The downside to legislating during campaign season looks like the union-backed fliers asking why incumbent House members “turned their back” on nursing home residents during COVID-19 that hit doorsteps this month.
In a normal year, interest groups can punish or reward lawmakers for action or inaction in the year gone by, but by the time incumbents face voters, the die has already been cast. Legislation will have to wait till next year.
Not so with the Assembly yet to pass a COVID-delayed budget as the September primary and November general election loom.
Seeing an opportunity, SEIU District 1199 launched a campaign this month to see if getting involved in contested House races might help convince Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to include nursing home minimum staffing in whatever budget eventually emerges. (The Senate passed a stand-alone minimum staffing bill in July, but the House put the issue to a study committee.)
The hard-hitting independent expenditure campaign was keenly felt in the race for Providence’s House District 7, where incumbent Rep. Dan McKiernan faces challengers David Morales and Angel Subervi.
McKiernan was targeted in SEIU’s first round of fliers, which began appearing on doorsteps around Aug. 13, along with other Democrats who had voted for the study commission: Reps. Chris Millea, Raymond Johnston, Mario Mendez, Joe McNamara, Patricia Serpa, Brian Kennedy, Alex Marszalkowski and Bernard Hawkins.
But as SEIU organizer Adanjesus Marin told Political Scene, the union will be happy to move lawmakers from the naughty list to the nice list if they push for minimum staffing publicly. And on Aug. 14, McKiernan posted a message on social media saying this “is not the time for a study commission,” and calling for “immediate action” on the staffing bill.
Now SEIU is no longer sending voters in Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst literature bashing McKiernan, but endorsing him.
In the past week, McKiernan was one of three House candidates who received direct support, which includes robo calls, mailers, canvassing and newspaper ad buys.
The others were Leonela Felix, challenging Johnston in Pawtucket, and Brandon Potter, running against Millea in Cranston. Over in the Senate, SEIU this week reported spending for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and two candidates for open seats: Meghan Kallman (Pawtucket) and Alana DiMario (Narragansett.)
So what is the likelihood the House Finance Committee — which remains in a holding pattern waiting for congressional aid — includes nurse staffing when it does drop a new budget proposal?
Not great, judging by this statement from Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman, although additional “compensation” for nurses appears on the table.
“The House is concentrating on making sure we are able to get additional compensation for CNAs and all front-line nursing home workers in this session,” Berman wrote in an email. “The complex issues involved in the legislation will be addressed in the next session. The Speaker will rely on the results of the House study commission and his independent research. There are diametrically opposing positions presented by the nursing homes and SEIU.”
Marin said the SEIU plans to spend up to $50,000 on the campaign for minimum staffing.
As it turns out, both of McKiernan’s opponents this fall also unequivocally support the nursing home minimum staffing bill.
Morales calls it “long overdue!”
“For years, our caregivers have been underpaid and forced to work in unsafe environments due to a lack of staffing,” he wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, it was only after SEIU announced that they would actively oppose any incumbent who does not support the bill that we are finally seeing this bill gain momentum.”
Subervi: “The front line workers, who work in the nursing homes, are truly heroes. Long before the Coronavirus pandemic, they have been asking for a living wage and the ability to work under safe staffing levels.Their concerns have multiplied during this pandemic and the need for the passage of this bill is needed immediately.”
McKiernan, 53, is seeking a fifth term in the House. Two years ago he survived a challenge from Belen Florez by 130 votes.
He said changes to the 2016 truck toll and highway reconstruction bill that send more of the work to in-state contractors among his proudest accomplishments.
Before last year, McKiernan was among the centrist Democrats endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life, but that changed when he voted for the Reproductive Privacy Act that codified Roe v. Wade in state law.
This year the anti-abortion group’s endorsement for District 7 is “ANYONE BUT Daniel P. McKiernan.” Morales and Subervi are pro-choice and McKiernan is the only General Assembly candidate singled out by the anti-abortion group.
“It seems personal,” McKiernan wrote in response. “It is certainly not based on interviews of candidates, and does nothing to inform potential voters of the positions of the respective candidates. My vote on the ‘Roe v. Wade’ legislation recognizes the authority of U.S. Supreme Court and its power to balance rights of individuals against the power of government.”
Subervi, small-business development director in Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration, holds the Democratic Party endorsement awarded by a district committee that includes former representative Joanne Giannini.
He is also endorsed by the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee.
Subervi’s fiscally conservative-sounding platform includes a “tax freeze for all seniors over 65 years of age” and would “accelerate” the state car tax phaseout.
The car tax phaseout is Mattiello’s signature issue, however, despite his support for it, Subervi told The Journal he gives Mattiello an “F” grade for job performance.
Morales, who is backed by the Bernie Sanders-aligned Renew New England group, also gives Mattiello a failing grade.
A Brown University graduate, Morales wants to fight Medicaid cuts, reverse the state’s 2006 income tax cuts and move to a $15 minimum wage.
He supports removing police “resource officers” from schools, while Subervi wants to keep them.
McKiernan said it should be up to the individual school department to decide whether to have police in their schools.
He thinks Mattiello has “done a good job” being speaker, which “is a difficult job in the best of times.”
The nursing-home staffing bill attacks came at McNamara at the same time the state Democratic Party chairman was going viral on the internet for making Rhode Island the “Calamari Comeback State” at the Democratic National Convention.
The SEIU took notice and one of their robo calls goes after McNamara on, yes, calamari.
“We recently watched with embarrassment as Rep. McNamara held up calamari as the most important thing in our state,” a woman’s voice says in the call. “Will he fight for safe staffing the second the Assembly goes back into session, or does he only care about calamari?”
McNamara faces a primary challenge from Stuart Wilson in his northeastern Warwick district.
Wilson in an email last week told Political Scene he would have used Rhode Island’s airtime to highlight something weightier than calamari.