McKee seeks to remain upbeat in face of virus surge

Posted 12/22/21

STORY OF THE WEEK: Over the summer, when COVID cases were significantly down and precautions relaxed, it was easy to think the pandemic was on its way out. Well, so much for that. Things have been trending in a more worrisome direction for months, first

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McKee seeks to remain upbeat in face of virus surge



Over the summer, when COVID cases were significantly down and precautions relaxed, it was easy to think the pandemic was on its way out. Well, so much for that. Things have been trending in a more worrisome direction for months, first with Delta and now Omicron. Under the worst-case scenario, a surge of cases could overwhelm already fragile health systems in Rhode Island and other states. Gov. Dan McKee faced the changing circumstances last week when he announced the imposition of a hybrid masking plan. McKee tried to remain upbeat, saying in part, “This is not a pause. We want to let people know that business is going to continue, and that we encourage people to frequent local businesses, but be safe about it.” Some small businesses, though, were less than happy about the news. That’s understandable. COVID fatigue has been with us for a long time. But Rhode Island’s case rate has shot up like a rocket since Thanksgiving. And maintaining business as usual in a number of other states explains why the pandemic has continued.


Some Rhode Island lobbyists are irked about a December 8 letter sent by Westminster Consulting, Mark Ryan’s lobbying outfit. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by TGIF, cited how “Nicholas Mattiello, the most recent former speaker of the House of Representatives, joined us this summer and will be available to provide lobbying services for the Executive Branch now and for the Rhode Island House and the Rhode Island Senate commencing in 2022.” The letter points to a raft of past and current clients – Lifespan, Narragansett Electric, Gannett, Hasbro and Twin River, among others – adding, “If you are evaluating your lobbying needs for next year, please keep us in mind to supplement your current relationships or create new ones.” Ryan did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment. Some lobbyists who learned of the letter sent by his firm are upset about what they consider an attempt to poach clients – a forbidden practice in Rhode Island’s small political influence sector


Failure is an orphan and victory has many fathers, or so the saying goes. On one level, concern from different people has raised the focus on helping the homeless in Rhode Island, and that merits notice. But we’re on the cusp of an election year, so politics remains part of the landscape. The question of who deserves credit was front and center last week. That’s when Gov. Dan McKee announced some new efforts on behalf of the homeless. State Sen. Cynthia Mendes (D-East Providence), who is running for lieutenant governor on a Rhode Island Political Cooperative-backed ticket with Matt Brown, responded by declaring victory and ending the protest that, at its peak, featured close to 100 people sleeping in tents outside the Statehouse. 

Speaking on Political Roundtable, Mendes said advocates, service providers and others concerned about the homeless began seeking action for 10 months. “And after 16 days of direct action and protest, after hundreds of Rhode Islanders came out in droves and slept out on the State House steps, they started to act,” Mendes said. “It is far, far, far too late. It’s the middle of December.”

 McKee rejected the idea that Mendes and her allies lit a fire under the state. "We are listening to anybody who wants to talk about the issue but I think it is a little presumptive to think that any one group got us here today," he told the ProJo. (It’s worth nothing, too, that the governor announced on November 3 a $5 million boost to provide hundreds more beds for the homeless.)

FWIW: Mendes did not vote earlier this year for the state budget that included a focus on housing, including the creation of a housing production fund, a new statewide housing director, and “Pay for Success,” a program meant to help the homeless. A.J. Braverman, a spokesman for the Brown-Mendes ticket, said she supports those concepts, but opposed the budget “which left the state with a $600 million surplus while failing to address the impending crisis of homelessness and many other important issues.” And while Mendes announced plans this week to sponsor legislation to make Rhode Island a “right to shelter” state and to create an eviction moratorium for the duration of the pandemic, the East Providence Democrat was the main sponsor of seven bills this year, none of which specifically related to housing, according to a review of the General Assembly web site.


Speaking of durable elected Republicans in southern New England, it plays against type to think that a robust supporter of Donald Trump would fit in that category. Thomas Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, has been in the news a lot over the years, for everything from chain gangs to recent calls to close New Bedford’s 133-year-old Ash Street Jail. As my colleague Ben Berke reports, critics say the facility is marred by substandard living conditions. Hodgson fired back with characteristic zeal: “There aren’t rats and things running around. Could they get into the building? Of course, they can, and they can get into a school. This is just political hype around progressive leftists who want to shut down the Ash Street Jail.” Looking ahead, Hodgson -- for the first time in more than a decade, will face a challenge for re-election next year -- from Democrat Nick Bernier, a lawyer and former prosecutor. The controversial sheriff has faced challenges before (“Hodgson taking his lumps in sheriff race,” the Sun Chronicle reported in 2009), but, for now, he remains a hardy survivor.


Former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa was first out of the chute in the 2022 race for RI General Treasurer, announcing his run via news release last week. Diossa is well-liked and he can highlight the narrative of bringing Central Falls back from bankruptcy. Former Treasury staffer Andy Roos touted Diossa in a message to his email list, and the firm that employs Roos, GPS Impact, will be the media consultant for the former mayor’s campaign. More candidates will likely emerge for the post, and a central question in the Democratic primary will be who’s best qualified to manage Rhode Island’s $10 billion pension fund. The other prospects include RI Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, and RI Democratic Party Treasurer Liz Beretta-Perik. Two other potential candidates, RI Senate Finance Chairman Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) and RI House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney (D-Newport) tell me they remain undecided.


Speaking of Treasury, Seth Magaziner’s case for becoming RI’s next governor relies in large part on what he’s done during two terms as general treasurer. Magaziner’s office shared the following news this week: “[T]he total unfunded liability of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island decreased by $408,597,654 in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2021, and the funded status grew to 63.9%, the highest level since 2008. This is the third year in a row that the unfunded liability has decreased and represents the largest decline in a single year ever …. During Fiscal Year 2021, the pension system earned a 25.6% investment return and ended at an all-time high of more than $10.3 billion in assets. The overall funded status of the pension system, which includes plans for state employees, teachers, judges, state police, and municipal employees, rose from 60.5% to 63.9%.”


Bumper crop … Because it’s tough to beat BU talent, ahem, RISD has unveiled Crystal Williams as the college’s new president …. As I tweeted Thursday, Nicole Verdi is leaving her role as chief legal counsel with the RI Senate to become senior NE manager of government affairs/policy for Danish wind power giant OrstedUS … President Biden has nominated Michelle Kwan, ex of Clay Pell, as U.S. ambassador to Belize, fka British Honduras … Congrats to Jamie Coelho on getting the nod as top editor at RI Monthly, and to Sarah Francis for 28 years leading the magazine …. Welcome to Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, signing on as the new director of the Economic Progress Institute … Finally, Tonya King is leaving as director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence to join the National Network to End Domestic Violence; deputy director Lucy Rios will serve as interim director.


My colleague Sofie Rudin reports on the concerns about PPL’s proposed $5.3 billion purchase of Narragansett Electric: “A major source of concern is that Narragansett Electric is dependent on National Grid’s operations in Massachusetts and New York for everything from engineering expertise to backup equipment during storms. ‘PPL must explain how it plans to remove Narragansett Electric from the regional system of synergies National Grid currently provides without creating a burden of additional costs for ratepayers as a result of building new facilities, and providing services that would otherwise have been provided with certain costs shared with New York and Massachusetts,’ said Nicholas Vaz of the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, which has intervened in the sale. Experts hired by the attorney general’s office found that PPL failed to provide adequate financial information, and argued that the sale should not be approved.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter@IanDon and read or sign up for a longer version of this column at thepublicsradio.org. Ian is taking some time off, so this column will return in two weeks.

politics, Donis


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