The Saturday Morning Post: Sept. 17

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Happy weekend! Ted’s wearing Mickey Mouse ears and hanging with Cinderella at the Magic Kingdom this weekend, so I took over. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to dmcgowan@wpri.com or tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @danmcgowan and @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Because it’s a political position, there’s nothing stopping House Democrats from caucusing at any time to elect a new majority leader now that they know Rep. John DeSimone won’t be returning to the State House in January. But what’s far more likely to happen is the Democrats will wait and see whether Speaker Nicholas Mattiello survives a challenge from Republican Steven Frias Nov. 8 before they vote on anything. If Mattiello wins, he’ll probably call for a meeting sometime the same week and will have enormous influence over the selection of his No. 2. If Frias pulls off the upset, chaos will ensue. Of course, that doesn’t mean a handful of ambitious Democrats aren’t going to spend the next seven weeks trying to line up votes to succeed DeSimone. Start with the favorites. House Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski from Providence is viewed as the guy who can build a bridge between Mattiello and the progressives as the room continues to move to the left, but there are plenty of more conservative Democrats who will argue the speaker shouldn’t be rewarding the liberals. Warwick Rep. Joseph Shekarchi has the respect of the speaker and enough clout among his colleagues to win the votes, but he has openly acknowledged he may seek a higher office in the future, which could keep him out. (Reached Friday, both Blazejewski and Shekarchi declined to comment, but also declined to rule out wanting the bump.) Then you have current House Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable from Burrillville and Rep. Ken Marshall of Bristol as possible contenders. On the outside is Rep. John Lombardi from Providence, who is openly counting votes but is also the least likely to win the support of Mattiello. In fact, Lombardi is likely positioning himself to be a player in the event Frias unseats the speaker.

2. Did Tuesday’s results signal a progressive wave in Rhode Island or were they just a sign that long-time incumbents had lost touch with their district? The competing narratives each have some merit. On one side, the Progressive Democrats and their leader Sam Bell are simply pointing at the scoreboard. Their endorsed candidates were able to pick off House Majority Leader John DeSimone, Reps. Jan Malik and Tom Palangio and Sen. William Walaska. (They’re also taking credit for Linda Finn’s win in House District 72 and Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s easy victory.) But those who aren’t quite ready to concede power to their more liberal counterparts say the most common theme among the incumbents who lost Tuesday was the amount of time they spent in the General Assembly. DeSimone and Rep. Eileen Naughton were both elected in 1992; Walaska won his seat two years later; Malik was first elected in 1996; and even Sen. Juan Pichardo had been at the State House for 14 years. Palangio was the only recently-elected lawmaker to go down, but he too had plenty of experience in the General Assembly, having previously served as a state representative from 1993 until 2002.

3. There are plenty of reasons House Majority Leader John DeSimone lost Tuesday night, starting with the fact that newcomer Marcia Ranglin-Vassell proved to be a well-funded, well-organized candidate who presented a very clear alternative to the voters of House District 5. Other explanations of course include DeSimone’s disconnect with his district, his tax issues and an anti-gun mailer Alan Hassenfeld dropped on the neighborhood. But those playing Wednesday morning quarterback say it was the arrogance of Team DeSimone that may have delivered the fatal blow. For most of the summer, DeSimone’s camp openly bragged about the message they were going to send to progressives on primary day. When Speaker Mattiello’s team asked if he needed resources, DeSimone told them he was fine. So the speaker sent his top operatives to assist Reps. Anastasia Williams on the South Side and Dave Coughlin in Pawtucket. (Williams and Coughlin both won.) It wasn’t until around 6:00 on Tuesday night that members of the media started to hear from those close to DeSimone that there were concerns turnout was larger than expected. By then, it was too late.

4. From Ted Nesi: “One candidate who fell short but still had a decent showing Tuesday was Michael Gazdacko, who challenged controversy-plagued Rep. Anastasia Williams. Williams pulled it off, winning by 7 percentage points (89 actual votes), but she’s clearly suffered damage in her district — Gazdacko is only her third primary opponent since 1994, and the two previous races weren’t even close. One campaign innovation used on Williams’ behalf that’s worth noting: negative sponsored Facebook ads. Someone created a page called Stop Michael Gazdacko that riffed off a Williams mailer painting the developer as another Donald Trump, and whoever it was spent money with Facebook to promote its attacks to a wider audience. There was no disclosure of who was behind the spending, and it’s possible there’s nothing wrong with that: Board of Elections campaign-finance chief Ric Thornton says as long as someone sticks to spending less than $1,000 on electioneering, they don’t have to disclose their activities to the board.”

5. So how did 14-year incumbent Sen. Juan Pichardo get taken out by Ana Quezada, who has never really come close in her four previous attempts to win a General Assembly seat? Take a look at the mail ballots. There were more mail ballots in Senate District 2 (312) than in the entire North Providence mayoral race (302), even though three times as many people voted in the Lombardi/Catanzaro tussle. Pichardo actually won by 76 votes at the machines, but Quezada’s 243 mail ballots were more than enough to put her over the top. The brains behind Quezada’s mail operation was Luis Estrada, an ex-con who has turned his life around and quietly become one of the most sought-after political operatives in the Latino community. Estrada acknowledges his beef with Pichardo stems in part from a decision the senator made in his capacity as chairman of the Providence Board of Licenses – he declined to discuss specifics – but he also said many Quezada supporters felt as though Pichardo was unresponsive to the needs of the district. As for the mail ballots, Estrada pointed to a 2011 state law that doesn’t require an excuse for voting by mail – meaning that all someone has to do is say they may not be able to get to their polling place on the day of the election in order to cast a mail ballot.

6. If the Providence City Council has its way, Sen. Juan Pichardo will be the last elected official to serve on the Board of Licenses.

7. Mayor Jorge Elorza has publicly endorsed three candidates since he took office last year: then-Bridgeport, Connecticut Mayor Bill Finch, Hillary Clinton and House Majority Leader John DeSimone. Finch lost to the Buddy Cianci of Bridgeport, Clinton dropped the Rhode Island primary to Sen. Bernie Sanders and DeSimone was unseated by Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. (In fairness to Elorza, it was completely logical for him to support all three of those candidates.) Because he was the majority leader, DeSimone’s loss clearly had the biggest sting for the mayor. And while he probably won’t play any role in helping elect the next majority leader, he’ll certainly be crossing his fingers that DeSimone’s successor is willing to help Providence.

8. Aside from struggling to handicap political races, Mayor Elorza had a pretty good week. Finally reaching a deal with the Providence firefighters means he no longer has a cloud over his head every time he goes to the State House. And while it remains to be seen how much the city actually saves from the agreement – the key unanswered question is how much the city might have to fork over in back pay to the firefighters – there is no question that greater health co-shares for active employees and new retirees will be beneficial to the city. On the Kennedy Plaza issue, Elorza rolled out a sensible plan of attack that appears to have the support of social-service advocates in the city. He and former Mayor Joe Paolino generally have the same ideas for helping the homeless and those with mental-health or substance-abuse issues. They only seem to disagree on enforcement, where Paolino wants to take a more aggressive approach.

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9. Retiring Rhode Island State Police Supt. Col. Steven O’Donnell is not hiding who he wants to succeed him as the state’s top cop: Lt. Col. Kevin Barry, who will serve as acting superintendent while Governor Raimondo conducts a search. During a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, O’Donnell acknowledged that great candidates from all over the country will be seeking the job, but “I know the rank and file in the state police support [Barry]. The retired people support him.”

10. Col. O’Donnell said he doesn’t know what he’ll do when he retires, but one thing is certain: he won’t be running for office. “No interest, ever,” he told Tim White.

11. Great news: Tim White’s book, “The Last Good Heist,” will be available as an audio book beginning Oct. 25.  Bad news: It won’t be Tim’s soothing voice reading to you. They went with a professional.

12. “The dominance of the Democrats has less to do with ideological liberalism, and more to do with other historical factors — from the legacy of machine politics to the incompetence of state Republicans.” Sounds like an analysis of Rhode Island politics, but it’s actually WGBH’s David Bernstein writing about Massachusetts— worth reading.

13. Another item from Ted Nesi: “Governor Raimondo and her Commerce RI team are working hard to win positive attention for the state in the national business media, but they were dealt a minor blow this week when the investor magazine Barron’s mentioned this about Greencore, the Irish food company that set up shop at Quonset last year: ‘However, the expansion hasn’t been without hiccups. For instance, a new facility in Rhode Island encountered higher-than-expected levels of employee turnover, and materials waste.’ That’s particularly noteworthy considering how many positive things Greencore executives had to say about Rhode Island back when they chose Quonset. On the plus side, the article was quite bullish on Greencore overall, reinforcing that luring the company to the state could pay long-term dividends.”

14. Shortly after winning the Democratic primary in House District 8 in 2012, John Lombardi received a call from then-House Speaker Gordon Fox to congratulate him on the victory. Lombardi, who did not have the support of Fox or then-Mayor Angel Taveras in that race, would have nothing of it. Although Lombardi doesn’t like to talk about that conversation, he acknowledges it was slightly more vulgar than Frank Caprio’s famous “shove it” comment in 2010. It sounds like the conversations Speaker Mattiello and his surrogates have had with Tuesday’s winners haven’t been quite as contentious.

15. Congratulations to Jim Hummel, new permanent host of “A Lively Experiment.”

16. Best wishes to Providence Journal political columnist Ed Fitzpatrick, who is leaving the paper to become the director of media and public relations for Roger Williams University.

17. Even if she is elected to a second term, Governor Raimondo will be three years out of office by the time we know if her goal to have 75% of third graders reading at grade level by 2025 was a success. “The difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline,” Raimondo said this week. Then again, anyone who watched the entire country fail to reach the lofty goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act might be familiar with a quote from author Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” The governor’s goal does not come with strict accountability measures – the state isn’t planning to take over schools that aren’t hitting their goals – but her top aides are stressing that getting from here (about 37% of third graders were proficient in reading last year) to there will be a focus of every education conversation they have going forward. To her credit, Raimondo has already laid some of the ground work for reaching the goal – the expansion of state-funded pre-K and all-day Kindergarten come to mind – but it’s clear additional resources will be needed in many districts to make this happen.

18. We’re looking at the end of an era in the R.I. Dept. of Education. Elliot Krieger, who has served as spokesman for three commissioners, is retiring in December.

19. Big ups to former Providence Phoenix editor Phil Eil, who scored a victory Friday in his FOIA lawsuit seeking court records from a high-profile trial that sent a Chicago doctor to prison for life for overprescribing and distributing prescription drugs. Anyone who follows Phil on Twitter knows about his struggle with the courts over the last couple of years. On the bright side, he now has two books to write: one about the doctor and the other about the federal government.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Rhode Island State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell. This week on Executive Suite – NanoSteel CEO David Paratore; the VETS Foundation’s Paul Brooks and James Koloski. 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.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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