1. Remember COVID-19? The darkest days of the pandemic are now, thankfully, just a surreal memory. But the virus continues to circulate, so federal officials are encouraging Americans to get updated shots and a fresh supply of free test kits. “We still have hundreds of people dying every day, every week,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health and until recently the White House’s point person on COVID, during this week’s taping of Newsmakers. “Almost every one of those deaths is preventable.” Jha is urging everyone to get the latest vaccine, including those at lower risk who can help protect others from the virus by reducing transmission. But he’s most emphatic about the importance of the new shot for the elderly and other high-risk individuals. “For them, it is life and death,” he said. More broadly, Jha said it’s time to stop thinking about COVID as a unique emergency and start thinking about it as one of multiple respiratory viruses, along with the flu and RSV, that are going to present a serious challenge when they all hit at once. “They’re going to really strain our health care system,” he said. “They are going to cause significant problems with our health care system combined. So we need a strategy that looks at all the viruses together.”
2. Between his omnipresence on TV throughout the pandemic and his more recent role at the White House, Dr. Jha has been one of the country’s most influential voices on COVID-19. And as a public-health leader, he acknowledges some serious mistakes in retrospect when it comes to the early phase of the pandemic. For one thing, he said on Newsmakers, “I think we all in public health could have done a better job of communicating with more humility about what we knew and didn’t know. There was a desire by some people to act more certain than they were.” But he also thinks major damage was done by the decision to effectively impose a nationwide lockdown in the spring of 2020, which he blames in large part on a lack of visibility caused by the botched rollout of testing. “The virus was in big numbers here in Rhode Island, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C.,” he recalled. “There was almost none in Mississippi, almost none in Montana. And because we did not know that, we had to do a nationwide lockdown. And people in Mississippi rightly said, ‘Wait, you’re doing all these public health measures — our hospitals are empty, I don’t know anybody who’s got COVID, no one’s getting sick, this makes no sense.’ And that very blunt response actually I think was the basis for a lot of people losing faith in the public-health response.”
3. Gabe Amo must still see off GOP nominee Gerry Leonard on Nov. 7 to become Rhode Island’s next congressman. But that hasn’t stopped insiders from speculating about the potential domino effects if Amo holds the 1st District seat for the Democrats. Why? Jack Reed is 73 and Sheldon Whitehouse is 67. We know Whitehouse is running for re-election in 2024, and Reed is still expected to do the same in 2026. After that, though, the outlook gets cloudier. Let’s presume they run and win those two upcoming races. Would Whitehouse seek another term in 2030, when he’s 75? Would Reed do so in 2032, when he’d be nearly 83? I’m no Nate Silver, but clearly the odds of an open U.S. Senate seat in Rhode Island will be a good bit higher by 2030. And since U.S. House members are often well-positioned to seek a promotion to the Senate, that could put Amo and Seth Magaziner on a collision course. Actually, make that two collision courses, since it also looks like one of the two U.S. House seats will disappear in 2032, leaving just a single at-large seat. There are other options, too. Would Magaziner consider returning to Rhode Island and making another bid for governor? If a Senate seat opens up soon enough, would David Cicilline jump back into electoral politics to seek a job he’s long coveted? Yes, yes, all this is highly speculative. Heck, we started 2021 expecting Cicilline and Jim Langevin might soon square off for an at-large House seat; barely two years later, neither one was even in Congress anymore. But in a state where no Democratic incumbent has lost re-election to a major office since 1994, you can’t blame people for looking down the road.
4. Meantime, we’re still learning new details about all the players who tried to affect the outcome of the 1st District Democratic primary. A new FEC filing this week shows AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, donated $200,000 to an independent-expenditure group associated with EMILYs List on Aug. 10, just in time to help fund a huge TV buy for Sabina Matos. The massive but futile outside spending for Matos in the final weeks of the campaign helped push total broadcast and cable TV spending in the 1st District race to over $2 million, though one media buyer estimated only about $250,000 of that total backed Gabe Amo directly.
5. The indictment Friday of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, was about as headline-grabbing as they come, with prosecutors sharing photos of gold bars he allegedly accepted as bribes. The news clearly caused heartburn for other Senate Democrats, who spent most of Friday ignoring requests for comment from reporters. Late in the day, however, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse both sent me statements expressing their views on the situation. So far neither senator is joining members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation in calling on Menendez to resign. But Reed spokesperson Chip Unruh said: “Senator Reed believes these are serious charges. Senator Menendez has voluntarily agreed to step away from his leadership assignments. Senator Reed feels that is appropriate. Nobody is above the law. Senator Menendez and his wife deserve a fair trial. Senator Reed has consistently maintained that cases like this must proceed without political interference.” Senator Whitehouse sent a much shorter statement in his own voice, saying simply: “As a former prosecutor I respect the judicial process and expect it to produce a just result.” As of 11 p.m. Friday, neither of their Massachusetts colleagues — Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey — had sent a statement on the matter.
6. If Senator Menendez resigns, one beneficiary would be Senator Whitehouse, at least in a small way. Menendez was appointed to the Senate in 2006, the year before Whitehouse was sworn in, so removing Menendez from the caucus would bump Whitehouse up a spot in seniority. (Whitehouse currently ranks 24th out of 100; Jack Reed ranks seventh.)
7. Speaking of Senator Reed, on Wednesday he held his 22nd annual Rhode Island Business Leaders Day, an all-day event where he brings local professionals to Capitol Hill so they can hear from influential people such as, in past years, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Jay Powell. This year’s speakers included a familiar face for the attendees, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, as well as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and OMB Director Shalanda Young. Senators on hand included New Jersey’s Cory Booker, South Dakota’s Mike Rounds, Indiana’s Todd Young and Montana’s Jon Tester. And to keep the Rhode Island quotient high, Reed invited Georgetown University’s Evan Medeiros, an expert on Asia who graduated from Classical High in 1989.
8. Tim Babineau is long gone as Lifespan’s president and CEO, but we’re still in the process of finding out just how much money he got paid by Rhode Island’s top hospital group. IRS filings newly obtained by Target 12 show Babineau took home over $3.1 million in 2021, which was actually down from 2020 because he got a much smaller bonus. The verdict from Lynn Blais, president of nurses union UNAP: “Absolutely obscene.” AG Neronha, weighing in on Twitter, echoed her sentiments: “Speaking broadly, there are too many nonprofits that compensate top management at a rate well beyond what’s reasonable. Running a nonprofit ought to be a form of public service. You shouldn’t get paid as if you’re running US Steel. Need to ponder this.”
9. And speaking of health care, the Rhode Island Medical Society will hold its 211th annual Convivium meeting and awards dinner on Thursday at the Squantum Association in East Providence. (You read that number right: the organization dates its founding all the way back in 1812.) This year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Jack Resneck Jr., a Brown graduate who just wrapped up a stint as president of the American Medical Society. “Being a part of organized medicine is more important now than ever,” Resneck said in a statement. “We each know firsthand how physicians have put everything into our nation’s response to COVID-19. Now it’s time the nation renews its commitment to physicians and to shoring up our health system.” As for how that should be accomplished, Resneck said the AMA advocates “reforming Medicare payments to physicians, improving telehealth, and reducing stigma around mental health care and burnout.”
10. The Iraq war unfolded at a formative time in my life, so I’m always interested in new articles about the country’s situation two decades after the U.S. invasion. Recommended reading: Alissa J. Rubin’s NYT profile of new Iraqi PM Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
11. People on the move: local political strategist Patrick Sweeney has signed on as vice president for political and public affairs at Content Creative Media, an Ohio-based GOP advertising firm founded by Nick Everhart. The firm did last year’s TV ads for gubernatorial candidate Ashley Kalus, a Sweeney client.
12. Public’s Radio reporters Nadine Sebai and Nina Sparling are getting plenty of well-deserved attention for “Underage and Unprotected,” their newly released two-year investigation into New Bedford’s fish houses.
13. My pal and colleague Eli Sherman continues to scratch his itch for old-fashioned print reporting by contributing articles to Rhode Island Monthly. Don’t miss his latest piece in the magazine, on the owner of the Preserve Sporting Club and Residences in Richmond.
14. Thursday night’s annual R.I. Radio & TV Hall of Fame dinner was particularly special for all of us at WPRI 12 since this year’s honorees included the late Jack White, who was inducted posthumously. As I’m sure most Nesi’s Notes readers know, White won a Pulitzer at The Providence Journal for exposing Richard Nixon as a tax cheat, then later had an Emmy-winning career here at WPRI as our chief investigative reporter. He’s also, of course, the father of our own Tim White, who succeeded Jack after his death in 2005. Our chief videographer Johnny Villella and I were honored to be asked to put together the Hall of Fame’s tribute video recapping Jack’s storied career, and I hope you’ll take three minutes to watch it here. While you’re there make sure to scroll down the same page so you can watch Tim’s memorable speech on his father’s behalf, which had the audience on its feet.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Brown’s Dr. Ashish Jha; Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island CEO Adam Greenman. Watch 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.