Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Dec. 6

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse doesn’t sound as bummed about being in the Senate minority next year as you might expect. During an interview on this week’s Newsmakers, Rhode Island’s junior senator attributed Democrats’ loss of the U.S. Senate to “anti-Obama sentiment” and offered some blunt criticism of the president, saying: “I think that he has got some work to do to try to rebuild his credibility with a lot of American voters.” (At the same time, Whitehouse argued Obama’s critics have mischaracterized his policies.) Whitehouse said he’s optimistic about life in the minority because he thinks there could be movement on some bipartisan bills – such as his proposals on sentencing and addiction – and because it will now be easier for smaller blocs of Democrats to take stands on issues that divide along party lines. “We couldn’t put pressure on [Senate Republicans] before because they were in the minority; all they had to do was not show up,” he said. “Now they have both responsibility and we have the freedom to move in smaller groups than an entire majority. So in a funny way this could be a more productive Senate than we have had so far, and in an ironic way, it’s going to be because the Republicans no longer have themselves in the minority to deal with.” Whitehouse aides winced when Politico described him as a key member of a liberal “hell no” caucus, but there’s little doubt he’s going to be active in the minority, especially after his landslide victory in 2012.

2. Senator Whitehouse also weighed in during Newsmakers about the fallout from the grand-jury decisions in Ferguson and New York, saying the situations remind him of the 2000 death of Cornel Young, an off-duty Providence policeman shot dead by his fellow officers when they mistook him for a suspect. “When we had our tragedy here with Cornel Young, that created … much of the same situation that we’ve seen recently in Ferguson and in New York, and I think it was a terrific learning experience,” Whitehouse, who was attorney general at the time, recalled. “If you look at what the Providence police became after that … they learned a powerful lesson, and they’ve gotten, I think, much better at it,” he said, singling out the department’s handling of the Occupy protests, as well as its stepped-up outreach efforts. “I think in some ways we actually provide a model in Rhode Island for how you can make these improvements, and I think Chief Clements and the people at the Providence Police Department are a very good example of that.”

3. According to one metric used by Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, David Cicilline ran one of the “least impressive campaigns” for U.S. House this year. His case: Cicilline beat Cormick Lynch by 19.3 percentage points; that’s nearly 5 points fewer than what Wasserman estimates a “generic” Democrat should expect in Rhode Island’s 1st District given how President Obama did in 2012, and only six Democrats underperformed by more. Those close to Cicilline argue he’ll always face unique challenges because of his political profile as a gay, Jewish, Italian, liberal former Providence mayor; the blame he took for the city’s financial problems in 2011 and 2012 may have done permanent damage, as well, though they’re less likely to say that. He also improved his performance this year significantly compared with the last non-presidential cycle of 2010, and won all but five cities and towns in the district. So while Cicilline may never rack up the same margins as Patrick Kennedy, if he could achieve a nearly 20-point victory in a dismal time for Democrats like this, he’s unlikely to be in any serious electoral trouble going forward.

4. Don’t miss two of the most optimistic takes on the U.S. economic outlook I’ve read lately, this one from Tim Duy and this one from Bill McBride. Here’s hoping they’re right, especially after Friday’s strong national jobs report.

5. Gina Raimondo’s decision to tap an out-of-stater, Stephen Neuman, as her chief of staff won’t come as a huge surprise to those who’ve followed her closely. She made a similar staffing choice in 2011 when she hired Josh Brumberger as one of her deputy treasurers. Like Neuman, Brumberger had no background in Rhode Island when he joined Raimondo’s Treasury staff, but he did have experience as an inside player in high-pressure political environment, and he quickly became a key part of her team. (Brumberger is now with the Providence startup Utilidata, but is helping with the gubernatorial transition.) Something else Brumberger shared with Neuman: past experience working for a politician with national ambitions. Neuman is currently an aide to outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s been flirting with a presidential run for years, and O’Malley initially hired him to work for his PAC, not his gubernatorial office; Brumberger had worked on John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Meanwhile, watch for more key personnel announcements from Raimondo next week.

6. Gina Raimondo will be inaugurated governor next month in no small part because more than $8 million was spent to get her there, between her own campaign, the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s coordinated efforts, and outside groups that came in. On the money front, one of the under-reported stories about this election is the $2.1 million that poured into the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s state and federal accounts from September through November, including $10,000 donations from top Raimondo supporters such as John ArnoldMike Bloomberg and the Laborers union. Many of them had already maxed-out to her campaign with smaller contributions, but donating to the party gave them a way to write additional – and, thanks to higher contribution limits, much larger – checks. Jack Reed and the congressional delegation added to the haul by tapping their own fundraising networks. More than $2 million is a huge amount, especially when compared with the paltry $131,000 that flowed into the Rhode Island Republican Party’s accounts over the same period, and surely gave a big boost to Raimondo and others on the party’s ticket.

7. There’s no sugarcoating the frustration for local Republicans over the statewide races this year: their top 2014 vote-getter (Dawson Hodgson) got 28,000 fewer votes than their top 2010 vote-getter (Catherine Taylor), even though both faced incumbents with at least some vulnerabilities. In fact, Hodgson only got 13,000 more votes than John Carlevale, who was nearly invisible. As suggested above, the fundraising boost Gina Raimondo’s candidacy gave the Democratic ground game – as well as a dip in voter turnout – may have had something to do with the GOP’s struggles. Rob Paquin, executive director of the Rhode Island Republican Party, thinks one of the things his party needs to consider in future election cycles is how many candidates it’s smart to put up. “Do we really need to run people in every race?” he said. “The thing is, putting up a token candidate to say we have someone in the race is just not a winning strategy. It’s a waste of time and resources. That person could easily be volunteering for a much more viable candidate while building their own political capital.”

8. Mike Corso faces a $2,000 fine over 38 Studios, which paid him at least 116 times that much money.

9. Suffice to say, adding a jury of average citizens to the pension lawsuit is only going to make the process more fascinating. As Walter Russell Mead asked, “will the jurors identify more strongly as beleaguered taxpayers, or as the friends or even relatives of the public employees who took the hit for the state’s pension mismanagement?” Watch for things to heat up later this winter as the April 20 trial date approaches – unless a settlement happens first.

10. Speaking of pensions, a group of public employees in South Carolina just lost their challenge to an overhaul in that state, with the federal appeals court ruling “that the pension plans have sovereign immunity as arms of the state,” per Reuters.

11. Via Matt Appenfellercheck out this fantastic Flickr photo album comparing historic pictures of Providence with how the same spots look today.

12. Rhode Island became the last state to legalize biweekly pay in 2013, but the way state lawmakers went about doing so has left some employers scratching their heads, according to the experts at Littler Mendelson in Providence. “It helps, certainly,” Littler’s John Doran said on this week’s Executive Suite, noting that “if you have a payroll system set up for 15,000 employees, it is a big deal to carve out some of them” – such a big deal that it made some businesses think twice about hiring in Rhode Island. But even with the law, it’s a complicated process to get state approval to pay workers biweekly. “The problem that employers struggle with the most is, for the prior 12 months you need to have what they call the ‘highest biweekly exposure’ – so, basically, the highest two weeks of salaries and all types of compensation … then get a surety bond from a company, and then bring it to DLT, then have that with all the financial information regarding last year’s salary,” Eric Mack, one of Doran’s colleagues, explained. Asked whether any other states have similar rules as Rhode Island’s new ones, Mack laughed and replied: “No.”

13. “California and Minnesota have created environments that are favorable to the spawning of entrepreneurial ventures around a successful large innovator,” Anne Marie Knott argues in Harvard Business Review. Here’s her argument.

14. Big congratulations to my boss, WPRI 12 news director Karen Rezendes, on making Rhode Island Monthly’s new list of the state’s 30 most powerful women – and congrats to all the other honorees, too!

15. Did you know Christopher “Captain Hook” Walken has a house on Block Island?

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Mike Reppucci, founder of Sons of Liberty Spirits Co.; John Doran and Eric Mack of Littler Mendelson. 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 ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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