Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 18

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. The race for Rhode Island governor got a lot of attention this week, but behind the scenes the Democratic primary to replace Seth Magaziner as treasurer is finally starting to take shape, too. It’s a very different situation from the other general office that’s opening up — secretary of state, where Gregg Amore has established an early advantage — because no one has made an aggressive early effort to lock up support. “It’s wide open at this point,” says 12 News politics analyst Joe Fleming. So who might get in? Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor is increasingly likely to take the plunge, hoping voters credit him with the state’s recovery from the pandemic. Liz Beretta-Perik, a longtime party leader and fundraiser who was a finalist for lieutenant governor, could easily self-fund a campaign for treasurer — and Beretta-Perik told me she is “thinking about it seriously.” James Diossa, who was term-limited out of the mayor’s office in Central Falls and passed over for lieutenant governor, reports he is “very serious about a treasurer’s run in 2022.” Marvin Abney, a Newport lawmaker known for his steady leadership on House Finance, is intrigued by suggestions that he should jump in. “It’s nothing I drummed up,” Abney told me. “But I’ve had quite a few people, honestly, say over the last month or so, ‘Hey, how best can you continue to serve your state?'” Abney’s Senate counterpart, Cumberland’s Ryan Pearson, is keeping the door open, too. “Running for treasurer in 2022 is something that I am considering with a goal to make a decision by the end of the year,” Pearson said. Bob Walsh likes to say treasurer is one of the two hardest jobs in Rhode Island politics to move up from, the other being Providence mayor. Still, it can be a springboard: Magaziner is the third treasurer in a row to use it as a platform to run for governor, and rumor has it his predecessor achieved some degree of prominence.

2. Speaking of Seth Magaziner, no offense to the general treasurer, but the biggest development in the gubernatorial race this week was probably Jorge Elorza’s announcement that he won’t seek the office in 2022. Though Elorza insisted to my colleague Steph Machado he had a path to victory, the mayor’s poll numbers were said to be dismal, and few saw him as a credible threat for the nomination. Still, he has over $1 million in his campaign account — more than any potential candidate save Magaziner — and could have used it to damage his rivals even if he couldn’t actually beat them. Plus, the smaller the field, the closer a candidate has to get to 50.1% in order to actually win the race. So which of the other four Democrats — Dan McKee, Magaziner, Nellie Gorbea and Luis Daniel Muñoz — is best-positioned to build support beyond, say, 35% of the vote and get it closer to 50%? That’s a key question. True, you can never emphasize enough how early it is — the primary is still almost a year away. Will Matt Brown, Helena Foulkes or some hitherto-discussed candidate get in? Do all the current hopefuls actually stay in? Who’ll post the best numbers for the summer fundraising quarter? Can the governor’s team put the Tony Silva and ILO Group controversies behind them? What events that we aren’t even thinking about yet will change the landscape? As Joe Fleming put it to me Friday, “Six weeks ago the race looked totally different than it does today. And here’s the thing: six weeks from now it may look totally different again.”

3. Seth Magaziner has been expected to run for governor in 2022 since the day he was elected treasurer, so nobody in Rhode Island politics was surprised when he made it official Tuesday. Standing on the sidewalk next to a school under construction in Pawtucket, he offered a message heavily focused on growing the economy and tackling generational challenges — previewing a theme the 38-year-old treasurer is expected to emphasize as he takes on a 70-year-old incumbent. “I believe that the economic future of our state hangs in the balance in this election, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an economy that is bigger and stronger and fairer and more inclusive,” Magaziner said in his speech. Yet he immediately stepped on that message by refusing to take reporters’ questions, quickly hopping in a car (a car with Florida plates, as it happened) to get away — an odd decision that partly overshadowed his speech in subsequent news coverage. Magaziner did eventually take questions later in the day at an event in North Kingstown, and while his team would probably like a do-over on the Pawtucket kickoff, they shrug it off as something which will be quickly forgotten between now and next year’s primary. It’s a reminder, though, that a gubernatorial candidate is under a much harsher spotlight than a state treasurer. Meanwhile, Magaziner’s campaign hopes to demonstrate momentum by announcing an endorsement Monday from UNAP, the nurses’ union. He’s also hosting his annual fundraising BBQ on Sunday at The Lobster Pot in Bristol.

4. Nellie Gorbea is once again an underdog in a statewide race — not necessarily something that scares her team in light of her upset victory against Guillaume de Ramel in 2014. One number that will be closely watched is how much money Gorbea raised during the summer quarter, as she seeks to keep pace with both the incumbent governor and the well-funded treasurer. That responsibility is now in new hands: Gorbea’s spokesperson confirms her finance director, Sydney Frankel, left the campaign on Aug. 18 after about five months “to pursue other opportunities.” Frankel was replaced by Maddie LeBlanc, who had been the assistant finance director. Gorbea is scheduled to hold a Sept. 28 fundraiser at Narragansett Beer in Providence.

5. Gregg Amore’s kickoff for secretary of state on Wednesday served two purposes: officially launching his campaign, and demonstrating to would-be rivals that he’s got a head start in consolidating support among Democratic Party and union elites. In his speech, the EP history teacher and athletic director served the crowd a standard-issue Democratic paean to voting rights and fair elections. “We certainly live in unsettled times,” he said, “but I am ever optimistic that our politics can, as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘reflect the better angels of our nature.'” One interesting evolution illustrated by Amore is how Democrats have shifted on the issue of voter ID. When Nellie Gorbea and Guillaume de Ramel faced off in 2014, both expressed strong reservations about the state’s three-year-old voter ID law, an outlier policy for a blue state. Now, though, Amore says he is comfortable with the law, pointing out that puts him in line with Georgia’s Stacy Abrams among others. “I think that the voter ID narrative has shifted, even among Democrats,” Amore said on this week’s Newsmakers. “When you look at the polling, most Democrats — high 60% — believe there should be some form of ID. But what’s happened with the narrative is we’ve shifted from ‘no IDs’ … to ‘fair IDs.'”

6. The ongoing controversy over the $5 million state contract for the ILO Group is demonstrating just how much the relationship between the governor’s and House speaker’s offices has changed since Dan McKee and Joe Shekarchi replaced Gina Raimondo and Nick Mattiello. If Raimondo had been facing this much blowback over a seven-figure state contract, it’s likely Mattiello would have quickly called a House Oversight hearing – and impossible to imagine he’d have kept silent. But Shekarchi has avoided adding to McKee’s troubles, declining any substantive comment on the contract and so far showing no intention of having Oversight Chair Patricia Serpa call a hearing. “We are looking into it,” the speaker told me Wednesday, in a characteristically guarded response. “It’s possible.” That hesitation contrasts with how the House addressed last winter’s brouhaha over the $760,000 Alvarez & Marsal consulting contract at RIC, which led to an oversight hearing not long after Dan McGowan exposed it. McKee’s team has been relieved by Shekarchi’s decision not to pile on; the governor sent a three-page letter plus supporting documents Tuesday to both Assembly leaders to try and defuse calls for further scrutiny.

7. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio says it’s still possible state lawmakers could come back this fall to legalize recreational cannabis in Rhode Island. “We’re very close,” Ruggerio told Kim Kalunian on Friday’s edition of 12 News at 4. “We’re making progress. But we’re not there at this point in time.” Pressed on whether the marijuana issue is likely to be tabled until the regular session starts in January, Ruggerio said, “I don’t think so. As I said, I think they’re making progress. There’s a couple stumbling blocks that they’re addressing right now. And we’ll see how that shakes out.”

8. Drama in Woonsocket: the City Council has voted to censure Mayor Baldelli-Hunt.

9. Providence is getting an estimated $166 million in federal money under the American Rescue Plan Act, and city officials are now looking for feedback from residents about what they should prioritize doing with the money. To share your ideas you can fill out this five-minute online survey, or attend one of the upcoming meetings the city will be hosting.

10. It was a big week for Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, with the Town Council voting to grant Amazon a 20-year tax break for a 3.8 million-square-foot warehouse that will employ roughly 1,500 workers. Like the recently built Citizens Financial Group headquarters, it’s a legacy project for Polisena, who is set to leave office as mayor next year due to term limits. “This is big for the town, this is big for the state,” Polisena told Kim Kalunian on Thursday. “We have strong financial security for the next 20 years.” As for his own political future, Polisena ruled out a run for statewide office in 2022. “My son just had a baby, so I have a grandson. I’m planning to teach him how to fish, do a lot of fishing,” he said. “I’ve been asked to run for statewide offices, several of the general offices, but right now I’m not interested in that. … Never say never, but it’s probably going to be never. I’m going to enjoy myself and enjoy my grandson.”

11. Bloomberg’s Conor Sen on what Amazon could mean for places like Johnston: “Consider these burgeoning new places strung along the interstate and other highways leading away from urban cores, populated by warehouses and fulfillment centers that are being built to serve the needs of e-commerce customers. Let’s call them ‘factory towns.’ These are places where working-class jobs are being created in large numbers and where wages already are rising. They’re not much in the spotlight yet, but making these modern-day company towns more livable for the working class might be a better approach to solving inequality — with a higher likelihood of success — than continuing to fight against entrenched interests in coastal cities and high-cost parts of metro areas.”

12. Coming next week: Steph Machado interviews all five candidates for the closely watched Democratic primary in Senate District 3 on Providence’s East Side, as the Oct. 5 primary fast approaches.

13. The House speaker is going to tour the Block Island Wind Farm on Tuesday. But it won’t be Joe Shekarchi. His Massachusetts counterpart, Ron Mariano, is set to visit the site along with fellow lawmakers and environmental leaders as the Bay State continues its push to become a leader on offshore wind energy.

14. Voters in two Southeastern Massachusetts cities — Fall River and Attleboro — go to the polls Tuesday to whittle down the number of mayoral candidates challenging incumbents Paul Coogan and Paul Heroux. WPRI.com has new questionnaires with the Fall River candidates here and with the Attleboro candidates here.

15. The Good Five Cent Cigar, URI’s student newspaper and a training ground for many a Rhody journo, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a virtual celebration on Wednesday night. An in-person celebration is slated for Oct. 2 on the Alumni Center lawn.

16. If you felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of articles that came out tied to the anniversary of 9/11, allow me to recommend two that I found eye-opening. One was this look at the past, present and future of the War on Terror by the NYT’s Mark Landler; the other was this compelling literature review of the many, many books about 9/11 and its aftermath by The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada, who teases out the lessons he learned from reading them all.

17. Scott Gottlieb on what’s ahead as SARS-CoV-2 morphs from pandemic to endemic.

18. As I tweeted the other day, I can’t think of a noun big enough to describe George Wein’s influence on music history and Newport’s international identity. His few peers in the jazz world would include Norman Granz and George Avakian. Wein, who died this week, was also an accomplished pianist in his own right — look up his name on Spotify and you’ll find a number of his classic recordings, including some recorded live here in Rhode Island, like his 1966 set with Ruby Braff and company.

19. Is the NFL suffering from an empathy gap?

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Rep. Gregg Amore; the R.I. Association of Realtors’ Shannon Buss and David Salvatore. 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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