Nesi’s Notes: Sept. 30

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. Rhode Island elected officials and business leaders were brimming with optimism at Monday morning’s groundbreaking for Wexford Science + Technology’s complex on the old 195 land. “It is a symbol to the rest of the world that Rhode Island has momentum in this 21st-century innovation economy,” declared Governor Raimondo, reminding those in attendance that up to this point the vacant highway land has been mostly “grass, tumbleweeds, dirt.” Wexford will join two other major projects, the Brown medical school and South Street Landing, that are slowly transforming the Jewelry District into the research-oriented hub state leaders have long envisioned there. That transformation hasn’t come cheap – taxpayers are spending roughly $90 million on South Street Landing and another $32 million on Wexford. (Actually, they’re now both Wexford – its parent company bought South Street Landing during construction.) And as the pseudonymous Twitter wonk CoffeeBlackRI frequently points out, “it’s not about the real estate.” One of Wexford’s announced tenants, Johnson & Johnson, is indeed a recent arrival in Rhode Island doing high-tech work. But its other tenants are Brown’s School of Professional Studies, which is moving from nearby, and the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is itself another real-estate company, albeit a tech-minded one. So the real test on Wexford will come once the building is up and running. Will it attract startups and out-of-state companies, as opposed to in-state relocations? Will it spur business development that wouldn’t have happened otherwise? If you build it, will they come?

2. In addition to the much-touted innovation complex, the Wexford project is also slated to include a 170-room Starwood Aloft Hotel next door. Add it to the hotel boom happening in Providence, where it’s one of eight currently slated to be built. The others: a Marriott Residence Inn (111 Fountain St.), a Homewood Suites Extended Stay (5 Exchange St.), the River View Hotel (195 Parcel 1A), a Best Western Glo Hotel (322 Washington St.), a Holiday Inn Express (371 Pine St.), a Value Place Hotel (181 Corliss St.) and the Hotel Beatrice (28-32 Kennedy Plaza). Of course, it’s one thing to propose a project – it takes financing to actually build it and open.

3. California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party frequently mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, is coming to Rhode Island. Harris is set to visit the state on Oct. 27 as a guest of Sheldon Whitehouse, his spokeswoman confirmed Friday. Further details weren’t offered, but Harris’s itinerary is expected to include a fundraiser that evening at the Rhode Island Convention Center to benefit Whitehouse’s 2018 re-election campaign.

4. What will Lincoln Chafee do next? That was a frequent question during his four years as governor, and now it’s in the air again as he continues to flirt with challenging Gina Raimondo in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. By one theory, this is good news for Raimondo – while she’d still need to fend off Chafee in a primary if he runs, she won’t face the possibility of him siphoning off votes on the left in the general election. By another, this is good news for the eventual Republican nominee, increasing the likelihood of a classic two-party race that will require the winner to top 50%. Also interesting – Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg, one of the state’s most visible progressives, offered no encouragement to Chafee on this week’s Newsmakers, instead ticking off issues where he’s found common ground with Raimondo. “I think we need a Democrat to continue in that seat, and I think that the governor is someone I’ve worked with in the past and I think we can do a lot of good things with,” Regunberg said.

5. Local GOP consultant Patrick Mannix, who managed Donald Trump’s landslide victory in last year’s Rhode Island primary, has taken a job in the Trump administration. State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell reports Mannix is working at the U.S. Department of Labor as a deputy to Secretary Alexander Acosta. Mannix, a Narragansett High grad, previously worked on campaigns for Allan Fung and John Robitaille.

6. Ocean State Job Lot has a surprise up its sleeve. “Something big is coming,” the retailer declares in an ad our producer Diana Pinzon spotted on Instagram. “Trust us, we think you’ll like this one!” The company says the big announcement will happen Thursday.

7. Rhode Island’s demographic transformation over recent decades is an underappreciated phenomenon. Since 1970, the state’s population has gone from nearly all-white to more than one-quarter people of color; among the states that were the 10 whitest a half-century ago, Rhode Island now has the largest share of minority residents. The change is particularly clear when you break the numbers down by generation: non-Hispanic whites make up 90% of Rhode Islanders ages 65 and older but only 61% of those 18 and younger, according to the latest Census estimates. A new study finds that since 1990, the so-called “racial generation gap” has grown by more in Rhode Island than in all but two other states; no other New England state is in the top 20. From a different angle, the statistics on faith also show significant change. While Rhode Island remains the nation’s most Catholic state, surveys suggest the Catholic share of the population has fallen from more than 60% in 1990 to barely 40% today, as far more residents identify with no religious affiliation. And about one in four of today’s Rhode Island Catholics are Hispanic.

8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “How serious is community advocate Kobi Dennis about primarying Mayor Elorza next September? Serious enough to open a campaign account. A few weeks after publicly stating he was considering running for mayor, Dennis took the first real steps toward throwing his hat in the ring Friday afternoon when he filed a notice of organization with the R.I. Board of Elections. The form, which allows him to begin raising funds, states that he is a Democrat who would be seeking the mayor’s office. Reached late Friday, Dennis said he plans to officially announce his candidacy in the coming days. The only other candidate who has publicly expressed interest in running for mayor is businessman Lorne Adrain, who was a candidate for the job in 2014 before bowing out as part of an effort to block Buddy Cianci from returning to City Hall. In an email earlier this month, Adrain told me he’s still undecided about challenging Elorza, but said he is ‘intrigued with and inspired by the vision of so many things being better.’ Adrain is currently riding his bike across the country, so it’s safe to say he does have other things on his mind right now. But after raising $268,000 in only a few months last time out, it’s clear he’s someone who can find the money to be competitive.”

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9. It’s becoming clear the PawSox have their work cut out for them to get the stadium deal across the finish line. While supporters have gotten big crowds to the first two Senate Finance hearings on the project, opponents are energized, too. “Just the level of interest in the hearings that we’re conducting has surprised me, really,” Senate Finance Chairman William Conley said Thursday on Dan Yorke State of Mind. Conley said that while he thinks the current legislation is “a good deal,” it can still be improved – and other senators are clearly more wary. “I think the committee still has a healthy skepticism about elements of it, and I think that they’re going to ask the tough questions, and I think they’re going to need to get the right answers, and we’re going to need to make the changes that are required,” Conley told Yorke. He said he remains “hopeful” that the Senate will vote on the deal by Thanksgiving – but acknowledged he has no idea if Speaker Mattiello would follow suit in the House. And the outlook only got cloudier late this week as a growing list of leaders including Mattiello and Governor Raimondo signaled an openness to holding a public referendum on the deal. Worcester, meanwhile, is playing its cards close to the vest – though a well-informed leaker gave that city’s paper some new information about its effort on the morning of the second Rhode Island hearing.

10. Former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha is set to make it official Tuesday, announcing he will run for attorney general next year on the Democratic ticket. Neronha appears to be the frontrunner on the Democratic side – but what about the Republicans? State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said Friday the GOP’s plans for the AG race are up in the air. “Just talking to people,” Bell said. “There’s some interest. It’s an open seat.” But, he said, “there’s nobody specific.” Would he run himself? “Anything’s possible.”

11. It looks like former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino Jr. will be Rhode Island’s next Democratic national committeeman, succeeding the late Frank Montanaro Sr. Paolino publicly announced his candidacy for the job on Friday, and a spokesman quickly confirmed Speaker Mattiello is backing him. The speaker has big sway over Rhode Island’s Democratic State Committee, which will make its choice Oct. 15, so barring a surprise development Paolino should get the nod.

12. In the wake of the Equifax data breach, Jim Langevin has been getting national attention for the Personal Data Notification and Protection Act, his bill to require disclosure of such incidents. He argues the legislation “will ensure that any future such breach has a single standard and one federal regulator to help get actionable information to consumers quickly.” … Also on the Langevin beat, the avowedly pro-life Democrat has not yet announced how he’ll vote Tuesday when the House takes up the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks. “Congressman Langevin is currently reviewing this legislation,” his spokeswoman reported midweek.

13. “Under Attack!!” That was the subject line of a fundraising email Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea sent Friday, seeking to capitalize on Ken Block’s accusation that Rhode Island’s voter-registration regulations violate federal law. His allegations – and, particularly, his approach – drew a highly critical rebuttal from Common Cause, which in turn elicited a highly critical rejoinder from the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity. Stepping back, Block’s basic charge seems to be straightforward – he says the Board of Elections does not require the collection of personally identifying information (driver’s license or Social Security numbers) from all registering voters, despite a federal law requiring it. Both Common Cause and the Board of Elections left open the possibility Block is right about that. “If true, in any part, Common Cause Rhode Island will call on the Board of Elections to amend their regulations and bring them into compliance,” Common Cause said.

14. Brown University’s Taubman Center has a new leader, Susan Moffitt, an associate professor of political science and international and public affairs. Taubman used to conduct regular polling of Rhode Island and Providence voters, but the center has gotten away from that practice since 2014, with its only two statewide surveys in the last few years coming just before the 2016 presidential primary. Under Jim Morone, whom Moffitt is succeeding, Taubman has been polling only Kent County as part of a new nationwide survey series. Moffitt told me Taubman’s plans for the 2018 election season in Rhode Island are still undecided. “For the rest of this calendar year, the Taubman Center will follow the same polling format that Jim Morone put into place (i.e. one county in Rhode Island),” she said. “The Taubman Poll Advisory Board, however, is exploring other options, including doing both a national poll and a statewide Rhode Island poll. We expect that decision will be made by the beginning of the next calendar year.”

15. Two items on the Rhode Island finance front – Washington Trust Chairman and CEO Joe MarcAurele is retiring in March and will be succeeded by former Citizens President Edward “Ned” Handy, and Navigant Credit Union is expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint by taking over two former Webster Bank branches in Kent County.

16. The latest on Care New England’s precarious financial situation.

17. Famed pollster Frank Luntz will be in Providence on Oct. 16 to deliver the keynote address at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s annual meeting.

18. Did you know the shuttered Portsmouth State Police Barracks sits on land donated by Depression-era Rhode Island Gov. William Vanderbilt? Great history in this Tim White story.

19. Joan Vennochi profiles Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson.

20. How the Hurricane of 1938 helped create today’s fall foliage.

21. Amazon’s future may look a lot like Sears’s history.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – state Reps. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, and Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham. This week on Executive Suite – Delta Dental of Rhode Island President & CEO Joseph Nagle; Rite-Solutions Chairman Jim Lavoie and CEO Joe Marino. 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 and Facebook