TALKING POLITICS

Races to watch and the future of nursing homes

By IAN DONNIS
Posted 7/1/20

The Rhode Island General Assembly is a change-averse institution. This has been a year of big and unexpected change in America, first with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the ongoing reaction sparked by the death of George Floyd. What happens when the

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TALKING POLITICS

Races to watch and the future of nursing homes

Posted

The Rhode Island General Assembly is a change-averse institution. This has been a year of big and unexpected change in America, first with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the ongoing reaction sparked by the death of George Floyd. What happens when the rubber meets the road in elections in September and November? Will women and progressive legislative candidates continue to make more of the incremental gains seen in recent Rhode Island election cycles? Will Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung topple Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello , via the race for the state rep seat he holds in Cranston? Or will the challenges of campaigning during the pandemic diminish the amount of change? We’ve seen how resistance can get overturned, relatively quickly, on issues like pensions (2011), same-sex marriage (2013) and abortion rights (2019). Now, the question is, will the social currents that have coursed through America in 2020, taking down statues and unleashing a new youth-led social movement, have a broader, unexpected impact on Smith Hill?

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For evidence of how the pandemic is hurting the bottom line of Rhode Island nursing homes, consider Hallworth House Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. The 57-bed facility on the East Side of Providence has announced plans to close in August. “The facility had lost more than $1.3 million in the last two years while maintaining high standards of care, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to continue,” Dr. Patricia Nolan, chair of Hallworth House’s board wrote in a statement. This heightened financial stress for nursing homes and hospitals could explain why RI Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott  is taking extra time to decide Alabama-based Encompass Health’s controversial proposal for a 50-bed inpatient rehabilitation center in Johnston. Supporters like Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena say the project would be good for the town and the state. But opponents, including groups representing Rhode Island’s hospitals and nursing homes, say the envisioned rehab center would cannibalize five existing rehab centers, four of them associated with hospitals, and raise healthcare costs. The Health Department has declined to comment on when Alexander-Scott will make her decision on whether to approve or reject the proposal.

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Some other top General Assembly races to watch, beyond the headline matchup in November between Mattiello and Fenton-Fung (in no particular order): Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence), a top critic of the speaker, faces a primary challenge from educator Nathan Biah. Patricia Morgan was well-liked in her West Warwick district, so she could be tough to beat in the race for the seat now held by Rep. James Jackson. The Trump factor could be significant in a number races, including comeback attempts by former GOP reps Anthony Giarrusso , against Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-East Greenwich), and Ken Mendonca, against Rep. Terri Cortvriend  (D-Portsmouth). Elsewhere in Trumpland, the POTUS’ two RI co-chairs are running, former rep Doreen Costa for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Sheehan (D-North Kingstown), and Jerry Zarrella, in a rare GOP primary against Rep. Justin Price of Hopkinton. Also worth watching is the performance of the RI Political Coop’s slate of candidates, as well as the competition for the open seats left by the departure of Sens. Sheehan, Erin Lynch Prata of Warwick, Adam Satchell of West Warwick, Donna Nesselbush of Pawtucket, and Reps. Stephen Ucci of Johnston, and Dennis Canario of Portsmouth.

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The Cranston Republican City Committee’s overwhelming 33-9 endorsement last week of Michael Farina marks a rebuke to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, since Fung (who is term-limited) is backing rival GOP candidate Ken Hopkins. The dynamics here are worth watching since Farina, a former Democrat, is close to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who is being targeted for removal by Fung’s wife, Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. On the other side of the aisle, the Cranston Democratic City Committee declined to make an endorsement between the two Democrats running, Maria Bucci and Steve Stycos, with the agreement of both candidates.

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The Judicial Nominating Commission last week picked nine people to be interviewed for a pending vacancy on the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The choice for Gov. Gina Raimondo may really be just two names: outgoing Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata

and Superior Court Judge Melissa Long

. Lynch Prata has the enthusiastic backing of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Critics point to how the Ethics Commission found the revolving door law does not apply to her, after commission staff recommended otherwise, as evidence that the choice was pre-ordained. But Long has judicial experience and Raimondo’s previous judicial picks reflect a commitment to diversity. Picking Long, who is Black, would change Rhode Island’s status as one of the rare states that have never had a person of color on its Supreme Court – a significant legacy choice for the governor. In fact, of the 28 names sent for SCORI consideration to a governor since the JNC was launched in 1995, only seven of the candidates have been women. Only one (O. Rogeriee Thompson, now on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District) was a person of color. Of the seven women, only two were selected as nominees, and one, Meg Curran, was summarily dismissed by the legislature; later, as U.S. attorney, she oversaw the Plunder Dome prosecution of Buddy Cianci). Just one of the five current Rhode Island Supreme Court justices, Maureen McKenna Goldberg, is a woman, and she joined the court more than 20 years ago.

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Gov. Raimondo last week put her support behind removing “Providence Plantations” from Rhode Island’s official state name. The governor nodded to the rationale that fueled at least some of the public opposition during a vote on the name change in 2010 – that slavery was not a factor in the use of the word “Plantations” in naming the state. She also said that’s besides the point. “We can’t ignore the pain conjured by the word ‘plantations,’ ” Raimondo said during a news conference at Billy Taylor Park in the Mount Hope section of Providence. “We can’t ignore how painful that is for Black Rhode Islanders to see that and have to see that as part of their state’s name. It’s demoralizing. It’s a slap in the face. It’s painful.” Raimondo said the offending words will be removed from state pay stubs, web sites, and gubernatorial communications. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and General Assembly leaders also took steps to remove “Providence Plantations” from state documents. One of the few contrary voices came from Sen. Elaine Morgan(R-Hopkinton), who questioned the cost of making the changes with a huge deficit looming. And she made this point via a statement: “I support putting this question to the voters on November’s ballot. But to do this by executive order gives the impression that the governor does not trust Rhode Islanders to decide for themselves.”

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Who among us knew that the Klan once held a public dinner-dance at the venerable Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet? Via Phil Eil, writing at Uprise RI: “As protests sweep across the nation following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and countless other racially-motivated injustices, it’s important to remember our less flattering history. If you’re an Ocean State resident feeling powerless and disturbed by recent events, here is at least one tangible thing you can do: educate yourself about the nightmares that took place in our backyard.”

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Here’s part of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s statement on how the huge showing of people who turned out last week to express concern on how much money the city puts into policing: “As we work through this budget process and beyond, we will continue to engage with the community, in particular with Black leaders, to set priorities for reallocating resources and reforming structurally racist systems. Removing "plantations" from our city and state documents was just the first step in a long and important process for us. In the path ahead, we will find new ways to invest in the health of our community, realize the racial justice initiatives that will make us a more equitable city, and support our youth so that they can live in a better future.” The FOP, meanwhile, voted no confidence in Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. Elsewhere, the Rhode Island Association of Police Chiefs helped organize a response by 48 police chiefs to the concerns epitomized by the death of George Floyd. The pledges in the “20 for 2020” campaign include acknowledging the reality police brutality, re-emphasizing training standards, and uniform reporting for use of force and civil rights violations. “We understand that our words do not carry any meaning unless they are followed by actions,” Lincoln Police Chief Brian Sullivan, president of the association, said in a statement. “Our hope today is that the promises we are making to our communities will be just the start of a longer, sustained action toward greater police legitimacy in the eyes of the people we serve. At the same time, we defend and stand up for the profession of policing, and we support the good, hard-working women and men who choose to dedicate their lives to helping others.”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

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