Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Nov. 19

Quick hits on politics, money and more in Rhode Island

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Happy Saturday! Welcome to 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. State House leaders are sounding an optimistic note as they look ahead to 2017. Legislative Democrats feel good after losing just one seat in this month’s elections, and they cite as confidence-boosters the fact that private-sector payrolls just hit a state record and growing revenue points to a healthy budget surplus. “One of the reasons that I’m really pleased to be re-elected is we’re going to get the benefit of the work, the foundation, that we’ve already laid,” Speaker Mattiello told reporters last week. “Our revenues are coming up, and we’re going to be able to do great things.” Governor Raimondo, facing her own re-election in two years, is also cautiously upbeat, arguing this week that the polarizing proposal to put skyscrapers on the 195 land is a sign of “new momentum.” She also suggested the long-gestating Wexford 195 project is “really close” to reality, and pleaded for patience: “The 195 land when I took office was all just dirt.” Additionally, she pushed back on the idea that she has a strained relationship with lawmakers, particularly in the House. “I’ve had no trouble working with the House or the Senate,” Raimondo said. “Much is made of this conflict; they’ve both been fine to work with. … I never would expect to get everything that I propose. My job is to just propose what I think is best for Rhode Island to get people back to work.” The governor indicated she plans to revisit two proposals that died in the Assembly this year, a minimum wage increase and criminal-justice reform. She also must decide whether to include Mattiello’s promised cut in the car tax in her January budget proposal or leave it to the legislature – how to tackle that issue is a thornier question than it may seem. And all of next year’s activity will happen against the backdrop of an unpredictable new president taking the reins in Washington.

2. Speaker Mattiello is closer than ever to having his re-election victory certified following this week’s Board of Elections meeting, but the campaign has left some unfinished business that could cause him headaches in the coming weeks and months. First there’s the investigation by elections staff – and potentially the state police – into how Mattiello’s campaign used mail ballots. There’s no set time frame for how long that investigation could take, and it will be up to elections officials to decide how aggressively to pursue the issue. Then there’s the GOP complaint over Shawna Lawton, who’s now hired defense attorney John Cicilline to represent her before the board. Campaign-finance complaints are confidential, so the Lawton investigation will not become public unless the board votes that a violation has likely occurred, though the two sides will be informed either way. (While state law urges the board to try and deal with such complaints within five days, it generally takes longer.) Lawton, you’ll recall, spent more than $2,000 on a mailer endorsing Mattiello after she lost the GOP primary to take him on, but hasn’t revealed who paid for it; regardless of what the Board of Elections does, she’s required to disclose the donors by Jan. 31. And apart from those campaign-related matters, there’s another, unrelated headache waiting in the wings for Mattiello and all House Democrats – the still-unresolved law-enforcement investigation into Ray Gallison, which could jump back into the headlines at any time.

3. Legal marijuana, coming soon to a Rhode Island community near you? Maybe, but Governor Raimondo is in no rush. “I’d rather get it right than go fast,” she told reporters this week, citing concerns about safety and whether the new revenue created will cover enforcement and regulatory costs. Yet with recreational pot use set to become legal in Massachusetts next month, it’s clear the issue will be on the front burner next year; this week’s Newsmakers will get you up to speed about the situation in both states.

4. Here’s how Governor Raimondo is preparing for a Trump White House.

5. Rep. Patricia Morgan has long been known as a canny politician – she just won re-election with 55% of the vote, impressive in a three-way race – so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise State House watchers that she managed to defeat Brian Newberry’s anointed successor, Mike Chippendale, to become the new House minority leader. Ian Donnis reports Morgan won on a 6-5 split, with Blake Filippi joining the Republican Party to cast the deciding vote (and make himself minority whip), though the five dissenters made it unanimous on a final vote. Choosing Morgan to lead the caucus suggests a desire on the part of her backers for the Republicans to continue bringing the fight to Speaker Mattiello when the General Assembly reconvenes next year. Mattiello and his team will have to decide whether to treat Morgan, long a thorn in their side, differently from how they’ve treated Newberry. The day-to-day dynamics in the House could shift.

6. Politics aside, Patricia Morgan’s ascension to the GOP leader’s post marks another milestone for women in Rhode Island politics – the first time a woman has led either party in the House. It’s also another example of Rhode Island Republicans being faster than Rhode Island Democrats to give top jobs to women; when the state elected a number of women to major posts back in the 1980s and ’90s – Claudine Schneider, Arlene Violet, Susie Farmer, Nancy Meyer – they were all Republicans. Women have now served as Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor, Senate president and governor, as well as the non-elected but high-profile role of Rhode Island State Police colonel. But there are still many significant jobs that have only been held by men: no woman has ever served Rhode Island as U.S. senator, House speaker, R.I. Supreme Court chief justice, Providence mayor, Warwick mayor or Cranston mayor.

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7. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “If you were wondering whether Mayor Elorza is making a political mistake by pushing back against President-elect Trump’s campaign pledge to strip sanctuary cities of federal funding, the answer is clear: No. There are plenty of folks in Rhode Island who may think he’s nuts – there’s actually a state lawmaker who wants Elorza arrested – but it’s pretty clear his message is in lockstep with the voters of Providence. Trump didn’t win a single precinct in the capital city, earning just under 14% of the vote. At Temple Beth-El on the East Side, Hillary Clinton beat him 1,549-192. At Mary Fogarty School, Trump lost 700-44. At St. Martin de Porres, Clinton won 800-38. Even at arguably the most conservative precinct in the city, LaSalle Academy, Trump lost 369-194. That’s not to say that everyone who voted for Clinton in Providence likes Elorza or agrees with him on illegal immigration. But if he wants to piece together a coalition of East Side liberals and South Side Latinos that would help him cruise to re-election in 2018, rallying against Trump is probably a good first step. Of course, politics isn’t necessarily the first thing on Elorza’s mind with this issue. He has said his parents came to the United States from Guatemala illegally – they are now citizens – and he has spent much of his career working with underprivileged families in the city. From his point of view, this is one of those times where good policy equals good politics. Then again, if Providence does actually lose out on upwards of $30 million in federal funding, he may have to revisit his views.”

8. Meanwhile, are Elorza and Trump closer on immigration policy than their rhetoric suggests? McGowan takes a close look at the issue here.

9. Governor Raimondo continues to generate national buzz as a presidential candidate – just not, so far, from Democrats. Two more examples in the past week. National Journal political editor Josh Kraushaar tweeted: “If moderates have a voice in rebuilding D party, RI Gov. Gina Raimondo will be one to watch.” And Wall Street Journal editorial-page assistant editor James Freeman suggested on Fox News: “What [Democrats] ought to be thinking is, how do we talk to most of America that wants economic growth? And I can think of one elected Democrat, Gina Raimondo, governor of Rhode Island, who actually is making growth a priority.” Freeman’s boss, Paul Gigot, cut in, “Freeman for Raimondo in 2020!” One likely reason the governor was on Freeman’s mind: she visited the WSJ offices during her post-election trip to New York, which led to this glowing piece from longtime Raimondo fan Allysia Finley contrasting Rhode Island positively with Connecticut.

10. Another Governor Raimondo appearance in the national media this weekend: she contributed an essay to this Washington Post symposium on the Democratic Party’s future. “I disagree passionately with many of Donald Trump’s views,” Raimondo writes, then says: “We owe the president-elect an open mind. Hard-working Rhode Islanders expect me to work with any willing partner to get things done, to expand opportunity and put people back to work.”

11. Washington watch: will Jim Langevin withdraw his support for Nancy Pelosi?

12. Speaking of Jim Langevin, a significant change at his office was announced this week – Kristin Nicholson, who’s served as his chief of staff since he was elected in 2000, is leaving to join Georgetown University. Todd Adams, Langevin’s legislative director since 2011, succeeds her.

13. WPRO’s John DePetro this week floated the possibility that Joe Trillo, the man synonymous with Donald Trump in Rhode Island, will run against Sheldon Whitehouse in 2018. Trillo tells me it’s too soon to say. “At this point in time, I’m not saying anything I’m going to do in the future,” he said. “I haven’t ruled out a run statewide, I’ll tell you that. But it’s going to depend on a lot of things, and I don’t want to start speculation.” Whitehouse’s re-election prospects may actually have improved thanks to Trump, since he won’t have to fear a midterm backlash against a Democratic president and can position himself as a Trump critic for Rhode Island’s Clinton-backing electorate. The odds are tough for any Whitehouse opponent: the last time a Republican who wasn’t named Chafee won a Rhode Island U.S. Senate seat was 1930, when Jesse Metcalf beat Peter Gerry.

14. Donald Trump’s Rhode Island showing looks somewhat less impressive now that mail ballots have been counted. The current tally shows him with 38.9% of the vote, just above the 38.7% that George W. Bush achieved in 2004. The bigger difference between then and now is the drop in Democratic support: Hillary Clinton’s 54.4% is well below John Kerry’s 59.4% (let alone Barack Obama’s 60%-plus wins). Rather than go to Trump, the remaining voters flocked to third parties and, strikingly, write-ins – as Common Cause’s John Marion notes, the number of write-in votes for president in Rhode Island soared to more than 9,000 this year after averaging barely 1,000 in the last four elections.

15. Michael Mandel thinks Rhode Island went for Clinton partly because it’s one of the states with a sizable “digital economy,” ranking ninth in the nation.

16. Don’t miss this interview with controversial Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

17. How does Rhode Island welcome one of America’s most famous priests, Fr. James Martin of “Colbert Report” fame, who spoke at PC on Tuesday? Here’s what Martin tweeted after arriving: “Rude shopkeeper in Providence Amtrak station making fun of ‘men in dresses,’ i.e., priests. ‘Guess you can tell I’m not Catholic!’ Yes I can.”

18. Did you know Thanksgiving was once a partisan controversy – and Rhode Island sided with the GOP? Back in 1939, FDR tried to move Thanksgiving up a week in order to help retailers – critics called the alternative date “Franksgiving” – and a number of state leaders rebelled. Among them was Rhode Island’s Republican governor, William Vanderbilt III, and the state did not use the new date (though Vanderbilt acknowledged “some common sense” in the idea). Two years later, Roosevelt admitted the experiment had failed, and Congress decreed that henceforth Thanksgiving would always be on the fourth Thursday of November. Movie buffs might recognize that the whole controversy is referenced, via an animated turkey, in “Holiday Inn.”

19. Rhode Island’s Seven Stars Bakery makes a cameo in this Cook’s Science article on how fresh-ground flour is “changing the flavor of bread.”

20. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

21. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersPeter Ubertaccio and Lauren Dezenski talk Massachusetts politics; attorney Preston Halperin on the legal landscape for marijuana. This week on Executive Suite – Edesia founder Navyn Salem. 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

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