Too early to assess state's housing czar, Josh Saal

Posted 12/15/21

STORY OF THE WEEK: The jockeying for Rhode Island's 2022 election season is well under way, although it's impossible to know how much things may change by the primary next September. Gov. Dan McKee retains the benefits of incumbency -- something that

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Too early to assess state's housing czar, Josh Saal



The jockeying for Rhode Island’s 2022 election season is well under way, although it’s impossible to know how much things may change by the primary next September. Gov.

Dan McKee retains the benefits of incumbency -- something that correlates with a very rate of winning re-election. McKee has bolstered his relations with labor, a key constituency, and he’s heading the state as it prepares to spend big amounts of American Rescue Plan Act money. Still, McKee’s backtrack last week on the vaccine bonus is the latest issue to lend itself to a critical campaign ad by rivals. And there will be a lot of those ads. McKee is going to get significantly outspent in the gubernatorial race, as the better financed contenders (Helena Foulkes, Nellie Gorbea, and Seth Magaziner) try to chip away at his advantages while bolstering their own cases. Matt Brown and Luis Daniel Munoz will keep fighting to expand from the left side of the electorate, trying to translate the intensity of their supporters into more votes. The biggest X factor is probably the sheer unpredictability of a six-way primary, and who will rise or fall depending on the rhetorical crossfire and overall effectiveness of competing campaigns.

JUDGES:  U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouseare expected to make their recommendation early next year to fill a vacant post on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The clock is ticking due to the prospect of Republicans retaking the Senate in 2022. At the same time, the Rhode Island Democrats have succeeded in getting their recommendations on the bench, even if Mary McElroy ’s confirmation followed a long and winding process spanning the Obama and Trump presidencies. The 1st Circuit vacancy was created when Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson announced that she was taking senior status.


It will take time to assess the effectiveness of heightened talk about Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Gov. McKee last week announced the selection of Josh Saal as the state’s new $170,000-a-year deputy secretary of Commerce for housing, aka the housing czar. Saal, who volunteered on housing issues as a student at Brown University, is coming from a job in New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The General Assembly created the housing czar post earlier this year with the aim of centralizing responsibility for responding to the housing crisis. But soaring home prices, a paucity of new construction, and zoning practices that block multi-unit construction in many communities pose difficult hurdles. Meanwhile, the elevation of Commerce CoS Hannah Moore , as assistant secretary of Commerce, creates a possible line of succession given Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor ’s expected run next year for state general treasurer.


My colleague Antonia Ayres-Brown reports on how an undocumented immigrant in Newport, who fled from domestic violence in Central America, faced a whopping $800 rent hike for her modest $1,350-a-month two-bedroom apartment. There are few alternatives for the woman, and that’s just one example of how the hot housing market is fueling predatory behavior toward undocumented and under-documented families who live and work on Aquidneck Island. Give a listen to this compelling story, as well as parts 1 and 2 of Antonia’s series on housing in Newport, available at thepublicsradio.org.


The last holdover from Nick Mattiello ’s speakership, deputy chief of staff Grant Pilkington, is headed to a new gig next month at Advocacy Solutions, Frank McMahon’s PR and lobbying shop. “He brings a wealth of experience from his time in state government,” McMahon said. Speaker Joe Shekarchi, who recently added Emmanuel Falck to his team, said, “Grant has done a great job for the House of Representatives for the past five years and he will be sorely missed. He is an extremely hard worker who handled a wide variety of tasks with enthusiasm and excellence. We wish him much success at Advocacy Solutions.” Pilkington’s exit follows the months-earlier departures of former Mattiello CoS Leo Skenyon  and former JCLS director Frank Montanaro . McMahon noted how the addition of Pilkington follows his firm’s hire in October of Emily Crowell, most recently CoS for the state Department of Education and a veteran of a number of other roles in city, state and federal government.


The decennial drawing of new legislative districts in Rhode Island has a reputation for protecting General Assembly incumbents, and the latest round of redistricting has sparked gripes from a number of legislative challengers. (Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has unveiled an online tool for comparing districts.) Here are some notes on the process from John Marion, executive director of the non-partisan good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island:

“Just a few short weeks ago, Rhode Island politics was dominated by news of a hotly contested special election in Providence for a state Senate seat in District 3. The contest garnered so much attention in part because it was something that is relatively rare in Rhode Island; a competitive election for the state legislature. RI has one of the highest rates in the nation of uncontested state legislative elections. And even then, in District 3, the primary was the general election, partially because of our redistricting process. As others have observed, it’s controlled by the incumbent political party in the General Assembly, and they use it to maintain their incumbency. That’s on full display right now as the state’s redistricting commission holds hearings around the state. The state’s consultant, Kimball Brace, openly invites the commissioners, including the four ‘public’ members who are ostensibly there to represent the community at-large, to come and draw their maps. As Steve Ahlquist has written, the result is a process where incumbents can – if they want – choose their voters with extreme precision. The commission isn’t completely unresponsive to public opinion. Because of an outpouring of community activism, its moving slowly toward possibly ending the practice of prison gerrymandering. But until the task of drawing districts is taken away from incumbents, increasingly competitive elections will continue to be the exception, not the rule.”


You might be surprised to learn that the nationwide network of emergency food pantries began as a response to a bruising recession in the early 1980s. While the economy improved, the need for food for Americans at risk of hunger never went away. Andrew Schiff , CEO of the RI Community Food Bank, joined me on Political Roundtable last week to talk about how the pandemic has exacerbated the situation. While federal aid has been vital, he said, “one of the things that’s going to be a concern this winter is that food prices are up and energy costs are up. And that puts a real squeeze on low-income families, because they have to choose between paying for food or paying for heat. They can’t afford to do both. So we’re concerned that with the inflation in food prices, the higher cost of heating, we’re going to see more people coming to food pantries for help.”


On the surface at least, the Rhode Island Working Families Party remains very quiet heading into the 2022 campaign season. The RI Political Cooperative has a more outwardly confrontational approach -- as seen in the sleep out outside the Statehouse protest by Sen. Cynthia Mendes (D-East Providence) and others aligned with the co-op. By contrast, the WFP focuses on the mechanics of elections, keeps its messaging issue-based, and shuns the limelight. RI WFP’s effectiveness can be seen in a series of progressive legislative victories over multiple cycles, including how Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell knocked off John DeSimone , the House majority leader at the time, in 2016. And the Co-op had a number of victories in 2020, including Mendes’ upset of Senate Finance Chairman Billy Conley. The extent to which the two groups cooperate, clash, or ignore one another in 2022 is a storyline worth watching.


The Providence Preservation Society unveiled an initiative last month to democratize preservation. About what happens when good-sounding values like equity and inclusiveness run into the thorny reality of gentrification, PPS Executive Director Brent Runyon told me in part, “Preservationists around the country are really struggling with how do we continue to help neighborhoods improve without displacing people from their homes? We certainly don’t know the answers to those things yet, but I think the key is working in collaboration and partnership with people in the neighborhood, to ensure that the benefits accrue to them and not outsiders who come in later.”

TRUMP: Barton Gellman, who writes for the Atlantic, believes there are 20 million Americans who think the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trumpand who are willing to use violence in response. Here’s an excerpt from his article, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”: “Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.”


The casualties of the pandemic include the annual in-person presentation of the Ig Noble Prize, which recognize dubious achievements in science. The show must go on -- even if just virtually -- so the irrepressible Marc Abrahams, the guiding light of the Cambridge-based Annals of Improbable Research, did his thing. The honorees this year included researchers who plumbed the microbiology of chewing gum stuck on the sidewalk and the best way to transport a rhinoceros over long distances.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter@IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit thepublicsradio.org 

politics, Donis


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