Talking Politics

And they’re off — jockeying to be the next R.I. governor

By Ian Donnis
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. …

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Talking Politics

And they’re off — jockeying to be the next R.I. governor


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 correlates with a very high 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.

HOUSING: 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.

NEWPORT HOUSING: 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 women, 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

HUNGER: 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.”

UNDER THE RADAR: 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.

PRESERVATION: 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 Trump and 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.”

KICKER: 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 You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.