Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Nov. 12

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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Happy Saturday! Welcome to a post-election 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. President Trump. Wow. This is uncharted territory – the first president ever who hasn’t served in government or the military, elected despite near-apocalyptic predictions by his opponents – and it could reshape America in profound ways. Rhode Island is not Trump country; Hillary Clinton won the state 54% to 39%. But his message clearly resonated here, winning him 22,000 more votes than Mitt Romney as Clinton fell 29,000 votes short of Barack Obama. The result? Rhode Island had the fifth-biggest swing toward the Republicans in the country, with the Democratic margin of victory sliced from 28 points four years ago to 15 on Tuesday. (The only states with a bigger pro-Trump swing: North Dakota, West Virginia, Iowa and Maine.) This was not a low-turnout election, either. With about 460,000 votes cast for president, it’s the second-largest raw turnout in recent Rhode Island history, beaten only by 2008. Clinton’s weakness is clearly part of the story. The Democratic vote was down by about 10,000 in Warwick, Cranston and Pawtucket combined, and only two-thirds of those votes went to Trump. But she wasn’t weak everywhere, slightly outpacing Obama in Providence, where Trump also slightly outpaced Romney. The results in two communities seem emblematic of how Trump changed the GOP coalition in Rhode Island and nationally this year. Voters in working-class, traditionally Democratic Johnston handed Trump a 55% victory just four years after 57% of them went for Obama. But voters in wealthy, GOP-leaning East Greenwich delivered Clinton a double-digit win on Tuesday even though Romney took the town in 2012. Here’s an easy geographic shorthand: Clinton won eastern Rhode Island, Trump won western Rhode Island.

2. The election returns pointed to a sizable divide between voters in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They usually vote similarly in presidential elections, but not this time: Hillary Clinton scored a 27-point win in Massachusetts, right in line with Democratic performance there in the five prior elections, but she only won by 15 points in Rhode Island, the weakest Democratic margin of victory here since Mike Dukakis in 1988. That gap between the two states was the largest since 1972, when Rhode Island went for Richard Nixon but Massachusetts went for George McGovern.

3. Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a wonk, and there are many, many question-marks surrounding what policies he will pursue. Two that are already making headlines could have a big impact on Rhode Island. The first is repealing the Affordable Care Act. Unlike many states, Rhode Island went all in on Obamacare, expanding Medicaid to 77,000 low-income residents and building HealthSource RI to sell commercial coverage to another 32,000 or so. Combined, that’s about 10% of the Rhode Island population – and funding for both could be on the chopping block (though maybe not). So how will ACA changes affect the already-shaky finances and uncertain future of Rhode Island’s health care sector? The second is Trump’s vow to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. If Republicans in Congress go along, that suggests a huge infusion of funding for Rhode Island – and no one doubts there are plenty of possible projects here. Notably, Politico reports Trump’s plan would rely on a tax credit spurring private funding, which “would apply only to money-making infrastructure projects like toll roads and airports.” Public-private partnerships have already been proposed by some Rhode Island lawmakers. Those are just two of a host of issues – immigration, energy, taxes, defense, education – where Rhode Island will feel the impact of a Trump-led, unified Republican federal government.

4. Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg on Donald Trump’s America: “Federal policy is coming that will attempt to strip families of benefits and access to basic needs like food and healthcare, deny certain Rhode Islanders their rights, make it hard or impossible for Rhode Island workers to advocate for workplace protections, break up families, lay waste to the environment, deny reproductive rights, and much more. … In any and every instance that Rhode Island’s state government can throw up a shield to protect our constituents from the oncoming storm, we must do so. It is our moral and ethical and fundamental duty.”

5. Warwick Rep. Joe Trillo on Donald Trump’s America: “I think Donald Trump is going to be great for this country. … When you talk literally, and you take everything anybody says – we’re going to shut off all Muslims from coming into this country – you take that literally, and you go to the bank with it – I don’t take it like that. I take it figuratively. It’s an exaggeration for effect. … Is he going to do it? No. He’s not going to do that. I don’t believe he’s going to do it. We’re going to build a wall. Is he going to build a wall? Yeah. There’s a lot of ways of building a wall – he didn’t give you the plan for the wall. The wall doesn’t have to have bricks and mortar.”

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6. Speaker Mattiello is the unofficial winner over Steven Frias, and Joe Shekarchi is the new majority leader. At least that’s how things looked Thursday night after the Board of Elections finished counting mail ballots, which gave Mattiello a slim 65-vote edge over Frias, who has pledged to contest the outcome. If Frias succeeds, it’s Katy bar the door. Meantime, though, Mattiello is moving forward with his plans for 2017. Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat and lawyer, is a champion fundraiser and consummate wheeler-dealer who knows just about everyone in Rhode Island politics. The choice is an interesting one. Mattiello repeatedly said he values Shekarchi’s ability to be collaborative, and he’s not seen as closely aligned with the progressive or conservative wings of the House, which is a plus as a caucus leader. But he’s also close to Governor Raimondo, as her friend and 2010 campaign manager; her relationship with Mattiello is not exactly warm these days. The flip side of that, perhaps, is Shekarchi is well-positioned to bridge the divide between the two.

7. Despite more than $200,000 in outside spending, much of it targeted against incumbent Democratic lawmakers, as well as the pro-GOP swing in the presidential race, Rhode Island Republicans lost ground in the General Assembly on Tuesday. Democrats picked up two seats in the House and one in the Senate, so the new legislature will be 97 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent, based on the unofficial results. (The story was similar in Massachusetts but quite different in Connecticut.) Don’t let that fool you, though: those who worked on the campaigns say many of them were difficult, with Democratic candidates in competitive districts facing a strong anti-incumbent and anti-Smith-Hill mood. Exhibit A of that, Speaker Mattiello, described it as “swimming against a tsunami.” Striking, then, that the only two incumbent lawmakers who lost – Democratic Rep. Michael Marcello and Republican Sen. John Pagliarini – both voted against the much-discussed truck tolls. Looking back, it’s now been almost 30 years since Republicans controlled even one in five of Rhode Island’s legislative seats.

8. Among the more impressive legislative winners on Tuesday night were the incumbent Democrats who managed to hold onto their seats even as every precinct in their district went to Donald Trump, notably Reps. Greg Costantino (who ran unopposed), Thomas Winfield (who got 57%), Cale Keable (51%), Deb Fellela (58%) and Brian P. Kennedy (54%).

9. Rising state revenue could help axe the car tax.

10. Governor Raimondo has reason for concern going forward. Quite a few state lawmakers are frustrated with her after voters gave them an earful on the campaign trail about the governor’s job performance and perceived priorities. She faces re-election in 24 months in a blue state whose electorate just swung sharply toward Donald Trump over a liberal technocrat tied to high finance. She’s not part of the ascendant Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of her party. And it’s now been a quarter-century since a Democrat managed to win a majority of votes for governor in Rhode Island. None of this means Raimondo is a goner in 2018 – for one thing, nobody really knows how the Trump era is going to change American politics. (Also, his proposals for a huge fiscal stimulus could boost growth in the next two years, which would benefit incumbent governors.) The number-one question remains the same: who will run against her? Allan Fung made a statement with his emphatic mayoral re-election, but other names are floating around, too.

11. Governor Raimondo also has an opportunity in front of her. In the wake of this week’s Republican trouncing, she will be one of just 16 Democratic governors in the country come 2017, only two of whom will be women. (The other is Oregon’s newly re-elected Kate Brown.) That can’t help but raise her profile. Just this week, Jim Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute tweeted: “Why is no one talking about Gov. Gina Raimondo for the Dems in 2020?” Her critics will have quite a few answers to that, but it suggests an opportunity for Raimondo to become more prominent on the national stage. Whether that would be good for her standing here at home is another question.

12. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely political alliance than the one Mayor Elorza forged with former House Majority Leader John DeSimone and Rep. John Carnevale over the last two years. But for all their flaws, the two outgoing representatives were generally good to Providence. While Elorza struggled to get along with many members of House and Senate leadership, DeSimone was always someone who would take his call. When the mayor wanted to apply pressure to the city’s nonprofits over funding, Carnevale, a co-chair of the Providence delegation, was ready and willing to play attack dog. Now Elorza will need to go to work improving relationships with other lawmakers, something his top aides have made a priority in recent months. There are some bright spots. Rep. Chris Blazejewski, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, remains a senior member of House leadership. Kristen Dart, the mayor’s legislative liaison, just played a key role in Speaker Mattiello’s re-election bid. And the mayor has long had a strong relationship with progressive darling Rep. Aaron Regunberg. On the Senate side, there is clearly still work to do. Considering 2017 is the year before his re-election campaign, there’s a good chance we will see the mayor’s most ambitious legislative agenda yet. He’ll need all the help he can get.”

13. Wouldn’t be a shock to see defeated state Sen. John Pagliarini consider a 2018 bid for the GOP nomination for attorney general.

14. Union leaders may try to reopen Rhode Island’s pension debate.

15. One man’s quest to break our addiction to our smartphones.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable featuring Joe Fleming, Lisa Pelosi, Christine Hunsinger, Tim White and yours truly breaks down the election results. This week on Executive Suite – AS220 executive director Bert Crenca. 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 Sundays at 6 p.m. 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