Nesi’s Notes: May 6

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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. No one disputes that money matters in politics. But how much? Recent elections have offered some vivid examples of what an underfunded candidate can accomplish: Hillary Clinton spent nearly double the amount Donald Trump did last year, yet he’s the president; Robert Healey spent just $35 in 2014, yet he received 21% of the votes for governor. Trump and Healey were certainly unusual candidates who had other advantages, including name recognition and outsider cred, but they’re still the obvious counters to arguments that Governor Raimondo has next year’s election locked up thanks to her $2.2 million in campaign cash. Raimondo is a donation dynamo – she’s raised just under $10 million since she entered Rhode Island politics in late 2009, and her bank account is likely to keep growing. But even with her party’s 12-to-1 financial advantage over Allan Fung’s in 2014, it was only enough to win her a 41% plurality. Our political analyst Joe Fleming also points back to 1994, when incumbent Bruce Sundlun had significantly more money than Myrth York but still lost the Democratic nomination, 57% to 28%. As Fleming puts it, “Sometimes when people’s opinions are made up there is nothing you can do no matter how much money you have.” So events over the next year and the impact they have on Raimondo’s job approval will matter as much as, if not more than, the cash.

2. Governor Raimondo is already benefiting from a sizable political outlay on her behalf, thanks to America Works USA, the nonprofit aligned with the Democratic Governors Association that’s paying for those TV and digital ads touting her college plan. The group just invested another $43,000 to continue airing the commercials on local TV through May 14, bringing its broadcast buy to $183,000 since mid-March. And that doesn’t include tens of thousands more spent with cable and online outlets. A spokesman did not respond to questions about how big the campaign’s budget is at this point, or whether America Works will release a list of donors who are underwriting it. (Caveat emptor: America Works is also the name of a federal leadership PAC affiliated with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, but the group operating in Rhode Island says it has no connection to Brown’s outfit.)

3. Rhode Island’s state-level leader board for campaign cash is generally made up of folks you would expect: Gina Raimondo, Joe Shekarchi, Jorge Elorza, Seth Magaziner, Patrick Lynch (yes, still), Nick Mattiello, Joe Polisena, Mike McCaffrey. But in ninth place comes a name that might surprise you: state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, the outspoken Providence progressive, who has accumulated $128,000 in his account. Asked about his commitment to fundraising, Regunberg said, “I’m really grateful for every contribution I receive. It is humbling for a friend or neighbor to make an investment in the issues we are fighting for together. I take that responsibility seriously.” He wouldn’t bite, though, on whether he’s amassing cash with an eye on seeking a higher office – like, say, lieutenant governor – next year.

4. There are many reasons for the strained relationship between Lincoln Chafee and Gina Raimondo, from their 2011 disagreements over pensions to their differing views on economic development. But politicians are people, too, so it’s worth recalling a story from late 2011 or early 2012, when Chafee was governor and Raimondo was treasurer, that was recounted by Keith Stokes in his 38 Studios deposition. As Stokes told it, a senior EDC staff member “was having cocktails with the general treasurer and, for whatever reason, she inadvertently pressed her phone option on the phone and made what we sometimes call a pocket call, and the call went to the governor. And the general treasurer and the staff person were speaking openly and critically about the governor for about 20 minutes of this call that the governor received.” Stokes went on to say the pocket-dial “crisis” kept him and the EDC’s then-counsel, David Gilden, occupied for three or four days.

5. In Washington there’s something called a “full Ginsburg,” shorthand for when an individual manages to appear on all five major Sunday politics TV shows in the same weekend. (It’s named for attorney William Ginsburg, who first managed the feat in 1998 while representing Monica Lewinsky.) Governor Raimondo is attempting a Rhode Island version this weekend as she tries to build support for her tuition plan, with interviews between Thursday and Monday on all three major TV stations (here’s her WPRI hit), PBS, WPRO, Rhode Island Public Radio, 920 WHJJ, 93.3 Coast FM, 94HJY, WGBH, Latino Public Radio, Latina 100.3 FM, and GoLocalProv. Whether you’re a president or a governor, the bully pulpit is a powerful tool. Raimondo’s effort to build public support for the tuition plan appears partly aimed at keeping pressure on rank-and-file House Democrats, whose leader, Speaker Mattiello, is no fan of the proposal. Will it work? Unclear. But even if she loses in the legislature, Raimondo is already benefiting from a pre-election opportunity to speak to voters about an initiative of hers that polls well.

6. One longtime Nesi’s Notes reader wrote in with this reaction to the Tennessee governor’s pitch for free tuition: “When we have no state income tax like Tennessee – and therefore a whole lot more fiscal ‘slack in the rope’ – maybe we can talk about free tuition!”

7. A quarter-century ago, then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun appointed longtime Ross-Simons CEO Darrell Ross to a commission tasked with cutting red tape in Rhode Island. (Among the other appointees: Sheldon Whitehouse and Gary Sasse.) So does the veteran businessman think the state has made progress? Nope. “Nothing has changed,” Ross told me on this week’s Executive Suite. “I’m a Rhode Island native. I love Rhode Island. I love the people, I love the natural resources, I love the quality of life, I love that fact that a traffic jam here is five minutes. So much going for it. But it’s very difficult to do business. The costs are noncompetitive even with the adjacent states, Connecticut and Massachusetts. We pay too much money, and it’s difficult to attract people. … You almost have to pay combat pay to get someone to come here, because it’s more expensive – the car tax, property taxes, inefficient state government. So I don’t know the answer, but I know we have to do something. We have to slash and burn and cut. And then all the reasons to commend Rhode Island – the stable work force, the caring people, the restaurants, the theater, the sea – we have everything. Except we have a difficult business environment that continues to be difficult.”

8. Hard not to see Senate President Ruggerio’s new bill requiring more transparency from the I-195 District Redevelopment Commission as a warning shot at the panel – and the governor.

9. Dan McGowan looks at what’s next now that Kevin Jackson is recalled.

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10. The GOP health care bill passed Thursday drew unsurprising condemnation from Rhode Island’s top Democrats, who cited estimates that the original version would cut the state’s federal Medicaid funding by billions of dollars. (The House passed the amended legislation before the Congressional Budget Office could review it, so it’s possible those numbers will change – Health Affairs has a summary of its provisions.) On the right, the bill drew local praise from Mike Stenhouse’s Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, but not from likely GOP gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung. “He’s very concerned about people with preexisting conditions losing coverage and no cross-border competition,” Fung spokesman Mark Schieldrop told me. “This bill was passed quickly and that’s a concern, too. Let’s see what happens in the Senate.” (In a follow-up email, Fung added that local Democrats should spend more time fixing UHIP and less time discussing federal legislation.) Another Republican aiming for higher office next year, U.S. Senate hopeful Bobby Nardolillo, didn’t respond to a request for comment late Friday, but in March he declined to embrace the GOP’s first bill.

11. Sheldon Whitehouse ran interference this week for Susan Rice, the former Obama national security adviser condemned by President Trump because of her reported efforts to find out which of his associates were communicating with foreign officials before he took office. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s partnered with Whitehouse on a Judiciary subcommittee probe of the Russia affair, asked Rice to testify at a hearing next week. But in a reply obtained by CNN, her lawyer wrote: “Senator Whitehouse has informed us by letter that he did not agree to Chairman Graham’s invitation to Ambassador Rice, a significant departure from the bipartisan invitations extended to other witnesses. Under these circumstances, Ambassador Rice respectfully declines Senator Graham’s invitation to testify.” “Not good!” Trump tweeted in response. Whitehouse opponent Bobby Nardolillo seized on the matter as well, arguing: “Our senator ignored his duties on the leadership of an investigative committee to obstruct the work that was demanded of it by his own party.” Whitehouse’s spokeswoman declined to respond.

12. Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III can rattle off a long list of issues on which he disagrees with President Trump, from health care and immigration to LGBT rights. So, I asked the 4th District Democrat on this week’s Newsmakers, is there anything he thinks the president is doing right? “The national security team that he has ended up with, I think, certainly enjoys an awful lot of respect among members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans – General McMaster and Secretary Mattis in particular,” Kennedy said. But, he continued, “I do have a concern, not directed at either one of them, that you have a president that has surrounded himself with, as his key advisers, an awful lot of generals and senior military officials, individually all of whom have earned the respect I think of an awful lot of us Americans, regardless of party. The concern that I have with that is … if you rely solely on military advice, there’s perhaps other pieces of advice that would be worth considering that might not make it into that conversation if you’re only looking at this from a military objective. But that national security team, I think, certainly has earned the respect of an awful lot of folks.”

13. Also a big week for Congressman Cicilline, who got a lot of ink for reintroducing his proposed Equality Act at a Capitol Hill news conference flanked by Nancy Pelosi and Cory Booker, among others.

14. Here’s how IHS’s Michael Lynch summarizes the change in his Rhode Island economic forecast between last November’s state revenue conference and this month’s: “The underlying theme of the May forecast is that it is a bit stronger in the near-term, most notably in 2017 and 2018, and weaker as we get out beyond 2019.”

15. Treasurer Magaziner and the State Investment Commission are continuing their efforts to scale back the pension system’s investments in hedge funds. The treasurer’s office said this week more than $340 million has been withdrawn from hedge funds so far, and said the final goal is to reallocate about $585 million. As of March 31, the pension fund’s assets totaled $7.9 billion, with $1.03 billion (13%) of that money invested in hedge funds. Overall the fund was up 8.8% for the first nine months of the fiscal year.

16. From 1960 to 2006, Rhode Island issued more than 2,000 building permits for new housing units every year, and often more than 3,000. Since 2007, though, the number has rarely topped 1,000.

17. Care New England might need to invest in tourniquets.

19. Will President Trump release the sealed JFK assassination files?

18. “When polling is done well, it continues to produce reliable results.”

20. “Are We Having Too Much Fun?”

21. Happy 100th to Ella Fitzgerald.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Congressman Joe Kennedy III. This week on Executive Suite – Chairman & CEO Darrell Ross and President James Speltz of Ross-Simons parent Luxury Brand Holdings. 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

This article has been modified to clarify that the Rhode Island Democratic Party had a 12-to-1 financial advantage over the Rhode Island Republican Party in the 2014 campaign; the two nominees’ campaign resources were more closely matched.

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