STORY OF THE WEEK
It became clear in recent weeks that Josh Saal’s tenure as Rhode Island’s housing secretary was drawing to an end. Whether Saal was the right person for the job is mostly beside the point, since the state continues to scratch at the surface of addressing its long-running housing crisis. The problem has significantly worsened as the median cost of a house in the state soared past $411,000 as of December (and Rhode Island has lagged in new housing production for years). But it will take more than an infusion of government spending to address the situation. As Saal noted in his resignation letter, the decentralized structure of the state’s housing apparatus hinders efforts at improvement. People familiar with the issue have known this for years. As House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said when I reported in December 2021 on a lagging effort to spend millions in housing money, “We have a smorgasbord of agencies all doing God’s work, but they’re not coordinated with each other.” (Related: back in 2005, then-Gov. Don Carcieri created a housing office, with the idea of it serving as a focal point on the issue.) When Saal was starting his job, Shekarchi told me revamping the housing bureaucracy should be the top priority: “We want Josh Saal, the new director, to do an evaluation and come to the General Assembly and say, ‘It’s not working and this is how we need to change it. That’s the whole purpose of the housing czar.” Now, with Saal’s time running down during a transition, the state continues to wrestle with some of the key steps needed to make headway. As Patrick Anderson reports in the ProJo, it remains unclear if the General Assembly will sign off on United Way-backed recommendations meant to expand the supply of affordable housing. This quote from Saal stands out in the story: "While some might say this is bold, others might say this is 20 years overdue in that we are catching up what our neighbors generally see as standard for what a comprehensive permit and low-income housing act should do."
Former Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor has the inside track to succeed Saal’s as the state’s next housing secretary. After losing a run for general treasurer to fellow Democrat James Diossa, Pryor was widely expected to return to the McKee administration. Pryor has previous development experience in lower Manhattan (and on such projects as the residential conversion of the “Superman” building), and he possesses a few things missing from Saal’s skill set, including ease in speaking with reporters and a deep knowledge of state government.
McKEE MATTERS: A new survey by Morning Consult suggests that Rhode Islanders remain ambivalent about Gov. Dan McKee, with a 47% approval and 40% disapproval rating. A similar feeling was evident in the Democratic primary last September, when two-thirds of voters picked someone other than the incumbent. Sure, McKee scored a landslide win over Republican Ashley Kalus in November, but her appeal was sharply limited by her scant time in Rhode Island. During his recent inaugural, McKee waxed optimistic about the possibilities of his four-year term. This week is a big one for the 71-year-old governor, with his State of the State address on Tuesday and his latest budget proposal getting unveiled Thursday. But making progress on two key issues – the economy and education – won’t be easy. A potential recession is looming, and decades of talk about the need to improve public schools statewide has yielded little actual progress.
SMITH HILL CONFIDENTIAL: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has quietly elevated Rep. Kathy Fogarty as the chair of the House Committee on Rules, taking a role formerly held by Rep. Arthur “Doc” Corvese (D-North Providence). While the announcement of other committee chairs will not emerge until after an expected Jan. 26 vote on new House rules, the Rules Committee needed to take shape for the process to move forward. Hearings on the new rules are planned for Jan. 16 and 24. House Spokesman Larry Berman said Shekarchi cited his prerogative in elevating Fogarty, and added that further announcements will be forthcoming.
ACROSS THE ROTUNDA: Senate President Dominick Ruggerio this week unveiled his committee chairmanships for 2023-24, with Sens. Louis DiPalma (D-Middetown), Dawn Euer (D-Newport) Alana DiMario (D-Narragansett) and Mark McKenney (D-Warwick) getting the respective nods for Finance, Judiciary, Environment and Agriculture, and Oversight. Sen. Maryellen Goodwin (D-Providence) will continue as majority whip. In his newsletter, Ruggerio said. “In the 2021-22 session, we set bold, transformative goals for the Senate – and together, we accomplished many of them. Our new leadership team will continue to build on that work and set a collaborative, service-oriented example of what government can and should be.”
COVID WINTER: A surge in infections due to the XBB.1.5 variant is reminding some healthcare workers of the strain on resources of past winters. Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital and deputy dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said the outlook for the next few months is unclear. “[O]ur wastewater levels are similar to where they were at the height of the Omicron part of the pandemic,” Ranney said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “But what happens next is tough to say. This variant may sputter out, it may continue to spread, or we might get a new variant. And honestly, only time will tell. The one thing that I think is serving us well here in Rhode Island is our baseline high rate of vaccinations, which are helping to protect us from severe numbers of hospitalizations, ICU stays or death.”
HEALTHCARE PUZZLE: Dr. Ranney had been a supporter of the proposed merger of Lifespan and Care New England that was rejected last year by the FTC and Attorney General Peter Neronha. Rhode Island’s two largest hospital groups continue to lose money, a situation complicated by how Rhode Island Hospital, for example, relies on a payer mix heavy on Medicare and Medicaid, which pay less than private insurers. Ranney, a self-described optimist, said the state has an opportunity to reimagine how the state provides and pays for healthcare. But as she notes, without permanent directors at the state Department of Health and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, “It's going to be difficult for us to have this type of political leadership that we need to move forward.”
GRIDIRON: How does Dr. Ranney, a long-suffering Buffalo Bills’ fan, reconcile her work as a physician with the physical trauma experienced by football players? “You know, it's something that I struggle with,” she told me on Roundtable. “But I always say that there's nothing in life that's risk-free. I think we do have an obligation to players, as well as to fans to make the sport as safe as possible. I am friendly with folks within the NFL Players Association who have been huge advocates for improving protections for players as well as improving the medical response on the field. And it is thanks to that, that Damar Hamlin survived. They had three emergency physicians on the sidelines, one of whom was a designated airway expert, who helped save his life and get him back. And so that's how I reconcile it. Now will -- my son plays flag football, would he play tackle? It's a discussion that my husband and I have. But at the same time, my view of public health is that it is about both preserving safety and promoting happiness and liberty. And I, I would struggle with saying that we're going to do something like ban football because it's it is, for better or worse part of our American culture.”
WOMEN IN POLITICS: A new policy brief from the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island finds that women hold 40% of elective offices throughout the state, with just 15% of them being women of color. According to WFRI, “Cities and towns in South County had the highest percentage of women elected. Conversely, cities and towns with the lowest percentage of elected women included East Providence, Westerly, and Cumberland.” The Women’s Fund has slated a reception at 2 p.m., Jan. 25, at the Statehouse, (registration -- https://events.eventzilla.net/e/2023-legislator-welcome-reception-2138572787) to honor recently elected women officeholders. The program will feature Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, and from the Women’s Fund, CEO Kelly Nevins and policy & advocacy program director Angela McCalla.
SOCIAL DISTORTION: A fellow reporter recently told me how hadn’t noticed any real difference in the RI twittersphere, despite the sweeping changes made by Elon Musk. Well, the other shoe has dropped. Third-party apps used to navigate Twitter, including the excellent TweetBot, have stopped working and Twitter wasn’t commenting as this column was headed to press. “If this is an outage or technical issue, Twitter needs to address it immediately,” asserted the tech site 9to5mac.com. “The deafening silence is only making matters worse.” You might ask, why does any of this matter if I don’t use or value Twitter? Fair question. TweetBot has been invaluable in navigating Twitter for myself and other local reporters, bringing some order to an ocean of information through easy to follow lists. If that goes away, our ability to monitor and extract useful information from a global array of sources is reduced.
A RATING: The narrative about media in RI, as with a recent Boston Globe story, tends to focus on the decline of The Providence Journal. That overlooks how the ProJo’s Antonia Farzan has gained attention as one of the best relatively recent additions to the local media landscape. (The same is true of Globe RI’s Alexa Gagosz.) Farzan has a knack for delivering highly original stories, as with her look at House Speaker Joe Shekarchi’s widely overlooked half-Iranian ancestry. The versatile Gagosz aggressively tracked Saal’s performance as housing secretary (while also turning out her regular food-news newsletter). All told, RI retains a relatively robust media ecosystem, and a national nonprofit, States Newsroom, has hired Janine Weisman to lead its forthcoming Rhode Island operation, with three reporters covering state government.
TAKES OF THE WEEK: various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.
Former state Rep. LIANA CASSAR (D-Barrington): There's lots of talk in the RI media this month about housing. Between reports of moving encampments occupied by unsheltered people, talk of change to the state's housing policy, the departure of the state's highest-ranking person on housing, the fact that the median home price in the state is $400,000, and the drop in the rate of sales of single-family homes compared with 12 months ago, housing is in the spotlight -- as it should be. There is no economic or personal health stability without stable housing. The 50% increase in the price of housing since the start of the pandemic is shocking and should give us all pause to reflect on how we expect families to afford housing while their median incomes have not risen even remotely at the same rate. The increase in prices of single-family homes, while not unique to Rhode Island, directly contributes to the housing challenges. Policy remedies are needed to help address the systemic factors, to be sure, but when we compare the increases in housing costs with the costs of consumer goods (evident in the roughly 12% change in the CPI over the past year), it’s clear why RI families are feeling a pinch in their wallets. It's not only the cost of milk or gasoline. The housing market has become more focused on the economic gains of property owners, developers, and investors, rather than a market focused on assuring that all people have safe high-quality and affordable housing. This crisis perpetuates economic disparity. It isn't only up to the General Assembly and state government to come up with a fix. All players in the housing market need to be committed to solutions to make all of our communities affordable and to stop letting housing contribute to inequity.
LISA PELOSI, former communications director for Gov. Lincoln Almond: Lisa Pelosi: The recent passing of Gov. Almond made me yearn for the time when compromise was not a sign of weakness and when different political parties came together for the greater good. Meetings were held in good faith to honestly discuss differences and to accept that you have to give some to take some. Voices would be raised and tables would be pounded, but at the end of the day -- or perhaps the end of many days of negotiation -- an agreement would be reached with a handshake, each side believing they did what was best for all. There was respect on both sides, knowing the future would hold another round of contention. Have we reached the precipice of bipartisanship that moving forward can only result in falling into an abyss? Or can we begin to close the divide by choosing to unite in common cause, one step at a time, with our hand held opened rather than with a closed fist?
Charlestown Affordable Housing Commission member THOM CAHIR: The issue of affordable housing in Rhode Island has been a minefield since the legislature mandated municipalities reach a 10% threshold 30 years ago. Living conditions should have become fairer and more equitable, but only disparity and dichotomy remain. Legislation passed at the end of the session last year was a good start, but with housing costs and rent so high, and people living outdoors and not enough space to shelter them, now is the time to bring all stakeholders together to craft something that allows for more than a "one size fits all" solution. What works in urban areas caused those of us in the hinterlands to rewrite whole swaths of affordable housing, zoning and planning ordinances to come into compliance. Work with local officials to find specific workarounds. Convene the experts to discuss renovating existing structures in cities, and boosting accessory dwelling units in the suburbs and rural areas. And most of all, educate the NIMBY class that their kids can't move back home after college if all they care about is their property values. Also, citizens need to know that communities can't thrive without a healthy workforce. I would urge whoever ends up as the new housing secretary to work with the General Assembly as an opportunity to enlist every stakeholder to push for every creative idea being explored in every corner of the state to make housing more affordable. If not now, when?
Former GOP gubernatorial candidate KEN BLOCK: Has “Caught in Providence” been caught? News stories abounded this past week regarding Judge Caprio’s popular TV program and the money that flows from that show to his family members. Years ago, Judge Caprio asked the RI Ethics Commission for an opinion on whether family members could monetize his show. The scenario used for that opinion then differs from what is happening today. The commission should review its opinion based on current facts and a reconsideration of the plain language of Rhode Island’s Code of Ethics. If the Commission doesn’t review the finding on its own initiative, someone should file a new complaint. Section 1.2 (d) of RI’s Code of Ethics is clear: “No person subject to this Code of Ethics shall use in any way his or her public office or confidential information received through his or her holding any public office to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for him or herself or any person within his or her family, any business associate, or any business by which the person is employed or which the person represents.” Further, Section 1.3 (b) addresses nepotism: “No person subject to the Code of Ethics shall participate in any matter as part of his or her public duties if he or she has reason to believe or expect that any person within his or her family, or any household member, is a party to or a participant in such matter, or will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss, or obtain an employment advantage, as the case may be.” Judge Caprio’s family making money off his City of Providence job does not smell good, tarnishing the City of Providence mayor’s office, the Providence City Council, the city’s municipal court system, and the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Who is going to step up and clean this mess up? [As TGIF was going to press, Judge Caprio announced he will step down from his position.]
Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: More than 20 years have elapsed since Rhode Island passed comprehensive legislation meant to reduce childhood lead poisoning. Yet poisonings persist. And the COVID-19 pandemic made the situation exponentially worse by condemning (mostly low-income) children to be trapped in lead paint-infested houses during the quarantine, instead of being at school, on an athletic field or in an after-school program. It makes sense that poisoning rates shot up. This is a statewide tragedy because evidence suggests that the impacts of poisoning on a child's central nervous system are irreversible; effects on their health, cognitive, and behavioral systems will likely follow them into adulthood. More attention is needed to strengthen efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning in houses via windows or chipped paint. Another threat is the lead pipes that carry the water into our homes. Many children, including my own daughter, have been impacted by water providers' replacing main water lines without replacing the water pipes that go into all of our homes. Rhode Island may have only a small drip of poisonings compared with Flint, Michigan, but each poisoning is preventable and our kids are worth it.
CITY HAUL: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, joined by departing Police Chief Hugh Clements, has outlined the process for picking Clements’ successor. One feature is a bilingual survey asking residents what they would like in the city’s next chief. Finalists for the job will take part in a Feb. 8 public forum facilitated by Cedric Huntley, executive director of the Nonviolence Institute, and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez. Smiley will make the final decision.
THE LONG TERM: Hundreds of people turned out for the inauguration this week of Joe Polisena Jr. as the new mayor of Johnston. Coverage, not surprisingly, focused on the dynastic element, since the new mayor is taking over the role held for 16 years by one of the more colorful characters in Rhode Island politics, Joseph Polisena Sr. Less noted is how term limits have taken hold in a number of local communities (including Cranston and Providence), ending the ability of a future Polisena Sr. or Allan Fung to go on a long run as mayor, or for someone like John Igliozzi to have a very extended stretch as a Providence city councilor. Time will offer a window on whether the tradeoff in valuing change and turnover over long-term incumbency and institutional knowledge is worth it.
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