Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 16

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. If you’re planning to host any gubernatorial debates next year, you may want to invest in more podiums. Helena Foulkes‘ announcement puts the total number of Democratic candidates at six; five of them have run statewide before and the sixth, Foulkes, is related to two U.S. senators. Be skeptical if anyone tells you they’re confident how things play out from here, since every candidate is now fighting a multifront battle. Governor McKee has had a difficult two months between the mandate and mask debates, the Tony Silva resignation, and the ILO Group controversy; no incumbent wants to go into an election year with three active AG investigations involving his administration. Yet for now McKee is still the man to beat: he’s the incumbent, the default choice, and he has the bully pulpit. For Seth Magaziner, hitherto the financial leader in the race, Foulkes could pose a particular challenge. Magaziner has been the natural inheritor of many Gina Raimondo donors, but that crowd overlaps with Foulkes’ world, and she has the potential to erase his money advantage. Unlike Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea was always expected to be an underdog, just as she was in 2014, so she may be less fazed by the field getting more crowded. Gorbea’s task remains the same: breaking through in a race where she’s likely to be outspent (and now one where she’s no longer the sole choice for voters who want a woman to win). Second-time candidate Luis Daniel Muñoz has a passionate band of supporters who want to keep him in the conversation. And then there’s Matt Brown, who may actually be pleased to have Foulkes as a foil — the wealthy corporate executive is a ripe target for Brown’s leftist message. He was already fundraising off her entry into the race Thursday, suggesting insiders wanted her to run “because they fear that none of their candidates have what it takes to win against our movement.”

2. The primary election is still nearly 11 months away, and you don’t have to be David Axelrod to know a lot can change in politics over that much time. One huge question is whether all six Democrats actually stay in the race until the very end. Memories can be short in politics, and many are looking back to the 2014 Raimondo-Taveras-Pell race for historical parallels; those with longer memories recall the 2002 York-Whitehouse-Pires bout. In both cases, three major candidates battled to the end, each receiving over 20% of the final vote. But it doesn’t always play out that way. In early 2009, it looked like three sitting officeholders — Frank Caprio, Patrick Lynch and Elizabeth Roberts — would engage in a similarly tough three-way primary. But by the time voters went to the polls, only Caprio was still in the race.

3. A funny aside about the 2014 primary: everybody disagrees on the alternative history of that race. Angel Taveras backers will always see Clay Pell as a spoiler, and say their man could have beaten Gina Raimondo if it was a two-way contest. Some Pell supporters counter that he was the only viable alternative to Raimondo because Taveras didn’t have enough money to compete and was too similar to her on key issues like education. And Raimondo’s allies reject the idea that she’d have been toast in a two-way, insisting she would have still won in a head-to-head race with Taveras (or Pell).

4. Meanwhile, Helena Foulkes got a quick lesson this week in what it’s like to be an announced candidate rather than just a potential one. The day after she began her campaign, Foulkes was already facing questions about a campaign donation to Mitch McConnell as well as her actions during the 38 Studios meltdown. Foulkes cut a $500 check to the Republican Senate leader in April 2014, just months before the GOP regained control of the Senate, which put McConnell in the driver’s seat on policy. Considering Foulkes has made no other direct donations to Republicans at the federal level, supporters argue the McConnell money was a check-the-box contribution from a top executive at a company with business in Washington, though Foulkes herself has not said that explicitly. But even if it’s true, McConnell is about as toxic to rank-and-file Democrats as anyone not named Donald Trump. How many voters won’t give her a second look because of it? How many shrug it off? And how does her embryonic campaign, which hasn’t even hired a communications director yet, handle the early onslaught? As for 38 Studios, Foulkes can make the case she was trying to protect taxpayers from losing their investment in Curt Schilling’s company when she supported additional tax credits as an EDC member — particularly since she wasn’t on the board for the original vote. Still, both issues are a test of whether Foulkes and her team can handle the spotlight.

5. Remember Joe Trillo? He could be a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

6. If Dan McKee wins a full term next year and then gets re-elected in 2026, he could conceivably serve as governor until 2030. What would Rhode Island look like at the end of that decade? One way to get a sense is a 55-page document McKee’s office released Friday, “RI 2030: Charting a Course for the Future of the Ocean State.” The draft plan — which McKee aides emphasize is only a working document, subject to change based on public input — grows out of the series of Facebook conversations the governor has convened since taking office to shape a vision for the coming years. “As Rhode Island emerges from a once-in-a-century public health crisis, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more resilient, prosperous, and equitable state for all,” McKee wrote in a cover letter introducing the document. So what’s in it? Too many ideas to summarize here, but among the interesting sections is the one on housing, a hot topic at the State House these days. The draft RI 2030 plan proposes setting a target level of housing production statewide, pegged to the pace of construction Rhode Island saw before the Great Recession. More evidence for the seriousness of the housing supply problem came a few hours before the governor’s office released its plan, through the latest HousingWorks RI Fact Book: “In 2020, for the first time since HousingWorks RI started to measure affordability against the state’s median household income, there are no municipalities where the median household income of $67,167 could affordably buy.” As for renters? “Rhode Island households earning $50,000 or less could affordably rent in only two municipalities – Burrillville and Woonsocket – and households earning the median renter income of $36,078 could affordably rent the average two-bedroom apartment in only one Rhode Island municipality – Burrillville.”

7. Providence suffered its 21st homicide of the year this week, making 2021 the worst year for murders in more than a decade, with over two months left to go. City Councilor Nirva LaFortune, who’s running to succeed Jorge Elorza as mayor, says the spike in crime is a serious problem — but she’s also wary of responses that prioritize the police. “If we’re going to use more police officers — well, how will we use them?” LaFortune said on this week’s Newsmakers. “We have to create a comprehensive public-safety plan,” she added. “We have to think about, with the limited resources that we have, how can we use some of our community partners like the Nonviolence Institute who could intervene to try to prevent the violence from happening? … At the end of the day, we can have more police officers in the city, but if we’re going to have more police officers patrolling then we need to make sure these police officers understand the communities that they’re serving, they’re rooted in the community, and they’re also partnering with our community entities.” LaFortune voted against this year’s city budget because she opposed increased funding for the police, and she said she stands by that vote. “The reason I said it was imprudent is we didn’t have a comprehensive plan,” LaFortune said. “If someone comes to you working in a company and says, ‘Well, I need more resources,’ the manager is going to ask, ‘Well, how are you going to use those resources? What is the plan? Do you have a strategic plan around that?’ And we have not yet seen a plan.”

8. New faces on the staffs of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation … Sheldon Whitehouse has appointed Monalisa Dugué as his new chief of staff; formerly the deputy chief counsel at the House Subcommittee on Crime, Dugué is also the first woman of color ever to hold the top job in a Rhode Island Senate office … David Cicilline has named Jennifer Bell as his new communications director; Bell comes from the office of New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

9. Eye on Congress … Friday’s federal campaign-finance deadline gave a snapshot of how much money local incumbents had in the bank as of Sept. 30 … Jack Reed had just under $2 million … Sheldon Whitehouse had $829,000 … David Cicilline had $1.3 million … Jim Langevin had $916,000 … Jake Auchincloss had $1.86 million … Bill Keating had $1.55 million.

10. A group of Rhode Island lawmakers got to spend part of this week in Ireland, where they attended the National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2021 Legislative Leaders International Symposium in Dublin. The event was hosted by the Seanad Éireann, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. “Leaders from 27 U.S. states attended the symposium, which included events with Micheal Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, and Mark Daly, presiding officer of the Ireland Senate,” spokesmen for the General Assembly report. “All expenses were paid by NCSL and no Rhode Island tax dollars were expended.” Among those with a speaking role at the conference was House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, who introduced futurist K D Adamson, one of the keynoters. In addition to Shekarchi, the other Rhode Island attendees were House Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, Senate President Pro Tempore Hanna Gallo, House Speaker Pro Tempore Brian Kennedy, House Floor Manager Jay Edwards, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson.

11. I’m old enough to remember when it was a big deal for Brown University’s endowment to hit $3.5 billion, since it was only four years ago. So seeing the number hit $6.9 billion this week was a bit of a stunner. Brown’s endowment is meant to exist and grow in perpetuity, so only a small share of that money will be available to use for current expenses in the next few years — but in this case “a small share” still means hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Unsurprisingly, the news triggered an outcry from those who don’t think Brown spends enough on everything from Providence PILOT payments to grad-student pay, and it’s sure to come up when those issues are debated. And as the wealthiest institution in Rhode Island, plus the beneficiary of multiple tax exemptions, Brown leadership should be ready to answer questions about their plans for the money. It could also present a broader opportunity: the state could consider using some of its American Rescue Plan money to partner with Brown on new innovation-oriented projects in the Jewelry District, for example. The proposal for a new state medical lab, for example, is often mentioned as a project that might offer a broader opportunity. The I-195 Commission is scheduled to take a vote on that project Wednesday.

12. The new census showed almost 17% of all Rhode Islanders are now Latino, and for 15 years one of that community’s leading local institutions has been the Latino Policy Institute, today housed at Roger Williams University. The institute celebrated its anniversary Thursday night at a well-attended event, and earlier in the day its executive director, Marcela Betancur, joined Tim White and me for this week’s taping of Newsmakers. One of her core messages: the Latino community, whether in Rhode Island or nationwide, is not monolithic — including politically. “All Latinos are not Democrats,” Betancur said. “All Latinos don’t care about immigration. All Latinos don’t care about social issues. In Latin America, where we’re from, a lot of people actually can identify with more conservative ideologies. And that is something that I don’t think this country has completely grasped.” Betancur also offered this warning to the candidates running for office in Rhode Island next year: “Don’t go to Latino communities only when you’re running for office. Because we know, and it’s so, so obvious.”

13. Congratulations to Clay Pell, who continues to advance in the U.S. Coast Guard. Pell was promoted from lieutenant commander to the rank of commander on Oct. 5 during a ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Commander is the first of the three “senior officer” ranks, outranked by captains, who in turn are outranked by admirals.

14. Does the Democratic Party have a “privileged college-kid problem”?

15. Adam Kirsch suggests high culture has now become counterculture.

16. This week we had two somber reminders that life is fleeting, uncertain, and precious. First came news that Hasbro’s Brian Goldner had died at 58 after a battle with cancer. Goldner was a transformational leader for the Pawtucket toy company — pun intended, since one of his proudest achievements was the “Transformers” movie series. He was also a multinational chief executive who kept his company’s home state as a priority, including as founding chairman of the Partnership for Rhode Island, the CEO group established a few years ago. Then on Wednesday, within 24 hours of Goldner’s passing, the state’s political community was stunned by the unexpected death of Ray Sullivan, gone much too soon at age 44. We should all hope to be remembered as fondly, by as many people, as Ray — if you need evidence of that, just scroll through the messages attached to this story. Ray’s funeral will be private, but a Celebration of Life is being planned; details will be announced at a later date.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Providence City Councilor Nirva LaFortune; Latino Policy Institute executive director Marcela Betancur. 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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