders are skeptical about how honest she’ll be about her interest in the cabinet. “I have no plans to go to Washington. I am fully focused on Rhode Island,” Raimondo told Kim Kalunian in their weekly interview Friday. Pressed by Kim about whether she’d turn down as esteemed a post as treasury secretary, Raimondo laughed and said, “Listen, I am here, I plan to be governor, I’m not in discussions to do that. First let’s make sure he wins.”

7. Even if Gina Raimondo finishes out the final two years of her term as governor, time marches on; attention will increasingly turn to the post-Raimondo era after she was arguably the dominant figure in Rhode Island politics for the last decade. Quietly, those who want to succeed her are putting the pieces in place to make a run for governor in 2022. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is nearing $1 million in his campaign account, while Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has $330,000, according to Board of Elections reports filed this week. And Dan McGowan reports Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has switched fundraising consultants as he gears up for a run.

8. When the raid on Gordon Fox’s office triggered a sudden contest for House speaker in 2014, there was a moment when it appeared the prize had slipped from then-Majority Leader Nick Mattiello’s grasp, as allies of Mike Marcello said he had cobbled together 40 votes. This week’s brief race was closer to a coronation — there was never much doubt Joe Shekarchi had the votes, and there hasn’t been for quite a while. By choosing Chris Blazejewski as majority leader, Shekarchi made clear progressives will be closer to the center of the action than they had been under Mattiello, who liked to publicly tout his ability to thwart liberal policies. And the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone when Rep. Katherine Kazarian rose to give a speech endorsing Shekarchi, after she had spent a significant portion of the Mattiello years grappling with alleged sexual harassment by one of the speaker’s leading committee chairmen. “It’s going to be a new day at the State House,” Kazarian tweeted Friday.

9. None of those changes in the House would be happening if Republican Rep.-elect Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung hadn’t ousted Nick Mattiello from the Cranston seat he’d held for 14 years. Unlike the speaker’s last two re-election races, this one wasn’t even close: Fenton-Fung won by a roughly 1,400-vote margin, as Mattiello’s share of the vote slumped to barely 40%. There were multiple factors at play. First and foremost, Fenton-Fung was a smart and energetic candidate who saw the writing on the wall and took advantage of it. She benefited from the continued popularity of her husband, Mayor Allan Fung, who was by her side for much of the campaign. She also had the groundwork laid by Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias in his two unsuccessful races against the speaker. (Indeed, the speaker would not have been taking the witness stand a few weeks before the election in the Jeff Britt trial if Frias hadn’t given him such a strong challenge in 2016.) And, of course, there was the accumulation of controversies around Mattiello, most recently the Britt trial and the Convention Center grand jury. A sign of how the bottom fell out for Mattiello: while in 2016 he ran well ahead of fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, which allowed him to cling to his seat by 85 votes, on Tuesday he received more than 500 fewer votes than Joe Biden did in District 15.

10. Steph Machado was our eyes and ears this week at the House and Senate caucuses that set in motion next year’s legislative session. Read Steph’s story on the House caucus here and her story on the Senate caucus here.

11. Cranston was a bright spot for Rhode Island Republicans on what was otherwise a typically disappointing presidential-year election night for them. In addition to Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung’s victory over the speaker, Ken Hopkins won the open race for mayor, netting over 4,000 more votes than Donald Trump across the city. (Who says ticket-splitting is dead?) The GOP kept control of the City Council, too. The results could help Allan Fung make a case to fellow Republicans that he deserves a third swing at the governor’s office in 2022.

12. One of the bigger surprises of the night was the result in Warwick’s mayoral race, where Democratic incumbent Joe Solomon was blown away by independent challenger Frank Picozzi. Solomon only got 41% of the vote; just two years ago he received 60% against Sue Stenhouse. Solomon clearly underestimated Picozzi, who was best-known for his annual Christmas lights display and ran a shoestring campaign, as well as the discontent of city voters with his leadership. The Warwick Beacon’s endorsement of Picozzi gave the challenger a stamp of approval, and the sometimes-prickly Solomon has not always helped his own cause. Keep an eye out for Picozzi’s announcement of a transition team.

13. While they were undoubtedly pleased to be getting rid of Donald Trump, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation had reason to be disappointed in Tuesday’s results. The polls had suggested Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse would soon be back in the Senate majority, making Reed a powerful chairman and enhancing Whitehouse’s clout; now they are facing the prospect of two more years in a chamber led by Mitch McConnell. Over in the House, David Cicilline and Jim Langevin will remain in the majority, but their caucus is in finger-pointing mode after what was supposed to be a year of further Democratic gains turned into an unexpectedly strong cycle for GOP House candidates. Cicilline is continuing his campaign for assistant speaker, House Democrats’ No. 4 job, but when the vote takes place later this fall he’ll face tough competition from Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark among others. Yet the discontent roiling the Democratic caucus could open up new opportunities for those with an eye on leadership.

14. As speculation bubbles up about Joe Biden’s eventual cabinet picks, national outlets are almost sure to put Jack Reed on their short list of potential defense secretaries — but it is highly unlikely Reed would want the job, as I explained back in 2014. Still, just to double check I put the question to Reed yet again late last month. “No,” he said. “I’m running and asking the people of Rhode Island to give me the privilege to serve for six more years as United States senator. And I’m doing it sincerely, and if I am elected — that’ll depend on the voters of Rhode Island — I hope I have the opportunity to serve six years.”

15. For months, Rhode Islanders have been hearing a scary prognosis about the still-incomplete 2020-21 budget, with forecasts of a roughly $900 million deficit. That estimate dates back to the spring, in the early months of the pandemic, when there was great uncertainty about the economic damage it would do. There has been significant damage, no doubt — but it hasn’t necessarily been as bad for the budget as was feared. The latest evidence came this week, with the state’s official number-crunchers lowering their estimate of social services costs by $130 million (thanks in no small part to an enhanced federal Medicaid match) and bumping their revenue estimate by $330 million, which would bring it back to almost the same level as last year. And that’s not all: the state ended 2019-20 with a $180 million surplus, providing more money that can be carried over to assist with the 2020-21 budget, too. A sizable chunk of that — $120 million — was a transfer from the rainy day fund, but even $60 million is more than pocket change. All that is not to say the governor and lawmakers won’t have hard choices to make when they finally sit down to craft the budget. But some of the sky-is-falling rhetoric regarding the fiscal picture no longer matches reality.

16. Here’s an item from my colleague Tim White: “Few people can say 2020 was a good year for them, but Robert ‘Bobby’ DeLuca is one of them. In fact, COVID-19 was probably the best thing to happen to the 75-year-old former mob capo in a long time. After admitting to helping dispose of a body from a gangland slaying, lying to federal investigators about it, and also helping plan another murder that went down as diners were leaving restaurants on Federal Hill, DeLuca was just given his freedom after serving only four years in an undisclosed federal prison. A judge in Boston granted his compassionate release request, and federal prosecutors quietly gave their blessing because DeLuca (and his brother) helped them convict a legendary former mob boss.”

17. The coronavirus situation is getting worse in Rhode Island. The state hit a new record high for daily cases on Thursday, with 630, and hospitalizations have doubled to 187 in the last month. “I just finished the ED shift where I saw the MOST #COVID19 pts so far this year. More than Mar/Apr,” Dr. Jay Schuur, head of emergency medicine at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown’s medical school, tweeted Friday. “We are in a surge and only a change in our behavior can slow this. Just like in March we have to focus! Please #SocialDistance #WearAMask #WashYourHands AND ask friends.”

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable breaks down the results of this week’s election. 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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