Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 12

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 @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Rhode Island progressives won big in Tuesday’s primary election, defeating eight incumbent state lawmakers and nabbing the nominations for multiple open seats. How much do those victories reflect a leftward shift in the state’s Democratic electorate, and how much can they be chalked up to talented challengers out-hustling incumbents? It’s probably some of both. The Democratic Party is clearly moving left, and candidates who campaign on issues like climate change, racial justice and affordable health care are resonating, particularly with younger and college-educated voters. That’s even more true when those candidates are women or people of color, symbols of change in a State House long dominated by white men. Yet regardless of ideology, politics is politics — the name of the game is finding winnable races, recruiting quality candidates, then doing the hard work of organizing, persuading, and turning out the vote. It’s clear the expanding constellation of left-wing groups active in Rhode Island politics — the Working Families Party, the Co-op, Reclaim RI — are all doing that work. Don’t write the obituary for the State House establishment just yet, though; all three Senate leaders were targeted, and all three won. Dominick Ruggerio and Mike McCaffrey both got a scare, with challengers holding them to under 60%, but 17-term incumbent Maryellen Goodwin hit nearly 80% in her race. Goodwin’s example is instructive: her Smith Hill district has changed significantly since she was first elected in 1986, but she’s adapted, championing measures like the 2017 sick time law to stay in progressives’ good graces. How much can other Assembly Democrats adapt to changing times — and how much do they even want to?

2. You can rest assured the many ambitious Rhode Island Democrats contemplating a run for higher office in 2022 are closely analyzing the primary results as they consider their strategies.

3. Change seems to be coming to the Senate more quickly than the House up on Smith Hill. While the Senate is led by Rhode Island’s longest-serving lawmaker — Dominick Ruggerio, a State House pol of the old school, will mark his 40th year there in January — it is also getting closer to having the first female legislative majority Rhode Island has ever seen. (That’s fitting, perhaps, since the Senate has already had a female president in Teresa Paiva Weed, while the House has never had a female speaker.) One interesting side effect of Tuesday’s results is how it will affect the eventual leadership fight to succeed Ruggerio. On the one hand, the the chamber becoming more progressive could complicate the expected eventual hand-off to Mike McCaffrey. On the other hand, the defeat of Senate Finance Chairman Billy Conley has removed a senior figure who some members saw as an alternative option with the potential to unite progressives and moderates.

4. Rhode Island Liberator author Sam Howard performed a useful exercise in the run-up to the election by tracking 32 organizations’ pre-primary endorsements in order to see who picked the most winners. He found three groups tied for first place, each endorsing 18 winners: the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, and the local Democratic district committees. The track record of the Women’s Caucus looks even more impressive when you take into account how many endorsements the groups gave out — only four of its 22 endorsed candidates lost, giving the Women’s Caucus an 82% win rate, according to Howard. The comparable figure for the Coalition Against Gun Violence was 72%, and for the district committees it was only 60%.

5. While Speaker Mattiello won the Democratic nomination for House District 15 unopposed Tuesday, it still wasn’t a great week for the Cranston Democrat. Five of the six reps who went down to defeat were Mattiello loyalists, the exception being Moira Walsh, who was successfully targeted by the speaker’s team. (She even tweeted a photo of his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, strategizing with her opponent on primary day.) His cousin, Giuseppe Mattiello, was trounced in the primary for neighboring District 41, receiving just 29% of the vote in its Cranston precinct. His GOP opponent, Barabra Ann Fenton-Fung, got new evidence of her surname’s strength as Ken Hopkins buried Mattiello pal Mike Farina in the GOP mayoral primary, running with Allan Fung’s blessing on a platform of continuity. Later in the week, Fenton-Fung unloaded a buzzed-about video slamming the speaker for a lack of action in the face of the pandemic — only to have him reinforce the critique within a day by announcing that no budget votes will be taken until after the November election, meaning another election will be required shortly thereafter to deal with bond referendums. All this has House Democrats once again abuzz with speakership succession speculation — but then again, the same was true in the lead-up to the 2016 and 2018 elections. Remember this about Nick Mattiello: he is a survivor.

6. Not all the news about the state budget is bad. The closing statement for the 2019-20 fiscal year shows none of the $120 million appropriated from the rainy day fund to balance the budget was actually needed, thanks to revenue beating expectations and spending coming in lower. And a report Friday showed revenue ran 16% ahead of forecast in the month of July, a $37 million beat.

7. Republicans had almost no contested primaries on Tuesday, but the party is hoping it can successfully expand its ranks in November despite the headwinds of a presidential race at the top of the ticket. Prime opportunities are West Warwick’s House District 26, where former Rep. Patricia Morgan is working to win back her seat from first-term Democrat James Jackson, and East Greenwich’s House District 30, where former Rep. Anthony Giarrusso is in a rematch against first-term Democrat Justine Caldwell. A defeat of Speaker Mattiello by Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung would not only rock the State House but also flip a seat from blue to red. Other districts that smart Republicans have an eye on are House District 53, where GOP nominee Brian Rea is seen as a solid recruit against Democrat Bernie Hawkins, and the rematch for House District 72, where former Rep. Ken Mendonça is trying to wrest his old seat back from Democrat Terri Cortvriend.

8. Jim Langevin easily dispatched Dylan Conley in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District this week, netting 70% of the vote to win nomination for an 11th term. He now faces Republican Bob Lancia, the former state rep, in the November election. While Conley’s bid received limited attention, Langevin’s team appeared to take it seriously: the congressman spent $132,000 airing campaign ads on Providence’s three broadcast TV stations in the lead-up to the primary. His advisers may have also wanted to ensure Langevin had a strong performance as they prepare for the fallout if the state loses one of its two U.S. House seats in 2022.

9. Cranston will be center stage during this fall’s campaign season. As mentioned above, Rhode Island’s second largest city is home to the MattielloFenton-Fung race in House District 15, the biggest legislative contest of the year. But City Hall politics will also offer plenty of entertainment. Primary voters this week chose Republican Ken Hopkins and Democrat Maria Bucci to square off for mayor, in what is expected to be a competitive race to succeed Allan Fung. Plus, as my colleague Steph Machado noted, control of the Cranston City Council is also at stake, since three of the citywide councilors stepped aside to run for mayor (Hopkins, Mike Farina and Steve Stycos). That ensures a majority of the nine-member council will be fresh faces come January, and two of the unopposed returning councilors will only be in their second terms. Should be interesting.

10. The more than 90,000 ballots cast in this week’s primary was a notably high turnout considering there were no highly contested federal races and 14% of voters had no primary to vote in at all. The two-day wait to finish counting, caused by the spike in mail ballots, has also led to some nervousness about how long it will take to get results in the November election. The Board of Elections is preparing to process as many as 400,000 mail ballots for the November count, with Secretary Gorbea announcing Friday she will send a mail ballot application to every voter. One change that could help speed the tabulations is the fact that Governor Raimondo just signed an executive order allowing the board to begin processing mail ballots up to 20 days before the election; that could give elections officials a fighting chance to keep up with the expected avalanche. On this week’s Newsmakers, Common Cause’s John Marion also noted the Board of Elections has the ability to change its policy and post mail ballot results as they process them, rather than wait until all of them are ready and putting them online in one fell swoop.

11. Eva Marie Mancuso is a familiar face in Rhode Island politics — but this week she was in the news after her goddaughter allegedly embezzled more than $740,000 from her law firm. Tim White has the story here.

12. Massachusetts politics has faded from the headlines in these parts, but the general election is under way and Bristol County will continue to be a focus for the candidates. Jake Auchincloss, now officially the nominee to succeed Joe Kennedy in the 4th District, held his first event of the fall campaign in Fall River this week to thank his supporters. He also got a subtle boost from the state’s most popular politician, GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, whom Auchincloss worked to help elect during his brief time as a Republican. Asked about Auchincloss and his GOP rival Julie Hall, Baker told reporters, “I would call them both friends.” Meanwhile in the Senate race, Democratic incumbent Ed Markey will be in New Bedford on Saturday to talk about the Green New Deal and shore up his support in one of the few sections of the state where he was soundly beaten by Kennedy. Markey and his Republican opponent Kevin O’Connor also announced Friday they have agreed to a debate Oct. 5 on (newly renamed) public TV station GBH; Jim Braude and Margery Eagan will moderate.

13. An interesting postscript to the 4th District Democratic primary came my way last week from a trusted source. An analysis of TV spending for the race shows the candidates and outside groups spent a combined $3.8 million airing campaign ads during the primary across broadcast and cable stations in the Providence/New Bedford and Boston television markets. Jake Auchincloss and the super PAC that backed him topped the field, spending a combined $1.3 million, far and away the most among the seven Democrats who engaged in the air war. Alan Khazei came in second, with a combined $780,000 between his campaign and his super PAC, making his 9% support and sixth-place showing an even bigger disappointment. Jesse Mermell and a group backing her combined to spend $433,000, about $100,000 more than Becky Grossman, who did not have a super PAC. In fact, Grossman was also outspent by Chris Zannetos ($430,000) and Ihssane Leckey ($386,000) but still managed to come in third. Also of note: despite investing over $600,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to steer voters to one of the women candidates, Emily’s List made little investment in television, putting only $30,000 into a small buy on Providence cable boxes.

14. In normal times, the news that Lifespan and Care New England are moving ahead with formal merger negotiations would likely have been the lead item of this week’s column. Alas, these are not normal times. But make no mistake: this is a big development, with potentially huge implications for Rhode Island. More to come on that; Modern Healthcare’s Alex Kacik has a good look at the potential issues here. Meantime, while I was on the phone Wednesday with Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau and CNE CEO Jim Fanale I quizzed them both about their organizations’ respective financial health six months into the pandemic. “We’re on pretty solid footing at Lifespan,” Babineau said, saying federal and state stimulus money along with continued restructuring efforts have improved the situation since the spring. “I’m feeling much, much better about our finances than I was at the time,” he said. Fanale was a bit more downbeat about Care New England, in part because Women & Infants and Butler are specialty hospitals that have not qualified for as much federal relief money. “This is going to be a tough year for us because of the direct and indirect impact of COVID,” Fanale said. “We are still fighting long and hard with the delegation and the state to come up with a little more stimulus. … It keeps me up at night, but we’ve got good people.”

15. You may have seen the R.I. Department of Health’s various social media advertisements promoting public health directives to address coronavirus, such as an ad promoting masks. I was asked how much it all cost, so I put the question to RIDOH spokesperson Joseph Wendelken. “The state has contracted with RDW on a Back to School campaign across several paid media platforms to help get out the word about how kids and families can get back to school safely,” Wendelken reports. “The back to school campaign budget of $147,346 is inclusive of all creative and content development, and direct media placement costs. It is funded by CARES Act money. There is other paid social media work that is ongoing. The Mask ad that you mention, for example, is an ad that we were able to borrow from the State of Oregon and put on some paid social media channels with a new Rhode Island art card at a minimal cost to the state.”

16. Russell DeSimone on the history of election fraud in Rhode Island.

17. How one Twitter account proofreads The New York Times. (But who needs that when you have your father to do it, right, Dad?)

18. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield on the breakup of the Beatles.

19. Is it time we all switched back to an old iPod?

20. I’ll be back on GBH 89.7 FM’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley this Sunday at 6 p.m. as part of a regional news roundup. Tune in!

21. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersAG Neronha; Common Cause’s John Marion. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend 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

An earlier version of this column inadvertently combined the House District 71 and House District 72 races.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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