Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 31

Ted Nesi
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Happy Halloween! 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. One week from today, the election will be over. The biggest question for residents of Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts is the same as for everybody else in America: who will be president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021, Donald Trump or Joe Biden? If Trump is defeated, he’ll be only the fourth elected president to lose in the last century, joining the ranks of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover; if he wins, he’ll have pulled off an even bigger upset than he did in 2016. A Biden victory could significantly increase this region’s clout in Washington, particularly if he brings in a Democratic Senate majority on his coattails, which among other effects would make Jack Reed the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. It could also cause some musical chairs in both states if Biden plucks local elected officials for cabinet positions, scrambling the political scene ahead of the 2022 elections. (Just in recent days, national outlets floated both Gina Raimondo and Elizabeth Warren as potential Biden treasury secretaries.) Closer to home, the pre-election chatter has a whiff of déjà vu: for the third cycle in a row, the key question is whether Speaker Mattiello will hold his seat in Western Cranston, or if voters there will cause a major State House shakeup. Cranston will get its first new mayor in 12 years; Warwick voters are considering a change at City Hall, too. And then, bright and early Wednesday morning, the 2022 race for governor will kick off! Just kidding. (Or am I?)

2. With states like Texas already smashing voter turnout records, there’s reason to think Rhode Island could also see a historic number of voters cast a ballot by 8 p.m. Tuesday. But will it beat the record of 475,428 set in the Obama landslide of 2008? Too soon to tell, though Rhode Islanders certainly seem enthusiastic so far, with about 274,000 early in-person or mail-in ballots received as of Friday night — already equal to about 58% of total voter turnout in 2016. Good news: unlike in previous years, the Board of Elections says it expects to release the lion’s share of mail ballot results late Tuesday night, which should give us a strong indication of which way local races are going even if there are still some outstanding. Election officials plan to release Election Day polling place results soon after polls close at 8 p.m.; early in-person results beginning at 10 p.m.; and most mail ballot results beginning at 11 p.m. All the more reason to make sure you’re tuned to my colleagues and I on 12 News at 11 that night!

3. Rhode Island’s youngest voters are, of course, 18 years old. But what about the other end of the age spectrum? I inquired with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office and learned that the oldest Rhode Islander who has cast a ballot so far in 2020 is 109-year-old Emma Pezza of Johnston. “Ms. Pezza voted by mail and her ballot has been accepted by the Board of Elections, meaning it will be counted,” reports Gorbea spokesperson Nick Domings. Pezza was born on March 31, 1911, during the presidency of William Howard Taft — nine years before women attained the constitutional right to vote. She turned 21 in 1932, just in time to cast her first vote for president for either Herbert Hoover or FDR. This past March the Johnston Sun Rise ran a photo of Ms. Pezza at her (socially distanced) birthday celebration, and she looked fabulous.

4. Early in-person voting came to an end in Massachusetts on Friday, but Rhode Islanders have more time to cast a ballot in person ahead of Election Day. Five cities and towns are holding extra voting hours on Saturday — you can find the list and hours here — and then Monday will be the last chance for those who want to skip the lines on Election Day itself.

5. Al Franken once recalled emceeing the Mike Dukakis election night celebration in 1988: “As the polls closed in the East, the networks started delivering the bad news. Pennsylvania goes for Bush. Ohio goes for Bush. But I would just say things like, ‘Hey, we won Rhode Island! That’s good. As Rhode Island goes, so goes the nation. Right?! Huh, everybody?!’ Blank faces. Well, not blank really. There were a lot of tears.”

6. Even before the results are in for General Assembly races, lawmakers are already angling for position as they look past the election. Progressive women are seeking leadership posts in both chambers, with Providence Sen. Gayle Goldin touting outside endorsements and Barrington Rep. Liana Cassar sending a kickoff letter to colleagues. There are benefits for both even if their bids are unsuccessful: Goldin is raising her profile ahead of a potential 2022 bid for statewide office, and Cassar is calling the question on whether progressives should continue to formally or tacitly support Speaker Mattiello. As other observers have noted, it’s a new strategy to mount a public campaign for legislative leadership — those contests usually takes place almost entirely behind closed doors. From the other ideological wing of the House Democratic caucus, meanwhile, Lincoln Democrat Greg Costantino just resigned from Mattiello’s leadership team — a one-off defection so far, but a troubling one for the speaker if it indicates any weakening of his support among moderate and conservative Democrats. The State House conventional wisdom continues to be that Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi has the inside track if Mattiello goes down on Tuesday, but others are making sure they’re prepared in case Shekarchi falters. As for the other chamber, look for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to quickly call a post-election Democratic caucus later next week in a bid to lock down his support.

7. Oh, and when the election is over, lame-duck lawmakers will still need to take up the minor matter of passing a budget for the current fiscal year.

8. It’s been 13 months since Congressman Joe Kennedy kicked off his ill-fated bid for U.S. Senate, opening up his 4th Congressional District seat for the first time in 2012 and attracting a hoard of hopefuls into the Democratic primary. Many millions of dollars later, Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss came out on top by 1 percentage point, making him the heavy favorite to defeat the GOP nominee, former Attleboro City Councilor Julie Hall. The pair met for their only TV debate on Friday at WPRI 12, where they disagreed on a number of issues, notably whether they would take a coronavirus vaccine. (Auchincloss says yes; Hall says no.) But they also agreed on a number of topics, like legalizing marijuana at the federal level and giving Kennedy an “A” for his tenure. If Auchincloss does win, he will barely be able to pause campaigning — he has a clear target on his back for a potential progressive primary challenger in 2022, and will need to work hard to shore up his support across the district to avoid becoming a one-term lawmaker. One way he is already preparing for that is financially: Politico’s Steph Murray reports Auchincloss has already raised $775,000 since winning the primary.

9. Jake Auchincloss’s closest rival for the 4th District nomination, Jesse Mermell, has parlayed her one-point defeat into becoming a poster child for Question 2 on next week’s ballot, a proposal to move Massachusetts to ranked-choice voting in 2022. While Mermell insists she has no idea if she would have won under ranked-choice — she notes Auchincloss supports it, too — many in the 4th District wonder if she could have consolidated enough first- and second-choice progressive votes to have pulled out a win under that system. I take a closer look at the ranked-choice debate here.

10. WPRI.com is overflowing with material to get you ready for Tuesday’s election. If you missed them on TV, you can watch our Newsmakers debates for Warwick mayor, Cranston mayor, R.I. House District 15 and Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District. We also have breakdowns of the federal races for U.S. Senate in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as well as Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District and 2nd Congressional District contests. And for the true political junkies, don’t miss Eli Sherman’s map-happy looks at town-by-town Rhode Island presidential election results since 1984 and the change in Democratic Party support from 2012 to 2016.

11. Out of the frying pan into the fire: just as the election campaign is finally coming to a close, New England is sliding into a worsening stage of the coronavirus pandemic. Rhode Island is now averaging 385 new cases a day, alarming Governor Raimondo and other officials who fear winding up in the same place as hard-hit states west of the Mississippi like Wisconsin and Utah. The governor began tightening restrictions on Friday, reducing the allowed size of social gatherings to 10 and banning spectators at youth sports, but it sounds as though she and her fellow governors are just getting started. One bright spot amid the gloom: hospitalizations in Rhode Island are still well below their previous peak, with only 152 COVID-19 patients currently in the hospital; there were 376 at the height in April.

12. As if the pandemic itself wasn’t dark enough, my colleagues Eli Sherman and Tim White found calls of potential child abuse to DCYF plummeted starting in March. While a dip in potential neglect cases may seem to be good news on the surface, experts say it likely means abuse is slipping through the cracks because educators aren’t seeing children in person to spot warning signs. The education commissioner says she’s concerned about the trend.

13. After a quarter-century in the Senate, is Jack Reed ready to eliminate the legislative filibuster if his party want to do so next year? Recall that not so many years ago Reed was resistant to making that move, even when it was limited to just judicial appointments. “If there is a Democratic victory, if we are in a position of authority, our first step should be to try to encourage cooperation,” Reed told me. “If we don’t get cooperation — if sensible, necessary, in fact urgent legislation is stopped — then we can think about that. But the first step is trying to pursue, I think, a bipartisan approach.”

14. Vanity Fair theorizes that the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s hostility toward Senator Whitehouse is partly motivated by checks from a deep-pocketed foundation.

15. Congratulations to the Cranston Public Library, which just won the $250,000 Jerry Kline Community Impact Prize — the only library in the country to get the award. “Public libraries across the country have been impressive in their rapid and innovative response to this challenging moment,” Library Journal editor-in-chief Meredith Schwartz said in a statement. “But even among such a strong showing, Cranston Public Library is an inspiration: its deep work on equity and relationship of trust with organizations and individuals alike positions the library to meaningfully engage the community’s deepest needs and concerns and make a difference.”

16. Halloween parties are banned this year, so what better way to have a spooky Saturday evening than tuning into my pal Matt Allen’s “Fright Night” special from 8 to 11 p.m. tonight on WPRO? If you’ve had your own paranormal experience, you can call in and share it with Matt live on the air.

17. Nearly every American family must have a loved one who has been afflicted by Alzheimer’s; the Alzheimer’s Association estimates nearly 6 million Americans suffer from the disease today. And even if you don’t have a personal experience, all of society bears a cost: Medicare and Medicaid spending to deal with the disease and other dementias is estimated at $206 billion this year alone. My colleague Mike Montecalvo is just out with a great new 12 on 12 digital documentary about the fight against the disease.

18. Esquire look at how the AP calls all those winners on election night.

19. Rich Cohen explains the magic of Linus and the “Great Pumpkin.”

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a Massachusetts 4th Congressional District debate between Democrat Jake Auchincloss and Republican Julie Hall. 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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