Nesi’s Notes: Nov. 25

The Saturday Morning Post | Quick hits on politics and more in RI

SIGN UP: Get Nesi’s Notes by Email

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. With Thanksgiving leftovers still piled high in many a fridge, food remains on everyone’s mind – but many Rhode Islanders still strain to put enough of it on the table. The state’s 12.8% overall poverty rate is the highest in New England, and Kids Count reports roughly one in five Rhode Island children live in poverty, a majority of them in the urban core. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s latest report on hunger shows 57,000 people are now using its network of food pantries, up from 33,000 a decade ago. One reason, according to Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff: the UHIP computer fiasco is preventing people from accessing food stamps. And the number affected isn’t small: SNAP, as the food-stamp program is officially known, has grown exponentially in Rhode Island over the last decade, from about 43,000 recipients in 2007 to nearly 150,000 in August. (And even that number may be artificially low due to UHIP.) Thus there are roughly three times more Rhode Islanders receiving SNAP benefits now than there were the last time the unemployment rate was this low. Why? One reason is lingering economic weakness – a higher percentage of jobs created during the recovery have been lower-wage compared with those lost, for instance, and 6% of residents are currently classified as food insecure. But another is state policy: Rhode Island expanded eligibility for SNAP in 2009, while also beefing up outreach efforts. The Food Bank received $175,000 in state money in this year’s budget to underwrite its work, but with Congress now considering billions of dollars in cuts to SNAP, Rhode Island leaders may soon face pressure to boost funding further.

2. Now that Allan Fung and Patricia Morgan are actively campaigning for governor, the biggest question of the Republican primary is, what will Joe Trillo do? The retired Warwick lawmaker has said he won’t make a decision until January, but this week he sent a fundraising appeal to supporters that sounded a very Trumpian note. “Are you as excited as I am about the job President Donald Trump is doing in Washington to drain the DC swamp and lead our country to prosperity? Are you ready to help do the same for our great state? Do you agree that we need a fighter in the State House like we have in the White House?” Trillo asked. “If so, then I respectfully submit that I am your candidate for governor.” Lambasting Governor Raimondo for “high taxes, over-regulation of business, government spending, and wasteful ‘pet projects,'” Trillo said he “will drain the Rhode Island swamp once and for all. … Together, we can Make Rhode Island Great Again!” As Joe Fleming pointed out on this week’s Newsmakers, far more voters cast ballots in Rhode Island’s 2016 GOP presidential primary, which Trump won in a landslide, than in the 2014 gubernatorial primary that Fung won. If Trillo can harness some of that support, it could make a big difference for him.

3. Over on the Democratic side, Lincoln Chafee is keeping things interesting as political watchers wonder whether he’ll challenge Gina Raimondo in next year’s gubernatorial primary. This week a big name helped fan the speculation: Speaker Mattiello, who lunched with Chafee at the see-and-be-seen Old Canteen for what they insisted was just a friendly holiday-season catch-up. Neither man is a big fan of Raimondo, and Mattiello of course effectively controls the state party apparatus as speaker. (“It was a little reminiscence about the days of fiscal discipline and competence from the executive branch,” Chafee told WPRO after our story on the lunch.) Lisa Pelosi, who was an aide to Governor Almond, argues Chafee “has to be Governor Raimondo’s worst nightmare” for 2018. “Because if he does run – and he has the money to run – we’ve already seen how critical he is of her, and he’d be constant,” Pelosi said on this week’s Newsmakers. “He’d be a gift to the Republicans for what he would be able to do, to really run hard against her and really criticize.”

4. One thing that may comfort Gina Raimondo as she looks ahead to 2018: history. A first-term Rhode Island governor hasn’t been defeated for re-election in more than half a century, since John Notte lost a squeaker to John Chafee in 1962. (That race was so close it took until Nov. 30 to declare a winner.) Granted, the stat comes with some big caveats. Through 1992 governors were only elected to two-year terms; one post-Notte incumbent lost after the same four-year tenure that Raimondo will have had, Bruce Sundlun in 1994, while Frank Licht and Lincoln Chafee didn’t bother running again in their fourth years. Generally speaking, though, incumbency is an advantage. The same holds true at the presidential level, where only one incumbent – George H.W. Bush – has lost re-election since 1980.

5. Political operative Jeff Britt may be working for the Rhode Island Democratic Party rather than Nick Mattiello’s campaign this election cycle, but it appears he’s not severing ties with the speaker and his team. An invitation went out this week for a Dec. 12 fundraiser that will benefit the state party, to be held at the Providence offices of Deepwater Wind. The hosts? Mattiello and Britt, along with Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi and Deepwater CEO Jeff Grybowski. The special guest? Governor Raimondo. Suggested contributions are $500 to $5,000.

6. Also shaking the money tree this December is state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who already has the financial edge in his Democratic primary challenge to incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. The Regunberg campaign is holding its kickoff fundraiser Dec. 4 at Black Sheep, the new Providence bar popular with political types. “I’ll never have billionaire super PAC money, but we can win this campaign with grassroots donations from friends like you,” Regunberg wrote in the invitation. Suggested contributions are $50 to $250. The solicitation went out as Regunberg’s team trumpeted endorsements from five union groups: Teamsters Local 251, SEIU 1199, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2323, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 618 and the Rhode Island Working Families Party.

7. Former RIDOT Director Mike Lewis is back in his old job – in Colorado.

SIGN UP: Get Nesi’s Notes by Email

8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “As we head into the final month of 2017, Providence is seeing mixed results when it comes to crime. Let’s start with the good. If the numbers grow at their current pace, the city could end the year with fewer than 6,000 reported property crimes for the first time since municipalities began providing annual totals to the FBI in 1985. The city’s property crime peak came in 1987, when it had 17,328 burglaries, larcenies and car thefts. The last time Providence saw more than 10,000 property crimes was 2004. On the other hand, aggravated assaults – with and without guns – have ticked up, even though overall violent crime is down about 3% compared to the same point in 2016 and flat compared to the five-year average. Ordinarily, any drop in violent crime is welcome news to politicians heading into an election year. But Mayor Elorza has set a slightly different tone for much of this year. Because violent crime grew in both 2015 and 2016 after hitting an all-time low in 2014, the mayor has chosen to highlight decreases in specific violent crimes – like shootings and gang-related homicides – when he discusses these issues with residents across the city. If the current numbers hold, he may need to adjust his talking points on the campaign trail.”

9. Tim White remembers the late Providence Police Col. Barney Prignano.

10. The week’s big business news was Virgin Pulse announcing it will make Providence its global headquarters and accelerate hiring at its new office in the Providence Journal building. CEO David Osborne formally announced the decision Monday night at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, where he and Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner both suggested they see signs of momentum for the state’s economy. “I travel a lot … and people are asking about what’s going on,” Goldner said, noting that a growing number of companies in other industries are asking to come visit Hasbro to learn about its work and what’s happening in Rhode Island. “I just think that’s how you get a sense,” he said. “You really feel like it’s very tangible – people really want to understand what’s going on here, and we’ve just got to again keep that going.” Osborne said he’s gotten similar positive feedback. “I’ve talked to a lot of business leaders in the past few weeks and months, and obviously told them we’re moving our business office to Providence,” he said. “And the response is resounding – it’s, ‘What a great town.’ They’re really excited for me. … It’s the best-kept secret.”

11. Brian Goldner refused to bite when asked at the Chamber meeting where things stand with his reported takeover bid for rival Mattel. (For what it’s worth, Reuters reported Mattel spurned Hasbro’s initial offer.) As the FT noted in a lengthy story this week, “The maker of Nerf guns has long played second fiddle to Mattel, but it is catching up. According to Bloomberg data, Hasbro is on track to surpass Mattel’s annual sales for the first time since 1993 and as investors have dumped Mattel, its market capitalisation has risen to almost double that of its rival.” Among local business leaders, though, the chatter regarding Hasbro is as much about its future headquarters as the Mattel talks, with a growing belief the company is leaning toward building a sizable new office in Providence. Goldner told me the company is still in the process of figuring out its plans and has not settled on a location, with staying in Pawtucket still on the table. He also declined to offer any timeline for when a decision will be made.

12. Rhode Island’s No. 6 bank, BankNewport, is expanding to Providence.

13. The leader of another quasi-public agency is beginning to plan his exit. Bob Donovan, who’s led the R.I. Health and Educational Building Corporation since 1993, tells me he plans to retire at the end of 2018. A quick tally shows Donovan has overseen more than 250 bond issues for hospitals, colleges and other institutions since he took the helm. “As I reflect on 25 years as the executive director of RIHEBC, I have seen the impact of financing so many projects for nonprofit health and education organizations,” he said in an email. “This has been the most rewarding part of the job, seeing where a parent can get exceptional medical care for their child or a student can learn in a state-of-the-art classroom. It has been the best job I could have imagined.”

14. Brown University’s endowment has hit $3.5 billion, a record high.

15. Last week’s edition carried a link to a City Journal essay by Anne Hendershott arguing that Providence College and other institutions like it are losing their Catholic identities. PC spokesman (and Class of ’78 alum) Steve Maurano begs to differ. “The City Journal author claims that, over the last five decades, Catholic colleges and universities have been abandoning their religious identities,” Maurano said in an email. “While this may hold true for some institutions, it simply is not the case at Providence College. The College remains committed to the Catholic and Dominican values that were the cornerstone of its founding in 1917, as is evidenced by PC’s mission statement and the detailed information about our Catholic and Dominican identity, both of which are prominently featured on our website. The Catholic and Dominican nature of Providence College is openly acknowledged and proclaimed, and is central to what we do as an educational institution committed to preparing its students to live lives of meaning and purpose.” And, he added, “as to the author’s trumpeting that ‘the more traditional colleges have won recognition for academic excellence by some of the most prestigious listings of colleges and universities,’ and her citing a California school for being ranked No. 53 in US News & World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges rankings, I would just like to point out that PC was ranked No. 1 in its category in those same rankings for the second year in a row.”

16. Congratulations to my friends at Rhode Island PBS’s long-running politics show “A Lively Experiment,” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary on the air this weekend. A special retrospective edition features current host Jim Hummel along with his three predecessors, Steve Kass, James Hagan and Dyana Koelsch.

17. The annual State House Christmas tree lighting, a free event open to the public, will take place Thursday at 5:30. The governor and her husband will read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the Rhode Island National Guard 88th Army Band will play yuletide tunes, the Scituate Elementary and De La Salle Middle choruses will sing, and Santa Claus is expected. Attendees are asked to bring an unwrapped toy as a donation. As for the spruce itself, this year’s is a 25-foot tall Fraser fir donated by North Kingstown residents Robert Vanderslice and Meg Kerr.

18. Rebecca Traister and Ross Douthat discuss sex, harassment and feminism in a post-Weinstein world.

19. Bret Stephens on “the dying art of disagreement.”

20. A fun read on Mark Twain and money.

21. Why owning music – not just streaming it – matters.

22. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable previews the 2018 election season. This week on Executive Suite – “Vanishing Neighbor” author Mark Dunkelman. 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

An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Frank Licht lost re-election in 1972; he retired rather than seeking a new term.