Nesi’s Notes: April 8

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. Tom Perez gave Governor Raimondo a shot in the arm Thursday with his visit to stump for her free tuition plan. The new Democratic National Committee chairman – who knows how to make headlines – endorsed the plan without reservation, saying it addresses a core commitment of the state and national Democratic platforms. “We have to make sure that everyone in every zip code of this state can have that level playing field, and these investments in educational opportunity I think are the right way to go,” Perez told Tim White on this week’s Newsmakers. Perez provided a burst of positive publicity for Raimondo, and linking arms with the Democratic Party’s leader is helpful with the party base as she looks ahead to her re-election bid. But did the visit help move the ball in the legislature? That remains to be seen. The latest intel from the House suggests Speaker Mattiello’s skepticism about the tuition plan is not softening. (There’s a reason he didn’t attend any of Perez’s events on Thursday.) The RhodeWorks analogy, floated here last week, may not hold after all – in that case Mattiello was always on board with the basic premise, just not some of the initial details; in this case, he’s not on board with the concept, either. Being a clear bulwark against liberal initiatives is good politics in Mattiello’s conservative district, too. Perez didn’t put too much pressure on Mattiello during his interview with Tim, saying: “I appreciate the fact that anytime you’re proposing an investment you need to look at the fiscal impact. So people in the State House are doing their job to examine whether to do this.” But, he added pointedly, “can we afford not to do it?”

2. The 2018 election is 577 days away, but the two parties are already sparring as if it’s much closer. The Republican Governors Association has been hitting Governor Raimondo in news releases and tweets that seek to poke holes in her narrative of job growth – and highlight, as RGA spokesman John Burke put it this week, “the failed Democrat governor’s disastrous policies.” (His attached examples both involved, naturally, UHIP.) Raimondo’s team knows she has a target on her back, and are taking the GOP salvos seriously. DNC Chairman Tom Perez’s visit was a sign the national party wants to help – an even clearer one is the Democratic Governors Association’s decision to spend nearly $90,000 to air a pro-Raimondo ad on local TV stations through April 16. Team Raimondo is also making use of newly hired Democratic Party adviser Bill Lynch, who argued she is cleaning up after “decades of Republican and Republican-lite governors in RI.”

3. Meanwhile, the GOP primary for governor is starting to take shape. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is widely expected to run, but former Trump campaign chairman Joe Trillo is now forming an exploratory committee, and businessman Gio Feroce continues flirting with the idea. “You’ve named the main ones that I’ve heard from,” R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said on Newsmakers. “There may be others.” Indeed, the wider the field gets, the more enticing it may look to other potential candidates, since fewer votes are needed to win in a crowded race. Asked to handicap, Bell suggested Fung could “have a big advantage,” since he’s already run once and has a base in the state’s third-largest city. For U.S. Senate, Bell talked up both Bobby Nardolillo and Bob Flanders – but expressed the same concern as GOP Committeeman Steve Frias. “Primaries are not a great thing for us,” he said. “We’d like to try to avoid that.” Bell also said the party wants to capture one-third of Assembly seats in 2018 – a big leap that would roughly require going from 11 to 25 seats in the House and five to 12 in the Senate.

4. Brandon Bell also gave an update on the Trump administration’s slow progress toward selecting a new U.S. attorney and a new federal judge for Rhode Island. “We’ve had some communications,” he said on Newsmakers. An assistant White House counsel has been in touch with Bell a few times, and administration officials indicated the state’s Republican National Committee members will have a say. “I don’t think Rhode Island is high on the priority list,” Bell said. “That’s my speculation, but it’s a pretty educated guess.” He added that he’s already gathered some names of would-be candidates. (Meanwhile the last U.S. attorney, Peter Neronha, is keeping a high profile as he weighs a run for attorney general.)

5. The most interesting reaction to President Trump’s airstrikes on Syria from the Rhode Island congressional delegation may have come from Senator Whitehouse, who was the last to weigh in with a formal statement. “Last night’s military action in Syria met my standards for responding to atrocity: a limited action; with a clear objective; that is not the beginning of American ‘boots on the ground’ military operations,” he said Friday morning. On the one hand, this isn’t a big surprise – Whitehouse has been urging more aggressive U.S. action in Syria for years, and was open to airstrikes in 2013. On the other hand, it puts him closer to Trump than to some of his fellow congressional progressives, such as Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine.

6. The Syria attack initially appeared to be a rare issue that put daylight between Senator Reed and Senator Whitehouse, since Reed withheld his support from the decision Thursday night. After attending a briefing Friday with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, however, Reed gave muted approval to President Trump’s decision. “Given the heinous attack on civilians with poison gas by the Assad regime, the impulse of the president to send a message – a very specific message that this will not be tolerated, the use of chemical weapons against innocent people – is appropriate,” Reed said. But he also argued the Trump administration “has been contradicting itself constantly on Syria,” and insisted that without “a much more focused policy and international support of that policy,” the airstrikes are “not going to change fundamentally what’s happening on the ground.”

7. “Google me, I’m actually really famous,” Wynonna Judd told Congressman Cicilline during a hilariously awkward Capitol Hill performance this week. Roll Call has video.

8. U.S. Senate hopeful Bobby Nardolillo is offering an apology to the League of Conservation Voters after issuing a statement earlier this week that suggested the group donates the kind of “dark money” to his opponent Sheldon Whitehouse that the senator often decries. But the environmental group’s spokesman, David Willett, said Nardolillo has it wrong. “The contributions he referenced are actually from publicly disclosed sources,” he said, and they “are all reported to the FEC and publicly available.” Asked for a response, Nardolillo said: “I’m sorry for the confusion in the phrasing, I was referring to potential violations by a Boston law firm. I think the League of Conservation Voters is a fine advocate for their cause and as far as I know always is above board with all of its efforts.”

9. Congress is considering a tax hike of $322 million on Rhode Islanders.

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10. Aquidneck Island types may recognize the name of KVH Industries, the publicly traded Middletown company that makes communication and navigation tools. KVH CEO Martin Kits van Heyningen co-founded the company on the island more than 30 years ago, and said he thinks Rhode Island has made real progress in becoming a more friendly place for businesses over that period. “I think that that seems to be changing in Rhode Island now, which I think is great,” Kits van Heyningen told me on this week’s Executive Suite. He added, “I really do think it’s gotten better.” Three areas where he suggested more could be done: increasing the supply of skilled workers, reducing energy costs and lowering taxes.

11. The endless 38 Studios saga continues to have surprising side effects, the latest being a nice lesson on the history of grand juries. That comes courtesy the 29-page brief AG Kilmartin’s staff filed this week in a bid to prevent release of material from the 38 Studios grand jury. The document is worth a read.

12. Everyone should be reading Jen Bogdan’s troubling coverage of DCYF.

13. Also worth a read: the Economic Progress Institute, a local liberal think tank, has a deep dive on who benefits from repealing the car tax.

14. The General Assembly loves to create study commissions, so here’s an idea for one based on some conversations in recent weeks – a panel to look at technology in government. State workers have long complained about how a backwards IT infrastructure hampers their productivity. Governor Chafee created the Office of Digital Excellence, Governor Raimondo created the Office of Innovation – both will be leaderless by next month. Big projects like UHIP and the DMV upgrade have been embarrassingly botched. There must be a better way.

15. Speaking of UHIP, are things finally turning around?

16. Narragansett has a new town solicitor – and is sticking with an old lawmaker. Former GOP state Sen. Dawson Hodgson stepped down from the job last month, expressing frustration after some members of the Democratic-controlled Town Council refused to let him hire Lisa Holley as an assistant while he deals with a family medical crisis. Hodgson’s replacement? Former Democratic state Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill, who was chosen from a pool of 28 applicants, per The Narragansett Times.

17. Where are they now? Former state Rep. Frank Anzeveno, a powerful State House insider until the downfall of Gordon Fox, is living in Florida these days.

18. The Daily Beast tells the sad tale of ever-shrinking local news coverage in New York City. “The collapse of local reporting is a crisis,” Steve Waldman, who wrote a 2011 FCC report on the topic, says in the story. “It’s a crisis in the country, and it’s a crisis locally.” Indeed.

19. Tomorrow marks the start of Holy Week, so organizers are once again preparing for the 39th Annual Good Friday Walk for Hunger and Homelessness, an interfaith effort in Providence. Former gubernatorial aide Joy Fox reports the walk will start at 8:30 a.m. from various churches and community organizations, with the crowd converging at the State House for a brief speaking program. (You may recognize the emcee, a local broadcaster by the name of Mike Montecalvo.) Organizers are still looking for people who can walk, donate or volunteer – more information is available here.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez; R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell. This week on Executive Suite – KVH Industries Chairman, President and CEO Martin Kits van Heyningen; Veterans Assembled Electronics CEO John Shepard. 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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