1. Few positions in Rhode Island are more powerful than the post of CEO at Lifespan, the state’s biggest hospital group. The two men who held the job for the last quarter-century, Tim Babineau and George Vecchione, knew how to throw their weight around, publicly and privately. But Lifespan’s new CEO — John Fernandez, lured to Providence from Mass General Brigham — appears to be a much more low-key personality, at least judging by his first appearance on Newsmakers this week. He’s ready to negotiate with Mayor Smiley on PILOT payments, saying they’re nothing new to someone who worked in Boston. He’s not interested in an empire-building merger with Care New England, nor with battling the No. 2 group’s CEO. He’s not even wedded to keeping the name “Lifespan.” (Some in the organization have suggested a rebrand to incorporate “Brown” into the system’s identity.) “I’m open to it,” Fernandez said repeatedly as we presented him with hypotheticals. The new CEO’s biggest challenges appear to be the ongoing staffing shortage, particularly when it comes to nurses, and the overall financial health of the system. Lifespan currently has about $1.2 billion in deferred capital needs following a decade where the system barely broke even, but it’s going to be a challenge to improve its profitability enough to direct more money to maintenance. “We need to be making a 3% to 5% margin so we can invest in the programs and the facilities,” Fernandez said. “The facilities — you don’t need an engineering degree to walk around them and go, ‘Yeah, we need some help here.'”
2. Rhode Island has a special election for Congress coming up, but you might miss it if you’re not paying close attention. With Democratic nominee Gabe Amo heavily favored over Republican Gerry Leonard in the deep-blue 1st District, and no polling to suggest otherwise, many are treating the outcome on Nov. 7 as a fait accompli. Amo’s team is tearing a page out of the typical frontrunner’s playbook, engaging with his opponent as little as possible to deny him oxygen. Case in point: after accepting our invitation to debate Leonard on a special commercial-free taping of Newsmakers, Amo has declined to add more to his schedule. Leonard is calling for 12 debates, and on Friday he accused Amo of “following the same old partisan playbook, spending more time taking photo ops in D.C. than presenting a vision for our community.” Meantime, Amo has been gathering checks ahead of today’s fundraising deadline in order to replenish his presumably depleted coffers following the Sept. 7 primary. That included, per an invitation, a D.C. fundraiser Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill hosted by Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, Seth Magaziner and Patrick Kennedy at the National Democratic Club. (“Donations welcome but not required,” it said.)
3. Speaking of Gabe Amo, his campaign manager Lauren Garrett was spotlighted this week by CQ Roll Call in its “At the Races” newsletter. In addition to sharing a memorable moment from the recent primary campaign, Garrett paraphrased Alabama football coach Nick Saban, saying, “you don’t let your opponent determine how hard you work.”
4. These are high-pressure days for local members of Congress. First and foremost there is the looming threat of a government shutdown, which looked like an inevitability as this column went to press Friday night. There’s also been the fallout from the bribery indictment of New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, with Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse among the dwindling number of Democrats who have declined to say he should resign. (“I don’t think there’s anything happy about his situation,” Whitehouse grumbled to The Messenger after Menendez delivered a defiant closed-door speech to their caucus on Thursday.) And on Friday morning came the surprise news that legendary California Democrat Dianne Feinstein had died; despite her widely discussed frailty, she’d been casting votes in the Senate just 24 hours earlier. Reed, who entered the Senate only four years after Feinstein, called her “a trailblazer and a stalwart” of the chamber. Whitehouse delivered a moving tribute to her “bravery” on the Senate floor, recalling her yearslong battle with first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama to expose the CIA’s record on torture. “I was kind of Robin to her Batman in that effort,” Whitehouse quipped, describing her famous 2014 speech on the matter as “one of the moments that I’m proudest of in the time that I’ve been here in the Senate.” More prosaically, Feinstein’s passing also means both men will now climb further in Senate seniority; Reed will now rank sixth overall (and fourth among Democrats), while Whitehouse will rank 23rd.
5. Here’s a dispatch from Target 12 managing editor Tim White: “Speaking of Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, the two senators have been interviewing candidates to replace U.S. District Judge William Smith in recent weeks. Smith informed President Biden in June he would be seeking senior status after the next presidential election but before inauguration, opening a rare vacancy on the federal bench in Providence. Reed and Whitehouse will make a recommendation to Biden for Smith’s replacement, and traditionally the president nominates the senators’ choice. But whoever they pick, the death of Senator Feinstein may slow this process down. Feinstein was a longtime senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (as is Whitehouse), which handles judicial nominations. When Feinstein fell ill earlier this year, Democrats sought to put a temporary replacement on the committee, but Republicans balked. The upshot: fewer federal judges were approved. Committee assignments require the approval of the full Senate, so Republicans could try and slow down her replacement once again. A spokesperson for Reed declined to say when he and Whitehouse would be announcing their choice for the judgeship, but they now may feel less pressure to make a decision anytime soon.”
6. Rhode Island’s state government ran a $410 million surplus during the fiscal year that ended June 30, but top lawmakers are concerned about current trends on revenue and spending.
7. One of the items in the new state budget that got the most attention was Speaker Shekarchi’s successful push to create a Rhode Island Life Sciences Hub, seeded with $45 million in federal relief money, that is supposed to help jump-start the industry. Three months after Governor McKee signed the budget, however, there’s been little news on the initiative. What gives? “Speaker Shekarchi has recently spoken with Governor McKee and expressed his desire to get the Rhode Island Life Sciences Hub off the ground as soon as possible,” House spokesperson Larry Berman reports. “According to the budget enacted in June, the governor is required to appoint seven members of the board of directors, including the chair. Speaker Shekarchi believes this Life Sciences Hub will be a major contributor toward the state’s economic development progress.” The governor’s team says he is working on it. “Growing Rhode Island’s life sciences sector is a top priority for both the McKee administration and the General Assembly,” McKee spokesperson Olivia DaRocha told me. “We are actively working on vetting qualified candidates to serve on this board and would note that the chair must receive the advice and consent of the Senate which cannot occur until the General Assembly comes back in session in January.”
8. Steph Machado’s debut as a contributor to Rhode Island PBS Weekly put a spotlight on an important topic: the state’s ongoing failure to meet demand for the federally mandated Early Intervention program that provides services for at-risk children. During a follow-up podcast, Steph revealed that the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services not only refused to allow a senior official to answer her questions on camera — they wouldn’t even grant her an off-camera interview for the Globe’s accompanying print story. On Friday I asked EOHHS’s $130,000-a-year spokesperson why the multibillion-dollar agency would duck interviews on such an important topic. But — quelle surprise! — I got no response.
9. Credit-union fraudster Joe Mollicone still owes Rhode Island over $12 million.
10. Washington Trust suffered a serious reputational hit this week when U.S. Attorney Zach Cunha announced the bank would pay $9 million to settle allegations of “redlining.” While CEO Ned Handy denied any wrongdoing, the headlines alone are a black mark for a lender which has been trying to expand around the state. The case is also having political fallout: Treasurer Diossa says he’s reviewing whether the state should continue banking with WashTrust, and the General Assembly’s Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus issued a statement saying its members “will explore if potential legislative action on the state level could help prevent redlining and better ensure that the state’s minority residents are not discriminated against.”
11. How heated are the fights over shoreline access in Rhode Island these days? The Public’s Radio is leaving its bureau in Westerly’s United Theatre because its coverage of the issue has apparently upset some members of the arts venue’s board. The NPR affiliate’s news director, Sally Eisele, confirmed its leaders are looking for a new home but emphasized they won’t shut down the South County bureau. “For now, the bureau at the United Theatre remains open, and our reporting on shoreline access and other issues of importance to the community will continue uninterrupted, regardless of where the actual bureau is eventually located,” Eisele told me.
12. News that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is planning to run for president as an independent comes as local RFK backers are starting to get organized in Rhode Island. Newport’s Kyle Hence, a founding member of the Kennedy campaign’s Grassroots Finance Committee, plans to hold an open house this afternoon to bring together other supporters (and potential supporters). “I’ve never met a man with more moral courage, intelligence and charisma that RFK Jr.,” Hence said in a statement. “It’s time [to] heal the divide in our country and bring the truth to light.”
13. From the family of Evan Gershkovich, who is still languishing in a Russian prison: “It is difficult to believe that it has been six months since Evan was wrongfully imprisoned and almost a year since we were all together as a family. It’s hard not to think about everything he is missing: close friends’ weddings, holidays with family, his 32nd birthday, and the job he loves. We miss him terribly and today is another reminder that every day is a day too long without his freedom.”
14. As someone who has made his career in traditional news outlets, I’ve watched with interest and admiration as a growing number of people get started in local media careers by creating their own online outlets. Bill Bartholomew comes right to mind, of course, parlaying buzz from his independent podcast into a gig with WPRO. Others include Ray Baccari Jr., the RIC student who keeps close tabs on the political scene, and Ryan Lukowicz, a North Kingstown High School senior who joined Baccari in moderating a recent congressional candidate forum. Another is Nolan Carr, a recent URI graduate who has hosted a parade of locals on a podcast series called “Nolan Carr at Night” — including this week’s guest, our own Kim Kalunian, who chatted with Carr in a fun conversation about her life and career. Fellow broadcast-history buffs will notice right away that Carr is using a screen grab of the Johnny Carson-era “Tonight Show” curtain as his Zoom background, a fun touch.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — Lifespan CEO John Fernandez. 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.