Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Feb. 27

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. A year ago, no pundit was predicting that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were viable candidates for their parties’ presidential nominations. Perhaps Rhode Islanders should be less surprised by the success of the two outsider candidates, though, after the 2014 election here showed how deeply dissatisfied many voters were with the political status quo. In the governor’s race, Moderate nominee Bob Healey stunned the political class by taking 21% of the vote against Gina Raimondo and Allan Fung. Healey spent almost no money and looks nothing like other politicians – but he came off as authentic, and he was untainted by association with either party’s establishment. True, quite a few of those Healey ballots were protest votes by Democrats unhappy about Raimondo’s pension overhaul, but 70,000 votes out of 324,000 is pretty good for a protest candidate. And then there was the Providence mayoral race, which saw Buddy Cianci take on nearly everyone – most of the Democratic Party elite, former U.S. attorneys from both parties, The Providence Journal, even President Obama, all united in arguing that a vote for the twice-convicted felon was beyond the pale and urging support for Jorge Elorza instead. Yet more than 17,000 city voters – 45% – disagreed and cast their lot with Cianci once again. Now before you blow up my Twitter feed, let me be clear: there are a multitude of very, very important differences between Trump, Sanders, Healey and Cianci. But all four have shown, in different ways, that plenty of voters are hungry for something other than what establishment-backed politicians are offering.

2. How Democratic is Rhode Island? So much so that Martin O’Malley raised more in individual contributions in the state than any GOP presidential candidate save Jeb Bush, according to the Center on Responsive Politics. Hillary Clinton is far and away the top direct recipient of Rhode Island money, at $479,000, followed by Bernie Sanders ($106,000), Bush ($58,000), O’Malley ($32,000), Ted Cruz ($31,000) and Ben Carson ($22,660). No other candidate has received more than $20,000 in itemized contributions from Rhode Islanders. Of course, in this age of super PACs a lot of political cash doesn’t go to a candidate – it goes to outside groups. When those are included, the much-maligned pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise shows an impressive local haul, with $370,000 raised in Rhode Island last year. Much of that money – $250,000 – came from Providence Equity Partners senior managing director Glenn Creamer, who was on Bush’s short-lived Rhode Island campaign leadership team and held a cocktail party for the super PAC at his house on Nantucket. Also writing big checks to Right to Rise were ProvEq’s Michael Dominguez ($50,000), Nautic Partners managing director and PawSox co-owner Habib Gorgi ($25,000), Middlebridge School Chairman Mark Pelson ($25,000), ProvEq’s Michael Gray ($10,000) and Nautic’s Chris Crosby ($10,000).

3. All the local political action in the coming days will be just up the road in Massachusetts, as both parties prepare for their Super Tuesday presidential primary. But there appears to be little suspense on the Republican side, where polling continues to show Donald Trump with a healthy lead in the Bay State. “Even among high-level Republicans and behind the scenes at the State House, it’s been kind of assumed that Donald Trump was going to lock it up for a while now,” Lauren Dezenski of Politico Massachusetts said on this week’s Newsmakers, where she previewed the race with UMass Boston’s Maurice Cunningham. The Democratic primary looks more interesting in Mass., with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders running neck and neck. That landscape in both parties sounds very similar to the situation in Rhode Island, which doesn’t vote until April 26, but where the Democratic establishment is in lockstep behind Clinton despite grassroots backing for Sanders, and where Trump is making inroads with elected officials.

4. Rhode Island has 95 Democratic state lawmakers, yet only one is running to be a presidential delegate: Jamestown Rep. Deb Ruggiero, on behalf of Hillary Clinton. That’s quite a contrast with the GOP, where nine of the party’s 16 state lawmakers are running for delegate, split between Marco Rubio (5), Donald Trump (3), and John Kasich (1). Voters will elect pledged delegates in the April 26 primary.

5. The Raimondo administration touted some striking Medicaid numbers Friday that they say show they’re succeeding in reining in the costly program’s growth. The headline: state Medicaid spending would have hit $1 billion in 2016-17 if not for their changes, which they project will instead hold costs at $881 million, basically unchanged from two years earlier. They also emphasize that the savings have come without cutting benefits or eligibility, which is winning them some progressive praise. But can they actually achieve those savings? Administration officials are sensitive to skepticism, even though Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts already needs special authority to save the final $8 million of this year’s $70 million target. On the other hand, it’s clear that much of this year’s savings are real – because they come from straight rate cuts, a blunt but effective way to lower costs (particularly in what is historically one of the highest-spending states for Medicaid). The next step for the administration, then, will be executing on the “Reinventing” part of “Reinventing Medicaid” by successfully implementing the various policy initiatives they hope will save money over the long term.

6. Want to feel better about Rhode Island’s situation? Check out the worsening fiscal nightmare that’s unfolding next door in Connecticut.

7. You can’t blame Speaker Mattiello if he’s feeling a little besieged these days. The state GOP, under its energetic and media-savvy new chairman Brandon Bell, has made the Cranston Democrat a big target for this November. “The reason why members of the public refer to Speaker Mattiello as a dictator is because he acts like one,” Bell declared this week in the latest of a string of anti-Mattiello news releases in recent weeks; he’s also publicly pushing State Committeeman Steve Frias to challenge the speaker. At first glance, Common Cause’s John Marion appeared to buttress Bell’s critique with a Projo op-ed on the overwhelming power of the speaker’s office. But Marion’s argument was that it’s the institution, not the man himself, that’s the problem. And that points to one potential risk for Republicans: taking out Mattiello in November would give them quite a scalp, but he’d almost certainly be replaced by another Democrat, and perhaps a more liberal one. (Don’t forget: Mattiello got every Republican to back his budget last year and enjoys a warm relationship with, among others, Minority Whip Joe Trillo.) On the other hand, picking a fight with the top dog is an effective way for Bell to rally the troops on the right, and it helps the GOP garner media coverage – as this column item proves!

8. Don’t look for Rhode Island lawmakers to approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants this year. While Speaker Mattiello is officially keeping an open mind – partly out of respect to loyal House Democrats like Anastasia Williams and Grace Diaz – there is very little desire among the rank-and-file to take another controversial vote when so many just swallowed hard and backed truck tolls. Most just want to get through the rest of this session – and out onto the campaign trail – with as few fireworks as possible.

9. Speaking of tolls, the topic has faded from the headlines since Governor Raimondo signed RhodeWorks into law two weeks ago. The issue is still a hot topic on talk radio – witness John DePetro penning a parody song that highlights Pat Morgan’s questions getting cut off – and still a source of anger in some quarters that the GOP hopes will help drive good candidates to run this fall. Supporters, on the other hand, continue to hope that voters will judge the policy a reasonable one in a state that has consistently spent less on infrastructure than most others, and where a new Gallup poll shows its residents are tied for least satisfied with road conditions nationally. Time will tell.

10. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Providence City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson finally filed 12 past-due campaign finance reports Friday morning, but he’s not out of the woods yet. Jackson still owes the state $30,000 in late-filing penalties – which is more than the $25,000 he failed to report raising over the last two-and-a-half years. Jackson said this week he plans to ask the R.I. Board of Elections to reduce his fine, just as it did in 2014 when he reached a $10,000 settlement after failing to file his campaign reports between 2010 and 2013. Richard Thornton, the board’s director of campaign finance, said the decision to agree to a settlement with Jackson will ultimately be up to the board, but he made it clear he’ll inform them of the councilman’s previous violations. Separately, it’s still unclear if and when Attorney General Peter Kilmartin will bring charges against Jackson for allegedly filing false campaign finance reports several years ago, but spokeswoman Amy Kempe reaffirmed this week that an investigation is ongoing. Aside from the fines and his possible legal battle, Jackson is also likely staring at a difficult election challenge in 2018. Although he says he is ‘absolutely’ running again, he was nearly defeated by a write-in candidate in 2014. If someone actually ends up on the ballot in three years, Jackson will probably be the underdog in the race.”

11. Rhode Island Housing’s latest survey of rents in Rhode Island shows the cost of an apartment continues to rise far faster than inflation. Rents rose 6.7% for studios, 5.1% for one-bedrooms, 5.6% for two-bedrooms and 6.6% for three-bedrooms last year, with the average rents ranging from $769 for a studio to $1,595 for a three-bedroom. Two-thirds of the increases were due to landlords raising the rent, while the rest was due to rising utility costs, according to the survey. Sounds like the state could still stand to build a few more apartments.

12. Congrats to Rajiv Kumar & co. on the successful sale of ShapeUp.

13. Senator Whitehouse, talking climate change in Munich: “If you trade in your Mercedes for a Tesla, your quality of life just went up.” (Impolitic, perhaps, to say that in Germany.)

14. David Cicilline got some Washington Post coverage for his latest salvo on guns.

15. The cool story of how new Glenn Miller 78 RPM records are being produced.

16. Boston Magazine looks at how incredibly expensive it’s getting to live there.

17. Ernest Hemingway’s letters make for surprisingly dull reading.

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a preview of the Massachusetts primary with Politico Massachusetts’ Lauren Dezenski and UMass Boston’s Maurice Cunningham. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – R.I. Association of Realtors President Bruce Lane. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 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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