Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 9

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. In this age of retail retrenchment, the end of Benny’s probably shouldn’t be a shock. And yet it is. “Like so many Rhode Islanders, I am heartbroken,” Governor Raimondo said after the announcement Friday – a somewhat remarkable statement about what is, after all, a store; there will still be places to buy Christmas lights or snow shovels after December. But of course it’s not about that. It’s about community, about the institutions and traditions that bind us together, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel closer to people across the country than across the street. “My entire family is actually devastated right now,” one Twitter user wrote. “This breaks my heart,” added another. After 93 years Benny’s is part of the fabric of Southern New England, a familiar sight that reminds you you’re not just in Anywhere U.S.A. And it isn’t the only example: many people said the announcement stung more because it came a week after the sudden sign-off of WBRU, another unique part of local life that had been around as long as many residents could remember. Seemingly inexorable forces drove Benny’s to close and WBRU to sell 95.5 – and local newspapers to shrink, and manufacturers to cut jobs, and companies to consolidate, and on and on. But there’s no shame in mourning the changes, and reflecting on what’s being lost in the process.

2. In his book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Providence author Marc Dunkelman writes about how societal changes in recent decades have left Americans more and more disconnected from each other. So I asked him what he made of the Benny’s news. “Sure, it’s more convenient to purchase a new pair of winter gloves online,” Dunkelman said in an email. “It may be cheaper to buy socks at the outlet mall in Wrentham. But for the extra couple bucks we pay by going to a local retailer, we’re given an opportunity to deepen our ties to the people who live nearby. The sorts of conversations our parents might have had at a PTA meeting or a coffee shop or while waiting in the checkout line at Benny’s offered rare opportunities for people with different perspectives to talk to one another. We often wonder why it is that politicians can’t get along. In many cases it’s because the people voting for them, having rarely spoken to someone who voted for the other candidate, don’t want their representatives compromising with the bums across the aisle. Benny’s didn’t just sell bikes – like community churches and Elks clubs and neighborhood bookstores and bowling leagues, local retailers provide a forum for communities to build bonds across the chasms that separate neighbor from neighbor.”

3. What timing. On Thursday, Rhode Islanders were buzzing about the (remote) possibility Amazon.com could put its new $5-billion second headquarters in the state, bringing 50,000 jobs with it. A day later, they were buzzing about the demise of a century-old retailer – one felled in no small part by the forces Amazon represents. The outpouring of shock and grief from people on social media made it almost hard to believe the store was facing challenges, but as my colleague James O’Leary noted, “I wonder how many of those people have Amazon Prime accounts.” Nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills. Not that Benny’s is a failing enterprise. “We want to be very clear that this is a retirement,” a spokesman insisted Friday, “and not going out of business.” Family dynamics appeared to play a major role in the decision; the company’s announcement also hinted that there could be significant news about the retailer’s real estate in the coming weeks. Still, Benny’s is ending its run in no small part due to forces beyond its control. “We can see the writing on the wall,” Benny’s President Arnold Bromberg told me. R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell argued the news should be a lesson for state policymakers, tweeting: “RI small businesses need real tax relief instead of millions in subsidies to out of state companies and to PawSox ownership empire.” And it’s true that Benny’s had expressed concern just last year about the state’s new truck tolls. But Rhode Island is hardly the only place where brick-and-mortar retail is becoming a tougher line of work. Economic-development consultant Kevin Hively suggested Benny’s was in a tough spot as a relatively small, but not super-small, chain. “With physical retail becoming more and more experiential, it really requires looking at the formats of your stores and your facilities, and that requires a lot of capital,” Hively told me. “At some point in time you look around and say to yourself, the operational side of the business is going to be challenged, and maybe the real estate is going to be worth more.”

4. The Superman building’s future may be looking brighter. Cornish Associates’ Steve Durkee, who’s been working on the effort to redevelop the downtown skyscraper, told Bisnow Boston this week that two companies are in talks about potentially occupying half the 26-story building. Asked about Durkee’s comments, Superman spokesman Bill Fischer confirmed that “discussions are ongoing with multiple commercial tenant opportunities.” He declined to say more for now.

5. This just in: Sheldon Whitehouse will cosponsor the “Medicare for All” single-payer health insurance bill that Bernie Sanders is introducing next week. “Senator Whitehouse intends to cosponsor this bill to move the conversation forward on single-payer health care,” spokeswoman Meaghan McCabe told me Friday night. “The senator will also continue to press for legislation to create a public health insurance option, which he co-authored with Senators Brown and Franken, and has long supported.” Jack Reed’s office has not yet said whether he will sign onto Sanders’ legislation, which is already emerging as a high-profile litmus test for Democrats.

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6. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “The news that community advocate Kobi Dennis is considering challenging Mayor Elorza in Providence next year turned quite a few heads this week, but it wasn’t a surprise around City Hall. Members of the City Council have been gossiping about Dennis running for mayor for several months and he’s been on Team Elorza’s radar for even longer. So does he a have a chance? It’s too soon to say, particularly considering he hasn’t opened a campaign account to begin fundraising and the URL for kobidennis.com was still for sale as of Friday afternoon. What is clear is Dennis does have the ability to get people excited; just a picture he posted of himself in front of City Hall generated 243 shares and 170 comments on his Facebook page this week. But turning social media love into the money needed to run a credible campaign is not easy. One sign of staying power will be the amount he can raise by the end of the year. Elorza will have more than $500,000 by Jan. 1. Political operatives always say the first $100,000 is supposed to be the easiest to raise because you’re asking friends and family, so Dennis will probably need to hit six figures heading into 2018. The other question is how he’ll win support in two vote-rich parts of the city: the East Side and Ward 5, which includes the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods. Dennis happens to live in Ward 5 and Elorza lost both the Democratic primary and general election there in 2014. This will be an uphill battle for Dennis, but he’s certainly got City Hall’s attention.”

7. More than two months into the fiscal year, the Raimondo administration is still trying to develop a plan to achieve the $25 million in unspecified savings called for in the new 2017-18 state budget. Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna McCabe reports the Office of Management and Budget is “in direct discussions with the agencies,” but has not issued any specific guidance on how they should go about finding the savings. Meantime, as Kathy Gregg reported this week, budget officials are estimating the deficit for 2018-19 at a whopping $237 million. For comparison’s sake, the highest estimated deficit at the same point in the four prior years was $199 million. And as Senate fiscal adviser Steve Whitney noted in a memo, the $237 million “does not account for any state employee salary increases as no agreement has been reached for a COLA with the state employee unions. Also keep in mind, these reductions come on the heels of more than a decade of belt tightening at the agencies.”

8. Cranston City Council Vice-President Michael Favicchio, a Republican, is the General Assembly’s newest part-time lawyer.

9. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, who has been sounding the alarm this year about the problems he sees with Rhode Island’s voter rolls, is scheduled to testify on Tuesday before President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The meeting will be held at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. Here’s a PDF of Block’s PowerPoint presentation.

10. Not to be missed amid the Benny’s news was Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s announcement late Friday that Max Wistow, the near-legendary litigator who led the suits over 38 Studios and the Station fire, is joining the Fatima Hospital pension case as a special counsel. “The appointment of Mr. Wistow means that the beneficiaries can be assured that every aspect of the sudden deterioration of the pension fund will be thoroughly examined, and every avenue for remedy under the law will be brought to bear,” Ruggerio said. That has to make Fatima’s old owners at least somewhat nervous.

11. Governor Raimondo recently reminded residents to prepare for hurricanes – from their movie screens. The R.I. Emergency Management Agency spent $22,530 with Screenvision Media this summer to buy two four-week runs of pre-movie commercials; the first run began May 26, and the second one Aug. 4. The PSA ads, taped two years ago, feature the governor reminding residents of the need to prepare for severe storms in advance. (There is also a winter version.) RIEMA Director Peter Gaynor said the ads ran on 88 screens in seven cinemas, with a potential reach of 400,000. “This is about trying to get people to pay attention,” Gaynor said. “It’s hard.”

12. Steph Machado profiles two DACA recipients. A State House rally on their behalf drew a large crowd Friday evening.

13. Should Rhode Island policymakers consider a reinsurance program for state health insurers? Minnesota is running a closely-watched experiment with one.

14. Some big wind turbines are coming to the Johnston-Cranston line.

15. Mentor Rhode Island will honor John Howell, proprietor of the Warwick Beacon and one of Rhode Island’s great newspapermen, during an event Thursday night at Bishop Hendricken. Tickets are available here.

16. Did you know FEMA created the forerunner to Slack, Facebook Messenger and AIM? Garrett Graff explores the secret history of FEMA.

17. How to “save the self in the age of the selfie.”

18. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott; R.I. Emergency Management Agency Director Peter Gaynor. This week on Executive Suite – Cumberland Farms CEO Ari Haseotes. 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