Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 5

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 Islanders go to the polls Tuesday for the state primary, and nobody is going to mistake it for the high-octane affair that just concluded in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, voters seem to be engaged despite a dearth of high-profile races. The secretary of state’s office reports Rhode Islanders had requested over 48,000 mail ballots as of Thursday evening, with more than 25,000 already returned. Those are solid numbers, especially when you consider 11 municipalities have no primary elections at all in at least some precincts, not to mention the fact voter turnout was under 70,000 in the 2016 and 2008 primaries. It may be another sign of the general uptick in voter participation that’s been observed throughout the Trump era; turnout in the 2018 midterm election was the highest nationwide in a century. What will that mean for incumbents and challengers? “With all the mail ballots, there’s a lot more uncertainty with the election,” 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming told me Friday. “In the districts where there are races, there are a lot of mail ballots.” And if you’re a Rhode Island political junkie pining for more action, take heart: 2022 is going to have so many big races that Tim White and I are already working on the debate schedule.

2. The most closely watched primary on Tuesday is in Cranston, where voters are set to choose the Republican and Democratic nominees for mayor of the state’s No. 2 city. The GOP primary has become a bit of a proxy battle between two Cranston titans: term-limited mayor Allan Fung is backing Councilor Ken Hopkins, while Speaker Mattiello is widely seen as supporting Council President Mike Farina. (Yes, Mattiello is a Democrat and Farina is now a Republican — but hey, that’s Rhode Island politics for you.) Steph Machado interviewed Hopkins and Farina to file this piece getting you up to speed on the GOP race. On the Democratic side, City Councilor Steve Stycos is facing former City Councilor Maria Bucci (as well as Adam Carbone, the fellow who dressed up as a hot dog for a recent debate). Bucci has a huge financial advantage, but Stycos has a solid base as the top vote-getter in the 2018 city election. Eli Sherman interviewed Stycos and Bucci for this story examining the Democratic race. The stakes are high for the Rhode Island Republican Party: the GOP has controlled Cranston City Hall for all but six years since 1963, making it one of the party’s few remaining strongholds.

3. There will also be lots to watch in the primaries for General Assembly. House contests I’m watching: Cranston Rep. Chris Millea, facing a challenge from Brandon Potter … Providence Rep. Moira Walsh, who got an energetic opponent in Nathan Biah … House District 12, where Joe Almeida’s would-be successor Carlos Cedeno refused Steph Machado’s interview request, unlike rival Jose Batista … Pawtucket Rep. Raymond Johnston, whose rival Leonela Felix has a lot of fans … West Warwick Rep. Pat Serpa, who once again faces Nicholas Delmenico … and House District 71, where conservative Democrat Dennis Canario’s retirement created an open-seat race between highly touted progressive Michelle McGaw and well-connected Tiverton Town Councilor John Edwards V. Senate races I’m watching: the leadership proxy war against Providence Sen. Sam Bell mounted by City Council Majority Jo-Ann Ryan … the Democratic free-for-all in Warwick to succeed Erin Lynch Prata, where four candidates are vying for the nomination … and Senate District 18, where incumbent Billy Conley has angered Townies for trying to redevelop the Metacomet Golf Club, but challenger Cynthia Mendes will need to also cut into his margins in Pawtucket. Georgia Hollister Isman of the left-leaning Working Families Party, who is working on multiple races, offered this assessment: “Lots of things are different about this election cycle and it’s hard to predict, but I do think we’ll continue to see a continued shift, and in some places where we haven’t seen it before, to progressive champions.” Remember this, too: it’s not just about who wins — a close race that puts a scare into an incumbent can also affect what legislation advances on Smith Hill next year.

4. One of the reasons for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s durable popularity in Rhode Island is his methodically cautious approach to politics back home. While some senators are happy to flex their muscles in other races up and down the ballot, Reed generally tries to keep his distance from intraparty conflicts. One way he manages that is by having a fairly rigid policy on endorsements: he backs the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidates. Thus it was no surprise to see Reed appearing in campaign mailers backing Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (his old LaSalle football teammate, as it happens) or Sen. Steve Archambault. What was more surprising was his support for Warwick Sen. Mark McKenney, who is facing a rematch against former Sen. Jeanine Calkin, the progressive he defeated two years ago and who has the local party endorsement. Asked for an explanation, Reed campaign manager Erin Arcand said, “On this one, the incumbent worked with Jack Reed for years and requested an endorsement. The other candidate didn’t. But whoever comes out of the primary will have Senator Reed’s support in the general.”

5. Speaking of Jack Reed, he just went up with his re-election campaign’s first ad, a 30-second digital spot he narrates himself. “As a kid growing up in Rhode Island, I dreamed of being a soldier, or an architect — in a way, I got to do both,” he says. While the senator is rated as a lock to win a fifth six-year term, advisers say he’s always insisted on running a real re-election campaign no matter how safe he looks on paper.

6. The Massachusetts primary finally came to an end around 1:30 a.m. Friday, when the AP called the 4th Congressional District race for Democrat Jake Auchincloss. The 32-year-old Newton city councilor and Marine Corps veteran squeaked ahead of rival Jesse Mermell by barely a percentage point, winning the primary with 22% of the vote, thanks in no small part to his strength across Bristol County. Auchincloss is now a heavy favorite to succeed Joe Kennedy in the U.S. House, to the frustration of progressive activists who wanted a more left-wing nominee. But Auchincloss, perhaps already looking to stave off a 2022 primary challenge, pushed back at that while speaking to reporters on Friday. “Over the course of this race there emerged a narrative that cast me as a centrist and the rest of the field as the progressives, and it’s time to put that narrative to bed,” he said. “I’m a pragmatic progressive.” Some took Mermell’s loss particularly hard. “Ladies, You can do everything right your entire life, activism, engagement, support & be supported by the right causes, work harder, sacrifice, want it so much more… and a man will wake up one day, pretend to be a Democrat, and take the ball right from your hands,” tweeted Chandra Bork, chief of staff to State Treasurer Deb Goldberg (herself a potential 4th District candidate last year).

7. If you only read two stories about what went wrong for Joe Kennedy in the U.S. Senate primary, make it this analysis by Peter Canellos and this postmortem by Stephanie Murray. A silver lining for Kennedy: if he runs again sometime down the line, he’ll start with a strong base in Bristol County.

8. Even as tensions arise over how to handle the start of school, Rhode Island’s coronavirus statistics are actually looking fairly positive. As Eli Sherman’s WPRI.com data page shows, after a spike following the move into Phase 3, cases and hospitalizations have not only plateaued but fallen slightly. The seven-day average for new cases was 67 as of Thursday, the lowest level since July 18, and hospitalizations are now lower than they were throughout August. That’s the backdrop for the increasingly aggressive rhetoric Governor Raimondo is using against school districts that are resisting in-person learning, a stance than won her plaudits this week from the Wall Street Journal editorial board (an endorsement that won’t exactly win win over the teachers unions). Meanwhile, the House GOP caucus rolled out two policy proposals to address the pandemic’s K-12 effects: create state-funded Education Savings Accounts to help students in districts without in-person learning, and let parents choose other schools for their children if their own districts are virtual-only.

9. Two quick hits on Congressman Cicilline … he headlined a Joe Biden fundraiser on Monday along with Cher (yes, Cher) aimed at the LGBTQ+ community, which reportedly raised nearly $2 million … and he’s throwing his hat in the ring for House Democrats’ No. 4 position, assistant House speaker.

10. With the whole country discussing and debating the way police departments use force, Tim White and Eli Sherman took a data-driven approach this week in their latest Target 12 report. After compiling and analyzing reports for more than two months, Tim and Eli found Rhode Island police used force at least 8,635 times from 2015 through 2019, and on review the decision was deemed to be justified 8,631 times. Among those who quickly reacted was state Sen. Harold Metts, who is currently leading a commission examining potential changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. “This is a both powerful and disturbing revelation,” Metts said in an email. “I believe it is further evidence that we need body cameras for police. We also need to ensure that all sides of the story, including statements from individuals alleging the abuse, are part of the proceedings at the beginning of the process, not the end. I agree with [attorney Dawn] Huntley on this point. This is an issue the commission could consider.”

11. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a primer on the Rhode Island primary and a look at how the Massachusetts primary played out. 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

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

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