Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: March 19

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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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. Will Rhode Island’s 2018 gubernatorial race be a rematch between Gina Raimondo and Allan Fung? Two years after his narrow loss, Fung is leaving the door wide open to that possibility. The Republican Cranston mayor demurred repeatedly on this week’s Newsmakers when pressed about whether he’ll commit to serving out his full four-year term if voters re-elect him in November. “The only election I’m looking at right now is that election for mayor,” he said, adding: “In all honesty I haven’t looked at that, and I’m not going to jump four years ahead.” Fung remains the best-known elected Republican in Rhode Island other than, perhaps, Scott Avedisian, but he’d hardly be a shoo-in for the GOP nomination in two years. A number of up-and-coming state lawmakers may want to kick the tires on the race, and some party elders think a more likely scenario is for a businessman, known or unknown, to jump in from the private sector, Don Carcieri-style. Whoever faces Raimondo is going to need a lot of cash to be competitive: unlike in 2014, when she was forced to spend millions to win a three-way primary, this time she’ll be the incumbent. She’s already got $765,000 in the bank and is likely to ramp up her fundraising going forward.

2. As for this year’s election, Mayor Fung gave a clear preview of what his message will be against likely Democratic nominee Michael Sepe, a Cranston politics lifer, warning Sepe would allow “reckless, Democratic, old-party-boss spending and patronage.” That message could resonate in Cranston, which has had a Republican mayor for all but six years since JFK was president. “We’ve seen what Democrats in Cranston have done when they have that chief executive’s office, and that’s what we would be returning to under a Michael Sepe administration – reckless spending, possibly going into our rainy-day fund, not doing the right things on pensions,” Fung said. Sepe and his supporters hope Cranston voters will see the race as a referendum on Fung’s handling of the various police scandals, but it remains to be seen whether Sepe can convincingly cast himself as a change agent. (As a side note, Fung said he’s planning to propose a significant bond referendum on the November ballot to pay for road repairs, hoping to take advantage of low interest rates now that the city’s debt load has fallen.)

3. With Donald Trump’s nomination looking increasingly hard to stop, Rhode Island’s April 26 presidential primary – and its 19 Republican delegates – could become a key piece of the puzzle for the struggling #NeverTrump movement trying to stop him at the convention. With at least one forecast showing Trump could fall exactly one delegate short of a majority (1,237), Rhode Island offers an opportunity to hold down his numbers. Why? Because of the proportional rules crafted by GOP State Committeeman Steve Frias. Rhode Island’s delegates are divided into three buckets: 13 chosen statewide, and three each chosen in the two congressional districts. In the two congressional districts, any candidate who receives more than 10% of the vote is entitled to at least one delegate, and a candidate has to receive at least 67% to get two – so that means if Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich each clear 10%, each will get one of the three, for no net advantage. And the 13 statewide delegates will be split proportionally among all candidates who clear 10%, with Trump likely getting more but still having to share them.

4. The Marco Rubio campaign is over, though his name will still appear on the ballot in Rhode Island. His departure frees up a number of prominent GOP elected officials who were supporting him at the end, including Allan Fung, Brian Newberry and Dan Reilly. On Newsmakers, Fung said he will vote for the Republican nominee in November – even if it’s Trump – to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the White House.

5. Of course the Democratic primary is still going, too: Bernie Sanders is expected to make a campaign swing in Rhode Island next month. (Hillary Clinton’s campaign won’t say if she may do likewise.) Word of the likely visit comes from Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine, the Rhode Island native who’s been at the center of the Bernie phenomenon. Devine opened up about his backstory – from a Providence housing project to high-school basketball stardom to top campaign operative – in this recent Glenn Thrush Politico podcast.

6. Here’s what Governor Raimondo told reporters during a wide-ranging Q&A this week. Left on the cutting room floor were her comments on Hillary Clinton: “I’m with her, and she’s going to win Rhode Island. I’m going to help her do that.” Bernie Sanders “speaks of the revolution,” she added, “but I don’t think he’ll have the ability to bring real change.” The “practical” approach to politics she and Clinton embrace is what works, Raimondo argued, but “it’s not necessarily what people want to hear.”

7. Boston Fed economist Mary Burke and her colleague Austin Drukker have a must-read piece on Rhode Island’s economic woes in the latest issue of Communities & Banking magazine summarizing some of the research I’ve covered previously. They conclude: “A key question looking to the future, then, is to what extent Rhode Island’s displaced manufacturing workers can find new jobs in service-oriented sectors, and whether such jobs will offer lower wages and reduced benefits or, if not, will require significant retraining.” Indeed. Governor Raimondo indicated such concerns are on her mind, too, when she told reporters this week that the central goal of her economic proposals is to try and reverse the decline in Rhode Islanders’ median household income.

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8. A titan of Wall Street, Goldman Sachs President and COO Gary Cohn, will be in town next week to announce alongside Governor Raimondo, Senator Reed and Mayor Elorza that Goldman is bringing its $500-million 10,000 Small Businesses program to Rhode Island. Cohn is a big deal – the No. 2 exec at Goldman and likely successor to Chairman/CEO Lloyd Blankfein – so it’s a bit of a coup on Raimondo’s part to have him coming to Rhode Island. (Probably helps, too, that Reed is a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee.) The Goldman program should bring millions of dollars in new capital into the state, along with education programs for entrepreneurs. It will also be the third recent announcement Raimondo has made about new initiatives with deep-pocketed outside partners, following the Working Cities Challenge and CS4RI rollouts.

9. The New York Times paints a glowing picture of Quonset’s growth.

10. Sheldon Whitehouse’s talk of using RICO over climate change has sparked some strong reactions, as evidenced by this Wall Street Journal editorial. But after reading last week’s item here about Whitehouse’s questions to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the topic, spokesman Rich Davidson wrote in with a clarification: “Simply denying climate change isn’t what Senator Whitehouse believes could violate federal law. Like courts found with tobacco companies, it can be a violation of the federal civil RICO statute when companies engage in an enterprise designed to mislead the public about the dangers of their products. The senator’s questions to the attorney general were to learn whether the Department of Justice is doing its due diligence to investigate whether fossil fuel special interests are leading a coordinated fraudulent effort to deceive the American people.”

11. You lose some, you win some: even as Senator Whitehouse’s stance on climate change earned him a rebuke from one major editorial page this week, his work on curbing opioid abuse earned him an attaboy from The Washington Post’s opinionators. (Also interesting: Whitehouse refused to attend a partisan press conference on opioids organized by his future leader, Chuck Schumer, worried it would hurt his effort to get the bill passed.) The same paper carried a George Will column praising the sentencing reform bill Whitehouse helped write.

12. Sandra Whitehouse, the senator’s wife, has a new gig in California.

13. One thing is clear from Projo ace Jen Bogdan’s ongoing series of dispatches about the R.I. Board of Elections: the panel is profoundly dysfunctional, and its seven members seem unable or unwilling to fix it. With public confidence in Rhode Island’s administration of elections at risk, at this point it may be time for other figures – perhaps Governor Raimondo or Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea – to take some sort of action. The term of board member Frank Rego expired more than nine months ago, but Raimondo still hasn’t nominated a successor – an opportunity for her to put a change agent on the panel. Minutes show another member, Rhoda Perry, has only attended four of the last 10 meetings. Common Cause’s John Marion says the board members – who are paid $7,000 a year – should be “embarrassed” about the state of affairs.

14. The latest on the finances of two of Rhode Island’s largest health care concerns: Blue Cross & Blue Shield says things are looking up, while Care New England is talking with state officials about its troubles. Also happening this week: Home Care & Hospice of New England’s transformation into HopeHealth officially took effect after it merged and took the name of a Massachusetts entity, though its headquarters will stay in Providence; CEO Diana Franchitto discussed the deal on Executive Suite last fall.

15. Federal Hill’s venerable Italian restaurant Blue Grotto is now a Mexican eatery called Las Margaritas. “A perfect story to capture how Rhode Island is changing,” suggests a friend.

16. Rod Dreher pens a must-read on the Donald Trump phenomenon.

17. How a professor exposed the drivel that passes for wisdom in academia.

18. Did you see this great photo from Mrs. Reagan’s funeral?

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. This week on Executive SuiteRobert Brooks and Daniel Holmander of Adler Pollock & Sheehan; Randall Rosenbaum of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. 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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