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Two governors, no governor, or something in between

Posted 2/10/21

To paraphrase "The Twilight Zone," Rhode Islanders are living in a moment of both shadow and substance, in which the state has two governors, no governor, or something in between. Thanks to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Gina Raimondo's nomination as

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Two governors, no governor, or something in between

Posted

To paraphrase “The Twilight Zone,” Rhode Islanders are living in a moment of both shadow and substance, in which the state has two governors, no governor, or something in between.

Thanks to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Gina Raimondo’s nomination as Commerce secretary stalled this week on the way to the U.S. Senate. But Democrats control D.C., and a Senate committee approved Raimondo’s nomination on a 21-3 vote, so the question of her jump to the Biden administration is a matter of when, not if.

Back in Rhode Island, Raimondo hasn’t taken questions from reporters in almost 50 days. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is waiting in the wings while assembling his team. The strange quality of the present moment could be seen when Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said, “Both governors are involved,” in response to a Jim Hummel question Thursday on who’s leading the state’s COVID response.

NEARI’s Robert A. Walsh Jr. tweeted this observation: “Does anyone know a couple that had the talk, decided to split up, said their farewells but then the pandemic forced them to still live together after they said their good-byes? How did they handle that? Asking for a state …”

All this has the makings of a good Providence Newspaper Guild Follies skit, but serious issues are at stake, including the question of who would take the lead if the state faced a sudden, unexpected crisis. Back on Jan. 19, House Republicans asked Raimondo to set a date for the transition. Now with the governor’s move to Commerce unlikely to happen until mid- or late February, criticism from other sources – and possibly McKee – is bound to intensify. *

***

More than 60 people are in the hunt to be the next lieutenant governor of Rhode Island. The candidates run the gamut, sources tell TGIF, from former state Rep. Joanne Giannini to current politicos, including Rep. Grace Diaz, Providence City Council President Sabina Matos and Elizabeth Beretta-Perik, treasurer of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. (Matos and Beretta-Perik did not respond to requests for comment.)

There’s former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and state Sen. Louis DiPalma of Middletown. Former state Sen. Donna Nesselbush of Pawtucket has been actively courting support for her campaign for LG, writing to supporters in search of $1,000 contributions to underscore support for her bid (“Any amount is helpful,” according to an email obtained by TGIF).

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s transition, which faced criticism for not revealing the list of would-be LGs, issued a statement Friday saying the details will likely emerge early next week: “The incoming governor believes this process should be transparent; the delay is only based upon ensuring a valid list is provided to the public and the media.” And at least two of applications have been dismissed as jokes or pranks.

***

Gina Raimondo has come a long way from the time when her meatloaf recipe got emphasis, during a 2014 campaign event with Myrth York at Rue de L’espoir, seemingly in an effort to soften her image. Raimondo also shared an archival video in ’14 about making “a delicious Torta Margharita” with Mary Ann Esposito on Ciao Italia.

Now, Raimondo finds herself skirmishing with Ted Cruz on Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecom company, and winning praise from a ranking Senate Democrat on her ability to handle complex issues involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

***

News related to Providence’s 2022 mayoral race has heated up in a hurry.

Brett Smiley is facing unflattering headlines about returning campaign contributions tied to state vendors and the resignation of a member of the state Ethics Commission whose office hosted meetings between Smiley and well-known operative Ed Cotugno.

City Councilor Nirva LaFortune, previously coy about her intentions, released a statement through well-connected East Sider Alison Eichler.

On the campaign finance side, Sabina Matos has the biggest campaign balance – $223,000 – followed by Smiley ($165,000), LaFortune ($54,000) and Gonzalo Cuervo ($50,000).

***

Gov. Raimondo used her final State of the State last week to say goodbye, mourn the toll of the pandemic, and make the case that she’s strengthened the economy and educational fundamentals in Rhode Island.

Here’s a view on Raimondo’s record from Rep. Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield), a former House GOP leader.

“I think she’s done some good things,” Newberry said on Political Roundtable last week. “First of all, RhodeWorks … I think the program itself – getting the roads and bridges in the state fixed, which they are clearly working on, it was very important. I give her a lot of credit for that. I give her credit along with the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate for holding the line on major tax increases. I’ve never liked crony capitalism, as I call it. I’m not a fan of the Commerce Corporation, how it operates. I’m not criticizing their motivation. That’s not how I think you do economic development … The governor of any state is a manager first. We forget that. We take the politics out of it. You got to manage the bureaucracy in her departments. You talk to my colleagues, particularly the ones who sit on Finance that have had year after year of departmental people come in, overspending their budgets. I don’t think she’s done a very good job of managing the state. Lincoln Chafee took a lot of grief when he was governor for a lot of good reasons. But one thing he did do was manage. I don’t think we had overspending issues when he was governor … She’s had great press in the other 49 states, and I wish her well in Washington, but she mentally has not really been checked into Rhode Island for a while, in my opinion.”

***

Given all the temporary uncertainty over who is running Rhode Island, the state’s profile is rising in the nation’s capital. Most notably, after more almost three decades in D.C., U.S. Sen. Jack Reed has landed the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

As Reed’s office notes, “The powerful committee is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), all military services operating within the domains of land, sea, air, cyberspace, and space, and all DOD agencies, including their budgets and policies, and national security aspects of nuclear energy. Each year, SASC is tasked with producing and passing the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).”

“I am honored to lead this committee,” Reed said in a statement. “I hope to match the sacrifice and commitment of our service men and women and be worthy of the trust that the people of Rhode Island have placed in me. This job requires putting the needs and security of our nation first and that is what I strive to do. This committee, like the military itself, must be able to conduct multiple missions and assignments simultaneously, from oversight to confirmations to writing a forward-looking NDAA. And we must be able to adapt to the unique circumstances we are facing amidst a pandemic while meeting urgent and evolving national security challenges.”

***

While Democratic control in D.C. suggests a more generous approach to budget help for Rhode Island and other states, RIPEC is warning of a lengthy economic downturn in the Ocean State.

“The data indicate that long-standing systemic weaknesses in Rhode Island’s economy have persisted into the pandemic, and economic recovery and growth likely will be protracted,” RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase said in a statement. “Policymakers should be considering structural changes to help spur growth and get the economy back on track.”

***

As expected, Henry Kinch Jr. has been named as the new executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the powerful hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly.

“I am looking forward to bringing a very professional approach to JCLS and enabling the leadership of the House and Senate to execute their vision for a brighter future for Rhode Island,” Kinch, who most recently worked as the clerk of Providence Superior Court, said in a statement. “I have always believed that all employees of state government should be as decent and hard-working as the people who pay for it.”

***

While the battle over the Metacomet golf course has faded from the headlines, Rep. Gregg Amore and Sen. Valarie Lawson, both East Providence Democrats, recently unveiled a resolution calling for the state to help EP with the cost of acquiring Metacomet for the purpose of keeping it as open space.

Amore tells me that what happens next depends on the City of East Providence, which, he said, has hired an appraiser to get a value of the Metacomet site. If the city ultimately decides to use eminent domain to pursue the site, the legislative resolution would direct the head of the state Department of Administration “to take all necessary steps to prepare and budget the state’s share of the costs” to buy Metacomet.

***

Rep. Brian Newberry on his fellow North Smithfield lawmaker, Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, who delivered the GOP response to the State of the State last week: “I think Sen. de la Cruz has a bright future in politics,” Newberry said on Political Roundtable, “and the best vignette I can give you is this: her Senate district is all of Burrillville, all of Glocester, and only one precinct in North Smithfield. When she ran for the open seat, she ran against the then-Town Council president of Burrillville in the GOP primary; very well-liked, great guy, and she beat him, which was not a vote against him. It was a testament to her political skill and the work that she put into running. And then she beat her two Democratic opponents very handily … She is the child of immigrants. Her husband is also the child of immigrants from another part of the world … I think she’s politically astute. Also, most importantly, I told her this, she knows what she doesn’t know.”

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. For more of his coverage, visit www.thepublicsradio.org and follow him on Twitter (@IanDon).

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