Nesi’s Notes: Jan. 28

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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. Ray Gallison has become the latest ex-lawmaker to fall into what Tim White calls Rhode Island’s “State House-to-courthouse pipeline.” Gallison’s financial misdeeds – stealing from an isolated elderly man and a disabled person, lying about how he spent taxpayer money – stretch back to at least 2012, well before he was put in charge of the state budget in 2014. Gallison is the third ex-lawmaker charged just this month, and follows in the footsteps of former Speaker Gordon Fox and former Deputy Speaker John McCauley, among others. Yet U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha acknowledges the parade of political perp walks doesn’t seem to be having much of a deterrent effect. Looking back over his seven years in the job on this week’s Newsmakers, Neronha said, “I think what concerns me a little bit is that it doesn’t strike me that there’s any less work in this area.” GOP Rep. Bob Lancia is suggesting one post-Gallison reform, creating an independent inspector general to help root out corruption. But Neronha also thinks part of the problem is Rhode Island’s political culture. He explained: “I think, before they go in, that perhaps some of us don’t look at their conduct as being serious enough. They make that distinction between the public and private life. … When you’re a public official and you step out of line, not only does the public have to look at you with some disdain, but I think your fellow public officials have to take the same position.” Neronha also offered this sobering observation: “The other thing that concerns me too is, I know that we’re seeing some of the cases, but I’m not under any illusions that we’re seeing all of them. And so I always wonder, what is it we’re not seeing? What is it that we’re missing?”

2. Peter Neronha said that as U.S. attorney, he has always felt obligated to avoid political prosecutions close to elections. “In my mind I have a 90-day window,” he said on Newsmakers. “If we can’t pull the trigger 90 days before that election, we can’t pull it, because we don’t want to influence the election.” So what did he think of FBI Director James Comey’s pre-election letter about Hillary Clinton? After a pause, Neronha said: “I was surprised. Let me leave it at that.”

3. Peter Neronha’s days as U.S. attorney are almost certainly numbered, with the Trump administration expected to follow custom and fill those posts with Republican appointees before long. But talk of Neronha’s future is also much in the air these days because he’s widely believed to be mulling a run for Rhode Island attorney general in 2018. During Newsmakers, he wouldn’t bite on questions about an AG bid – though he also declined to rule it out. “I’m not thinking about anything beyond doing this job,” he insisted. Neronha is currently an unaffiliated voter, but as an Obama appointee it’s assumed he would run as a Democrat should he enter the race. In doing so he’d be following a path successfully trod in the past by Sheldon Whitehouse, who parlayed his 1993-98 stint as U.S. attorney into a successful 1998 run for AG.

4. So who will succeed Peter Neronha? That’s one of the big guessing games in Rhode Island politics right now, along with two other plum federal posts up for grabs – an open federal judgeship and U.S. marshal. Steve Frias, an amateur historian as well as an active Republican, reminded me this is the first time when the White House and Congress have been controlled by Republicans but Rhode Island has had no GOP senator to weigh in on the state’s appointments since 1954. (John and Linc Chafee were in office to be consulted during the Reagan and Bush years.) That makes the situation significantly more complicated than in recent history. Who will have sway? The state’s Republican National Committee members? Scott Avedisian and Allan Fung? Joe Trillo? Legislative leaders? On top of that, there’s the “blue slip” tradition in the Senate, which gives Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse veto power over the choices so long as Chuck Grassley continues to honor it.

5. Governor Raimondo will be in Washington tonight to attend the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, a closed-door, black-tie event that brings together a who’s who of the D.C. political and business elite. A Raimondo spokesman said she was invited by the club. (It may help that its incoming president is reportedly her friend Mike Bloomberg.) Other Alfalfa members include Sheldon Whitehouse, who’ll also be in attendance tonight, and former Brown University President Ruth Simmons. Unlike in past years, though, the dinner’s attendees won’t include the leader of the free world – President Trump has declined the invitation. But The Washington Post reports the governor will still get to hobnob with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, among hundreds of others. Raimondo is traveling alone on her campaign’s dime, and will return to Rhode Island on Sunday.

6. Jack Reed and Gina Raimondo are backing different horses in the race for Democratic National Committee chairman. Reed’s spokesman confirms he is supporting Congressman Keith Ellison, while Raimondo has already backed outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez. The other three members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation – Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline and Jim Langevin – are all staying neutral in the race for now. The new party leader will be chosen next month.

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7. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “It’s too soon to say whether Providence is actually at risk of losing any federal dollars as a result of President Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities, but it sure gave public officials a lot to pound their chests over this week. On Trump’s end, the truth is there’s not a lot he can do over federal funding directed to school lunches or disabled people. But he was following through on a campaign pledge and judging by emails, plenty of his supporters believe he has already stripped the city of $70 million. Locally, Mayor Elorza followed the same playbook many Democratic mayors around the country are using: he pledged to stand by undocumented immigrants while maintaining that he and President Trump actually agree on a key part of the executive order, namely that immigration agents should focus their efforts on undocumented people who have committed crimes while living in this country. Notably, Governor Raimondo has taken a more measured approach when it comes to dealing with Trump’s threats. She said she wants to see if Trump’s orders are ‘meant to be symbolic or whether they have any actual legal weight,’ but indicated she would oppose any attempt to turn local police into immigration enforcement.”

8. Among those who quickly seized on President Trump’s immigration rhetoric was second-term GOP Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, who is considering whether to challenge Sheldon Whitehouse for U.S. Senate next year. Nardolillo has emerged as a vocal opponent of illegal immigration and Syrian refugee resettlement, and has frequently trained his fire on Governor Raimondo over those issues. He did so again this week, urging Raimondo and Mayor Elorza to “consider the consequences of their actions when harboring illegal immigrants.” The issue is a divisive one within the Rhode Island Democratic Party, as demonstrated by the recent back-and-forth between Speaker Mattiello and House progressives. But any Republican Senate candidate will be an underdog, considering Whitehouse’s landslide 2012 victory, the GOP’s long loss record in Senate races (Chafees excepted), and the traditional midterm swing against the incumbent president’s party.

9. At the moment Senator Whitehouse is also dealing with some trouble from the left. This week Whitehouse and Jack Reed came under fire from the Progressive Democrats of America after they joined a dozen other Senate Democrats to vote in favor of President Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo. Another liberal group, the Working Families Party, says it will have more than 200 people at a Whitehouse community dinner on Sunday to complain about his vote. So why did Reed and Whitehouse side with the GOP on Pompeo? A few factors seem to be at work. Neither man is a dove on national security – Reed is a leading Democratic voice on defense and ex officio Intel Committee member, while Whitehouse has never been a knee-jerk civil libertarian on issues such as wiretapping. They both value their relationships with military and intelligence leaders. They noted Pompeo pledged to comply with federal law against torture. And as Matt Yglesias notes, voting against a presidential personnel pick is actually a fairly unusual move in both parties. Reed in particular is wary of monkeying with the Senate’s institutional norms; he was one of the last holdouts when Whitehouse and other younger Democrats were pushing to scale back the GOP minority’s filibuster rights (and he likely feels somewhat vindicated now). But the pair are hardly Trump allies. Whitehouse has already announced he will vote against Betsy DeVos, Ray Tillerson and Jeff Sessions; Reed has announced his opposition to Devos and was an early Tillerson critic, though he’s spoken positively of Sessions as a colleague in the past.

10. It has to be good news for Rhode Island to have Philip Bilden, a man with strong ties to Newport and the Naval War College, becoming Donald Trump’s Navy secretary, particularly with John McCain and Jack Reed eyeing a new round of base closures. (In an interview a year ago, McCain told me he sees the war college as “a revered institution” – a sentiment Bilden and Reed certainly share.)

11. Jack Reed got some positive national ink this week from The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who put him on a list of 13 “politicians who should make you feel good about politics.” His argument: “In a chamber where every member wakes up and sees a future president in the mirror, Reed is unique. He’s spent a career focused on military issues, emerging as a thoughtful and often nonpartisan spokesman on the future of our fighting forces. … Reed is an inside player, and a deeply respected one; he’s one of the few senators who command the attention and respect of his colleagues – no matter their party affiliation.” Also singled out by Cillizza: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, described as “a relentlessly positive force for change, a businessman committed not to blowing up the government but simply to making it work better.”

12. Well, this sounds familiar: “Gov. Charlie Baker is launching an initiative to indirectly start collecting sales tax from Massachusetts residents making purchases over the internet.”

13. Did you know the governor of Rhode Island is running for president? No, not Gina Raimondo – a fellow named “John Dobson,” the fictional GOP presidential candidate on the new Verizon Go90 show “Embeds” (Megyn Kelly is a producer). And yes, Verizon makes TV shows now.

14. Windows open in the winter? Parents at Warwick Vets aren’t happy about it.

15. Local turf wars: not just a Rhode Island phenomenon.

16. Is the mystique surrounding the Kennedy family finally fading?

17. Pete Mangione reports our snow total is actually above average so far in 2017.

18. “Our goal this coming year shouldn’t just be happiness. Our goal should be meaningfulness.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive SuiteFred Humphries, vice president, Microsoft; Tom Tong and Rosamond Lu of Tom’s BaoBao. 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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