Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: April 2


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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. If someone had told you last weekend that Gina Raimondo was about to have the worst week of her governorship so far, and that it would all be because of a tourism campaign, you probably wouldn’t have believed it. True, new slogans are often polarizing. But tourism itself is pretty motherhood-and-apple-pie. The governor’s aides certainly didn’t seem to think they were unpinning a grenade Monday night when they introduced “Cooler & Warmer,” going out of their way to make sure the announcement got ample media coverage. Well, they got it alright. It’s possible the administration could have battled through the instant backlash against “Cooler & Warmer” itself – a couple people told me they liked the logo, and if nothing else the slogan proved to be attention-grabbing, which effective advertising needs to be. But having faith in the slogan’s not-obvious effectiveness required having faith in the team that designed and launched it. The Iceland video, the not-ready-for-prime-time website and marketing chief Betsy Wall’s Gaspee Days gaffe pretty much destroyed any chance of that. (Wall told my colleague Steve Nielsen on Wednesday, “This is not a new website.” But as Independent editor Liz Boardman noted, the first bullet point in Monday’s press release labeled it: “A new VisitRhodeIsland.com website.”) Raimondo bowed to the inevitable late Friday, accepting Wall’s resignation and axing “Cooler & Warmer,” and her allies were hoping that by showing some contrition she’d finally stopped the bleeding.

2. When people in Rhode Island start comparing a news story to Linc Chafee’s “holiday tree” fiascos, you know it’s a real mess. There are a couple reasons the tourism debacle has been so politically damaging for Governor Raimondo. She’s never had a warm-and-fuzzy public persona to begin with, and she seems to struggle at moments like this one that require the human touch rather than a spreadsheet. (Recall what happened when Buddy Cianci died.) Partly because of that, the core of Raimondo’s political brand is supposed to be policy competence. “I’m a practical person,” she told reporters recently. “I just want to get results.” Judged by her own standard then – “results” – the Commerce Corporation had a very bad week. On top of that, at this point “Cooler & Warmer” transcends standard State House politics. For politicians, the most damaging controversies are the ones everybody can understand – that’s why a sex scandal always has legs – and this one fit the bill. When you’re getting knocked by talk radio and public radio, you’re in trouble. Finally, it’s also fed the narrative that Raimondo is too in thrall to out-of-staters, whether in New York or Davos. Raimondo’s re-election race is still two years away, an eternity in politics. But this week wasn’t helpful if she wants to secure a second term.

3. If Governor Raimondo sustains significant long-term political damage from the tourism debacle, one thing it’s likely to do is further empower the General Assembly, and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in particular. No political reporter ever forgot the evening in 2011 when then-Speaker Gordon Fox sent out a statement declaring Governor Chafee’s sales tax proposal dead on arrival; in many ways Chafee’s authority never recovered, and Assembly leaders were in the driver’s seat for much of his tenure. Raimondo won’t roll over as easily as her predecessor, but she also already spent a lot of political capital on tolls over the last year – now is the time when she needed to be replenishing her supply, not further draining it over a tourism slogan. And speaking of the Assembly, lawmakers are now likely to be more skeptical when asked to approve Raimondo’s budget request for an additional $5 million to spend on the marketing campaign in 2016-17. Will they be willing to pony up that much cash after “Cooler & Warmer”? Mattiello stayed mum this week, but at some point he’s sure to weigh in.

4. Rhode Island native and Boston PR ace Amy Derjue on “Cooler & Warmer.” Also, Nail Communications’ Alec Beckett offers his thoughts here.

5. First Gentleman Andy Moffit chats with Glamour magazine about his role.

6. Keep an eye on the situation at Care New England, Rhode Island’s second-biggest hospital group. CEO Dennis Keefe ordered another round of layoffs this week and made clear the entire company is imperiled by the ongoing losses at Memorial Hospital. He also told me the cuts he’s proposed at Memorial would reduce those losses to a manageable level, once the company consummates its merger with Southcoast Health System (which also laid off staff this week). However, Massachusetts regulators may be wary of allowing one of their state’s large hospital systems to join forces with one that needs its assets to cover losses across the border in Pawtucket. Keefe says the Southcoast merger remains on track, but it’s a long way from a done deal.

7. Speaking of money problems in the medical sector, when Southcoast announced layoffs this week it laid the blame in part on the cost of implementing an electronic medical records system from Wisconsin-based Epic. It’s not the first time we’ve heard that locally: Lifespan saw its bond rating lowered in 2014 partly because of Epic costs, and Care New England also uses Epic, which it’s spent big money to install at Memorial. With that in mind, it’s worth reading this Mother Jones examination of Epic from last year, which looks at how the company (and its Dem-donor founder) made a windfall off President Obama’s stimulus and which questions its commitment to interoperability.

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8. One of the biggest stories in Rhode Island politics this week barely made a ripple: public-sector unions’ U.S. Supreme Court victory in a closely watched case on the fees they can charge, due to a 4-4 tie following Justice Scalia’s passing. The case could have dealt a major blow to organized labor and its ability to fund political campaigns in Rhode Island.

9. A special dispatch from my WPRI 12 colleague Tim White: “Using DNA testing or dental records, the FBI is working with the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s office to identify the human remains recovered from behind an old mill building in Providence on Thursday. As we reported, sources tell me the FBI has good reason to believe they may be the remains of Steven DiSarro, of Westwood, Mass., who went missing in 1993 and was the victim of a gangland slaying. No one has been charged in DiSarro’s murder, but that could change now that the authorities have a body. The killer may already be dead, but accessories could feel the sting from the feds even 23 years later. Cases like this can be a house of cards, so keep a close eye in the coming months as this one develops: I have a feeling we may see some wiseguys who have been out of New England for a while come back for a cameo. And what brought the feds to the dig site in the first place could be almost as interesting.”

10. Did you hear Rhode Island is going to renumber all its highway exit signs?

11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “If you thought empowerment schools were going to completely solve all of Rhode Island’s education problems, you probably came away from this week’s announcement disappointed that only five or 10 schools are expected to join the program over the next few years. Then again, taken separately, plans to offer free PSAT and SAT exams for high school students, advanced coursework for all students and computer-science courses in every school aren’t going to change things overnight either. But when you combine everything Governor Raimondo has gotten approved or proposed in her first 15 months in office, it’s clear her administration is playing the long game when it comes to improving educational outcomes in Rhode Island. If you buy in to the more methodical approach, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s State of Education address – and his appearance on Newsmakers this week – were a home run. Nothing Wagner said felt threatening; even NEARI President Larry Purtill said he’s willing to have a conversation about empowerment schools. At the same time, Wagner has drawn praise from educators around the state for taking a thoughtful approach to testing and graduation requirements rather than making the case for a top-down approach. If you prefer more of a scorched-earth strategy, it’s easy to question whether the governor and Wagner are moving quickly enough. If Rhode Island isn’t going to require its poorest-performing schools to take the empowerment school route or provide incentives to the schools that do opt-in, what’s the point of a district wasting political capital with its unions? Wagner maintains the voluntary approach will convince more skeptical folks– particularly in the urban areas – to jump on board when they’re ready. Of course, timing is everything. This being an election year, it’s safe to say the goal is to simply get something passed. The fear, particularly in the eyes of the education reform community, is whether the long-term strategy will still leave people saying, ‘that’s it?'”

12. Don’t miss Dan and Kim Kalunian’s report on the city seeking $15 million to hire 80 firefighters.

13. Rhode Island’s presidential primary is now less than a month away, and the campaigns are continuing to get more organized. The Bernie Sanders campaign reports Paul Feeny is serving as state director for Connecticut and Rhode Island, which both vote April 26. Feeny led Sanders’ highly competitive effort in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Ian Donnis reports Hillary Clinton has tapped Nick Black, a former Elizabeth Warren campaign staffer, as its Rhode Island state director. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro was also scheduled to swing through Providence this past week to raise money for Clinton at a lunchtime event. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s campaign has announced Dave Chiokadze of Newport will serve as its state director. No word from Ted Cruz or John Kasich on their state directors so far, but Gary Sasse joined the Kasich campaign on Friday as a state co-chair and policy advisor; he was previously with Marco Rubio.

14. Speaking of the presidential primary, if you want to vote by mail ballot the deadline to apply is Tuesday. Secretary of state spokeswoman Nicole Lagace passes along these instructions. She also reports there have already been 5,342 applications for regular mail ballots so far, already surpassing the totals in 2012 (2,370) and 2008 (5,204) even before the deadline.

15. Newly minted Republican Rep. Karen MacBeth says she’ll announce Monday whether she’s challenging Democratic Congressman David Cicilline in the November election. MacBeth has proven she knows how to make headlines, so her entry could make what currently looks like a typical Rhode Island race a bit less sleepy. (Cicilline already has an announced GOP opponent, H. Russell Taub, so first MacBeth would need to beat Taub in a primary or ease him out of the race.) That said, MacBeth would still begin the race as a major underdog. Rhode Island voters haven’t elected a Republican to the U.S. House in 24 years; Democratic turnout is almost certain to rise in a presidential year; and Cicilline will have the benefits of incumbency. Republicans already threw a lot at Cicilline when he was at his weakest politically back in 2012 (also with a candidate from Cumberland who had weak GOP ties). Then again, in the year of Donald Trump, everyone should be more open to the possibility of surprise outcomes than they used to be.

16. American Airlines will begin nonstop flights from T.F. Green to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport next Tuesday, spokeswoman Patti Goldstein reports. That will be music to the ears of business leaders like Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner, who told me last month the comparative lack of flights was part of why GE chose Boston over Providence. Governor Raimondo has also proposed putting $1.5 million in the 2016-17 budget to subsidize additional direct routes between T.F. Green and “major metropolitan areas.”

17. Who knew? The U.K. almost had a coup d’etat in 1974.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. 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 Sunday nights at 6 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 hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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