Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 19

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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. Ever since he descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his presidential run more than two years ago, Donald Trump has dominated American politics. There’s no sign that will be changing anytime soon – and that has implications for Rhode Island politics, too, as the 2018 campaign approaches. This week was a good example. Trump’s incendiary comments about the Charlottesville protestors led to instant condemnation from every high-ranking Democrat in Rhode Island, uniting the often-fractured local party. Even Speaker Mattiello, who represents a conservative district and has had the most open mind about Trump, took to Twitter to indirectly accuse him of “an implied acceptance of this intolerable behavior.” Among Republicans, the reactions of the three leading candidates for governor suggested how they plan to handle the Trump factor moving forward. Joe Trillo, who at this point is synonymous with Trump in Rhode Island, offered an immediate defense of the president that will endear him to those who think Trump is being criticized unfairly. Patricia Morgan found a middle ground – strongly condemning racism and suggesting Trump should “pick his words more carefully,” but defending him against accusations of racism. And Allan Fung ignored Trump altogether, decrying bigotry while also urging “those of us in the minority community to work harder, and by our consistent actions over months and years, truly change stereotypes.” Of course, what happened in Charlottesville raises far more profound questions than who it helps or hurts electorally. But it illustrated yet again how the Trump effect reverberates far beyond Washington.

2. The landmark 2006 report by Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice is an enlightening read about not only the school’s involvement in slavery but Rhode Island’s in general, and touches on some of the same debates now raging over Confederate monuments. The report notes there were slaves in Rhode Island until the 1830s, and that the state played a “leading role” in the transatlantic slave trade; in fact, the largest slave-trading family in North America was the D’Wolf family of Bristol. “But the real story of the Rhode Island slave trade is not of a few great fortunes but of extremely broad patterns of participation and profit,” the report notes. “Even with the inevitable gaps in the documentary record it is possible to identify by name some 700 Rhode Islanders who owned or captained slave ships.” Another report that drew attention this week, this one by the NAACP, notes Rhode Island is one of just five states where there were no lynchings recorded between 1882 and 1968; the other four are Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Alaska.

3. Steve Bannon’s long-rumored departure from President Trump’s White House on Friday won some bipartisan praise locally. Congressman Cicilline, who attacked the appointment from the start, was among the Democrats who argued it was a long overdue move. “I’m happy that Steve Bannon will no longer work in the White House,” Cicilline said. “But his departure cannot wash away the harm he and the president have done.” More surprisingly perhaps, former Trump campaign chairman Joe Trillo agreed that Bannon’s departure is a positive, though obviously not because he opposes Trump’s policies. “I’m relieved,” Trillo told me Friday. “He’s been a very controversial figure ever since he went into the White House – probably the most controversial figure – and the president right now doesn’t need anybody that’s creating any more distractions than he already has.” (Trillo sounded even happier about the recent ouster of Reince Preibus, calling the former chief of staff “a snake” for undermining then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele while serving as Steele’s deputy.)

4. The fallout from Charlottesville was the last straw for one local Republican: former Cranston City Councilman Don Botts, who lost a close re-election race last November, reports he disaffiliated from the GOP this week. Botts said he’d been a Republican for 15 years, since he read about Steve Laffey’s first run for Cranston mayor and went to his headquarters seeking to volunteer. “Being a Republican to me was two things: on a national level the party of Reagan and on a local level the opposition to Democratic hegemony,” Botts said in an email. “While I was uncomfortable with the election of Trump (I wrote in Rubio), I was willing to give him some rope. He has since used that rope to strangle the GOP. Coupled with the absolute turtling of local Republicans on the Frank Montanaro fiasco and their appeasement of Trump, I did not want to belong to the party any longer. I will gladly have a U next to my name in 87 days.”

5. Rhode Island has only had one female attorney general in its history, the legendary Arlene Violet. Could Donna Nesselbush make a 2018 bid to become the second one? “That thought has crossed my mind, and I have spoken to some of my confidantes about it,” the Pawtucket lawyer and four-term Democratic state senator told me this week. “But at this point I would say it’s a distant thought.” She added, “Never say never, but I very much enjoy and like serving the people as a state senator. And my immediate focus is keeping the PawSox in Pawtucket.”

6. Budget trouble ahead: read the memo the governor got Friday.

7. The latest UHIP cost estimate: $444.5 million through 2018-19.

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8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Close observers of Providence politics are already looking toward 2022, but not for the reason you’re probably thinking. Consider this: if all 16 of the city’s elected officials – Mayor Elorza plus the 15 members of the City Council – are re-elected next year, only three of them will be eligible to run again in 2022 because of term limits Providence voters approved back in 2006. Elorza is definitely term-limited if he wins again next year, while newly elected Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) and Councilwomen Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5) and Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) are the only current members of the legislative body who could appear on the ballot again in 2022. There’s certainly an argument that it will be refreshing to send a bunch of new faces to City Hall. But it also raises questions about institutional knowledge. Will a new mayor and council even realize that city retirees get their cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) restored on Jan. 1, 2023? How will those politicians handle an annual pension payment approaching $100 million? How will the new folks deal with all of the special developer tax breaks scheduled to come off the books in the 2020s? Granted, 2022 is still a long way away. While the mayor appears to be a favorite to win re-election, plenty of councilors could face credible challengers, including Wilbur Jennings in Ward 8, Luis Aponte in Ward 10 and Terry Hassett in Ward 12.”

9. One of Rhode Island’s most experienced Republican operatives, Patrick Sweeney, is a free agent heading into the 2018 election season. Sweeney got his start working in Governor Carcieri’s policy shop after law school, then served as John Loughlin’s deputy campaign manager in 2010 before becoming campaign manager for Barry Hinckley in 2012 and then Allan Fung in 2014. Asked whether he sees himself going to work for a candidate next year, Sweeney said, “I’m concentrating on expanding my legal and public affairs book of business right now. If a campaign comes along the way, obviously I’ll never pass up the opportunity to help a good person run for office.” (Sweeney is also expanding his family – he and his wife are expecting their third child in October.)

10. A coup for R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell and Tony Bucci, his finance chief – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker will headline a fundraiser for the state GOP later this month.

11. Once again, the plum post of court magistrate is going to lawyers with high-level State House connections. Nominated this week were Richard Raspallo, who is Speaker Mattiello’s legal counsel and close adviser, and Andrea Iannazzi, who is Governor Raimondo’s deputy counsel and the sister of Senate President Ruggerio’s chief of staff. As is often noted, court magistrates are still not covered by the merit-selection process for judges voters established in 1994, and the number of magistrates has risen dramatically since that year.

12. Tim White sat down earlier this month with William Smith, Rhode Island’s chief federal judge, for a candid interview about criminal sentencing. As Tim reports, federal sentences in Rhode Island usually fall below the official guidelines, though Smith argues that’s not a sign of leniency. Smith also had harsh words for Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ push to promote mandatory minimums. You can watch the full interview on this weekend’s Newsmakers.

13. The glass-half-empty view on next year’s health insurance premium hikes is obvious: the average Rhode Island premium is going up by at least 5%, and in some cases as much as 12%. Consumers won’t like that. The glass-half-full view is espoused by the state’s new health insurance commissioner, Marie Ganim, who notes the proposed increases were even bigger before her office whittled them down, and estimates her office has saved consumers $236 million since it was established in 2005. (Rhode Island is the only state in the country with a health insurance commissioner, though many have insurance commissioners with broader responsibilities.) Hospital executives agree Ganim’s office is having an impact – a bad one, in their view, as Lifespan and Care New England loudly complain the approved rates don’t provide them with enough revenue. Worth keeping in mind, too, that the commissioner has no control over how much Massachusetts hospitals charge – or how much Rhode Island insurers are forced to pay when their members cross the border to get treatment in the Bay State.

14. Monday’s observance of Victory Day offered an opportunity to reflect on how much World War II affected Rhode Island. About 92,000 Rhode Islanders served in the war; the National World War II Museum estimates fewer than 3,000 are still alive today, 72 years later. One of them – James Coppola, a 91-year-old North Smithfield resident – received a long overdue Bronze Star this week.

15. Congratulations to state Rep. Aaron Regunberg and his fiancée, Katie Cielinski, who are tying the knot today at Mount Hope Farm in Bristol. The pair met as undergraduates at Brown University and have been together for six years. Cielinski is in her final year at Harvard Law School, where she edits the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. The ceremony is being officiated by Providence Student Union executive director Zack Mezera (thanks, naturally, to a solemnization-of-marriage bill passed by Regunberg’s colleagues). “Aaron and Katie are both getting right back to work after the wedding, but hope to find time to take a belated honeymoon together before their first anniversary,” reports House spokesman Larry Berman.

16. Newport and Jamestown choose a new state senator on Tuesday.

17. Jim Pethokoukis predicts an imminent U.S. productivity boom.

18. Don’t believe the hype about another consumer debt crisis.

19. Jamie Coelho on Rhode Island’s upscale doughnut craze.

20. A 1979 ABC News report on the last solar eclipse – wishing us peace.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Rhode Island U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith. This week on Executive Suite – Honey Dew Donuts founder and CEO Richard Bowen. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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