Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Sept. 10

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. Tuesday’s primary kicks off the biennial eight-week sprint to Election Day in Rhode Island, and the news will be dominated by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Every national forecaster has Rhode Island in the “Safe Democratic” column, and for good reason – since 1928 Rhode Island has only backed three Republicans for president (Reagan in ’84, Nixon in ’72, and Eisenhower both times). This week brought three new bits of data on the local presidential outlook; unfortunately, not one was a gold-standard poll that had live interviewers calling cell phones as well as landlines, so the data needs to be read with serious caution. Rhode Island Republicans will love the Emerson poll that showed Clinton up by just three points here, which if true would be a disastrous sign for her campaign; however, an outlier survey that excluded cell phones and made calls during Labor Day weekend is a questionable barometer. Then there were two online attempts at getting a read on Rhode Island: a Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll that put Clinton up by eight and a Morning Consult simulation that estimates she’s ahead by 15. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since a Democratic nominee won Rhode Island by fewer than 20 points, so it goes without saying a Republican win would upend much of what we know about the state’s politics. But Clinton’s weak numbers, Trump’s local appeal, and third-party strength are all reasons her margin of victory could be lower than Barack Obama’s.

2. Just 27 of Rhode Island’s 113 state legislative districts have contested races on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary, and with no competitive congressional or statewide contests, turnout is expected to be extremely low. How low? In the last two gubernatorial off-years, 2012 and 2008, the September primary drew just 13% and 10% of Rhode Island voters to the polls, respectively. That’s going to make the individual campaigns’ local get-out-the-vote operations all the more important, since they won’t be able to ride the coattails of big-spending candidates seeking higher offices. Political insiders will be watching for how many of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats’ 19 candidates succeed, the win-loss scorecard for unions and other groups, and the inevitable surprise or two. But most Rhode Islanders won’t be watching at all.

3. House races I’m watching: District 3, where incumbent Tom Palangio is ill and challenger Moira Walsh looks strong. … House 5, where Majority Leader John DeSimone is confident Marcia Ranglin-Vassell will fall short. … House 9, where Anastasia Williams thinks her community ties will beat Mike Gadzacko‘s time-for-a-change message. … House 13, where leadership-backed Ramon Perez and progressive-backed Lisa Scorpio are battling for John Carnevale’s old seat. … House 15, the only Republican race on the list, where Steve Frias needs to beat Shawna Lawton to move on against Speaker Mattiello. … House 21, where Councilwoman Camille Valla-Wilkinson is giving Eileen Naughton a real scare. … District 34, where Teresa Tanzi has two opponents, Town Councilor Rachel Clough and Ewa Dzwierzynski, the latter of whom has some GOP support. … District 52, where farmer-lawyer Alex Marszalkowski and former councilman David Chenevert want Karen MacBeth’s seat. … District 60, where House leadership is trying to help David Coughlin fend off PawSox activist David Norton. … District 64, where East Providence’s Helder Cunha and Brian Coogan both have baggage as they vie to succeed Helio Melo. … District 67, where Barrington lawyer Jason Knight hopes to upset Warren liquor-seller Jan Malik. … And District 72, where gun-control advocates are backing former lawmaker Linda Finn’s comeback but House leadership is supporting Jim Cawley.

4. With just eight contests, the Senate primary landscape is sleepier than the House, but there are still some races to watch: Senate District 2, where incumbent Juan Pichardo is feeling the heat from Ana Quezada. … District 7, where fast-changing demographics are a factor in the rematch between Frank Ciccone and Doris De Los Santos. … District 8, where Jamie Doyle may benefit from a sympathy vote against Matt Fecteau and Mark Theroux after Doyle’s dad’s recent death. … District 17, where family standard-bearer Jina Petrarca-Karampetsos is one of four candidates for retiring Ed O’Neill’s seat, along with union favorite Dennis Lavallee, familiar face Keven McKenna and lawyer Hagop Jawharjian. … And District 30, where conservative incumbent Bill Walaska has been battling cancer while campaigning against Bernie Sanders campaign activist Jeanine Calkin.

5. In some of the districts up for grabs Tuesday, the primary is contested but the November election isn’t – meaning the primary winner will be the only candidate on the fall ballot, effectively turning the primary into the general election. Once Tuesday’s results are in, then, this year’s outcome will already be decided in 53 of Rhode Island’s 113 legislative districts (barring a write-in shocker). Another way to look at it: on Sept. 14 Democrats will already be just a few seats short of a legislative majority in both chambers, because barely more than half the Assembly’s districts are being contested in November. And for the historically minded: as of next January the Democratic Party will have controlled the House for 76 straight years and the Senate for 58.

6. Some late-breaking shows of support … the R.I. Brotherhood of Correctional Officers union has poured $9,500 into defeating Doris De Los Santos, Jason Knight, David Chenevert, David Norton and Ana Quezada (a RIBCO boost for, respectively, Frank CicconeJan MalikAlex MarszalkowskiDavid Coughlin and Juan Pichardo) … the National Rifle Association’s political arm has endorsed Democrats John DeSimoneRamon PerezJoe SolomonPat SerpaBill O’Brien, David Coughlin, Jan Malik, Frank Ciccone, Jamie Doyle, Daniel Issa and Bill Walaska, along with Republicans Bobby Nardolillo and Amy Veri (Senate 12) … the NEARI teachers’ union backed a slate of 22 Democrats, all leadership favorites … and RI NOW endorsed 35 Democrats.

7. Look for voter turnout to be above average Tuesday in North Providence, where incumbent Charlie Lombardi and challenger Kristen Catanzaro have been locked in an increasingly nasty battle for the next four-year mayoral term. The pair traded barbs Friday during a debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, sparring over town finances and Lombardi’s long-running feud with Catanzaro’s ex-fire-chief husband. Lombardi is a heavy favorite among Rhode Island’s political chattering class, and most would be stunned if she pulled it off Tuesday. Nevertheless, Catanzaro drew some blood during the debate, pinning down Lombardi for failing to reduce car taxes and running up a surplus that wasn’t mandated at the time. Yet in another sense she’s a flawed messenger, largely due to a number of questionable decisions involving her husband that happened during the administration of Lombardi nemesis Ralph Mollis. If Lombardi wins, he’ll be 74 at the end of his current term, so it will be worth watching whether he makes this his final campaign.

8. An interesting side note on the Lombardi-Catanzaro race is how it could affect the Senate District 7 primary rematch pitting incumbent Frank Ciccone against Doris De Los Santos. While much of District 7 is in Providence, a chunk of it is in North Providence, and higher voter turnout for the mayoral primary will also mean more North Providence voters casting a ballot in the Senate contest. If Lombardi prevails as expected, that could give a boost to Ciccone, who has the mayor’s backing. (Catanzaro said she’s neutral in the Senate primary.)

9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “While all eyes in Providence politics have been on the much-hyped House races – DeSimone vs. Ranglin-Vassell in District 5, Williams vs. Gazdacko in District 9, and the three-way battle for outgoing John Carnevale’s seat in District 13 – the best chances for an incumbent to get knocked off in the city Tuesday might be in the Senate. Start on the South Side, where Sen. Juan Pichardo appears to be on the ropes against challenger Ana Quezada in District 2. (It was not an accident that Mayor Elorza declined to endorse anyone in that race even though Pichardo backed his bid for mayor in 2014.) Quezada picked up 36% of the vote against Pichardo two years ago, but that was a three-way race. By all accounts, she has been campaigning nonstop for the last two years; those ‘Who is Ana Q?’ shirts her supporters constantly wear have been effective. Over in District 7, Doris De Los Santos is trying again after she lost to Frank Ciccone by 10 points in 2014, and she got a late boost this week when independent candidate Thomas Peluso dropped out and endorsed her. Ciccone has fired back by going negative, sending a mailer that criticizes De Los Santos for having a city job and a lucrative position on the state parole board. Keep an eye on Mount Pleasant High School on Election Day. Ciccone crushed De Los Santos there two years ago even though she had then-Council President Michael Solomon’s endorsement. If she can improve her performance at Mount Pleasant and strengthen her numbers in Silver Lake, she might be able to overcome Ciccone’s push in North Providence.”

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10. Congrats to CVS Health exec Helena Foulkes, who ranks 12th on this year’s Fortune Most Powerful Women list. Will she be CEO someday?

11. R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell’s retirement announcement came as a real surprise Thursday. “I have come to a crossroads in my life and career,” he wrote in his letter to Governor Raimondo. “Every good leader knows when it is time to start the next chapter in his life. Several weeks ago I realized that moment had arrived.” There will be plenty of speculation about why he had that realization now – he and Raimondo are both strong personalities – but whatever the backstory there, the governor is now faced with a major decision. Raimondo’s staff told my colleague Jared Pliner she will conduct a national search for O’Donnell’s successor, but she risks a backlash if she goes outside the current state police ranks to replace him – especially since it wouldn’t be the first time her use of out-of-staters had come under the microscope. Well-respected Lt. Col. Kevin Barry, the acting superintendent, would seem to be the obvious safe choice. (And for more on O’Donnell, check out this 2011 piece Tim White wrote when he got the job.)

12. The contrast is about as obvious as it gets. On Wednesday Governor Raimondo abruptly announced she was calling time on the debate over the 6/10 Connector, ordering RIDOT to spend $400 million rebuilding as is the nine bridges that slice through Olneyville, which will lock that neighborhood into an Eisenhower-era highway approach for at least another generation. The next day her Connecticut counterpart Dan Malloy was in Hartford making the exact opposite announcement about I-84, promising to bury the highway and in effect acknowledging the damage his predecessors did to the area 50 years ago. With Speaker Mattiello also on board, Raimondo seems likely to get her way on 6/10. And certainly no one should be cavalier about the possibility of people getting injured – or worse – due to decaying bridges. But history may judge the governor penny wise and pound foolish for rushing through an unimaginative solution when a tiny fraction of that $400 million could buy a bit more time to come up with something more thoughtful (even if it means those Laborers shovels aren’t in the ground in 2017).

13. Pensions & Investments put Governor Raimondo on the Crain 100 list.

14. What would the politics of the Superman building look like if owner David Sweetser suddenly got millions of dollars for it from Bank of America? It’s worth considering after Sweetser’s lawsuit against BofA was green-lighted to go to a jury trial this week. The key thing to remember: the bank had a triple-net lease on Superman, which means it was responsible for a significant amount of maintenance until its departure in 2013. The case will hinge on just how much, and whether the bank fulfilled its obligations.

15. Governor Raimondo has ordered officials to speed up plans for moving buses out of Kennedy Plaza – and Joe Paolino has hired John Tarantino to help him craft a plan for downtown. Steve Nielsen and Dan McGowan have the story here.

16. Don’t tell Sheldon Whitehouse: not all liberals support campaign-finance reform.

17. With Amazon.com set to open its new million-square-foot distribution center in Fall River this month, check out this Bloomberg BusinessWeek feature on why the company is building that and others like it.

18. Is rock ‘n’ roll dying out?

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate between the two Democratic candidates for North Providence mayor, Kristen Catanzaro and Charlie Lombardi. This week on Executive SuiteMarc Dunkelman, research fellow at Brown University and author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” 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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