Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 25

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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. Can Republican National Committeeman Steve Frias take down Rhode Island’s most powerful pol, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello? “It’s time we clean house at the State House,” Frias said in his House District 15 kickoff this week, ticking off grievances from truck tolls to John Carnevale. He’s undoubtedly a heavy underdog. Mattiello will have tons of money, seasoned operatives like Jeff Britt, all the powers of the speakership and all the advantages of incumbency; he’ll also have the a “D” after his name, no small thing in a deep blue state in a presidential year. But just because Frias is an underdog doesn’t mean he’s hopeless. As Samuel G. Howard has noted, General Assembly Democrats didn’t fare as well as you’d expect in the Obama landslide year of 2008, so presidential coattails may not be a savior that far down the ballot. Indeed, ’08 could provide a template for Frias through Ed O’Neill’s shock defeat that year of then-Senate President Joe Montalbano. Valley Breeze editor Tom Ward recently recalled that O’Neill “came out of nowhere” in that race, running as a reformist outsider. Mattiello clearly won’t be caught napping, though, and he’s banking on his roots and prominence in Cranston to fend off Frias. O’Neill also ran as an independent, while Frias will be a Republican in a tough year for the GOP. But District 15 is relatively conservative: in 2012 Mitt Romney performed almost 13 percentage points better there than he did statewide. If Frias can turn the election into a referendum on the culture of the State House, he could have a shot – particularly if more Smith Hill scandals burst into the headlines this summer and fall.

2. They don’t call it the “House of Ambition” for nothing. If Speaker Mattiello went down in a shock defeat, who would succeed him? John DeSimone? Cale Keable? Joe Shekarchi? Someone else?

3. The landscape for state legislative races will come into clearer view late next week, once Wednesday’s deadline passes for candidates to file. One thing to watch is how many incumbents face a challenge at all. Two years ago, nearly half the legislature – 45% of senators and 40% of representatives – ran unopposed. The two Bells – GOP Chairman Brandon Bell and Progressive Democrats leader Sam Bell (no relation) – both say plenty of challengers are ready. Brandon Bell declined to put a figure on how many he expects, saying some will run as independents rather than Republicans. “I will say that we have quality challengers and as a result I feel strongly that we will make gains in the General Assembly,” he said in an email. Sam Bell ticked off 10 Democratic challengers he’s already enthusiastic about – David Norton, Bill Deware, Jennifer Siciliano, Jeanine Calkin, Moira Walsh, Susan Donovan, Jason Knight, Matt Fecteau, Doris De Los Santos, and Nick Delmenico – and said he expects more. (He also said some members of his group may help Steve Frias against Nick Mattiello, though he doesn’t think the Progressive Democrats should formally back Frias.) One thing to keep an eye out for: the old “hand-off” trick, where an incumbent claims to be running for re-election and even pulls papers, only to not return them at the last minute, allowing a favored successor to be the sole candidate. East Side lawmakers are known to like that tactic, though Rep. Edie Ajello told Ian Donnis this week she’s planning to run.

4. Cranston City Councilman Don Botts tweeted some good pointers this week for anyone thinking about mounting a campaign for office. “Candidate advice free of charge: have a base thru sports or civic org, start at city level, plan on losing the first time, walk, walk, walk.” Doreen Costa has made similar points.

5. What do you do when the General Assembly session ends at dawn, as it did early last Saturday? You go get breakfast. Speaker Mattiello and a few compatriots left the State House and found their way to IHOP for pancakes. Senate President Paiva Weed picked a more unusual spot: Governor Raimondo’s kitchen table. Paiva Weed, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and Raimondo aide David Cruise went from Smith Hill to Raimondo’s East Side home to brief her on what happened overnight; first gentleman Andy Moffit is said to have handled the cooking.

6. Rhode Island Democrats often zig where national Democrats zag – voter ID, anyone? – and the close of last week’s General Assembly session offered another example of that. The House voted 60-12 to change the rules on carrying a concealed weapon, despite opposition from State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell among others. Governor Raimondo joined gun-control advocates in criticizing the vote, saying that “in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, when the federal government and other states are taking steps to make people safer, it was surprising and upsetting that the legislature would go the other way, to make it easier to get a gun.” But Speaker Mattiello pushed back at such criticism during a taping on RIPR, saying security guards had complained local law enforcement was slow to handle permit paperwork. “It really didn’t expand rights,” he said. “It standardized the process consistent with Rhode Island law.” As for Raimondo’s comments, he said: “I believe the governor’s wrong. I hear from my constituents. I hear from a lot of folks across the state, and most folks I don’t think agree with the governor on that. You’ve got to remember, Rhode Island has amongst the top 10 strictest laws … and that’s appropriate.” The fallout from that vote may not be over yet: Sam Bell says progressive primary challengers hope to make guns a key issue in this year’s elections.

7. Another end-of-session issue that divided Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello was the package of criminal-sentencing changes that died in the House. Rhode Island has the second-highest rate of people on probation in the country, and a working group convened by the governor came up with various suggestions to change that, which informed the Senate legislation. Raimondo told reporters this week she thinks it’s “very regrettable that those bills weren’t passed,” and said she will try again in 2017. Appearing on RIPR, though, Mattiello said the justice and sentencing changes were “never an issue I was very excited about either way.” However, he downplayed speculation that the final hours of the session were consumed by a tussle between the Senate pushing for those bills and him pushing for career-tech education changes modeled on Massachusetts. “That was not something that held us up at all,” Mattiello said, while venting frustration that the career-tech bill died.

8. Governor Raimondo headed to Nantucket on Friday night to hobnob with well-to-do donors at the Democratic Governors Association’s annual summer fundraiser. Her office said that as a campaign trip, the jaunt carries no cost to taxpayers.

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9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Now that Mayor Elorza has signed his second budget into law, you can expect attention in City Hall to shift toward crafting a plan for Providence’s long-term financial health. Using the recent NRN report’s menu of options as a guide, Elorza is expected to work with stakeholders to craft a strategy that’s feasible for his administration. His aides say they’ll release that plan before the end of the year, giving the General Assembly plenty of notice before they return to work in January. So what’s it going to look like? Let’s consider the big-ticket items. While city officials would like to avoid a war with the nonprofits, both the mayor’s office and the City Council believe there’s a scenario where the public backs the city in its quest to secure more revenue from the colleges and (especially) the hospitals. It’s less clear how the General Assembly feels after legislation targeting the nonprofits died again this year. Then there are retirement benefits. The NRN report suggested the city make pension changes similar to the ones the state made during Governor Raimondo’s tenure as treasurer. While Elorza has shown he doesn’t fear taking on a large constituency – see the firefighters – his execution has been sloppy. It’s also unclear if the City Council would support more pension reform. Then there’s the sale of the water supply. It’s the easiest way to generate a large chunk of revenue in a hurry, but it would almost certainly need the General Assembly to approve such a transfer. (There are probably ways to piece bits and parts of all three options together while combining them with some of the smaller suggestions to accomplish the city’s goals.) No matter what happens, the clock is ticking for the city. And state officials have made it clear they’re watching.”

10. UHIP, the $364-million computer upgrade for state safety-net programs, was back in the news this week for missing another deadline to go live. And every time UHIP makes the headlines, lots of Rhode Islanders inquire about the status of the notorious decade-old DMV computer project. Bad news: despite the confident assurances offered last year, the timeline for its completion has slipped yet again, from September to December.

11. The opioid epidemic remains a major crisis in Southern New England; on this week’s Newsmakers, the New Bedford police chief told us near-death overdoses are actually serving as advertising for the strongest highs. Governor Raimondo, who’s said in the past the biggest surprise for her after taking office was seeing the scale of the opioid crisis, will roll out her latest response Monday with the launch of a new multimedia campaign to push prevention and recovery. It will include TV ads, a new website built in partnership with Brown’s School of Public Health, and a special “warn line” with trained counselors waiting to take calls.

12. The departures of chief of staff Steve Neuman and communications director Joy Fox from Governor Raimondo’s senior staff are another sign she’s reached a bit of an early midway point in her term. Both are known around the State House as true public servants: hardworking, civic-minded and loyal. They’ve found pretty good landing spots – the Clinton campaign in Neuman’s case, Bob Rubin’s staff in Fox’s. Fox has an able successor in Mike Raia, who’s been an energetic aide to Elizabeth Roberts at Health and Human Services for nearly a year and a half, and who already knows the Rhode Island media well. Neuman’s successor has not been named – interim chief David Cruise claims not to want the job, and multiple people outside the administration have told her the same – so it will be interesting to see who Raimondo ends up choosing.

13. The Washington Post editorializes in favor of Congressman Cicilline’s bill to require automatic voter registration.

14. The Independent looks at what Don Lally was actually doing before the Rhode Island Ethics Commission cut short his employment in Governor Raimondo’s office.

15. Elton and Shirley Dexter of Scituate on the secrets of their 70-year marriage.

16. Highly recommended: Pew’s latest annual State of the News Media report.

17. Good news: Narragansett Bay hasn’t been this clean since 150 years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was president.

18. Still trying to wrap my head around the Brexit vote and all its many implications. “Most extraordinary UK event of my lifetime, and maybe since the war,” British columnist Janan Ganesh tweeted overnight Friday. There’s no way to consume all the material being written to analyze the vote and what happens next, but here are some thought-provoking reads: Chris Arnade, Paul Krugman, Josh BarroDalibor Rohac, Reihan Salam, and just about everything in the FT. (One local silver lining: Treasurer Magaziner thinks the market turmoil could give Rhode Island a chance to reduce its debt burden by pushing down interest rates.)

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro; state Rep. Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick. This week on Executive SuiteMarc Streisand, owner of Marc Allen Fine Clothiers; Paul Dunn, founder of Enhanced Energy Group, and Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund. 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, Facebook and Instagram

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