The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Happy Easter!

2. Tim White, Dan McGowan and I spent a lot of time reporting on the Gordon Fox investigation over the past five days, and we know a good deal more today than we did a week ago. As we reported Tuesday and Wednesday, just before the March 21 raids investigators visited longtime Fox aide Ruth Desmarais in search of campaign-finance documents, and they also sought information from the R.I. Board of Elections. (“They were not searching my house,” Desmarais told Tim in an interview, “but that is all I will tell you.”) Fox has been the treasurer of his own campaign-finance account for the last 10 years, giving him responsibility for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash (though he’d designated Desmarais as his point person with elections officials). Just this week, as we reported Thursday, investigators sought additional information about Fox from the Providence city treasurer’s office; Fox has earned money from the city on and off since 1996. Put it all together and this is looking more and more like a classic “follow the money” case. What we don’t know, of course, is where the money leads. It’s important to reiterate that Fox has not been charged or even identified as the target of all this activity; that said, he and his lawyer have said nothing to counter the widespread impression that he’s in a jam.

3. Bob Walsh of the NEARI teachers’ union had plenty to say on this week’s Newsmakers – never a surprise when it comes to the loquacious labor leader. But one of his most interesting comments was about new House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, whose victory was generally viewed as a defeat for progressives. “I reject that premise,” Walsh told us. “Some of my newer, more naive friends in politics – including some elected folks who are also progressive – were supporting [Mike] Marcello, and some of my progressive friends who were elected leaders, including in the legislature, supported Nick Mattiello. I did not see this as a progressive [defeat].” He added: “The chamber hasn’t changed. There are still 75 folks there with a whole diversity of opinions, many of whom agree with me.” It will be interesting to see the reaction to Walsh’s comments on Rhode Island’s Future, where Bob PlainTom Sgouros and more recently John Speck have all given voice to progressive displeasure at the elevation of Mattiello to the speakership.

4. Speaking of the speaker, he has a tough road ahead in putting together a 2014-15 budget over the next two months. On the one hand, Mattiello is under pressure to deliver on his promises of cuts in the corporate and estate taxes, and he knows the political importance of notching some quick wins in his first months. On the other hand, the math is looking increasingly tough thanks to soaring Medicaid enrollment, weak tax receipts, newly negotiated raises and the Sakonnet toll issue. The upcoming revenue estimating conference, which will set the final terms for this year’s budget debate, looms large because of the role it will play in shaping Mattiello’s options. (Keep an eye on combined reporting.) There’s also the question of where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed – a fierce protector of social services – will come down, and what the new dynamic is between the two chambers in the Mattiello era. Lots to watch.

5. Don’t miss Pew’s fascinating Next America report on the nation’s fast-changing demographics.

6. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “The high-profile super PAC created in part to help Treasurer Raimondo become Rhode Island’s next governor has gotten off to a sleepy start in 2014. The American LeadHERship PAC, founded by former congressional candidate Kate CoyneMcCoy, reported raising just $1,000 during the first quarter of year and now has $43,013 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed this week. The PAC came under fire earlier this year after Ted reported that prominent pension reform backers John and Laura Arnold contributed $100,000 last August, leading gubernatorial candidate Angel Taveras to renew his call for the Democratic candidates for governor to sign a ‘People’s Pledge’ to limit independent expenditures in the race. CoyneMcCoy told WPRI.com she is still considering getting involved in the race, but indicated she is ‘paying very close attention’ to what unfolds with the pledge. ‘I will do whatever most positively impacts the race for Gina Raimondo,’ she said. As for the status of the pledge itself, Common Cause executive director John Marion said says there’s little new to report. ‘The People’s Pledge is still around,’ he said. ‘The campaigns are running it by their lawyers at this point. Still waiting for a couple to get back to me.’”

7. Fortune senior editor Dan Primack this week criticized pension-watcher Ted Siedle as part of an extended critique of Pando Daily’s David Sirota (whose writing on John Arnold was referenced in this space last month). While the piece was mostly about New Jersey, Primack also argued Sirota should have disclosed that Siedle’s work in Rhode Island was funded by the Council 94 union. As for Siedle’s contribution to Sirota’s story, Primack wrote: “Siedle’s quote is unintelligible. I mean it sounds bad, but is total gibberish. I dare you to make sense of it.” Siedle shot back on Twitter that Primack is an apologist for the financial industry, which Primack dismissed by referencing his reporting on kickback scandals.

8. Via The Phoenix’s Phil Eil (among others), check out this terrific 1947 short film about Rhode Island by the travelogue filmmaker Carl Dudley. It’s like stepping into a time machine.

9. The Democratic primary for secretary of state is heating up a bit. Nellie Gorbea kicked things off this week by releasing her tax returns and calling on her opponent, Guillaume De Ramel, to do the same. De Ramel is the wealthy scion of a prominent family, and presumably his returns would show a rather impressive income; he declined to release them, and Gorbea duly knocked him for it. (How much does that resonate with voters?) Later in the week, De Ramel struck back by trumpeting a new endorsement from Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence. Diaz is vice chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party – and, like Gorbea, a Latino woman, which De Ramel’s campaign will no doubt emphasize down the stretch.

10. Andera CEO Charlie Kroll is on his way out after selling the company for a cool $48 million, though he says the firm will remain in Providence under new ownership. While Kroll is optimistic about Rhode Island’s startup scene, he says one thing preventing small local companies from growing is a lack of capital – specifically, middle-stage capital when they’re out of infancy but aren’t ready to attract big-money out-of-state investments the way Andera and Swipely have. “There is a middle segment there, once you’ve gotten past the $50,000 seed investors, before you’re ready for venture capital – there’s a role for the half-million-dollar angel investor,” Kroll said on this week’s Executive Suite. That role has been filled in recent years by the taxpayer-backed Slater Technology Fund, but its annual appropriation has been shrinking. “We really need to find, collectively, a solution to what do the very young companies do in order to get to the point where they’re ready to raise venture capital, because there’s a funding gap there at the six-figure range,” Kroll said.

11. The looming sale of Providence-based RBS Citizens Financial Group continues to get less attention locally than you’d expect. The most recent developments: Citizens failed a Fed stress test last month, complicating Royal Bank of Scotland’s efforts to sell it off over the next few years. “The Fed has been very cautious in terms of permitting larger acquisitions among the bigger banks,” Jennifer Thompson, an analyst at Portales Partners LLC, told Bloomberg News recently. “The fact that you now have some internal control issues would probably make a potential acquirer think twice about doing a deal.” For more on Citizens’ cloudy future and why it matters to Rhode Island, check out this post from last year.

12. A loyal Saturday Morning Post reader – my Dad – strongly contested my reference last week to a “can of Morton Salt,” saying Morton Salt has always come in a box. He makes a strong case, though the cylindrical shape of the Morton container has always seemed more can-like to me.

13. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the Local 57 Operating Engineers, the Italian American Democratic Leadership Council, the North Smithfield Democratic Town Committee and the New Shoreham Democratic Town Committee all endorsed Gina Raimondo … the Barrington Democratic Town Committee endorsed Gina Raimondo, Nellie Gorbea and Seth Magaziner … Rep. Grace Diaz endorsed Guillaume De Ramel … and the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers endorsed Frank Caprio.

14. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items we published this week: ahead of Easter, the five candidates for governor shared their religious faiths … the unions and retirees won another court victory in the pension lawsuit … weightlifting firefighter John Sauro says he’ll sue the city to get back his disability pension … the unemployment rate dipped to 8.7% … Angel Taveras laid out his legislative agenda for Providence and announced more City Hall staff changes … and nobody knows how much Rhode Island’s soaring Medicaid enrollment will cost.

15. I joined Rhode Island PBS for this week’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Wendy Schiller, Maureen Moakley and Pablo Rodriguez. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersRobert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Andera CEO Charlie Kroll. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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