1. Rhode Island remains in a polling drought, so there are no hard numbers to tell us where things stand in the special election for Congress between Gabe Amo and Gerry Leonard. But based on the 1st District’s heavy Democratic lean plus Amo’s name recognition from the primary, it’s safe to assume he’s ahead. But how big is his lead, and does Leonard have any shot? Leonard made his case on this week’s Newsmakers, casting himself as a traditional Yankee Republican shaped by a 30-year military career who wants to seek consensus. “I think Washington, D.C., needs leadership — people with a backbone that will stand up to even their own party to come up with common-sense solutions that work for everybody,” he said. Leonard is trying to walk a fine line regarding the national GOP: he declined to endorse Donald Trump but said he will support Trump for president if he’s the nominee next year, even as he called for bipartisanship on issues like appropriations and military promotions. Leonard also continues to hammer Amo for refusing to accept any debate invitations prior to the two broadcast debates in the final week of the campaign. With a low profile and little state party apparatus to help drive turnout, Leonard could use a big advertising push in order to establish himself with the mass public and make the case against Amo. The two are heading into October about evenly matched financially, with Leonard expecting to report roughly $200,000 on hand as of Sept. 30 and Amo’s team saying he’ll be a little under that. But Amo has already put up over $250,000 in TV ads since midsummer, while Leonard hasn’t aired his first one yet.
2. Now that he’s the Democratic nominee, Gabe Amo is getting a lot of big-name help restocking his campaign coffers. Exhibit A is a Boston luncheon fundraiser next week that boasts a powerhouse host committee of Massachusetts pols — including former Gov. Deval Patrick (who contributed to Amo during the primary) as well as the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation, former Congressman Joe Kennedy III, prominent Democratic donor Alan Solomont, and government-affairs veteran Charlie Baker. Separately, the Projo’s Patrick Anderson scooped that Gina Raimondo is expected in Providence on Oct. 18 as the “special guest” at an Amo fundraiser hosted by Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. (The oft-cited Hatch Act allows Raimondo to engage in political activities so long as she doesn’t use her federal title.)
3. Did Seth Magaziner, Jake Auchincloss, Bill Keating and the rest of their fellow House Democrats make the right move by helping GOP rebels oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy? Gerry Leonard, echoing many other Republicans, decried the move. “What happened was a tragedy,” he said on Newsmakers. “Kevin McCarthy worked across party lines to get this continuing resolution passed, to include the Democrats voting with him on that, and three or four days later we turn around and they vote against him.” But Democrats reject the argument that McCarthy should have their support simply because he avoided a government shutdown last weekend. “The currency of speakership in Congress is trust, and Kevin McCarthy had gone bankrupt,” Auchincloss told me Wednesday. “His own conference did not trust him because he lied to them, and Democrats did not trust him because repeatedly he would make a promise — either to the president or to Democrats — and then he would renege upon it under pressure from Trump and the MAGA wing.”
4. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has made his pick to succeed the late Maryellen Goodwin as majority whip, choosing East Providence Democrat Val Lawson to fill the chamber’s No. 3 leadership post. Lawson, a longtime EP educator who won Dan Da Ponte’s old seat in 2018, was recently made president of the NEARI teachers union and is well-liked among her colleagues. Her appointment is also a moment to step back and note just how much turnover the General Assembly has seen in the ranks of Democratic leadership over the past two years. Of the House and Senate’s six top leaders, Ruggerio is the only one who was already in his current position before 2021, and Speaker Shekarchi is the only other member of the group who was in leadership at all before that time. House Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski, House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson and now Lawson are all new faces in the top ranks — and all people to watch the next time there’s an opening at the top.
5. Never afraid to be blunt, Senate President Ruggerio proactively announced Thursday that John Fleming will replace Jake Bissaillon as his chief of staff once the latter is sworn into Maryellen Goodwin’s old seat — even though voters won’t fill it until Nov. 7. “Of course, there is an election between now and then,” Ruggerio acknowledged, “but I have great confidence that Jake will be successful in his campaign.” That didn’t sit well with Allyn Meyers, president of the Rhode Island GOP Chairs Caucus, who blasted the Senate leader for arrogance. “It is insulting to the voters that the Democratic Caucus in the Rhode Island Senate is doing victory laps before the election is even held,” Meyers said Friday, touting the candidacy of Niyoka Powell, Bissaillon’s GOP opponent. Powell herself chimed in as well, saying, “This is the outrageous entitlement typical of the Democrat machine that dominates Rhode Island politics.”
6. One of the issues that’s expected to be on the front burner during next year’s legislative session is revisiting the 2011 pension overhaul engineered by then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo; the idea is to restore some benefits for retirees without harming the system’s solvency. As part of this year’s state budget, Assembly leaders tasked General Treasurer James Diossa with leading a pension advisory group that must send them recommendations by March 1, in time for consideration as part of next year’s budget. The new treasurer hasn’t said much to date about the high-profile project, so I checked in with his office this week — and discovered the panel has yet to be established, four months after the budget passed. “There is no statutory requirement for when it needs to begin,” Diossa spokesperson Michelle Moreno-Silva told me. It’s now expected that the pension group’s membership will be finalized later this month. For their part, Speaker Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio told me they are “confident the treasurer both understands the expectations and will deliver the findings by March 1.”
7. No state program in Rhode Island casts a longer shadow than Medicaid, the health insurance program for lower-income residents. Any way you slice it, Medicaid is huge: its total budget this year is $4.3 billion, of which $1.6 billion is from state money, with the feds picking up the rest of the tab. Another way to look at it: Medicaid now accounts for 30% of the entire $14 billion state budget. Thus it’s understandable why lawmakers would want details about where all that money is going and who is benefiting, which is why years ago they mandated that the Executive Office of Health and Human Services submit a comprehensive annual report on all aspects of the Medicaid program. EOHHS blew the March 15 deadline to submit the report for years, so eventually the General Assembly agreed to push that due date back to Sept. 15. Alas, EOHHS isn’t meeting the new deadline, either. “The expenditure report is delayed due to other critical Medicaid activities including the restart of the Medicaid renewals process,” agency spokesperson Kerri White told me. “We are in the final quality review stage to ensure a comprehensive and final report.” They now hope to have it done by Oct. 15, a month late. In the meantime, the freshest data available to policymakers (and citizens) about how the Medicaid program spent billions of dollars is more than two years old.
8. It’s official: Rhode Island is on notice from the feds over the Early Intervention mess.
9. Mayor Smiley scored the biggest win of his tenure this week, securing City Council passage of PILOT agreements with the four colleges that will yield more than $200 million over 20 years. The deal has plenty of critics, with Brown University students and some councilors arguing the Ivy institution should be paying more; leaders on College Hill counter that the deal is one of the most generous in the nation. A third of the City Council’s 15 members actually skipped the final vote on the PILOT agreements, so in the end there was just one “no” vote (Olneyville’s Miguel Sanchez). Next up Smiley faces a thornier negotiation — convincing Lifespan’s leadership that the top hospital group needs to join its Boston counterparts and accept a formal PILOT agreement. The two sides held an initial meeting this week that was described as constructive.
10. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman: “Up, up and away? High Rock developer David Sweetser just announced plans to spend $25 million to start demolition inside the Superman building in Providence later this month. It marks a significant milestone for redevelopment of the state’s tallest building, which has been vacant for more than a decade. And it’s seemingly the first step forward since Sweetser and state leaders announced a $223 million rehab plan in April 2022. Like many big development projects, the Superman project has faced increased costs over the past year, raising questions over whether the developer will seek more taxpayer money for the project. The initial work will be paid entirely with private funds, evidence the developer is ready to put his own skin in the game. But Sweetser is also facing a key deadline: he was required to begin work within a year to keep a $29 million tax break agreement awarded by city leaders last October. And it could be smart to show he’s committed to the project ahead of next year’s General Assembly session if there’s going to be a request for additional state aid. Appearing Thursday on 12 News at 4, Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor told Kim Kalunian his team is in regular contact with High Rock about the project and costs. Asked if they’ve asked for more state aid, he said in part, ‘No conclusions have been drawn yet.’”
11. The field is set for our region’s Massachusetts municipal elections, and it’s not looking like our region’s four incumbents will be in much trouble on Nov. 7. Attleboro’s new mayor Cathleen DeSimone is unopposed. Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell appears unfazed about a challenge from her former chief of staff Ed Correira. And New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell scored a landslide win in this week’s preliminary election against various little-known challengers. (Voter turnout in the Whaling City was a horrendous 6%, raising again the question of whether these cities should be moving to even-year municipal elections.) Fall River looks a little more interesting, with incumbent Paul Coogan up against a comeback bid by Sam Sutter, though Coogan’s two-to-one victory in the prelim has made him a clear favorite, too. Coogan and Sutter have agreed to debate Oct. 27 on a special edition of Newsmakers here on WPRI.
12. Patrick Kennedy has devoted his post-congressional career to mental health, a deeply personal topic for him, and this week he launched a major new initiative under the auspices of the nonprofit Kennedy Forum that he founded 10 years ago. The two-day Alignment for Progress conference, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the JFK Library, gathered business leaders, government officials and outside experts to discuss how to make measurable progress against America’s crisis of mental illness and substance abuse. Among the speakers was former state Sen. Tom Coderre, who is now a senior official at the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and who like Kennedy has been vocal about his own recovery. In addition, Kennedy is preparing to publish a new book in April called “Profiles in Mental Health Courage” that the publisher says will share “deeply compelling stories about the bravery and resilience of those living with a variety of mental illnesses and addictions.” (His co-author is Stephen Fried, the same writer who co-wrote Kennedy’s brutally honest memoir “A Common Struggle.”) Among the Kennedy Forum’s newly released resources: a state-by-state guide to existing policy on ensuring insurance parity between physical and mental health.
13. Regular Nesi’s Notes readers are always passing along interesting articles with a local hook. Two recent examples: The Wall Street Journal profiled Providence entrepreneur Ted Fischer, a Moses Brown and Hasbro alum who now runs a company making games and toys for older adults, and Arkansas-based Talk Business & Politics flagged Cranston native Tim Ritz’s selection as the new chief procurement officer at Walmart. (Ritz is the brother of Cranston School Committee member Frank Ritz Jr.) CVS Health CEO Karen Lynch is also atop Fortune magazine’s new 2023 Most Powerful Women list (h/t Ian Donnis on that one).
14. A hearty congratulations to Larry Berman, the Rhode Island House’s irreplaceable longtime spokesman, on the marriage of his daughter Wendi Berman to Mark Lemay. The happy couple tied the knot last night in Newport.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — congressional candidate Gerry Leonard. Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sunday 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 (email@example.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 Threads, Twitter and Facebook.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified which Charlie Baker is on the host committee for the Amo campaign’s Boston fundraiser.