Talking Politics: Covid and Omicron dominate the news cycle

By Ian Donnis 
Posted 1/11/22

STORY OF THE WEEK: Will 2022 be the year when COVID-19 fades as a public health threat and becomes something more like the seasonal flu? A lot of informed people expect that to be the case.

For …

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Talking Politics: Covid and Omicron dominate the news cycle

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: Will 2022 be the year when COVID-19 fades as a public health threat and becomes something more like the seasonal flu? A lot of informed people expect that to be the case.

For now, though, Omicron continues to spread rapidly through Rhode Island and other states. Infections are peaking (even if symptoms are proving less serious for the vaccinated), adding to the stress on under-staffed hospitals.

In one sign of the effect, Lifespan has suspended most non-essential surgeries. “Things could get worse,” Dr. Jay Schuur, Lifespan’s chief of emergency medicine, told my colleague Lynn Arditi. “And so my message to the public is, I think we all need to take a step back and for a couple of weeks, do everything we can to try to slow the spread. And that means getting vaccinated or boosted, if you’re not yet. It means wearing a mask when you’re in a closed space with people.”

If we’re lucky, things will get better as we push deeper into the year. Then again, predicting the future is a very uncertain thing, and a lot of people thought 2021 was going to be the year when the threat of the pandemic would fade, thanks in part to the arrival of vaccines.

THE COVID CAMPAIGN: Perhaps Omicron will be an afterthought by the time of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in September. That’s eight months from now – a long time in politics. Still, Gov. Dan McKee’s rivals are zeroing in on his response to the latest COVID surge. And they jumped on Brian Amaral’s report that McKee was downplaying COVID in the runup to Thanksgiving, even as the state’s internal report outlined a worsening situation.

Seth Magaziner called this disparity “unacceptable.”

Matt Brown cited “appalling negligence.” “The continuing public health crisis requires timely leadership,” tweeted Nellie Gorbea. Helena Foulkes charged that McKee has failed to lead. (Luis Daniel Munoz’s Twitter did not comment on Amaral’s story).

For his part, McKee pointed to the remobilization of 180 National Guard members to help with the response to Omicron, although plans for how the Guards might help at local hospitals have not yet been spelled out. Given the power of incumbency, McKee remains the ostensible favorite in the race for governor. And while McKee has provided his rivals with plenty of fodder for campaign commercials (ILO Group, Tony Silva controversy …), the sheer size of the Democratic field could still work to his advantage. Navigating that dynamic is a top challenge for other members of the field.

GOT GOP? The absence of a Republican candidate for governor in an election year underscores tough times for the Rhode Island GOP. The party held a lock on the office from 1995 through 2003, with Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri each winning two terms (not to mention Ed DiPrete serving for a big chunk of the ’80s), but it has been locked out since then.

House GOP Leader Blake Filippi decided against running, and former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung – who lost races to Democrat Gina Raimondo in 2014 and 2018 – appears focused on a run for general treasurer.

The challenges can be seen in how two members of the 10-person Republican caucus in the 75-member RI House, Reps. Patricia Morgan of West Warwick and Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung of Cranston, don’t caucus with their GOP colleagues.

Meanwhile, while GOP Reps. Justin Price of Richmond, David Place of Burrillville and Robert Quattrocchi of Scituate have repeatedly won election from their conservative districts, they remain outliers when it comes to wearing masks in the House chamber. The recent high point for the RI GOP came when the party won a series of general offices in the ’80s and early 90s, generally with moderate candidates. The country (and the GOP) is in a very different place now.

THE BIG SPEND: Now that lawmakers and Gov. McKee have approved the spending of $119 million in federal COVID relief, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi tells me that most of the remainder of the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money should be spent in the next six months. “But,” he added, “I do think it’s also prudent and wise to reserve some of that for next year. We don’t know what’s going to happen – [nobody can] predict this pandemic we’re in.”

Asked on Political Roundtable if he supports the top three APRA spending priorities developed by the Rhode Island Foundation – housing, behavioral health and workforce development – Shekarchi said that is one among 40 plans received by the legislature and that they will all be scrutinized.

SMITH HILL: Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Speaker Shekarchi used brisk three-page opening day speeches to road-test their messages ahead of the coming election season, highlighting their record. Here’s part of what they cited as priorities for the new legislative session.

Ruggerio: Put the state on a path to achieve universal pre-K in five years; support tuition forgiveness for people entering such fields as teaching and nursing; consider legislation to create climate jobs and strengthen water infrastructure; invest in child care and affordable housing; commit resources for a girls’ psychiatric residential treatment facility; support small business.

Shekarchi: Examine the staffing shortage in hospitals and healthcare; listen to the concerns of business; do more to support early intervention and child care.

JANUARY 6: The clashing reactions to the one-year anniversary of the assault on the U.S. Capitol underscore the degree of division in the U.S. Former President Trump continues to cast a shadow, using frequent emails with this kind of message: “Joe Biden’s voice is now the voice of desperation and despair. His handlers gave him that speech to read [Thursday] because they know the unprecedented failures of his presidency and the left-wing extremism of the Pelosi-Schumer Congress have destroyed the Democrat Party.”

In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Jack Reed echoed Biden in blaming Trump for what happened: “Mr. Trump set the events of January 6th in motion when he refused to say he would accept the results of the November 2020 election, and he continued to value his ego over our democracy when he urged the mob to march on the Capitol and disrupt the election certification process. He repeatedly lied that the election he lost by 7 million votes had somehow been ’stolen’, when the facts and the courts demonstrated that was clearly not the case. Stoked by his vitriol, Mr. Trump’s supporters used pipes and flag poles to brutally beat police officers.”

Meanwhile, polling shows that a majority of Americans believe our democracy is in crisis. An update to a PBS-Frontline documentary on Jan. 6 offered this takeaway: rather than bookending the heightened nationalistic activity of the Trump years, the insurrection shows how those feelings remain afoot in the U.S.

MARIJUANA: Rhode Island has been edging steadily closer to legalizing recreational marijuana for years, so 2022 could be when this happens. In opening day remarks, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio predicted legalization this year and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said he expects a draft legislative framework to emerge soon. Speaking on Roundtable, Shekarchi said the legislation will be unveiled in 30 to 45 days.

Asked how it will resolve differences between Gov. McKee (who supports awarding about 75 licenses through a lottery) and the state Senate (which favors twice that many licenses, overseen by a new Cannabis Commission), Shekarchi said, “I don’t necessarily think the new legislation will resolve anything per se. I think the new legislation is a framework that will begin a robust process with public input from everybody. And I think the final product like any other legislation” could change significantly.

TAX FIGHT: Rhode Island state government finds itself flush with cash for a change, cooling any ardor that may have existed among Statehouse power players for a tax increase on upper-income residents. Supporters of such a hike call it a matter of fairness; opponents say a tax hike is not the right recipe for a state with a long record as an economic laggard. This is shaping up as of the clearest battle lines as progressives try to increase their legislative representation later this year.

KICKER: Speaking of the economy, is Rhode Island ready to use incentives to foster a new video game industry? Before you can say “38 Studios,” consider how things have worked out in Montreal, which has attracted more than 200 video game studios, albeit not without concern about ongoing costs, via NPR’s Planet Money: “The secret to Montreal’s success? Tax credits. The province of Quebec — of which Montreal is the largest city — attracts multimedia companies by offering them subsidies for employing people in the province. Quebec taxpayers pay a large percentage of the salaries of local multimedia workers. These subsidies have undoubtedly helped Montreal become a leading hub for video game development; however, Quebec may have created a system that will perpetually rely on taxpayer dollars to maintain this position.”

Ian 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

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