Nesi’s Notes: Dec. 3

The Saturday Morning Post | Quick hits on politics and more in RI

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Happy Saturday! As you can see, The Saturday Morning Post has a new name that’s also an old name: Nesi’s Notes, which was the moniker for my now-defunct blog here on WPRI.com. But the name is the only thing that’s changing for now – so as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, follow @tednesi on Twitter, and thank you for reading my weekend column.

1. Don’t look now, but the 2018 general election is only 703 days away – and the jockeying for position has already begun. It starts with the governor’s office; Gina Raimondo won with only 41% of the vote and is seen as vulnerable, despite her aides’ protestations and her fundraising prowess. Yet although the governor’s race may get most of the attention, there will be lots of other interesting contests on the ballot. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will be up for re-election and heading the Democratic ticket; he’s a heavy favorite considering his landslide win in 2012, and midterm elections are usually better for the opposition party, but he won’t have a presidential candidate’s coattails to ride like he did four years ago. The attorney general’s office will be open, with Peter Kilmartin term-limited, and contenders are already lining up for that job. The other three general officers – Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner – are up for re-election, as are all members of the General Assembly. (Will Nick Mattiello and Teresa Paiva Weed run again?) And in Providence there’s much chatter about whether a credible challenger to Mayor Elorza will emerge, though it’s been 42 years since an incumbent mayor lost in the capital city. The political landscape could be quite different by mid-2018, and the public focus next year will be on governing rather than campaigning. But the “invisible primary” will soon be underway.

2. Add another name to the list of Gina Raimondo’s possible 2018 challengers: former R.I. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Flanders. Flanders, a Republican, had a high profile as Central Falls’ state-appointed receiver when that city went bankrupt, and he also served on the Barrington Town Council back in the 1980s. He isn’t throwing his hat in the ring yet, but he’s not dousing the flames, either. “I think it’s premature at this point to comment on anything like that,” Flanders told me this week. “I’ve been approached by several people and groups. At this point it’s all speculation, and I’m not going to comment further at this time.”

3. High finance could be a key vulnerability for Governor Raimondo once again in 2018. Anger about the 2011 pension law still burns white hot among many retirees, not just over the benefit cuts but also her controversial investment strategy for the pension portfolio. Treasurer Magaziner’s decision to roll back her commitment to hedge funds, and his frank comments about the strategy’s disappointing results, added fuel to the fire. The same can be said about Patrick Anderson’s Black Friday scoop that Raimondo’s old venture-capital firm, Point Judith Capital, won’t let the state out of its underperforming $5-million investment there for at least another year, possibly two. Raimondo recently defended her pension policies to Tim White, noting the state’s budget would be deep in the red if no changes had been made. But she’s on much weaker ground politically when the focus shifts from pension benefits to pension investments.

4. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has had a fairly low profile as Elizabeth Roberts’ successor, though in fairness the No. 2 state office is never going to dominate the front pages whoever its occupant. Yet Rhode Island teachers’ unions, who abhor the Democrat’s support for charter schools, would still like to defeat him in 2018 after they failed to do so in 2014. NEARI’s Bob Walsh told me, “I would say that, understanding that the next lieutenant governor would be positioned to run in the future for governor or possibly replace a governor – because I’m a true believer that we’re going to take back the White House in four years, and there’s a short list of Democratic governors in the country – there’ll be a lot of scrutiny of who that person is.” Noting as well the lopsided vote against charters in Massachusetts last month, Walsh said: “You weigh all those factors in the balance and I think it’s probably likely there’ll be a challenge, and we’d be open to a challenger.” The question then becomes who would jump into the Democratic primary for LG – Peter Kilmartin? Clay Pell? a newcomer? – and whether McKee can fight back effectively.

5. David Cicilline is running for a House Democrat leadership post.

6. Matt McDermott, the Warwick native who’s now a national Democratic strategist, used some interesting local data this week to argue James Comey’s late letters about Hillary Clinton’s email server helped cost her significant support. McDermott noted that in Rhode Island, Clinton won 60% of votes cast in advance by mail ballot but only 54% of votes cast on Election Day at polling places; her margin over Trump shrank from 27 points to 14 points. Barack Obama, by contrast, saw his margin over Mitt Romney actually grow from 23 points on mail ballots to 28 points on Election Day. Democratic operative Peter Baptista said the only incomparable shift in recent years was after Frank Caprio’s “Shove It” comment in 2010; Caprio got 34% on mail ballots but only 23% on Election Day. “RI is a state with limited absentee usage and no coordinated campaign pushing it. So only explanation for such a huge collapse: late shift,” McDermott argued. It’s an intriguing argument, though it’s also worth considering whether the surge in mail ballots this year (from 26,000 in 2012 to 40,000 in 2016) is part of the explanation.

7. Speaking of which, this week the Board of Elections certified the number of ballots cast in this year’s election: 469,589. That is the second-highest number of raw votes ever cast in a Rhode Island election, just behind the 475,428 in 2008. Hillary Clinton received 44,000 fewer votes this year than Barack Obama did in 2008, while Donald Trump received 15,000 more than John McCain – and the number of votes for third-party or write-in candidates jumped from about 9,000 in 2008 to 31,000 this year.

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8. Former R.I. Economic Policy Council chief Rob Atkinson has an unusual take on Trump’s Carrier deal, arguing reactions on left and right have been flawed: “It sets the precedent that growing, attracting, and retaining globally traded, innovation-based industries that are both high-value and pay high wages is central to U.S. economic growth.” (For more, check out Atkinson’s 2014 Exec Suite interview.)

9. There was a lot of optimistic talk at Monday’s Medicaid news conference about the strides Governor Raimondo’s administration argues it’s making on “reinventing” the program, as they put it. The reality is more nuanced. The governor’s office frequently touts roughly $70 million in state-level savings from her Medicaid initiatives in 2015-16. But most of that money didn’t come from changing how care is provided; $19 million was from lower payment rates to hospitals and nursing homes, $13 million was from higher taxes on hospitals, $9 million was from cuts to managed care, $7 million was from maximizing federal funding, and so on. There were plenty of other 2015-16 initiatives, some of which achieved their promised savings and some of which didn’t, but that’s where the big money was saved. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts acknowledged as much, but said: “There’s a lot of reinvention going on. … We’ve got a range of ways that we are coordinating care more effectively.” She argued the $130 million in new federal Medicaid money announced this week gives the state necessary capital to, for example, build the infrastructure so more elderly Rhode Islanders can shift from nursing homes to community-based care. “What a lot of our providers are saying to us is, if you want us to change, we need a small targeted investment,” she said.

10. How long has Rhode Island been talking about shifting older residents from nursing homes to community-based care? At least since 1991, when Ira Magaziner published his “Aging 2000” report. That was a quarter-century ago.

11. Sheldon Whitehouse has blurbed a new book, “The Right’s Road to Serfdom.”

12. Twin River Chairman John Taylor Jr. is an optimistic guy these days, and it’s not hard to see why. In Tiverton, voters just approved – narrowly – his proposal for a new $75-million casino by the Fall River border to compete with new expanded gaming in Massachusetts. That facility is slated to open in July 2018, and at the rate things are going it’s unlikely a Taunton tribal casino or other Southeastern Massachusetts alternative will be up and running by then. “Today Newport Grand generates $27 million in revenue to the state of Rhode Island; without competition – and we expect now that we’ll probably open without competition in the Southeastern zone – that number goes to $70 million,” Taylor said on this week’s Newsmakers. (As for the old Newport Grand site, Twin River has promised to knock down the building if it can’t find a buyer for it, as the city examines how to redevelop the area.) Meanwhile over in Lincoln, Twin River’s slot revenue fell about 6% after Plainridge opened in Massachusetts; the company had feared the hit could be twice as bad. Taylor is now moving forward with plans to build a hotel at the Lincoln facility, hoping to further strengthen its competitive position. The New England casino market is only getting more competitive and will remain challenging going forward, but Twin River appears to be in better shape than many would have guessed a few years ago.

13. Rhode Island is undergoing a remarkable demographic transformation.

14. Tech is the topic on Executive Suite this week, with two great guests: Dockwa CEO Mike Melillo and NetCenergy CEO Don Nokes. Melillo’s Newport-based startup has been described as “OpenTable for boats” and it’s growing at a fast clip. One worrying sign for Rhode Island, though: Dockwa has already had to open a second office, up in Cambridge, because of a lack of skilled workers down here; having two offices, Melillo noted, is “not really normal for a startup.” Like many, he wishes Rhode Island could take better advantage of its proximity to thriving Boston. “The distance between Palo Alto and San Francisco is the same time as it is between Boston and Providence,” Melillo said. “Yet none of the companies that ship their employees from Palo Alto to San Francisco do that from Boston to Providence. … I think there’s an incredible opportunity.” Nokes, too, thinks Rhode Island isn’t tapping its full potential. “There’s really no reason why a state as small as we are, with the potential efficiencies that we could have, that we have such high overhead and such low rankings on ease of doing business,” he said.

15. The Providence Journal’s latest circulation report once again shows a significant decline versus a year ago. Print circulation on Sunday, the most profitable day of the week for newspapers, fell 9% compared with last year, to about 77,000. Saturday and Monday-Friday print circulation fell about 10% and 8%, to 70,000 and 59,000 copies, respectively. But it’s not all gloom and doom – the picture looks brighter when you examine just the change over the last six months. Comparing March 31 to Sept. 30, print circulation was basically flat across the week, with the numbers actually up very slightly on weekdays. The paper also has a bit more than 3,000 digital subscribers, despite a small decrease there over the last six months. The new numbers arrive as The Journal’s future becomes a hot topic, with Phil Eil publishing a nuanced examination of its situation in the new Rhode Island Monthly and analysts like Ken Doctor warning of trouble ahead for all papers.

16. Fake news? Ben Franklin successfully peddled it in Rhode Island centuries ago.

17. The typical college student is not who you think it is.

18. Is America simply too big?

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Twin River Chairman John Taylor Jr.; Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts. This week on Executive Suite – Dockwa co-founder and CEO Mike Melillo; NetCenergy co-founder and president Don Nokes. 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 writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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