Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 24

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. In a state with limited two-party competition, it’s not often you see well-matched Democratic and Republican political operations squaring off. But that is what’s happening in Cranston right now, as the city’s most powerful Democrat — Speaker Mattiello — battles to hold his House seat in the face of a challenge from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, wife of the city’s most powerful Republican, Mayor Fung. It’s not a scenario political observers would have predicted a few years ago, when Mattiello and Fung had a cordial working relationship, but now it’s become a test of whether the Fung machine is stronger than the Mattiello machine in the city’s western wards. And it’s all happening in an election year that could see historic turnout across Rhode Island, with uncertain consequences for candidates farther down the ballot. During a debate Friday on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, Mattiello started out on the defensive, struggling to reconcile his previous statements about the 2016 Shawna Lawton debacle with the revelations that came to light at this month’s trial of his former adviser Jeff Britt. But he was on firmer footing when the conversation turned to legislative matters, insisting as he has before that he can do more for Cranston than any backbencher from the minority party. There is relatively little daylight between the pair on policy, leaving Fenton-Fung to make the case that the speaker has suffered too many scandals to retain the public’s trust and that he’s overstating how much his defeat would move House leadership to the left. Mattiello’s team was initially relatively relaxed about Fenton-Fung, but that changed after the landslide victory of Fung’s preferred mayoral candidate (Ken Hopkins) over Mattiello’s (Mike Farina) in last month’s GOP primary. The speaker has squeaked it out before. Can he do it again?

2. One vulnerability Speaker Mattiello is carrying into this year’s election that he didn’t have in 2016 and 2018: abortion. The speaker describes himself as pro-life and has always had the endorsement of Right to Life in previous years; abortion was one of the issues where he could argue he was a bulwark against progressives in the House. But that changed in 2019, when the speaker yielded to internal and external pressure and allowed passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act, which codified abortion rights in state law. While Mattiello himself voted against the bill, pro-life activists were incensed that he didn’t block it — and this year Right to Life has switched its support to Fenton-Fung, while labeling the speaker “anti-life.” In races as close as Mattiello’s usually are, a swing of any crucial bloc of voters could make the difference, and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung is hammering home the abortion issue, arguing in Friday’s debate that Mattiello “betrayed the pro-life community, who went balls to the wall for him last election.” The speaker countered that he doesn’t run the House as “a dictator,” and insisted he had no alternative in this case. “When an issue has strong, strong, deep support amongst two-thirds of the voters and two-thirds of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate, it’s just going to get a vote,” he said.

3. Right to Life is out with its list of General Assembly endorsements for the 2020 election, and the contrast with its list from two years ago demonstrates how the House and Senate have shifted on the issue. In 2018, Right to Life endorsed 33 Democrats for legislative office; this year, the organization is only backing 28 Democrats. More strikingly, the number of candidates labeled “anti-life” by the group has shot from 47 in 2018 to 72 this year. There’s also a clear divide between the two chambers: while the top three House Democrats are all on this year’s “anti-life” list (Nick Mattiello, Joe Shekarchi, Jay Edwards), Right to Life is still endorsing two of the top three Senate Democrats (Mike McCaffrey and Maryellen Goodwin).

4. Could the General Assembly see some real leadership fights after the November elections? Ian Donnis reports Barrington Rep. Liana Cassar is mulling a run for House speaker, while Kathy Gregg reports Providence Sen. Gayle Goldin is considering a bid for Senate leadership.

5. Everybody expects Joe Biden to win Rhode Island and Massachusetts next month. But it will still be interesting to see how much he wins by. Back in 2016, Rhode Island went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 15 points — barely half the margin Barack Obama had posted against Mitt Romney, as thousands of voters went for Trump or a third-party candidate. That election was also notable for an unusually large divide between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The two states had been voting for Democratic presidential nominees by similar margins for a number of cycles, but 2016 saw the widest gap between them since the 1972 NixonMcGovern contest, as Massachusetts voters supported Clinton by a 27-point margin. Will Rhode Island revert to form in 2020? Too soon to say, but Axios/SurveyMonkey polling suggests it may happen: the survey pegs Biden’s support at 68% in Rhode Island and 70% in Massachusetts. In both cases, that would be the highest share of the vote for a Democratic presidential candidate since the LBJ landslide of 1964.

6. One thing’s for sure: whatever the margins of victory this year, voter turnout is going to be high. Fresh data posted Friday night by the secretary of state’s office shows almost 180,000 Rhode Islanders have cast a ballot so far: 67,000 in person and 113,000 scanned mail ballots so far. That equates to 40% of total voter turnout in the 2012 election, and a little less than that compared with 2016 and 2008. So when will we know who won? Steph Machado has details on that and more from this week’s briefing with elections officials.

7. When you consider his temperament and his quarter-century in the Senate, Jack Reed is not a Democrat you’d expect to easily embrace as radical a policy proposal as expanding the Supreme Court for the first time since 1869. But as Senate Democrats’ frustration rises regarding the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, even Reed is refusing to rule out such a step. While describing the idea as “totally academic” unless Democrats win back the White House and Senate, Reed told me this week, “You have to listen to the people of Rhode Island to see what their perception is, and then two, I think you have to look at how the court behaves. If it becomes a partisan institution — clearly partisan, rejecting settled precedent, rejecting sort of what everyone, both sides of the aisle, consider to be the law — then I think that raises an issue that we have to address. But those are two factors that I think have to be considered, and again, before this election is concluded I don’t think we’re into that sort of consideration.”

8. Could Sheldon Whitehouse become Senate Budget Committee chairman?

9. On top of the mayoral and House District 15 races, Cranston voters have another important decision to make on Nov. 3: whether they should amend their city charter. Steve Frias breaks down the proposals here.

10. Rhode Island’s 2020 congressional races could be the last ones before the state is reduced to a single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Eli Sherman profiles Congressman Cicilline and his two independent opponents here, while Steph Machado looks at the race between Congressman Langevin and Bob Lancia here.

11. Rhode Island’s coronavirus trends continue to be alarming. As you can see on our WPRI.com data tracking page, the state reported a record 470 new cases for Thursday, the highest number on a single day since the pandemic began. At the same time, the situation is clearly not identical to what it was at the spring peak: hospitalizations are much lower, and the state is doing six times as many tests a day. But with trends just as negative elsewhere in the country and overseas in Europe, there is understandable reason for concern. “It sure looks like we are beginning a second wave,” Governor Raimondo said Thursday in her weekly 4 p.m. interview with Kim Kalunian, urging Rhode Islanders to redouble their commitment to behaviors that will slow the spread of the virus. And former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, among the most reliable narrators of the crisis so far, offered this sober warning on CNBC: “I think we’re in for a very hard stretch here. I think the winter’s going to be very difficult. We have one big surge of this infection before we start to get through the acute phase of this pandemic. But we’re going to see some big numbers be put up in terms of daily infections; deaths are going to start to rise, hospitalizations are rising.”

12. Here’s why Rhode Island’s daily coronavirus totals keep getting adjusted up.

13. Former Rhode Island AG Peter Kilmartin is now officially a Florida resident.

14. Remember the “Calamari Comeback” that got Rhode Island so much attention in the virtual Democratic National Convention? Now the state’s members of Congress are looking to put some, er, fish on the bones of that publicity play by tying it to their latest introduction of the proposed Rhode Island Fishermen’s Fairness Act.

15. The National Fund for Sacred Places has awarded a grant of up to $250,000 to support the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church and its partner organization the 134 Collaborative. Bob Jaeger, president of the group behind the fund, says it chose churches marked by “their ongoing commitment to service, civic value, and their ability to thrive and grow in the years to come.”

16. Did you ever think you’d go to the Silver City Galleria to see Cole Porter’s furniture or Marilyn Monroe’s chair? Through Nov. 15, the Kaminski auction house is using the old Taunton mall to display over 15,000 auction items from New York City’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel.

17. Forbes examines the rise and fall of Alex + Ani ex-billionaire Carolyn Rafaelian.

18. The real divide in America is between political junkies and everyone else.

19. This is fun: see what words were invented the year you were born. Mine for 1984 include “caps lock,” “earbud,” “glass ceiling,” “laptop,” “phone tag” and — yup — “socially distance.”

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate for House District 15 between Democrat Nick Mattiello and Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. 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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