Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 4

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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. If there’s one thing Gina Raimondo’s supporters and opponents can agree on, it’s this: she knows how to raise money. The Democratic governor has now stockpiled more than $3 million for her re-election campaign, an enormous amount in Rhode Island and 13 times more than her closest rival, Allan Fung, has in the bank. It appears she’s going to need it. The Morning Consult poll, admittedly a non-traditional survey, has put her job approval in the 40s three times this year, and even her most optimistic advisers don’t claim she’s ever gotten much higher than that. It’s notable that she is now hiring the same campaign manager who piloted Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy’s narrow 2014 victory against a repeat GOP opponent; by most accounts that race was an uninspiring slog, and Malloy won with a 38% approval rating. Closer to home, David Cicilline also emerged a winner back in 2012 despite lousy personal ratings. So it’s possible for an unloved incumbent to find a path to victory – just not easy. Meanwhile, it appears the Republican primary could indeed be competitive, with Patricia Morgan raising about $69,000 during the summer quarter, a respectable amount that wasn’t too far behind Fung’s $94,000. (He’s far ahead for the year, though, having raised more than $100,000 from January to June.) An expensive GOP primary could further increase the financial edge Raimondo has over the eventual Republican nominee – unless, of course, she winds up in one of her own against Lincoln Chafee (or former Rep. Spencer Dickinson).

2. With a year to go before the election, it’s a little early to expect gubernatorial candidates to be rolling out formal policy proposals. But both Allan Fung and Patricia Morgan gave some insight into their priorities in recent interviews with Ethan Hartley, a reporter for the Cranston Herald and Johnston SunRise. One Fung idea that could lead to a big fight on Smith Hill – a new round of pension changes. Hartley reports Fung is looking at “enacting more 401k programs for state employees rather than guaranteed pension programs.” He also wants to make “sweeping cuts to unnecessary administrative positions,” notably public information officers, and wants to “collect debts owed.” He may decline 24-hour state police protection, he wants to increase funding for opioid treatment and prevention, he’s undecided on legalizing marijuana, and he’s a fan of charter and career-tech schools. Morgan has an eye on pension policy, too, in her case disability pensions, which she thinks are given out too frequently. She wants to reduce the number of services that health insurers are mandated to cover in Rhode Island, and to find lower-cost sources of energy. She also wants municipal workers to receive more training to prepare them for union negotiations. Will the GOP primary contest end up being more about policy or personality?

3. Remember Michael Sepe? The veteran Cranston Democrat got little traction in his run for Cranston mayor last fall against Allan Fung, taking just 32% of the vote. In the wake of Fung’s newly announced bid for governor, though, Sepe is arguing he’s been vindicated in his unsuccessful effort to get Fung to sign a pledge to serve his full four-year term. “If he had signed, there would now be evidence of a solemn promise to do something,” Sepe said in a news release. “It is obvious Mr. Fung did not want to leave a paper trail. He’s relying on Rhode Island voters to forget his empty verbal assurances, his breach of promise to serve the city of Cranston for four years.” Asked for a response, Fung campaign manager Andrew Vargas Vila offered two short sentences to suggest Cranston voters disagree: “Nearly 40-point victory. Majority on the council.”

4. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is expected to kick off his re-election campaign on Tuesday, setting up a marquee Democratic primary clash against progressive state Rep. Aaron Regunberg. The latest campaign-finance filings show that despite being the incumbent, McKee won’t start out with the financial edge: Regunberg is sitting on $214,000, nearly three times more than McKee’s $74,000. The two rivals found a different opponent to unite against this week: National Grid, the target of critical post-power-outage news releases from both men that promised future legislation to crack down on Grid. As an old campaign hand once told me, if you want to drive a politician’s numbers up, have them pick a fight with an insurance company or a utility.

5. Speaking of lieutenant governors, Rhode Island’s last one – Elizabeth Roberts – has a new initiative. Roberts is co-hosting a fundraiser in Cranston on Thursday to launch Emerge Rhode Island, a new local affiliate of the 12-year-old group Emerge America that encourages Democratic women to run for office. “We need Emerge in Rhode Island,” Roberts wrote in an email invitation to potential supporters. “So many women consider running for office, but don’t think they are qualified, or don’t know how to organize and start a campaign. We need to give women the tools and the confidence to seek office.” Roberts is leading the effort along with activist Stephanie Olarte, former Central Falls Councilwoman Stephanie Gonzalez, and Meredith Curren, who is currently a senior adviser to the governor.

6. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “It appears as though the biggest conflict of Mayor Elorza’s first term in office is coming to a close. The city announced Friday it has reached an agreement to pay members of its firefighters’ union $5.9 million to settle multiple lawsuits the union filed challenging the way the city calculated overtime. While more than half of the money settles a federal lawsuit initiated before Elorza took office, the agreement finally ends the dispute over the mayor’s attempt to restructure the fire department from four shifts to three. So how did things work out? Providence spent more on overtime in the last three years than it did in the previous three. More than 100 firefighters retired as a result of the change. The city hasn’t had a fire chief in two years. And the mayor ultimately agreed to allow the firefighters to go back to four shifts. On the other hand, Elorza did succeed in lowering the minimum manning provision in the union contract from 94 firefighters on duty all times to 88. Once the city hires 150 new firefighters over the next year, overtime spending should fall. And while the $5.9 million the city will spend to settle the legal battles is not chump change, it probably would have been much worse if the courts actually had to make a ruling. Perhaps most importantly for Elorza, the deal comes in the year before he runs for re-election, which means the issue won’t hang over his head when he’s knocking doors next summer. And while there’s virtually no chance the union will agree to endorse him, chances are they won’t picket every event he holds over the next year.”

7. There are some wild quotes from Buddy Cianci in this Dan McGowan exposé on what Providence officials knew about the city’s pension problems two decades ago. “I want to know who the mayor is going to be in the year 2017 when he’s got to come up with $101 million.” “I mean, the city will no longer exist if we have to come up with this kind of money.”

8. RIPEC is out with its annual report on how Rhode Island’s taxes compare with other states, and you could see the glass as half-empty or half-full. The half-empty view: as of 2015, Rhode Island had the 12th- or 13th-highest tax burden in the country, depending on how you measure it, and its property taxes remain among the highest in the nation. The half-full view: because Rhode Island’s total tax revenue has been growing more slowly than in other states, over the latest decade it has fallen out of the top 10. John Simmons, RIPEC’s executive director, also notes the 2015 data does not include the newly enacted car-tax phaseout plan, which by 2024 is set to wipe out 4% of Rhode Island’s total tax revenue (and 9% of all property-tax revenue) so long as other taxes aren’t raised to make up the difference.

9. How long will UHIP remain a major problem?

10. Nancy Pelosi will be in Jamestown to raise money Sunday – the same day The New York Times Magazine will publish this lengthy autopsy of her party’s problems, with Congressman Cicilline prominently featured. The pair will then head to Warwick on Monday to tour CCRI’s advanced-manufacturing training program, joined by Congressman Langevin and Senator Whitehouse.

11. Republican and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Flanders is set to officially launch his campaign for U.S. Senate on Nov. 16. He’ll hold a kickoff event at the Hemphill Mill building in Central Falls, the city he guided through bankruptcy during his time as its municipal receiver. Flanders “has traveled the state, meeting with Rhode Islanders everywhere,” his campaign wrote Friday in an email to supporters. “The response has been overwhelming: people are enthused about his potential candidacy and they are clamoring for a climate change in Washington, D.C.” That’s of course a not-so-subtle knock at Democratic incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse – but Flanders will have to fend off state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo for the GOP nomination first.

12. Keith Kelly is six months into his time as Rhode Island state president of Citizens Bank, and as the end of 2017 draws near he’s feeling optimistic about the economy in Southern New England. “From what we’re hearing from our clients, I think the economy continues to be good,” Kelly said on this week’s Executive Suite. “You look at unemployment at 4.3%, the lowest we’ve had in a very long time, so I think people are feeling comfortable with what’s happening. I think they’re concerned about what’s going to happen in Washington, D.C., with tax reform and the Affordable Care Act as that continues to wind its way through. So I think people are cautiously optimistic about where this year is going to end up and what next year’s going to look like.”

13. This week’s other Executive Suite guest is Heidi Guerard, founder of Cranston’s Heidi Hope Photographers and a textbook example of true entrepreneurship. A one-time art teacher, Guerard was home with her first infant when she decided to borrow $7,000 from her mother and begin taking professional photos of newborns, usually featuring painted backdrops and lots of natural light. By the end of her first year she’d grossed $30,000, and today the company’s annual sales top $1 million – no small feat in the highly competitive photography space, and an even rarer accomplishment for a majority woman-owned firm. So, does she have any suggestions for how the rest of us amateurs can take better pictures? “Especially if you’re using a cellphone, light is the most important factor in photography,” Guerard said. “So finding good light – even if you’re using a terrible camera, you’re going to get some pretty good results with it. The best type of light is a well-lit area that isn’t direct sunlight – so open shade is really good.”

14. Governor Raimondo was in Boston on Monday to present Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker with a New Englander of the Year Award at the New England Council’s annual dinner, repaying Baker for doing the same for her at the event last year. (“Maybe the Democratic Governors Association won’t be happy I say this, but I love Charlie Baker,” Raimondo quipped, according to Politico’s Lauren Dezenski.) But Raimondo wasn’t the only Rhode Islander on hand – Navyn Salem, founder of the North Kingstown nutrition nonprofit Edesia, was also named a New Englander of the Year by the group.

15. Fall River Government Center has not been the most stable place over the past decade. Six different men have served as the city’s mayor since the fall of 2007, three of them since 2014 – Will Flanagan, who was recalled that year; Sam Sutter, who won the recall but lost re-election less than a year later; and incumbent Jasiel Correia, a 25-year-old who is finishing his first term under a cloud amid talk of an FBI investigation. Fall River is the Providence metro area’s third-largest city, and it could use stable leadership: the city’s long economic malaise is no secret, and its unfunded retirement liabilities today total more than $900 million. Correia is now locked in an increasingly bitter campaign against City Council Vice-Chair Linda Pereira, and the two candidates debated on Newsmakers this week ahead of Tuesday’s election.

16. Democracy, a center-left policy journal, argues pension and Medicaid costs are a “monster eating our states and cities” – and offers some “radical” fixes.

17. The Atlantic on what happens if you limit payday loans.

18. Kevin Drum argues you will lose your job to a robot – and sooner than you think.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate between the two candidates for Fall River mayor, incumbent Jasiel Correia and challenger Linda Pereira. This week on Executive Suite – Citizens Bank Rhode Island President Keith Kelly; Heidi Hope Photographers founder Heidi Guerard. 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