1. Governor Raimondo continues to recruit some heavy hitters to her economic team with this week’s announcement that wealthy financier Joe Azrack will be the new chairman of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. Azrack, 67, has decades of experience in real estate, much of it with Leon Black’s private-equity giant Apollo Global Management. How deep is that experience? Azrack told an interviewer that one of his investments “gave rise to the modern REIT industry as we know it today.” Suffice to say he’s playing in a different league than Colin Kane. (Small world: Rhode Island’s pension fund has money invested with Apollo, and the firm is a Twin River shareholder.) Azrack joins Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor as the governor’s point persons on the 195 land, one of her top priorities. Pryor, like Azrack, has a New York City pedigree thanks to his years as an official in nearby Newark and with the post-9/11 Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Both appointments are centerpieces of Raimondo’s plan to bring in new blood with a track record to boost the state’s economy. The challenge for Pryor and Azrack will be addressing the very different challenges of promoting development in a mid-tier city like Providence as opposed to a booming global metropolis like New York. The economic base is much shallower here.
2. Speaking of Rhode Island’s economy, you should bookmark a new website called CoffeeBlackRI.com. Its author is clearly well-informed and a sharp thinker – check out these recent posts on tax cuts for seniors and the Shekarchi jobs incentive bill. In an email, CoffeeBlackRI told me he or she plans to stay anonymous for now. “Personalities have a way of getting in the way of the message in Rhode Island,” the writer explained. “Just trying to inform, help you all ask better questions, and not have it about the messenger but rather the message.”
3. Scott Avedisian will mark his 15th anniversary as Warwick mayor later this month. The Republican was thought to be in some political trouble last summer as he faced a spirited GOP primary challenge from newcomer Stacia Petri, yet he wound up winning renomination with 66% of the vote. Avedisian was typically coy when asked about his future on this week’s Newsmakers, saying he doesn’t know yet if he’ll run for mayor again in 2016, let alone ever seek higher office. “I go through a long process of [asking], is it still meaningful to be in this role?” he said. “I don’t want to get to a point where I’m running just for the sake of running.” Avedisian, who just turned 50, said Warwick Rep. Joe Shekarchi has told him that he wants to run for the job but won’t do so until Avedesian steps aside. But the incumbent doesn’t think Shekarchi, a Democrat, will clear the field: “I think there’ll be a number of candidates that will emerge when I leave.” Avedisian also said he was never approached by Governor Raimondo about joining her administration despite rumors to the contrary, though he’s staying on as RIPTA chairman. As for the future of Rhode Island’s beleaguered Republican Party, Avedisian said he’s backing Cumberland lawyer Brandon Bell in the March 26 election for GOP chairman.
4. Just before his arrival for Friday’s taping of Newsmakers, Mayor Avedisian was working a shift as a bus boy at Gregg’s in Warwick alongside Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien. Are the two municipal chiefs really that hard up for cash? No, it was all for a good cause – two, actually. The pair were enlisted by Speaker Mattiello to help him at a “Get Served by the Speaker” breakfast fundraiser he co-hosted Friday to benefit a charity of his choice, the St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry of Cranston, and the Rhode Island Hospitality Association Education Foundation, which funds scholarships for culinary students. The event was the brainchild of Dale Venturini, who’s led the hospitality association since 1989. A Mattiello aide reports 160 people attended the sold-out event, which raised $8,000 for the two charities. Mattiello and House Majority Leader John DeSimone served the guests eggs, French toast, bacon, muffins and other pastries, and fruit. No word on whether the newly slimmed-down speaker snuck a pastry.
5. Speaking of Mayor Grebien, the third-term Democrat is adding a new face to his senior staff at Pawtucket City Hall: political operative Rico Vota, the 33-year-old architect of Nellie Gorbea’s shock victory over Guillaume De Ramel in last year’s Democratic primary for secretary of state. Defeating De Ramel was one thing, but can Vota hold on to the PawSox? His first day on the job is Monday.
6. Ready for a “Quahog Cup” basketball tournament for Rhode Island? A bipartisan group of state lawmakers want to make it happen. Senators Conley, Ruggerio, Goodwin, Algiere, and Lynch have filed a resolution asking the presidents of Brown, Bryant, PC and URI to get together and create the Quahog Cup competition to pay for a state scholarship fund. “Why not the Calamari Cup?” wonders a loyal Saturday Morning Post reader. (The games would presumably be played at the Quahog Civic Center.)
7. Jose Batista, president of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, says he has big off-year plans for the two organizations once he finishes taking the bar exam this month. The first is advocating for policies such as in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, tuition-based tax credits and community policing. The second is doing a sort of “listening tour” to engage with Rhode Island’s growing Latino community, which he says now numbers 142,000 and has a median age of only 26. “Moreover, in criss-crossing the state during last summer’s campaign, I personally bore witness to not just the growth of the Latino community but the breadth of it too,” Batista said in an email. “We were not just involved in the traditional corridor we associate with Latinos (Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls) but also in places like Woonsocket, Newport, Cranston and West Warwick. It really is something.”
8. A must-read: John B. Judis raises doubts about the Democratic Party’s widely assumed demographic edge.
9. If Rhode Island’s two senators want to get anything done in the new Congress, they’re going to need partners in the GOP majority, so Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley had potentially good news for both Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed this week. First Roll Call suggested that Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, may advance Whitehouse’s bipartisan bill with Texas Republican John Cornyn on recidivism. “Senator Grassley has said he’d like to see it relatively soon, and so has Senator Cornyn,” Whitehouse told Roll Call. “Does that mean next week? I doubt it. Does that mean before the August recess? I very much think so.” Then, over in The New York Times, Grassley said he wants to reintroduce a bill he and Reed have introduced before that would prohibit companies from using court-ordered penalties to reduce their taxes.
11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Of the many entertaining quotes outgoing Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso has given me over the last couple of years, one that sticks out is a comment she made about why she needed to spend so much time at the State House near the end of the 2013 legislative session. ‘I couldn’t leave because last time I left, Helio Melo merged the two boards,’ she said. Mancuso and Melo, the former chairman of the House Finance Committee, had a rocky relationship when it came to the board, but her message is one new Chairwoman Barbara Cottam will want to keep in mind in the coming months. Overseeing all public education from preschool through college is a daunting task for anyone, let alone an unpaid volunteer. During her tenure as chair, Mancuso found herself dealing with General Assembly members who thought they were better at crafting education policy than the board, a controversial graduation policy and, of course, the decision to extend Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract. And that was just on the K-12 side. It’s no wonder Mancuso has long suggested that paying the entire board – or at least the chair – might be a wise idea. And while the decision to create two councils – one for K-12 and another for colleges – reduces the time constraints for most board members, the chairperson is still a voting member of both committees. Cottam, one of the most respected executives in Rhode Island, should have no trouble earning Senate confirmation before she jumps right into the fire with a long to-do list. Don’t forget, the PARCC exam begins in March. And then there’s the budget. And the search for a new education commissioner. This list goes on.”
12. Twin River Casino in Lincoln has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since 2010 – until last month, when the blizzard forced it to close for the first time. The problem: because of its 24/7 hours, Twin River doesn’t have locks on its doors; chairman John Taylor reports Twin River employees had to go out and buy large chains to put on the doors during the storm. And they’re keeping them in storage just in case this brutal winter brings another storm. Taylor is my guest on this week’s Executive Suite, where he talked about everything from opening a poker room and the new hotel to the threat from Massachusetts. You can read my full WPRI.com story recapping our interview here.
13. Will be interesting to see how elected pols come down on Ken Block’s push to enact a line-item veto.
14. Best wishes to Rhode Island Public Radio’s Catherine Welch, who is leaving as the NPR affiliate’s news director to oversee a station in Florida. Cat is a dogged reporter, the sort of newsroom chief who actually gets out of the office to track down stories for herself, and has always been a pleasure to see out on the beat. RIPR is going through quite a bit of management change to start 2015: Welch is following GM Joe O’Connor out the door.
15. The Brown Alumni Magazine looks at how the Diossa administration is reshaping Central Falls.
16. Looking forward to listening to Bob Dylan’s new album of, no joke, Sinatra covers.
17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Twin River Casino Chairman John E. Taylor Jr. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.Ted Nesi ( email@example.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiAn earlier version of item #9 incorrectly said the Whitehouse-Cornyn legislation is about mandatory minimum sentences; it is about recidivism.