Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 17

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. Cranston is ground zero for local politics this autumn, with the state’s two most consequential races both taking place in Rhode Island’s No. 2 city. The main event is the House District 15 clash between Nick Mattiello and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, which will decide for the whole state whether Rhode Island will see a new speaker for the first time since 2014. But just as important for the future of Cranston are the choices voters make about City Hall. There will be a lot of new leadership there no matter who wins: Allan Fung is term-limited after 12 years as mayor, and five of the nine City Council seats will be held by newcomers as of January. The highly competitive race to replace Fung pits a former city councilor, Democrat Maria Bucci, against a current one, Republican Ken Hopkins. During their first televised debate, taped Friday as this week’s edition of Newsmakers, Bucci cast herself as a fresh face with new ideas and a website full of plans to build a post-Fung Cranston. “It’s not changing the way we’re doing things; it’s doing things better and being ready for 2021,” she said. Hopkins is running as Fung 2.0, tying himself closely to the durably popular incumbent and pledging to continue his policies. Asked to give Fung a letter grade for his tenure, Hopkins replied enthusiastically, “A-plus-plus-plus-plus.” (After a little hemming and hawing, Bucci gave Fung a “B.”) Bucci has spent a large amount of money already — $232,000 — and could benefit from voters looking for a change, as well as presidential-year Democratic turnout. Hopkins has spent considerably less — $130,000 so far — but one advantage he has is his years as an educator at Cranston East, which could help him cut Bucci’s margin in the Democratic wards even as he racks up votes in the city’s more GOP-friendly west.

2. If you want to learn more about the Cranston mayoral candidates, you can watch the full debate here on WPRI.com. And for a recap, check out Eli Sherman’s article here. Coming up in our debate series: Speaker Mattiello and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung face off next Friday.

3. Legislative grants have been a source of controversy for years, prized by most incumbents but derided by critics as taxpayer-funded bribery. House speakers and Senate presidents have generally defended the program as apolitical, suggesting Democrats and Republicans all have the same opportunity to get a grant. But that wasn’t the case this year for House GOP Whip Mike Chippendale, who was denied a $5,000 grant to help rural Foster fund a van driver for seniors — the only one of 348 requests Speaker Mattiello turned down this year. Mattiello says it’s not an appropriate use of a legislative grant and that Chippendale got 12 others, but Chippendale suspects political retribution over the JCLS lawsuit filed by House Republicans earlier in the year. The final numbers for the 2019-20 budget year show Mattiello approved $986,000 worth of legislative grants for House lawmakers, while Dominick Ruggerio authorized nearly $1.2 million for senators. Mattiello had the single largest grant credited to a single lawmaker — $25,000 he gave to the Cranston Western Little League — and that was just one of 12 he handed out, totaling about $74,000 all in. On top of that, Mattiello joined the rest of the Cranston delegation in awarding the largest grant of all, a $33,000 check that went to the Cranston West Alumni Association. In the Senate, though, the biggest grant credited to one lawmaker was $20,000 that Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin gave the DaVinci Center. Ruggerio gave out 12 grants totaling $68,000, including $10,000 each to the Marieville Neighborhood Partnership, the P-Tech program at North Providence High, and the Mancini Center. Goodwin gave out even more — 19 grants totaling $81,500, from large ones like the DaVinci Center check to small ones like $1,000 for Right to Life Services of Providence. Senate leadership also gave out a combined $102,000 jointly.

4. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office keeps adding slick new features to its website to slice and dice Rhode Island voter data, catnip for political junkies. The latest is this interactive tool that lets you examine up-to-date voter turnout data from both mail ballots and early in-person voting. More than 23,000 Rhode Islanders had already cast a ballot as of Friday, the vast majority in person; the number of mail ballots should grow substantially as more people put them in municipal dropboxes or the U.S. Mail. Turnout so far equates to about 3% of all registered voters, and Warwick is actually ahead of Providence so far in terms of total ballots cast.

5. The latest federal finance reports are in, giving a new look at the local races for Congress. … Jack Reed is sitting on plenty of money for the final stretch of his race against Allen Waters, reporting over $3 million on hand as of Sept. 30. (Waters had $7,000.) … Jim Langevin has $1.1 million, while Bob Lancia has $23,000. … David Cicilline spent $404,000 during from mid-August through September, a surprisingly large sum considering he faces no Republican opponent. But on closer inspection, most of that money went to help the party keep or expand its House majority: Cicilline transferred $235,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. … And over in Massachusetts, Democrat Jake Auchincloss is closing out the open-seat 4th District race to replace Joe Kennedy with a huge financial advantage over Republican Julie Hall. Auchincloss reported $280,000 on hand Sept. 30 after spending almost $2 million to win the primary, while Hall had $50,000. (As for Kennedy: yikes.)

6. As predicted, Sheldon Whitehouse was in the spotlight all week as the Senate Judiciary Committee vetted Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, and he became a partisan Rorschach test in the process. Liberals hailed Whitehouse’s opening remarks laying out a “dark money” conspiracy to move the court to the right, with his former colleague Claire McCaskill declaring he was “making what will be a famous speech” that goes down in history. The view among conservatives was diametrically opposed; National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke dismissed Whitehouse as “a loon.” Whitehouse made headlines again in his closing comments, when he warned his GOP colleagues that if they moved forward to confirm Coney Barrett, they would forfeit “any credibility” to push back at potential Democratic countermeasures should the party take back the majority. “I think it was intended to be a threat,” Texas’s Ted Cruz, a Whitehouse adversary all week, told Politico.

7. If Democrats win the Senate majority, could Rhode Island wind up with not one but two committee chairmen come January? Jack Reed is already locked in to lead the Armed Services Committee. But there’s a small chance a chain of events could lead to Sheldon Whitehouse becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, too, after the backlash against its current top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, for her performance at the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. The committee’s most senior Democrat after Feinstein, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, is in line to chair Appropriations and presumably wouldn’t want to give that up; next up is Illinois’ Dick Durbin, who has plenty on his plate now as Chuck Schumer’s No. 2. Whitehouse ranks fourth, and his name has been floated already.

8. And while we’re in Fantasyland, here’s some next-level Rhode Island fan fiction for you. There’s a scenario come January where Rhode Island has two Senate committee chairmen, an assistant U.S. House speaker (David Cicilline), a new governor (if Gina Raimondo went into a Biden cabinet), a new lieutenant governor (if Dan McKee replaces Raimondo), and a new House speaker (if Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung defeats Nick Mattiello). Likely? No way. But in politics, hey, you never know.

9. Rumor du jour: could there be a spot for Jim Langevin in a Biden administration?

10. You don’t need to be Dr. Fauci to take a look at Rhode Island’s latest coronavirus data and see things are trending in the wrong direction. The 279 new cases reported Wednesday were the most since the day Governor Raimondo lifted the stay-at-home order, and on the same day the number of hospitalizations reached a Phase 3 high of 137. The influential COVID Exit Strategy website now classifies Rhode Island as a state with “Uncontrolled Spread,” its worst designation. (Massachusetts and Connecticut were one notch below that Friday, classified as “Trending Poorly.”) Officials often talk about easing restrictions once there is a vaccine, and it’s possible the FDA could grant initial approval to a vaccine as soon as next month. But Dr. James McDonald, the R.I. Health Department’s medical director, told me Wednesday it will take time once a vaccine is approved to actually get enough doses and inoculate enough people to loosen the rules. “We have to get to a significant percentage — whether it’s 80%, 90%, it’s something like that — that have had the vaccine, and that we know it’s got immunity,” McDonald said. “So I’m afraid like everything else, it’s wait and see.” Meanwhile, House Republicans are renewing their calls for the General Assembly to return to action and end the governor’s policymaking by executive order.

11. So far there’s no sign of a ceiling on home prices in Rhode Island. The Realtors report the median single-family home sold for $339,900 last month, up 15% from a year ago and 65% from 2014, amid low mortgage rates and low inventory. The rapid price appreciation has only exacerbated Rhode Island’s existing housing affordability problem, as laid out in the 2020 Housing Fact Book from RWU’s HousingWorks RI, released Friday: “In 2019, Rhode Island households earning $50,000 or less could affordably rent in only three municipalities — Burrillville, Smithfield, and Woonsocket — and households earning the median renter income of $34,255 could not affordably rent the average 2-bedroom apartment in any Rhode Island city or town. Affordability is similarly a challenge for owners, with only one municipality — Central Falls — where the median household income of $63,296 could affordably buy a single family home. Higher income levels have also been affected, with homebuyers with incomes of $70,000 being reduced to three municipalities where they are likely to find a home they can afford — a decrease from four municipalities in 2018.”

12. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Eli Sherman: “Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien has long threatened to use eminent domain to acquire the Apex site, but after years of failed negotiations and inaction, his warnings had begun to sound somewhat hollow. That all changed Friday when the mayor, along with other city officials, announced they were taking steps toward using the controversial law – which allows government to take private land for public use – to mandate a transaction for the downtown property. Why the decision is coming now isn’t entirely clear, although the city cites unsuccessful ‘cordial, and good faith negotiations.’ But it comes less than a month after developer Brett Johnson announced he could build his proposed Tidewater Landing project – a $300 million development anchored by a professional soccer stadium – without the Apex site, opening the door for the city to take a more aggressive approach with Apex without risking the development moving forward. (Loyal readers will remember this was a sticking point back in the PawSox days.) Apex owner Andrew Gates, however, isn’t likely to accept the city’s decision lying down. His spokesperson Bill Fischer quickly released a statement, saying the best path forward is a ‘consensual agreement.’ He encouraged everyone ‘to return to the negotiating table.’”

13. When will Jasiel Correia actually go on trial?

14. Kim Kalunian moderates a roundtable with Rhode Island parents and kids.

15. Who knew? There is a trail at Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia named for Senator Whitehouse’s father, the late Ambassador Charles S. Whitehouse. My source: Virginia Senator Tim Kaine’s Instagram. (Thank you Jonathan Martin for the spot!)

16. Top pollsters explain how they’ve changed what they do for 2020.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate for Cranston mayor between Maria Bucci and Ken Hopkins. 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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