Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 10

Ted Nesi
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ELECTION 2020 //
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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. Sitting in court on Thursday watching Speaker Mattiello and company suffer rather convenient amnesia regarding their 2016 campaign, Tim White remarked, “It would be easy to forget that Jeff Britt is on trial here.” Indeed. At times both AG Neronha’s prosecutors and Britt defense attorney Bob Corrente seemed just as interested in tarnishing the speaker’s team as in arguing whether Britt committed a felony by coordinating the pro-Mattiello mailer at the heart of the case. Few of the revelations startled Rhode Island’s press corps — legislative leaders barely conceal their intermixing of official and campaign business, whether it’s Gordon Fox doing his campaign finance reports from the State House or Mattiello dispatching his chief of staff to reschedule a Ray Gallison fundraiser. As for Britt, he’s long been synonymous with bare-knuckled campaigning. But reporters don’t have subpoena power: we hear the whispers, we see the signs, we try to confirm, but we aren’t a grand jury. So voters may have been taken aback to hear the daily testimony about cash transfers, secret surveillance, disguised donations, and the inevitable coverup. Does it matter? Certainly, there could be a deterrent effect: perhaps other powerful politicians will learn a lesson about what lines are unsafe to cross. But in the end the real deciders will be the 10,866 registered voters in Cranston’s House District 15, who must determine on Nov. 3 whether the activities laid out at the trial are reason to give Mattiello the boot, or if having the most powerful politician in the state looking after your community is worth overlooking some unsavory activity.

2. One of the topics that came up repeatedly at the trial was our 2016 Newsmakers debate between Speaker Mattiello and Steve Frias, taped shortly after the Shawna Lawton mailer controversy exploded. Mattiello was unequivocal that morning, telling voters of the mailer, “I looked into it and I came to the conclusion that nobody in my campaign has any knowledge of that issue.” He must not have looked very hard: documents and testimony now indicate at least four members of the Mattiello high command — Jeff Britt, Matt Jerzyk, Leo Skenyon and Brad Dufault — all had some level of knowledge or involvement in the mailer. “He didn’t lie,” Mattiello spokesperson Patti Doyle insisted Thursday in an email to my colleague Eli Sherman. “He didn’t like the mailer on its merits – content-wise – when it first came out for reasons you heard him and Leo explain today. He thought it belied his hard work and Leo ultimately thought it made the campaign appear desperate.”

3. It will be a number of weeks before Judge Procaccini renders his verdict on Jeff Britt’s guilt or innocence, and a key question for him is whether prosecutors charged Britt too aggressively by using a 1991 money laundering statute that has apparently never before led to a trial in Rhode Island; Bob Corrente likened it to “dropping an atom bomb on a bug.” Steph Machado has more here on the judge’s final comments as arguments wrapped up Friday.

4. Leo Skenyon, the speaker’s chief of staff and the final witness to testify in the trial, is actually not the legislature’s highest-paid employee, even with an annual salary of $192,000. That honor goes to Sharon Reynolds Ferland, the House fiscal advisor, currently earning $202,000 per the state’s transparency portal. Rounding out the top 10: Steve Whitney ($172,000); Danica Iacoi ($172,000); Dennis Hoyle ($171,500); Frank Montanaro ($168,000); Steve Iannazzi ($168,000); Richard Sahagian ($166,000); Liza Pinto ($152,000); and Lynne Urbani Craddock ($152,000). The portal shows there are currently 57 General Assembly employees making over $100,000.

5. Don’t look now, but Rhode Island’s coronavirus numbers are on the upswing. The latest data shows there were 251 new cases on Thursday, the highest total since the day Rhode Island began reopening on May 9. Hospitalizations have also risen, with the seven-day average currently at 104, the highest since mid-June. And it’s not just Rhode Island, with The New York Times reporting that the entire Northeast “is now seeing the first inklings of what might become a second wave of the virus.” Dr. Jay Schuur, head of emergency medicine at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown’s medical school, tweeted Thursday night he was “concerned” that Rhode Island is heading back to a “dangerous place” where the need for hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients will displace other services and surgeries. During her weekly 12 News interview the same day, Governor Raimondo indicated she is not alarmed yet, citing the state’s still-low positivity rate. But, she said, “It’s not the trend we want to see, and I would ask Rhode Islanders to try to be a little bit more careful.”

6. President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has brought new attention to how often other leaders are tested for the virus, including Governor Raimondo, and she indicated in Thursday’s interview her own approach may need to change. “The director of the Department of Health has suggested that I probably should get into a regular cadence [of testing], and so we are going to be doing that,” Raimondo said. “She’ll advise me as to how regular that cadence should be.”

7. There has been much doom and gloom about the state budget, and understandably so in light of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus and the large projected deficits. But there are also some more positive signs. The latest revenue report shows the state’s General Fund receipts running $63 million above expectations in the first two months of the fiscal year, a nearly 13% beat versus the May forecast. (Department of Revenue Director Mark Furcolo gives some of the credit to the federal stimulus payments and $600 unemployment boost provided under the CARES Act.) Plus, days after calling off talks on a new relief bill, President Trump has now reversed course and reportedly urged his negotiators to reach a high-dollar agreement with Speaker Pelosi that would likely include more money for state and local budgets. That said, it would be no small feat for Congress to pass a multitrillion-dollar spending bill less than four weeks before an election.

8. Tuesday is the deadline for Rhode Island voters to apply for a mail ballot, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is urging last-minute applicants to drop off their documents rather than mail them since Monday is a holiday. Gorbea’s office reported 164,000 voters had applied for a mail ballot as of Friday night, amounting to about one in five registered voters and equal to about 35% of all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. With this year’s voter turnout expected to match or beat the 2016 level, it appears a majority of voters plan to cast their ballots in person despite the pandemic, either during the early voting period or on Election Day itself. And if you’re still waiting for your mail ballot to arrive, you can track its status here.

9. After succeeding Scott Avedisian, Warwick Mayor Joe Solomon had a cakewalk when he sought his first full term in 2018, taking 65% in a four-way Democratic primary and then 60% in the general election against Republican Sue Stenhouse. But political observers think Solomon may have more of a challenge on his hands this year in the form of Frank Picozzi, a familiar face in the city who is running for mayor as an independent. Solomon and Picozzi debated on Friday’s taping of Newsmakers, and the proceedings got heated; Picozzi at one point suggested Warwick “looks like a third-world country right now,” even as Solomon insisted there is “optimism” and “hope for the future” in the state’s No. 3 city for the first time in years. You can watch the full debate here.

10. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “This week’s guest on Pulse of Providence was Council President Sabina Matos, who leads the chamber that is about to make some difficult decisions about the capital city’s budget if more state or federal aid doesn’t come through. Matos said she anticipates budget cuts to every city department — including potentially police — but does not support ‘defunding’ police without a viable replacement. Among the many topics discussed on the show was her own political future; Matos is term-limited and could mount a run for mayor in 2022 when Jorge Elorza leaves office. While she only described a potential run as ‘in the realm of possibilities’ when I asked, she sure sounded like a mayoral candidate when making the case that someone with city government experience should take the helm, since nearly half the council seats plus the mayor’s office will be open due to term limits and filling them all with newcomers could be a challenge. ‘I love the city work,’ Matos said. ‘I’ve been asked before, “Why don’t you run for Senate, why don’t you run for state rep?” I believe I’m not done with the work that I’m doing in the city.'”

11. The timing of R.I. Supreme Court Justice Frank Flaherty’s retirement announcement, coming just as the Judicial Nominating Commission picked finalists for fellow retiree Gilbert Indeglia’s seat, is an opportune development for Governor Raimondo. The governor is facing competing pressures inside the State House, with Senate leaders strongly pushing her to appoint outgoing Judiciary Committee Chair Erin Lynch Prata but many others calling for her to diversify the high court by appointing a person of color. With two seats to fill rather than one, the governor now has the chance to satisfy both camps.

12. After a decade in Congress, David Cicilline just finished the weightiest policy undertaking of his time in the House with the release of his Judiciary Committee subpanel’s long-awaited antitrust investigation into Big Tech. Politico called the report a “blockbuster,” and Cicilline’s name was splashed across national and international news outlets, as it has been throughout the investigation. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who serves on the subcommittee, also publicly praised Cicilline for pursuing the investigation on a bipartisan basis. At over 400 pages, the final report was the product of seven hearings, nearly 1.3 million internal corporate documents, dozens of expert submissions, and more than 240 interviews. As expected, the investigation found power in the tech industry has become highly concentrated in a handful of elite companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google — and that monopolization is a significant risk. (Providence native Joe Nocera offers his take on the findings in this Bloomberg column.) What now? Much depends on the outcome of next month’s election — if Joe Biden wins, Cicilline thinks a Biden administration would be “very receptive” to the committee’s proposals for reining in the power of Big Tech, which could include forcing Facebook to sell off Instagram. Meanwhile, with Democrats all but certain to retain control of the House, it appears Cicilline’s profile will continue to rise — particularly if he wins the race for assistant speaker.

13. How is Jack Reed looking for re-election? Well, the latest forecast from FiveThirtyEight projects Rhode Island’s senior senator will win the biggest landslide of any Democrat running this year, on pace to get an estimated 73% of the vote against Republican Allen Waters. The only Senate candidate expected to fare better than Reed? Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who’s projected to get 82% of the vote. (As it happens, Cotton also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Reed is in line to chair if Democrats win back control of the Senate next month.)

14. The investigative outlet ProPublica takes a detailed and critical look at the financiers who control Prospect Medical Holdings, owner of Roger Williams Medical Center and Fatima Hospital.

15. “How Brown University’s endowment quietly became tops in the Ivy League.”

16. Is this overlooked variable key to the pandemic?

17. Ted Widmer on presidential illnesses, past and present.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate for Warwick mayor between Democratic incumbent Joe Solomon and independent challenger Frank Picozzi. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend 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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