Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 11

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. Dan McKee marked six months in the governor’s office last week, but after an initial stretch of smooth sailing he now finds himself in choppier waters. McKee and his team have been thrown off course of late by two State House controversies: first the saga of chief of staff Tony Silva’s Cumberland land deal, which forced Silva into an early exit, and now questions about a $5 million state contract for the hitherto unknown ILO Group. Yet the turbulence really began for McKee before those stories hit the evening news, dating back to his flip-flop under pressure over issuing a statewide K-12 mask mandate. Early on the governor had been able to stick to a clear and popular message regarding the pandemic: get shots into arms, and open everything back up. Now, though, the Delta variant is presenting him with tougher decisions at the same time that the public is growing more weary and divided. On Silva, the governor seems to have cauterized the wound by jettisoning his longtime aide. On the ILO Group, he and his aides face a tougher challenge — convincing lawmakers, education stakeholders and the public that the seven-figure consulting contract for a brand-new firm was more than a sweetheart deal for insiders. As for the pandemic, McKee will need to show steady leadership in the coming weeks if cases climb due to schools reopening and the autumn-driven shift indoors. But some damage has already been done, as political insiders reassess how strong McKee looks going into the 2022 election — and rivals see new reasons to think they’ve got a shot.

2. One person who has surely been following Governor McKee’s travails with interest is Helena Foulkes, the former CVS executive who has been privately mulling whether to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination for a few months now. Foulkes has played her cards very close to the vest — she hasn’t responded to a series of emails since early July inquiring about her potential candidacy, and those who know aren’t saying much. At midsummer, the odds of Foulkes entering the race looked low; McKee appeared to be in strong shape after a successful first few months. But the recent turmoil around him has given her — and the people pushing her to run — a stronger argument for why McKee could be vulnerable despite the significant advantages of incumbency. Foulkes, a Rhode Island native who left CVS in 2018 to run the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue, is prominent enough to have appeared on Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women list. Between her own resources and her potential fundraising network, she would be financially formidable, and she could announce as late as December and still be able to collect $1,000 max-out donations during the 2021 fundraising year. But there is a flip side to those advantages: Foulkes’ résumé as a highly paid corporate executive may cause suspicion among some Democratic primary voters. That said, Democratic politics is in Foulkes’ blood: she is the granddaughter of the late U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd and the niece of retired U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd.

3. One week ago, very few people had heard of the ILO Group. But the consulting firm is now the talk of the State House following our Target 12 investigation into how the brand-new business quickly secured a $5 million contract, funded with federal COVID money, from Governor McKee’s administration. ILO is supposed to be working on two big projects: reopening schools during the pandemic, and replicating in other towns the municipal education office McKee created in Cumberland. Both of those elements are causing problems for the administration: local district leaders say they have no idea what ILO has been doing on back-to-school, and key lawmakers are skeptical about expanding the Cumberland approach to K-12. On top of all that, ILO’s principals came from Chiefs for Change, led by longtime McKee ally Mike Magee, and documents show the firm got the contract despite a botched procurement process. Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma has already said he plans to hold a hearing on the ILO money, and on Friday state Rep. Bill O’Brien called on House leaders to do the same. “When I first read the news reports regarding this contract, I, like many others, was outraged,” O’Brien said. “To pay a group of outside individuals $5 million for the work that the Department of Education should be doing is beyond outrageous. In this climate, where every single education dollar counts, I see this as an extreme waste of taxpayer dollars.” McKee’s office has not responded to O’Brien.

4. Christine Lopes Metcalfe quietly left as Governor McKee’s senior education adviser last month. Also on the departures front, former chief of staff Tony Silva is getting a nearly $53,000 payout from taxpayers on his way out the door to cover unused sick, vacation and furlough time.

5. Over 20 years in Congress, Jim Langevin’s position on abortion has rarely satisfied either side. During his first decade in the House, Langevin was regularly identified as an abortion foe and he repeatedly drew pro-choice primary challengers, but he still frustrated pro-life activists by voting to fund Planned Parenthood. Yet as the ranks of anti-abortion Democrats dwindled over the last 10 years, Langevin has subtly but perceptibly shifted closer to his party’s mainstream on the issue: NARAL Pro-Choice America says Langevin voted its way 100% of the time in three of the past five years. But even that made him distinct: NARAL gave 100% scores to Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse and David Cicilline all five years. That’s the historical context for Langevin’s announcement that he will vote to codify abortion rights in federal law in response to the Supreme Court decision on the new law in Texas. The congressman has always discussed his opposition to abortion in personal terms, saying he learned how precious life is after the accident that left him a quadriplegic at age 16. “Although I remain personally opposed to abortion, as a matter of public policy, my position has evolved,” he wrote Thursday, adding, “At the end of the day, we have to put our trust in women.” At the same time, it would be naive to ignore the political imperative he faced: a vote against codifying Roe v. Wade would have exponentially increased the chances Langevin drew a serious primary challenge in the 2nd District next year.

6. The governor’s race will be the main event in Rhode Island politics in 2022, but the undercard bouts are starting to take shape, too. With Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea term-limited, her office is one of the top prizes. State Rep. Gregg Amore will be the first to take the plunge, kicking off his campaign for secretary of state next Wednesday at East Providence High School, where he’s taught and coached since 1989. He’ll be joined by Speaker Shekarchi, Sen. Val Lawson, Reps. Katherine Kazarian and Karen Alzate, and fellow EPHS teacher Richard Martin. But Amore may not be the only well-funded candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. Liz Tanner, director of the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, told me Friday she is seriously exploring a run for the same office. “During the last six years I have had the unique opportunity to work closely with Rhode Island’s small businesses, providing guidance and assistance to thousands of business owners and their employees at one of the most difficult times in our state’s history,” Tanner told me, adding that as secretary of state she would look to “continue this work while ensuring that every eligible Rhode Islander can participate in secure and well-run elections.”

7. The General Assembly formally kicked off the redistricting process on Thursday with the first hearing of the special commission that will redraw Rhode Island’s political maps. The co-chairmen of the panel will be Woonsocket Rep. Robert Phillips and Smithfield Sen. Stephen Archambault, both Democrats, and the next meeting is Sept. 16. In the meantime, the state’s longtime redistricting consultant — Kim Brace — has created an official website at riredistricting.org where you can look at the data for yourself and keep up with the process. WPRI.com already has you covered if you want interactive maps: Eli Sherman illustrated the district-by-district population changes here.

8. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Steph Machado: “As we first reported earlier this week, Providence teachers have been leaving the district in droves, with 188 resigning or retiring so far in 2021 alone. Some have said they feel underappreciated amid the state takeover and the pandemic. The resulting teacher shortage — which continued to grow after our initial report aired — is nothing new in Providence, but rather an existing problem that was identified in the 2019 Johns Hopkins report and does not appear to be improving. In multiple comments in response to our reporting this week, Governor McKee — who has authority over Providence schools — touted a new executive order allowing retired teachers to work beyond the usual 90 days and still retain their pensions, in hopes of incentivizing them to come back to work. Governor Raimondo had signed a similar order in late December 2020 in response to a chronic shortage of substitutes; she and then McKee both renewed that order until June 25 of this year. I was curious how successful it was, so I checked in with the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island. In the six months the policy was in effect, 45 retired teachers across 17 school districts took advantage of the incentive and worked longer than 90 days, including 16 in Providence, according to ERSRI. (The next highest number was six teachers in Johnston, followed by three teachers each in Barrington, Burrillville and Woonsocket.) As of Tuesday afternoon, Providence had 124 teacher vacancies, 73 of which were classroom positions, with 55 subs identified to cover the classrooms for now. McKee said Tuesday there would also be more incentives to get teachers in the door, but neither his office nor PPSD provided further details this week.”

9. With roughly 30 House lawmakers asking the governor to amend the requirement that all health care workers get vaccinated by Oct. 1 or lose their jobs, keep an eye on how that discussion develops in the coming weeks.

10. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren visited our region Wednesday for a town hall at UMass Dartmouth, and before the event she sat down with me in a vacant classroom for a one-on-one interview. Warren’s already high national profile rose enormously during her 2020 presidential campaign, but throughout her visit to UMass she was at pains to demonstrate she remains focused on Massachusetts as its senior senator. (That includes telling me she definitely plans to seek re-election in 2024, and later dismissing a town hall attendee’s suggestion that Joe Biden won’t be on the ballot that year.) My full interview with Warren airs on this weekend’s edition of Newsmakers, and one of our most interesting exchanges is over the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Warren has served with Jack Reed on the Armed Services Committee since 2017, and she expressed frustration about what they were told regarding Afghanistan in hearing after hearing over the years. “Nobody was ever held accountable,” Warren told me. “Nobody ever got dragged back in to say, wait a minute, you were the guy that was here two years ago saying we turned the corner.”

11. Are two congressmen better than one? That’s the debate in Fall River these days.

12. Speaking of Fall River, the feds want Jasiel Correia to spend 11 years behind bars.

13. Congrats to old friend Arlene Violet, who is scaling back her weekly newspaper column after a roughly 20-year run. Arlene’s final column, which appears in this week’s Valley Breeze and East Bay Media editions, sums up her view of the Rhode Island political scene quite well: “As for the state’s politicians, they should be called on any activity when they self-deal either for their own financial interest or political career. Public service is supposed to be precisely that, i.e. public service not self-service.” Arlene says she will still contribute to both publications on a monthly basis starting in November.

14. It’s hard to believe we are heading into an election year without the late, great Bill Rappleye on hand to chronicle it as part of the Rhode Island press corps. Rapp died in January, but services for him had to be put off due to the pandemic. Now his family plans to hold a memorial service this Sunday, Sept. 12, at 11:30 a.m. in the outdoor Chapel by the Sea at Colt State Park in Bristol. “Everyone is welcome to come celebrate the life of the coolest Dad around,” his daughter Georgia shared on Facebook.

15. Today is the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In some ways it feels like the day can’t possibly be so far in the past; in other ways it feels like the event happened in another world. It makes me wonder how people thought about Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1961, or about the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1983. Most of us witnessed Sept. 11 through our TV screens, but two of my former 12 News colleagues — reporter Walt Buteau and photojournalist Les Breault — saw the devastation in Lower Manhattan firsthand when our newsroom sent them to to New York that morning. Tim White recently sat down with Les to hear his reflections on what he witnessed, and their resulting story is well worth watching here. Locally, Rhode Island leaders will hold the state’s official 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony at 8:30 this morning on the South Lawn of the State House.

16. What went wrong for the U.K. Labour Party after Tony Blair?

17. Aja Romano unpacks the multiple layers of backlash around John Mulaney right now.

18. A note to email newsletter subscribers: apologies for the technical snafu that led to an old Nesi’s Notes edition going out again last weekend. You didn’t miss anything — I took Labor Day Weekend off!

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Matt Newell, a Rhode Islander whose mother died on Sept. 11, talks with Mike Montecalvo. 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 on Sept. 11.

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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