Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 30

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. Many Rhode Islanders don’t pay much attention to nearby Fall River and New Bedford. But they should. The federal government includes both cities in the Providence metropolitan area, and they are two of the cylinders in the region’s economic engine — you can’t achieve peak performance unless all of them are firing. That makes the lost decade Fall River has just experienced not only a tragedy for the city’s 94,000 residents but a setback for the wider region. Fall River has had eight different mayors over the last 14 years, a period when Providence had just three leaders and New Bedford only two. That political instability was capped by the stunning rise and fall of Jasiel Correia, who’s supposed to report to federal prison in December after bribery convictions. Fall River’s last mayoral election, back in 2019, was a strange affair that saw the indicted incumbent continue to campaign until just weeks before Election Day. The circus surrounding Correia overshadowed everything else that year, so this fall’s mayoral contest — pitting incumbent Mayor Paul Coogan against City Council President Cliff Ponte — is really the first post-Jasiel debate over Fall River’s future. Ponte has been raising serious questions about Coogan’s stewardship, pointing to a deficit of $5 million to $10 million (depending how you do the math on Durfee High) and ongoing controversy around the same marijuana licensing process corrupted by Correia. Yet before the race even began, Ponte shot himself in the foot by sending a letter to his real-estate colleagues describing the mayor’s job as “ceremonial,” a choice of words the mayor has hung around his opponent’s neck for months. Coogan far surpassed Ponte in the September preliminary round, giving the mayor momentum heading into Tuesday, but Ponte insists he’s gaining traction. Watch the pair debate on this week’s Newsmakers to see them both in action.

2. Next Tuesday’s races for Fall River and Attleboro mayor are technically nonpartisan, but everybody running is a registered Democrat. Thus it was all the more interesting to find out a super PAC aligned with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is spending money in Fall River to support Paul Coogan’s re-election as well as in Attleboro to bolster Todd McGhee’s challenge against incumbent Paul Heroux.

3. What is left to say about the dismal RICAS exam scores? Only 33% of Rhode Island students can read or write at grade level, compared with 46% in Massachusetts, and only 20% of Rhode Island students can do math at grade level, versus 33% in Massachusetts. The 2018 RICAS results were seen as a call-to-action crisis at the State House, yet this year’s are even lower. Undoubtedly the pandemic was a significant factor in the test results, but that only reinforces how many students have had their educations thrown off track since March 2020. And as Dan McGowan wrote in The Globe, it’s hard not to feel cynical about the increasingly predictable responses each time RICAS results are released. Is meaningful improvement in K-12 outcomes possible in Rhode Island at present? And will the state’s $415 million in American Rescue Plan education funds make any difference?

4. Breaking on Friday night from Eli Sherman and Tim White: longtime former North Kingstown High basketball coach Aaron Thomas has been placed on leave from his new job, as the AG investigates allegations of inappropriate conduct with student athletes.

5. Seth Magaziner’s team is working hard to show he won’t be cowed by the entry of Helena Foulkes into the Democratic primary for governor. The Magaziner campaign reports raising roughly $250,000 during the third quarter, which will likely be enough for him to remain the financial leader barring a monster quarter from Dan McKee or Nellie Gorbea. (Foulkes won’t file her first fundraising report until January.) Magaziner has also firmed up his Finance Committee, which is being co-chaired by longtime Democratic bigwig Don Sweitzer and prominent attorney Vicky Almeida. Other big names on the committee include Buff Chace, Malcolm Farmer III, Rajiv Kumar, Terry Murray, Merrill Sherman, Joan Sorensen and Toots Zynsky; the full list is here.

6. Meantime, Helena Foulkes is starting to staff up. Foulkes has tapped Jonathan Blair, who was Gina Raimondo’s campaign manager in 2018, as a senior advisor to the campaign. Blair’s role was confirmed by another new Foulkes hire, Democratic operative Joshua Karp, who is now a communications consultant for her campaign. Karp’s résumé includes Jon Ossoff’s majority-making Senate campaign in Georgia.

7. Boldface name coming to town: U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will be in Rhode Island on Monday to examine workforce development efforts alongside the congressional delegation and also join a roundtable discussion about child care and job training hosted by Governor McKee. (News of Walsh’s visit to Rhode Island, on the day before voters select his successor as Boston mayor, got Bay State reporters buzzing about whether he’ll make an election-eve stop up in the Hub, too.)

8. My colleague Steph Machado’s in-depth look at development on the old 195 land sparked a lot of interesting commentary. Nobody disputes that the current situation — barely $1 million in land sales, mostly for apartment buildings — is a far cry from what state leaders promised at the outset. And the disappointing proceeds from parcel purchases will have a material effect on taxpayers, since the 195 Commission borrowed $38 million to buy the land from RIDOT and $33 million of that debt is still outstanding. “I’m hoping we can get back on track and attract the wet labs and the meds and eds that we initially wanted to attract,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told Steph. Yet others suggest looking at the bright side. While the land isn’t home to, say, a huge Google satellite office, it’s become a lively gathering place popular with new arrivals and out-of-state visitors. “[W]hile the City is not UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] or Kendall Sq. yet, it is hard not to be amazed at what is happening in the old Jewelry District which used to be known mostly for Nickanees, Olgas, the Childrens Museum & Aaron Hernandez’s old spot, South Street,” tweeted Matt Jerzyk, who was the city’s State House lobbyist during the negotiations over the 195 Commission. “The URI/RIC nursing school, the Brown med school, River House, 2 new parking garages, the Wexford building / CIC, J&J, the Globe, the aloft hotel, the Pedestrian bridge (finally), 2 major residential developments, JWU expansion. I walked from the State House to the new Bayberry Garden last week and was amazed at all of the progress that has been made.”

9. Here’s an item from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Although roughly 100,000 eligible Rhode Islanders remain unvaccinated for COVID-19, these days far more residents are signing up for booster shots than first shots. A look at R.I. Department of Health data shows about 2,500 people per day were getting extra doses of the COVID-19 vaccines this past week, while only about 670 people were getting inoculated daily for the first time. That number has slumped from about 1,000 in September and 8,300 during peak demand in April. It’s likely the booster shot numbers will continue to rise, as eligibility expands and more people look for added protection six months after completing their initial regimen. As for first shots, those numbers could also see a boost in the coming weeks, with the feds approving vaccine use for children ages 5 to 11. Governor McKee said last week he expects the state will start those inoculations soon.”

10. The long-delayed medical marijuana lottery on Friday was quite a spectacle.

11. Less than an hour after Pope Francis and President Biden ended a meeting at the Vatican where Biden says the pope told him to continue taking communion, Bishop Tobin tweeted, “I fear that the Church has lost its prophetic voice. Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?” That message followed multiple tweets urging Francis to confront Biden over his support of abortion rights, and it came as the country’s bishops remain divided over a new document that some hope will provide a path to deny Biden communion. While the pope and his advisers have made no secret of their opposition to that idea, Tobin clearly disagrees. The bishop — one of the last appointed by Pope John Paul II in the days before he died — has now led Rhode Island Catholics for 16 years, and will reach retirement age in 2023. What’s the endgame amid his clear public disagreement with the pope? One plugged-in observer points back to 2009, during Benedict XVI’s papacy, when Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino resigned unexpectedly after meeting with Vatican officials who were reportedly disenchanted with his pro-life political interventions. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in Providence — but it’s also hard to imagine the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington hasn’t taken notice of Tobin’s comments. Jesuit Fr. James Martin, a leader of the church’s progressive wing, tweeted this response Friday afternoon: “One of the most prophetic voices on the world stage, always calling us to conversation, as John the Baptist did, is the superior of both Bishop Tobin and me: Pope Francis.”

12. President Biden and congressional Democrats are starting to seem like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football when it comes to the infrastructure and budget bills. Another week that began with confident assertions of a final vote on infrastructure ended with a continued standoff between House progressives and Senate moderates. Among the many Democrats caught in the middle is Jim Langevin, who is supportive of the president overall and wants to see the bills pass, but acknowledged some “on the far left of our caucus” simply aren’t satisfied yet. “I think a vote could very well come next week,” Langevin told Kim Kalunian Friday during a live interview on 12 News at 4. “We’re on the four- or five-yard line right now, and that’s why the president came up, to get us that much further so we get this across the goal line. It’s going to be a good thing for the country once it’s done. I’m excited.”

13. David Cicilline took to the Projo op-ed page on Thursday to urge the elimination of the U.S. Senate filibuster, which effectively requires most legislation to achieve a 60-vote supermajority. Cicilline made no mention of Rhode Island’s own two senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, neither of whom has explicitly backed scrapping the filibuster. Of the two, Whitehouse is closer to Cicilline’s view than Reed. “Senate Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to block the majority from doing things the American people urgently want, like protecting the full faith and credit of the United States and safeguarding the right to vote,” Whitehouse told me Friday. “As a caucus, it’s time to consider all procedural options we can unify on to get this important work done.” Reed — an institutionalist who has been in the Senate for a quarter-century now — has always sounded more wary. Asked Friday about Reed’s current position, a spokesperson indicated he isn’t ruling it out but remains very hesitant.

14. Speaking of David Cicilline, his prized Big Tech antitrust package remains in limbo in the House despite clearing the Judiciary Committee in June. A recent editorial in The Washington Post — owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — took a shot at Cicilline’s approach, heaping praise on a competing Senate package of Big Tech legislation crafted by Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley under the headline: “Finally, a promising piece of tech antitrust legislation in Congress.” But one person who remains supportive of Cicilline’s efforts is Colorado Congressman Ken Buck, his Republican counterpart on the antitrust panel. “Well, David — Chairman Cicilline has been a great leader and really reached out in a bipartisan way, and I very much appreciated that,” Buck told tech journalist Kara Swisher on a recent podcast, saying Cicilline had been “really great” at trying to bridge partisan divides on tech issues. He went on to argue that their bipartisan cooperation is less uncommon in Congress that people may think. “We could not be disagreeing more on some issues, and frankly, engaging in food fights with each other on some issues,” Buck said. “But we put all those things aside, and we sit down and we roll up our sleeves, and we get the work done. … I live in the country. It would take a certain amount of time for a police officer to respond to my house, and I have weapons in my house. David Cicilline was the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, and he had serious violent crime problems with guns, and he advocated for certain gun control measures. So we disagree on some issues. We put those aside, and we move forward on an issue like antitrust, where we both think the country will benefit from more competition with big tech. And I think that happens every day in many ways in the House and Senate.”

15. Senator Whitehouse will travel to Scotland from Nov. 5 to 7 to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), per his office. “The details of the schedule are still being worked out, but Senator Whitehouse will meet with political, environmental, and business leaders from around the world to send the message that America is ready to help lead the planet to safety from the urgent threat of climate change,” a Whitehouse spokesperson reports. “Saturday will be a particularly crammed day, as several congressional delegations and senior administration officials all converge.”

16. The Rhode Island Republican Party will hold its annual Standing Ovation Awards Gala on Thursday at The Squantum Club. This year’s honorees to the Rhode Island GOP Hall of Fame are two former elected officials, both now deceased: the Rev. Mahlon Van Horne, Rhode Island’s first Black state legislator, and former Gov. Aram Pothier, a French-Canadian immigrant who served two separate tenures between 1909 and 1928. Other honorees include Reps. Mike Chippendale and Blake Filippi, retired Bristol Town Clerk Louis Cirillo, the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, National Committeeman Steve Frias, party volunteers Mark Dosdourian and Katherine MacCall, Cranston City Councilor Nicole Rezzuli, former Rep. Doreen Costa and former Assembly candidate Brian Rea.

17. You’ll never look at Katie Couric the same way once you read this profile by Rebecca Traister.

18. “The untold story of the Portuguese diplomat who saved thousands from the Nazis.”

19. Cassette tapes are back, but I gather they sound just as lousy as they did in the ’80s.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — a debate between the two candidates for Fall River mayor, incumbent Paul Coogan and challenger Cliff Ponte. 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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