Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 24

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Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah! 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. The total number of people who live in Rhode Island has remained fairly stable in recent years, clocking in at 1,056,426 in new Census estimates released this week. That makes 2016 the fifth year in a row Rhode Island has posted a net increase in residents. But as has been noted before, the stability in the top-line population number masks significant shifts in terms of who makes up those residents. Rhode Island has seen a net loss of about 28,000 domestic residents since 2010, versus a net gain of about 25,000 international migrants. (There have also been roughly 7,600 more births than deaths.) Rhode Island isn’t alone: famed demographer Bill Frey says the new numbers show “a continued revival of movement from the broad Northeast and Midwest ‘Snow Belt’ region to the South and West ‘Sun Belt’ region.” At this point it’s looking like a foregone conclusion that Rhode Island will lose one of its two U.S. House seats after the 2020 Census, giving the state only one for the first time since George Washington was president. (It actually even had three seats for a short time in the early 20th century.) Don’t take it from me – Kimball Brace, who redraws Rhode Island’s political maps for legislative Democrats every 10 years, reports the state is now just 5,569 residents away from becoming the seventh state with only one seat. As Dave Weigel notes, that would give Rhode Island’s 1.1 million residents the same representation in the U.S. House (and Electoral College) as Montana’s 582,000 – unless, that is, Congress decides to expand the House’s size for the first time since 1929.

2. Most Rhode Islanders know RISD is a local jewel, but they may not realize its value for economic development. The school’s name conjures up images of sculptors and painters engaging in art for art’s sake, which is surely core to its mission. But RISD’s reputation for innovation and original thinking also comes up often when businesses explain what they find enticing about Rhode Island. Governor Raimondo told me one reason she felt hopeful about her chances of luring Johnson & Johnson to Providence, for instance, was because of a partnership with RISD the company formed earlier this year. And Steve Wrenn, the J&J exec who spoke at the announcement of the company’s new Providence office this week, name-checked RISD twice when explaining why Providence won out over locales in the competition for its new health technology center. “Brown has one type of student, like digital analytics, RISD has a different type of students, so we need that mix of students,” he said. “If you don’t have the people to draw from, to get the creativity, you can’t be creative,” he added. Wrenn also highlighted the new office’s proximity to CVS Health, a major J&J distributor, and J&J’s respect for Bryant’s Global Supply Chain Management program. “Those are things that all get added in and are contributing factors in these decisions,” he said.

3. Jim Langevin had a poignant moment at the Johnson & Johnson announcement when he thanked the company for its involvement in bringing to market the high-performance wheelchair he’s used for a number of years. Known as the iBot, it was developed by inventor Dean Kamen, who partnered with J&J in the mid-1990s to start manufacturing and selling it. “I’ve used it for several years now, and for me it’s been a game-changing technology,” Langevin said. “It’s given me a whole new level of mobility and independence that I would not have with just a regular wheelchair.” Even just getting behind the podium at the J&J announcement, he noted, was only easy for him Monday because of the iBot’s flexibility; to tour a construction site, he said, “I can just throw this in four-wheel drive.” It’s been a big hit with wounded soldiers, as well. But partly due to insurance reimbursement issues, J&J was unable to turn a profit on the iBot and eventually stopped production. Instead of allowing the technology to languish, though, Langevin said the company agreed to sell the technology back to Kamen for $1 so he can find a new partner for it – and now Toyota is doing so. “That would not have happened if J&J hadn’t done the right thing,” he said.

4. As Dan McGowan scooped this week, some of Rhode Island’s most powerful corporate executives – Brian Goldner of Hasbro, Larry Merlo of CVS and Don Sweitzer of IGT (née GTECH) – have created a new Partnership for Rhode Island organization to promote economic development. It’s modeled on the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and the Partnership for New York City, both highly influential, and was recommended by Brookings. The new organization’s evolution is worth watching; Governor Raimondo is among those who are enthusiastic about getting the leaders of the state’s biggest companies more involved, and the financial firepower of its directors suggests they can make waves if they want to. Still, as state Sen. John Pagliarini among others point out, there are already a lot of groups in Rhode Island claiming to be the voice of business, raising the question of whether they’re all needed or whether they’re diluting each other. And as one sharp observer spotted, the Massachusetts partnership is a 501(c)4, which means it can dabble in politics and contributions to it aren’t tax deductible, while the Rhode Island one is a 501(c)3.

5. An interesting idea I heard recently: what if the Superman building was bought and refurbished by a public-spirited billionaire with a long time horizon, a la Dan Gilbert in Detroit?

6. Considering Rhode Island hasn’t backed a Republican for president in decades, the state is going to be surprisingly well-represented in the West Wing come January – specifically the East Bay, with Donald Trump naming Barrington native Sean Spicer his White House press secretary and Middletown native Michael Flynn his national security adviser. When Spicer joined Tim White and me on Newsmakers last summer, he credited the influence of longtime Portsmouth Abbey teacher Cliff Hobbins for sparking his interest in politics, including by landing him internships with John Chafee. That in turn connected Spicer with David Griswold, Chafee’s final chief of staff, and other members of the senator’s team. “Senator Chafee’s office, it was just a good, good group of Rhode Island folks,” Spicer recalled. “It was never partisan. As you know, John Chafee was never a hardcore Republican. But he was a great man. And he really led by example in terms of how to act as an individual, and how to treat people. And I think that was a lesson that people really took coming down from Rhode Island into D.C.”

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7. Bishop Tobin is a registered Republican these days, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Donald Trump, writing in Pope Francis instead. “I was concerned and I continue to be concerned about his preparedness for office and his competence,” Tobin said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I hope that he proves me wrong. But I’m just concerned by his temperament, and by his own experience, whether or not he’s prepared to assume this critical and very powerful and very important office. … I was concerned during the campaign by his sometimes very divisive and sometimes even vulgar language and rhetoric, which doesn’t help anybody, his attacks on some minority groups. His approach to a lot of issues shows very little prudence, very little patience, and these are virtues that he will need as president. … I hope his style of governing is very different than his style of campaigning.” Tobin touched on many other topics during the half-hour interview, including church closings, pushback to the pope, and his relationship with Governor Raimondo.

8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “‘Achievement First can have its 3,112 students. But what about the 20,000-plus other students in Providence’s schools?’ That was a question that came up throughout the debate over whether the charter management organization should expand its footprint in the city over the next decade. Now that the expansion has been approved, you can expect the conversation about how to support the students in the city’s traditional public schools to heat up in 2017. On Tuesday night, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said it’s time to begin discussing ‘our strategy around a portfolio of options,’ but made it clear the traditional approaches of ‘more money, close schools and fire teachers’ are not among them. Board of Education Chairwoman Barbara Cottam said it’s time to partner together to improve struggling schools. So far, Wagner and Cottam haven’t revealed what the next school reform project will look like, but we do know officials at the R.I. Department of Education have met with Providence’s leaders about the issue. How far they wish to go is unknown, particularly with the 2018 election right around the corner.”

9. As many of you probably know, Dan McGowan has a Facebook group about Providence politics that has now grown to more than 3,000 members. I’m consistently impressed by the smart and civil discussions there, all too uncommon on social media. If you’re not already a member, you should join.

10. Dan also has a year-end look at Mayor Elorza at midterm.

11. Seth Magaziner talks hedge funds in The Wall Street Journal.

12. Josh Barro has some policy ideas for Democrats on jobs and wages.

13. Something to watch in 2017: the creation the state’s “innovation campus.”

14. Live in Pawtucket? The city wants you to join a board or commission.

15. Watch 400 versions of “A Christmas Carol” in one YouTube supercut.

16. And finally, a personal reflection on Christmas Week by yours truly.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersBishop Tobin. This week on Executive Suite – real estate developer Evan Granoff. 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.

18. Added after publication – John DePetro is leaving WPRO.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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