1. Can Allan Fung pull it off? Democrats were speaking his name anxiously within minutes of Jim Langevin’s retirement announcement, and the months since have shown why. Not only has Fung maintained a lead over Seth Magaziner in a district Joe Biden won by double-digits, he’s also proven to be one of House Republicans’ top recruits nationwide, and they’re spending millions of dollars to help get him over the finish line. An ever-increasing number of national news outlets have spotlighted Fung; on Friday morning, CBS News reporter Ed O’Keefe was interviewing him at English Muffin in Johnston. And the deteriorating political environment for Democrats, particularly in blue states, puts the wind at Fung’s back. House Democrats’ campaign arm tried to put a positive spin on the situation this week, but the best evidence they could muster was an internal poll showing Fung and Magaziner would be tied if third-party candidate Bill Gilbert wasn’t in the race. (He is.) Magaziner and his campaign team say they never sugarcoated how difficult the contest would be. “I think there’s a lot of people who maybe knew my opponent as a mayor, but as they’re tuning in are realizing they don’t want Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans in charge of Congress,” Magaziner told reporters Wednesday after First Lady Jill Biden campaigned for him in Cranston. The Democrat’s team also sees an opportunity in Fung’s unwillingness to fully abandon the national GOP, citing his fundraiser with Steve Scalise and lack of a position on Donald Trump’s two impeachments; the latter point helped Magaziner secure The Boston Globe’s endorsement Friday. A big unanswered question: how many voters will actually cast a ballot? So far turnout statewide is just 5%, only half as high as in Massachusetts, despite early voting starting sooner.
2. Old-school Rhode Island political insiders have plenty of stories about how deeply enmeshed the Mafia was in the State House back in the 1970s. But nowadays few take seriously the idea of mob connections on Smith Hill. So it appeared to surprise many when Tim White, Eli Sherman and I revealed Thursday night that a senior aide to Speaker Shekarchi had known ties to a prominent mob associate and even had a secret interest with him in an illegal marijuana business. Shekarchi allies noted that he inherited the staffer, John Conti, from three prior speakers, and Conti resigned hours before the report aired. But it raised alarm bells among those who are already worried about the potential for insider dealing once retail marijuana sales start in Rhode Island a little over a month from now. (Just look at what happened across the border in Fall River.) That’s particularly true since the speaker’s office has been playing such an active role in setting marijuana policy under both Shekarchi and his predecessor, Nick Mattiello. Common Cause’s John Marion seized on the Conti revelation to demand that Governor McKee reject the speaker’s three recommendations for appointments to the soon-to-be-formed Cannabis Control Commission; Marion has long argued that the “recommendation” language is a fig leaf used by House leadership to get around separation-of-powers restrictions. But in an interview with Tim on Friday, McKee gave no indication he plans to defy Shekarchi, who has been a key political ally for the governor in his re-election campaign this year. The governor also argued the Target 12 report actually showed the system working since Conti and his partners got caught.
3. Around the State House, John Conti was known in part for his second job as a maître d’ at Camille’s. Not familiar with the iconic Federal Hill dining spot? This 2019 Bon Appetit piece will get you up to speed.
4. The 2nd Congressional District race continues to heavily overshadow the race for governor, not only because polls in early October showed Dan McKee leading Ashley Kalus comfortably, but also because it’s now been more than two weeks since the pair met on a debate stage. That will change Monday, when the candidates face off during an afternoon radio debate on WPRO. But their campaigns have remained active even in the absence of major events, releasing new TV ads, sending a steady stream of news releases and holding press conferences on the issues du jour. McKee’s early support for Joe Biden — he was one of the first Rhode Island politicians to endorse the future president back in 2019 — was repaid this week when the White House sent First Lady Jill Biden to campaign for the governor. Kalus sought to counter her visit the prior evening by launching a “Democrats for Kalus” effort led by Matty Smith, who served as House speaker from 1980 to 1988, and Dick Fossa, who was North Providence mayor from 1994 to 1996. One challenge for Kalus: her recent arrival on the political scene and lack of a competitive primary mean she is still being vetted for the first time. And reporters have had plenty of documents to sift through, including a startling 2019 police report detailed Friday by my colleagues Eli Sherman and Tolly Taylor; Kalus’s campaign says her accuser fabricated the incident.
6. With all the campaign news these days, you may have missed a notable press release Monday from Brown University. Granted, the school’s headline wasn’t exactly clickbait: “Brown releases final Operational Plan for Investing in Research.” But longtime Bruno-watchers could read between the lines that the announcement was an important one. After years of hand-wringing over whether too much focus on research would jeopardize Brown’s identity as a teaching-oriented “university college,” President Christina Paxson is making clear the school is all in. That means a major expansion in research over the next five to seven years, which will have significant implications for the rest of Rhode Island, since the effort will require more space and staff, and could lead to broader economic-development possibilities. Brown started to make the expansion more concrete before the end of the week, announcing plans to lease empty lab space on the top two floors of the Wexford building that Gina Raimondo championed during her governorship.
7. Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson and his challenger Paul Heroux met on WPRI 12 for their only scheduled TV debate Friday, a face-off that was supposed to happen in person but had to be moved to Zoom after Heroux tested positive for COVID-19. The pair engaged in a spirited exchange despite the virtual format, making clear their sharp differences over everything from how county jails should be run to presidential politics. You can watch the entire debate here. We’ll wrap up the 2022 debate season on Newsmakers next week with one final set of candidates: general treasurer nominees James Diossa and James Lathrop.
8. Eye on Congress … Jack Reed condemned the assault on Paul Pelosi, saying in a statement, “We’ve got to break the cycle of polarizing hate speech and outright lies that feed into these types of attacks.” … Sheldon Whitehouse wrote a Data for Progress guest blog promoting his bill to help build electricity interconnections … David Cicilline condemned a new UN report on Israel … Jim Langevin came under more pressure to pay his DCCC dues.
9. In his first two years on Capitol Hill, Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss has proven adept at getting himself into the national media, helped along by his tireless communications director Matt Corridoni. Auchincloss proved that once again this week, when he published this pithy response to a letter from House progressives about Russia and Ukraine: “This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.” Dozens of news outlets quoted Auchincloss in their stories about the letter, which turned into a debacle for its author.
10. Massachusetts has multiple hotly contested ballots questions this year, including the millionaire’s tax and licenses for undocumented immigrants as well as, believe it or not, the medical-loss ratio for dentists. Things aren’t nearly as exciting in Rhode Island, where the three ballot questions are all bond issues: $100 million for URI’s Bay campus (Question 1), $250 million for school buildings (Question 2), and $50 million for natural resources (Question 3). A group backing Question 1 has launched under the banner Rhode Islanders for Higher Education, campaigning with earned media and paid media, including a TV commercial that will air during the Patriots pregame shows on the next two Sundays. Separately, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management has been leading efforts to promote Question 3.
11. Did you catch WPRI 12’s own Corey Welch on A1 of The New York Times?
12. Catherine Rampell warns almost no one is prepared for a potential recession.
13. At this point we all know vinyl is back. Are cassette tapes next?
14. Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking about college hoops again — so WPRI 12 sports director Morey Hershgordon has flagged the top five local games to watch this year.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — a debate between the two candidates for Bristol County sheriff, incumbent Thomas Hodgson and challenger Paul Heroux. 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 (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 and Facebook