Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 26

Ted Nesi
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ELECTION 2020 //
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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. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have typically had little to worry about when it comes to their re-election races. Reed hit 70% of the vote in 2014, a tough year for Democrats nationwide, and Whitehouse has topped 60% both times he sought a new term. On Capitol Hill they are generally reliable party men, holding positions broadly in line with the national Democratic Party agenda, and both show some skill at playing the inside game in the clubby Senate. Yet the looming confirmation fight over President Trump’s Supreme Court pick is demonstrating how their approach to the job of senator can be an uneasy fit in a party with an increasingly energized left wing. Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg has been publicizing a second rally in barely a week to again pressure them to use procedural maneuvers to shut down the Senate rather than allow a vote on Trump’s pick — a demand Whitehouse dismissed on this week’s Newsmakers as a desire for “a triple secret procedural strategy.” (Regunberg counters by noting a former top aide to Harry Reid agrees with him.) This isn’t the first time progressives have been dismayed by Whitehouse and Reed: they faced blowback during Trump’s initial days in office for voting to confirm some of his nominees, and they don’t always vote in lockstep with their liberal Massachusetts counterparts Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. So far, though, there’s been no serious appetite to challenge them — Lincoln Chafee quickly dropped the idea of primarying Whitehouse in 2018, and this year Reed avoided a primary challenge altogether. Nor does being a straight white male senior citizen make it impossible for a veteran Democrat to get into the left’s good graces: just look at Markey, who has reinvented himself as an AOC ally despite a more moderate four-decade record in Congress.

2. Back home in Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse is often in the shadow of Jack Reed, who’s been in the Senate a decade longer and whose name always comes first on announcements about new federal funding awards. (Reed’s post on the Appropriations Committee helps with that.) But Whitehouse will be the Rhode Island senator with the higher profile in the upcoming confirmation fight, as I lay out in this deep dive on his prominent role in the battle over America’s courts.

3. The word out of Washington on Friday night is that President Trump plans to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a former Antonin Scalia clerk who is a favorite of conservatives. Barrett shot to instant fame during her lower-court confirmation hearing in 2017, when the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, told her “the dogma lives loudly within you” — a reference to Barrett’s status as a devout Catholic. Republicans are hoping Democrats will again make comments to Barrett that suggest they oppose the elevation of any judges who hold orthodox religious beliefs. When I interviewed Senator Whitehouse earlier this week, he tacitly acknowledged Feinstein took the wrong approach. “We talk about this on the committee from time to time when this question comes up — on the record, not just in private discussions,” Whitehouse said. “The position I’ve taken — which I think is the right one — is what I call the ‘robing room rule.’ And that is, if you can leave your religious views in the robing room, then there’s no business of anybody’s whether you’re Catholic, or Jewish, or Protestant, or fundamentalist, or Muslim — or theosophist, who knows? Whatever it is, that’s nobody’s business but your own, as long as you leave it nobody’s business but your own. But once you put on that robe and step up onto the bench, you’ve now stepped into the role of being the agent of the law in our country, and you have a sworn duty to follow the law and to provide impartial justice under the law. And if you’re doing something different than that because of some religious view that you have, whatever it may be — it has nothing to do with this being Catholic; any religious view — then you are basically besmirching the office that you hold and violating your oath to dispense impartial justice.”

4. SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe gets you up to speed on Amy Coney Barrett here.

5. Senator Whitehouse’s 2018 opponent, Robert Flanders, has a unique perspective on the Supreme Court controversy as not only a former GOP Senate nominee but also a former member of Rhode Island’s highest court. Like many on the right, he remains aghast at the way Whitehouse treated Justice Kavanaugh during the latter’s confirmation hearings, notably drilling the judge about his high school yearbook. (Whitehouse counters that it was necessary because Kavanaugh had been accused of sexual assault dating back to that time in his life.) As for Republicans’ push to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat so close to the election after refusing to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016, Flanders has no problem with it. “Judges are not conceived in an immaculate setting. It’s quite a political act,” Flanders told me. “There’s no judicial review of a decision to deny or confirm a judge.” Like others in his party, he points to the fact that Democrats held the White House while Republicans held the Senate in 2016, whereas this year both are in GOP hands. “That’s what the constitution allows,” he said. “It’s perfectly constitutional to do this, and has been since day one.”

6. Speaker Mattiello and two of his closest advisers have been formally subpoenaed to testify in next month’s trial of Jeff Britt, his former campaign staffer, and the timing could hardly be worse politically. Mattiello’s team was initially confident he would have no problem dispatching GOP challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, but the results of the Sept. 8 primary has made them more nervous — due to both the strength of her husband’s anointed successor, Ken Hopkins, against Mattiello pal Mike Farina in Cranston’s GOP mayoral primary and the lopsided defeats of various legislative incumbents. As Tim White explained on this week’s Newsmakers, however, the subpoena does not mean Mattiello will definitely testify. “It depends what the prosecutors present, and then the defense will decide what they want to do,” he said. Tim reports Britt will have a bench trial, not a jury trial, so a judge will ultimately decide Britt’s fate. The trial is expected to last a week, starting Oct. 5. And unlike many of Rhode Island’s recent public corruption cases, this is happening in state court rather than federal court — which means TV cameras will be capturing the proceedings for viewers at home to see. All that makes the coming weeks unusually perilous for Mattiello, who this week distributed a mailer touting his support from Governor Raimondo — a move that would have been unthinkable in his Cranston district before the pandemic bolstered her political standing. Mark your calendars: Mattiello and Fenton-Fung have both accepted our invitation to to debate Oct. 23 on Newsmakers. (To Mattiello’s credit, he also agreed to our debates when he faced competitive challenges in 2016 and 2018, as did Gordon Fox back in 2012.)

7. And speaking of the judicial system, Tim White visited federal court in Providence to see how they are resuming jury trials amid a pandemic.

8. AG Neronha tells my colleague Chelsea Jones that if the Breonna Taylor case had happened in Rhode Island he couldn’t share the evidence gathered by the grand jury — another reason he plans to keep pushing the legislature to enact his grand-jury report bill.

9. Governor Raimondo kicked off her new weekly interview segment on WPRI 12’s recently launched 4 p.m. newscast this week, touching on a variety of topics with Kim Kalunian including the still-pending state budget. With decisions on the tax-and-spending plan now punted past the November election, Kim asked Raimondo if she plans to submit a revised budget for the legislature to consider that accounts for the radically altered circumstances caused by the pandemic. “Probably not,” Raimondo said. “First of all, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Hopefully Congress between now and November will go ahead and pass another stimulus, in which case that would allow us to have a much easier time in November balancing the budget. So that’s one big unknown. Otherwise, we’ll just have to get together when the Assembly comes back in November and work together collaboratively to try to balance a budget and minimize the pain.” One item she will fight to keep in the final page: her Rhode Island Promise free tuition program. “We can’t just cut, because we have to continue to invest for the future,” Raimondo said.

10. Here’s a dispatch from Providence City Hall by Target 12’s Steph Machado: “Mayor Elorza’s announcement Thursday that an outside group would do an independent audit of the public safety department in order to determine if funds should be reallocated was met with some raised eyebrows after we reported the audit was being paid for by an undisclosed donor. PFM, the company tapped to do the audit, said a private organization donated the roughly $150,000 to pay for it but has asked to remain anonymous. Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion argues government bodies should be footing the bill for public priorities. ‘There’s a reason that public procurement is transparent, so that no vendor receives political favor,’ Marion said. ‘If you’re looking for unbiased opinion, knowing who the funder is is critical because the funder may want to put their thumb on the scale.’ The audit’s eventual recommendations — which, according to a document outlining the scope, could range from union contract changes to budget adjustments to shifting certain duties to civilians — are likely to garner strong reactions among those advocating for and against defunding the police. Elorza’s press secretary Patricia Socarras said those recommendations ‘will be carefully considered before they are implemented, in the same way they were thoroughly vetted after the last engagement with the city and PFM.’ Any changes to the police budget would need to be approved by the City Council; Council President Sabina Matos said Friday, ‘While I am concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the funding source for this review, I look forward to learning what the audit concludes.'”

11. Sam Bell for mayor? The Providence state senator — who won an easy victory against a leadership-backed challenger in this month’s Democratic primary — isn’t ruling it out when Mayor Elorza hits his term limit in 2022. “We need a strong progressive candidate for mayor,” Bell told me in an email. “It is my sincere wish that I will not have to be that candidate. Running for mayor sounds truly miserable. I hate nothing more than getting on the phone and begging for campaign money, and mayoral campaigns are expensive. However, I cannot sit by and watch our city fall into truly dangerous hands. Although the horrifying prospect of a dangerous conservative becoming mayor may seem remote, we must take these risks seriously.” (As you might expect, Bell is strongly opposed to the all-but-certain candidacy of Brett Smiley.) “For now,” Bell added, “my focus remains on electing a real Democrat as Senate president and slowing down the damage that the right-wing machine that runs the General Assembly is doing to our state.”

12. Here’s a dispatch from Pawtucket City Hall by Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “The highly anticipated, multimillion-dollar development known as Tidewater Landing made some significant announcements this week, including a new path forward that excludes the ever-elusive Apex site. As a result, the proposed project anchored by a professional soccer stadium would be built on two sites instead of three, and developer Brett Johnson expects it could cost $300 million instead of $400 million. The project still has a series of regulatory hurdles to clear before shovels hit the ground: environmental clean-up, finalizing a lease with National Grid Rhode Island, and putting ink to paper with both the city and the state on land deals and a master plan for development. But Mayor Grebien is still bullish development could start by spring. And while Apex isn’t part of the plan right now, Grebien tells my colleague Walt Buteau not to write off the property’s future yet, saying he thinks the city could acquire it by the end of the year.”

13. Former Speaker Gordon Fox is slowly raising his profile after completing his sentence for bribery and tax fraud, with a new position working on real estate for Crossroads RI, the nonprofit agency that serves the homeless. While the appointment raised eyebrows in some quarters, others praised the decision. “I applaud @CrossroadsRI for giving Gordon an opportunity to work and help others,” former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras tweeted Thursday. “Gordon committed a very serious crime and violation of public trust. He also admitted his guilt, served his prison sentence and probation. He should have the opportunity to earn a living.”

14. An eagle-eyed colleague spotted something curious in The Providence Journal last weekend: a real estate transaction that showed R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley and R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti had just sold a parcel on Douglas Avenue in Providence for $31,368 to an outfit called C&S Realty LLC. Do Smiley and Alviti have a side hustle going? Nope — Smiley tells me the transaction was for state land and had the sign-off of both their departments, leading to their names appearing on the listing.

15. Is Providence finally going to get its own Trader Joe’s? The company isn’t saying whether it’s the mystery supermarket planned for Parcel 6 of the old 195 land, but both Dave’s Marketplace and Market Basket confirmed to Steph Machado they’re not the prospective tenant.

16. Could Albert Einstein get published today?

17. Just what we need to improve 2020 — an early, and rough, Dave Brubeck “Take Five” take.

18. Fellow dudes: be like Marty Ginsburg.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSenator Whitehouse. 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

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