Nesi’s Notes: March 30 | WPRI.com

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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 me on Threads, Twitter and Facebook.

1. Believe it or not, Tuesday is an election day in Rhode Island. You could be forgiven for forgetting; I’ve seen county commissioner elections that had more excitement than this year’s presidential primary. Barely 1% of Rhode Island voters had bothered to cast a ballot as of Friday; it’s unclear if turnout will surpass the recent record low of 3% back in 2012. It’s hard to blame civic apathy, though. Voters are well aware that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already sewn up their party’s nominations, making the Rhode Island primary an afterthought. Yet it isn’t always this way. As recently as 2008, the last year when Rhode Island held its primary on Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton made a big push to win the state as she sought to seize the momentum away from Barack Obama. (Clinton even gave a one-on-one interview to our own Tim White.) Three years later, then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis convinced state lawmakers to move the primary later, arguing that Rhode Island could become “more relevant” by coordinating a regional primary with some other Northeast states. And 2016 showed that an April primary can still be meaningful: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and John Kasich all campaigned in Rhode Island that year. But now the 2020 and 2024 primary contests have both been effectively over by the time Rhode Island voters got their say. Still, there’s little talk about revisiting the timing of the presidential primary. That may be partly because of a benefit the current date gives specifically to local politicians: in exchange for holding a later primary, Rhode Island is awarded extra delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

2. Still, the lack of drama about the national party tickets doesn’t mean there’s no activity ahead of Tuesday’s primary. The Democratic Socialists of America’s Rhode Island chapter is helping organize a rally at the State House today where speakers will urge Democratic primary voters to cast a ballot for “Uncommitted” in order to protest President Biden’s policy on the Israel-Hamas war. And there are still real contests further down the ballot — for delegates to the two conventions. Among the big names running to be a Biden delegate: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson, state Sen. Sandra Cano, state Rep. Karen Alzate, and businessman Bill Foulkes (husband of Helena). On the Republican side, candidates who want to be delegates for Donald Trump include state Rep. Sherry Roberts and former state Rep. Justin Price, while candidates to be Nikki Haley delegates include former state Rep. Dan Reilly, former GOP Chair Gio Cicione, and Rhode Island Young Republicans Chairman Ken Naylor Jr. (One thing to watch Tuesday: will there be a meaningful protest vote for Haley, as just happened in Arizona?)

3. Here’s a dispatch from my colleague Eli Sherman: “The saga of the infamous ‘vegan cheese’ Philly trip isn’t over yet. Former state properties director David Patten this week agreed to pay a $5,000 fine to settle a complaint that alleged he violated the state’s ethics code when he demanded a free lunch on the botched business trip last March. He was also accused of acting highly inappropriately toward staff and taking goods (like the aforementioned vegan cheese) from vendors without paying. But his travel companion – then-Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen – has decided to fight similar allegations, telling reporters after the Ethics Commission hearing, ‘If I thought I did wrong, I wouldn’t be here right now.’ His decision not to settle with state officials triggers a trial-like administrative process at the commission, where the panel at a future date will hear arguments, and witnesses can be called to testify. It’s a bold move by Thorsen, who’s opening himself up to as much as $52,000 in fines if the commission rules against him. On the flip side, the former director is retaining the chance to avoid having an ethics violation on his record. Plus, any eventual fine could be lower than the maximum. Former East Greenwich Town Manager Gail Corrigan was the subject of the last ethics trial, in 2021, and she was fined just $3,251 despite the panel ruling she violated the ethics code three times.”

4. Speaking of the Philly trip, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and the R.I. State Police on Feb. 28 officially closed a separate criminal investigation into the incident. “The content in question didn’t rise to a criminal offense,” Neronha spokesperson Brian Hodge told Eli Sherman on Friday. However, the attorney general played a crucial role in bringing the details of the trip to light. Neronha last year ruled in favor of an public-records complaint filed by Target 12 and The Providence Journal, forcing Governor McKee’s office to release the scathing whistleblower email from state vendor Scout that they’d been trying to keep secret.

5. Police believe RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian was the driver in a Warwick hit-and-run.

6. Suffice to say Rhode Island no longer has the bridge problem foremost on the mind of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as the White House focuses attention and resources on the tragedy in Baltimore. On the Washington Bridge saga, the next shoe to drop should be release of the much-anticipated forensic analysis that Governor McKee has said will inform his “day of reckoning” for those responsible. McKee told our Alexandra Leslie he was expecting the report by next week, though his office later hedged on that timeline. RIPTA is also aiming to hire two new consultants by next week that will help the agency write the bidding documents for demolishing and rebuilding the bridge. Meantime, the domino effects of the bridge closure keep coming, with the Providence Marathon the latest casualty of the disruption. And business owners unhappy about the situation will get another chance to sound off on Tuesday, when House lawmakers will hold a hearing about how the closure has affected them. Heather Singleton, interim CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, says her group has been gathering information from its members in order to craft proposals for state assistance. “One very, very small bakery that I know of just told me the other day, ‘In October of 2023 I was just starting to see my numbers come back to where they were previously — and now the bridge closed,’” Singleton said on this week’s Newsmakers. “A lot of folks that I’m talking to, they’re feeling like, OK, we’re taking two steps forward, and now we’re five steps back.”

7. Governor McKee’s administration continued its fight against the proposed Access to Public Records Act revamp in the Senate this week, with a host of state agencies opposing the bill being championed by Lou DiPalma. Here’s one idea for a compromise: what if Rhode Island just enacted the same statute as Florida, which has long been praised as a national leader in transparency? I put the suggestion to Claire Richards, who has long played an influential role in Rhode Island public-records battles as executive counsel to McKee and his predecessors. A spokesperson for Richards told me: “She would need to review Florida’s law in detail and engage in a dialogue with Florida state agencies to get a full understanding of the state’s policy on public records and how their agencies operate under that policy effectively.”

8. Could Senator Whitehouse be the key to clinching a deal on Ukraine aid in the GOP-controlled House? That’s what some Republican leaders are hoping, according to a report Friday in the Capitol Hill outlet Punchbowl News. The strategy centers on the bipartisan Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians (REPO) Act, a measure Whitehouse authored with Idaho Republican Jim Risch that cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in January. The bill would allow western authorities to seize and sell off frozen Russian assets, with the proceeds going to the Ukrainians. Attaching the REPO Act to a House bill that funds Ukraine, Risch said, “would probably get us some more votes.” The REPO Act is just one of several efforts by Whitehouse to target Russia financially; he and Lindsey Graham passed another asset-targeting measure in late 2022, and that year he also championed $67 million for the U.S. Department of Justice’s KleptoCapture program.

9. Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson was in Rhode Island this week to participate in a roundtable hosted by Congressman Magaziner focused on his work leading the Jan. 6 committee. I sat down with the pair during Thompson’s visit for an interview that airs on this week’s Newsmakers, and one of the questions I asked Thompson was about his reaction to Rhode Island voters electing a Black candidate, Gabe Amo, to represent a majority-white district. “Well, it says that in this country we’ve come a long way,” Thompson said. “Before, to be a Black member of Congress, you had to be from a predominately Black district. That’s no longer the case. Rhode Island has set the gold standard for representation. We now, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

10. And speaking of Gabe Amo, he continues working to clear his path to winning a full term in the regularly scheduled election later this year. Amo held a well-attended fundraiser on Thursday night at the Providence home of Mayor Brett Smiley, with an aide reporting that the event raised more than $100,000 for Amo’s campaign account. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed was among those in attendance.

11. The R.I. Department of Health has a new temporary leader: Dr. Staci Fischer, an infectious disease specialist who is currently chief administrative officer of the R.I. Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline. Fischer is the Health Department’s fourth interim director since Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott stepped down in early 2022, though Governor McKee’s office says he is getting closer to finding a permanent director. (Fischer is also the better half of longtime Rhode Island journalist Scott MacKay.)

12. Why did Rhode Island spend $38 million on Medicaid coverage for out-of-staters?

13. People on the move: Matt Sheaff, who left in January as Governor McKee’s senior communications adviser, has joined Philip Morris InternationalErlin Rogel is stepping down as Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’s chief of staff to join the YMCA of Greater Providence, which has a new CEO in Karen Santilli.

14. The Rhode Island Foundation is relaunching its series of “Together RI” free-food-and-conversation gatherings, starting April 6 at the Roger Williams Park Casino; you can see the full schedule and register here. The foundation is also launching an accompanying podcast, hosted by CEO David Cicilline, that features Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah as the guest on its first episode. Shah discusses his new book “Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens.” The next guest is Jeannie Infante Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

15. I always find it a little strange when Easter Sunday falls in March — seems a little too early, with the weather still so gloomy. But the internet informs me Easter can actually fall as early as March 22, even if that hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t happen again until 2285. Easter can also be as late as April 25. And the most common date of all? April 19. Happy Easter to all who celebrate!

16. Free Evan.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers — the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s Heather Singleton. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sunday at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Threads, Twitter and Facebook.

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