Nesi’s Notes: Feb. 4

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

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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. Senator Whitehouse’s public image is as a stalwart progressive – liberal on government spending, hawkish on climate change, relentless on campaign finance. So perhaps it’s no surprise the large progressive protest against him last Sunday made national headlines, as a symbol of the Democratic base’s uncompromising demands when it comes to opposing President Trump. Whitehouse stood outside in the cold for 90 minutes answering questions from those who couldn’t get inside his town hall event, and his comments assuaged at least some concerns. But the pushback at Whitehouse – like the criticism of Elizabeth Warren over her vote for Ben Carson – shows that even those most identified with the Senate’s liberal wing can’t take for granted their support on the left right now. (Both Whitehouse and Warren are up for re-election next year.) MSNBC host Joe Scarborough marveled on Twitter, “@SenWhitehouse is now insufficiently liberal? I’m a Republican so don’t take my word for it, but two years of this ends badly for Democrats.” Even a more sympathetic observer, liberal writer Brian Beutler, cautioned activists against demanding lockstep opposition: “They should accept in advance that this fight, like others to come, may be unwinnable – but that losing a fight isn’t the same as failing to rise to the occasion, and that picking only certain battles isn’t synonymous with appeasement.” Whitehouse made sure to reinforce his anti-Trump bona fides this week, musing about voting “hell no” on Rex Tillerson in a TV hit that went viral. But for a senator who takes pride in his ability to work with Republicans, the coming months may not always be easy ones.

2. Meanwhile, inside Senator Whitehouse’s event there were cheers and a standing ovation for Hilmy Bakri, president of the Islamic School of Rhode Island’s trustees.

3. Speaking of Sheldon Whitehouse, he’s not wasting any time in starting up his 2018 re-election campaign. Whitehouse has scheduled a campaign kickoff event at the Biltmore for Feb. 26, a full 20 months before voters go to the polls. “Just days into the Trump presidency, the rash actions of the new administration have already made clear that it’s more important than ever Rhode Island have a strong voice in Congress speaking out for our values,” Whitehouse told me in a statement. The junior senator is following the precedent set by his senior colleague Jack Reed, who held a Biltmore kickoff on the exact same weekend to start his own 2014 campaign.

3. The explosive reaction to President Trump’s refugee order last weekend showed just how much he’s scrambled politics not only in Washington but at the state level, too. Pushing back at Trump has given Governor Raimondo a chance to bond with progressives, some of whom have distrusted her in the past; she drew cheers from protestors at State House rallies on each of the last two weekends. (Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine a crowd of progressives cheering Gina Raimondo then marching off to protest Sheldon Whitehouse.) Raimondo faces her own cross-pressures over Trump – she refuses to take as hard a line on immigration as Jorge Elorza and put federal funding at risk, for example – but the new president’s controversies have given her a chance to speak about her political beliefs in a way she rarely has previously. Indeed, Raimondo may find it easier running for re-election in a midterm year as a member of the opposition party than she would have if Hillary Clinton had won. On the other side of the aisle, Allan Fung was criticized by the Democratic Governors Association spokesman for not speaking out during the first 24 hours of tumult over the Trump order; the following day Fung put out a statement criticizing the order’s execution while also taking a veiled shot at Raimondo. Fung, like Charlie Baker, will have to navigate balancing the enthusiasm for Trump among the GOP rank-and-file with the antipathy toward him in a broader electorate that went for Clinton by double-digits. And we’re only two weeks into the Trump era.

4. One of Rhode Island leaders’ biggest concerns about the Republican takeover in Washington has been the GOP’s commitment to repeal President Obama’s health care law, which directs hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Ocean State. In a sign of how seriously the possibility is being taken, Senate Chairmen Dan DaPonte and Joshua Miller have scheduled a joint hearing for Tuesday to examine the potential impact. State leaders may be breathing a sigh of relief, though, after reading this week’s CNN and New York Times stories suggesting GOP congressional leaders are now talking about “repairing” Obamacare rather than repealing it altogether.

5. Governor Raimondo doesn’t have the connections to the Trump White House she would with a Democratic administration, but one exception is Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs exec and Democrat who’s now a top economic adviser to the president. Last year the governor brought Cohn, whose wife is on the RISD board, to Rhode Island to announce the bank’s small-business initiative, and she’s keeping in touch. “I’ve called him – I called to congratulate him,” Raimondo said on this week’s Newsmakers. “What I said to him is what I have said to everyone I know who is part of the administration, which is, we want to work with you.” She added: “Look, we’re rooting for their success. … I oppose [Trump] on pretty much everything – like, everything he’s done so far, I disagree with. Having said that, we want America to be successful, and so I’m going to – I need to work with that administration.” Raimondo plans to meet with Cohn when the National Governors Association has its winter meeting in Washington later this month.

6. Trump campaign chairman Joe Trillo warns the Warwick Beacon: “If you take him literally, he’s going to really mess with your head.”

7. Also on the business leader front, Citizens Financial Group CEO Bruce Van Saun tells me he’s getting involved with the new Partnership for Rhode Island group that Hasbro’s Brian Goldner and CVS’s Larry Merlo recently helped create. “I’m with them,” Van Saun said on this week’s Executive Suite. “I’m going to be part of that group, and we’re kicking it off shortly.” He continued: “We’re working with the governor’s office just to say, how can we make Rhode Island a better business climate? We can look at some of the things Massachusetts has done, some of the improvements in infrastructure that have been good, some of the education reform, the tax and regulatory regime – I think it’s just taking a hard look in the mirror and saying, there’s a lot of great things about Rhode Island but there’s some things that hold us back from being all we can be, and so how can we help? If the governor has ideas, how can we put our clout behind certain things? Or can we come up with ideas that we can get the government and the legislature to move on?”

8. Buff Chace wants to build a grocery store in downtown Providence.

9. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Mayor Elorza’s State of the City address this week offered a predictably optimistic view of his first two years in office, highlighting Providence’s improved financial picture and his decision to craft the city’s first capital improvement plan in many years. But he also reiterated that he will be ‘seeking a grand bargain to once-and-for-all address our long-term structural challenges.’ He’s already said that could mean changes to retiree benefits, but at this point we haven’t seen any semblance of a plan. What we do know is the mayor has quietly pitched members of the General Assembly’s Providence delegation on the need to increase city revenue, which could mean crafting a plan to profit from its water supply. In a private meeting with lawmakers within the last month, Elorza said he’s been told the value of the water system could range anywhere from $100 million to nearly $1 billion, but stressed that he’s not interested in privatizing the system. Like the ‘grand bargain’ idea, the details remain vague, but it’s possible the pitch from the city could be the creation of a regional water authority. No matter what happens, city officials recognize 2017 is an important year at the State House. If they can’t get anything big from lawmakers this session, they know 2018 will likely be a lost cause because everyone is up for re-election.”

10. A bonus dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Speaking of the water supply, the Providence City Council made a statement this week by approving a resolution expressing concern about the sale of water to the town of Johnston because Mayor Polisena has already struck a deal with Invenergy to resell the water to the company for use at the proposed power plant in Burrillville. Both the city solicitor and the water board’s attorney have said Providence can’t really block the sale of water to Johnston, but Councilman Seth Yurdin told me he thinks the council still sent a message by showing that the legislative body in the state’s largest city opposes the project. He was right. Immediately following the vote, a group representing the powerful building trades – including Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council – walked out of the meeting in disgust to show their opposition to the council.”

11. Tim White and Dan McGowan obtained some of Buddy Cianci’s FBI files.

12. Somewhere, Lincoln Chafee is smiling. The former governor was ridiculed for threatening litigation over 38 Studios, and there were many doubters when Max Wistow finally filed suit in November 2012. Four years later, that suit has generated $61 million in settlements, $50 million of which can be used to defray the cost of paying off the 38 Studios debt. That’s real money – more than covering the first year of car tax cuts proposed by Speaker Mattiello, for instance, or nearly two years of Governor Raimondo’s free college plan. Yet the civil lawsuit’s conclusion is now being overshadowed by the fight between Raimondo and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (a potential 2018 rival) over releasing documents collected during the criminal probe into the deal. On Friday afternoon Kilmartin and new R.I. State Police Col. Ann Assumpico, a recent Raimondo appointee, engaged in a highly unusual public war of words over her decision to close the investigation. Also striking: Assumpico says the criminal probe “ended more than a year and a half ago” – which would be more than a year before Kilmartin’s hastily called news conference last summer. But Kilmartin spokeswoman Amy Kempe said while the grand jury ended in July 2015, “it does not mean the investigation was concluded. Evidence was still being evaluated by investigators and the lead prosecutor, especially in the context of the information we possessed at the time while the civil litigation was pending.”

13. It was a big week for Kim Kalunian – she was voted Employee of the Month by her colleagues here at WPRI 12! Oh, and there was also some minor thing involving the White House.

14. While Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse haven’t formally ruled out voting for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it’s all but certain they’ll wind up opposing his confirmation. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Adam Liptak says public-sector unions will likely be back in the high court’s crosshairs once Gorsuch is confirmed.

15. Brown University has raised $1.25 billion so far in its 14-month-old BrownTogether capital campaign, which is aiming to raise $3 billion altogether.

16. Woonsocket Rep. Robert Phillips offered two proposals for reforming Rhode Island state government this week. First, Phillips suggests amending the constitution so the governor and lieutenant governor run together on a ticket, an idea Ralph Mollis also championed during his 2014 bid for the number-two office. Second, Phillips suggests moving state legislators from two-year terms to staggered four-year terms, with even-numbered districts electing a lawmaker quadrennially starting in 2020 and odd-numbered districts doing so starting in 2022. (Give Phillips credit for selflessness – his own District 51 would be on the 2022 cycle, meaning he wouldn’t benefit from Rhode Island’s higher Democratic turnout in presidential years.)

17. Rhode Island’s housing market is hot, hot, hot. Single-family home sales rose 21% to nearly 11,000 in 2016, with the median price rising almost 4% to $233,000, according to research firm The Warren Group. “That is still 15% below the peak median price in 2006,” notes CEO Tim Warren. “Historically low prices attracted buyers.”

18. Between UHIP and the DMV project, maybe it’s time for Rhode Island to rethink how it selects vendors to do major technology projects.

19. Compelling quote #1, from “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance: “I think just because of the way upper-middle-class elites educate themselves, the way they intermarry, the way they work and where they live and so forth, is just really driving this wedge further and further. It may not be that Hillary Clinton could have solved the problem by campaigning more in rural Pennsylvania or suburban southwest Ohio. The problem may just be that she spent so long among a certain class of society, and that class of society is just not good at emotionally connecting with another class of society – and here I’m speaking of the elites versus the broad middle – and I unfortunately just do not have the answer to that problem.”

20. Compelling quote #2, from FT contributor Dominique Moisi: “There is an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ quality to the story [of a scandal involving a French presidential contender] that plays to populist sentiment and reflects the steady delegitimisation of liberal democracies across the western world. The more people are suffering ‘below stairs’ – because of unemployment or stagnant wages — the more elites ‘upstairs’ have to behave with honesty and self-restraint. Political sentiment in Europe seems to be moving north in the direction of Scandinavia, where those who represent the state have to be both modest and honest.”

21. New Hampshire may follow Massachusetts out of the Eastern Time Zone if the Bay State takes the plunge. Will Rhode Island follow suit?

22. If you have a Bank of America account, you can visit four local museums for free this weekend: the Providence Children’s Museum, the RISD Museum, Blithewold in Bristol, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. BofA offers the program once a month throughout the year.

23. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersGovernor Raimondo. This week on Executive Suite – Citizens Financial Group Chairman and CEO Bruce Van Saun. 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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