Talking Politics

Accountability and leadership in the I-195 crisis

By Ian Donnis
Posted 12/19/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: The emergency closing of the westbound part of the Washington Bridge put Gov. Dan McKee — and how he performs during a crisis — under a microscope. McKee was …

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Talking Politics

Accountability and leadership in the I-195 crisis


STORY OF THE WEEK: The emergency closing of the westbound part of the Washington Bridge put Gov. Dan McKee — and how he performs during a crisis — under a microscope. McKee was initially out of sight as state officials prepared to close the bridge in one direction at 5 p.m. last Monday, leading Globe RI columnist Dan McGowan to assert he “is at his best in the easiest moments of being governor.” By Tuesday, McKee joined DOT Director Peter Alviti during a briefing with reporters and the governor remained visible for the remainder of the week.

On Wednesday, McKee exhibited a tendency familiar to political reporters when he said it was “out of line … beyond the pale” for WJAR-TV’s Brian Crandall to ask if changes had been discussed involving DOT, including the possible resignation of Alviti. A day later, the governor struck a more conciliatory tone, calling oversight for the work of state officials welcome. It helped that bypass lanes on the eastbound Washington Bridge, to allow the resumption of westbound traffic, opened early Friday.

Ensuring the smooth operation of roads and bridges is a basic function of government, and when things go wrong – with gridlocked traffic and hours-long travel times – it becomes very tangible. But if the worst of this is now over, the political fallout could be minimal. McKee and Alviti maintain the state averted a catastrophe, and they say the damage that forced the partial closing of the bridge was not evident during an inspection in July. If that account holds up, McKee can trumpet how the state faced a crisis and made significant progress in addressing it within a few days. (For views on this issue from R.I. House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, read on to Takes of the Week.)

STATEHOUSE: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains guarded about his political future, using standard bromides about how 2026 is a long way away (not really) and he doesn’t aspire to be speaker in perpetuity (we get it). But during a year-end interview, Shekarchi made clear that he does not share the traditional view of the speakership as a terminal position. That leaves unanswered for now whether the Warwick Democrat will bide his time, seek a different office in the next statewide election or pursue the more typical option of a return to the private sector.

ON THE ISSUES: Not surprisingly, Speaker Shekarchi is tamping down expectations about expansive spending, now that the gusher of federal COVID funding is over. After consecutive budget surpluses, something that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, “We’re going to learn to live — when I say we, the state, is going to learn to live like every other Rhode Islander within the means of its budget.” On housing, Shekarchi attributed a lack of progress to how the many bills meant to help address the crisis do not take effect until Jan. 1. The speaker said he believes the life-sciences has real potential as a new economic sector in the state.

Shekarchi, who met a few weeks back with Attorney General Peter Neronha to talk healthcare and hospitals, said he is awaiting a Rhode Island Foundation report on how the state may address long-running concerns about reimbursement rates and related issues: “I’m going to work, continue to work with the Department of Health, continuing to work with the governor, to identify problems we can fix in the short term. But you are correct. This is a long-term sustainability issue. And we need to look with our partners. This is going to affect everybody in Rhode Island. Healthcare is our number one employer statewide. And we have two hospital systems that are least stable at the moment and are in the black. However, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the long term. The reason they’re stable in the black right now is they deferred a lot of maintenance. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

PROSPECT: On a related note, Neronha’s office and the Health Department this week deemed complete an application by the Georgia-based Centurion Foundation to buy CharterCARE, parent of Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. The two state agencies now have 180 days to review the proposed deal. CharterCARE is owned by Prospect Medical Holdings, which has faced regulatory action from DOH and the AG’s office for draining money from its Rhode Island hospitals. But United Nurses and Allied Professionals, which represents workers at Roger Williams and Fatima, remains critical about a lack of communication from Centurion. “More than six months ago, the UNAP gave Centurion officials a written proposal, asking them to agree to basic commitments that would ensure protections against layoffs, hospital closures, and termination or reduction of services,” UNAP President Lynn Blais said in a statement. “To this day, they have failed to make these basic commitments. Centurion can not expect the Attorney General and Department of Health to approve their application to buy these healthcare facilities when they can’t even commit to the most basic obligations to patients, families, and healthcare workers. And they certainly can not expect the UNAP or our members to support this transaction in the absence of these basic commitments.”

MEDIA: Providence Business News, co-founded in 1986 by Roger Bergenheim, has been sold to Dubuque, Iowa-based Woodward Communications. In a news release, Bergeheim said he agreed to the sale since Woodward is committed to its employees and plans to keep PBN’s staff locally based, with AnnMarie Brisson, who started as director of sales in 2015, stepping in as publisher. “It’s been an honor to serve the business community for the past 37 years,” said Bergenheim, who is retiring and will continue to consult for one year. “I’m immensely proud of the staff at PBN and am grateful for the support of our loyal readers, advertisers, and contributors, throughout this incredible journey.” Among its other attributes, PBN is well known as a training ground for such notables as Patrick Anderson of the ProJo, Alexa Gagosz of Globe RI, Nancy Lavin of the RI Current, and Eli Sherman and Ted Nesi of WPRI, and David “Little Papi” Ortiz, now with Orsted North America.

PARTISAN BALANCE: Secretary of State Gregg Amore, a Democrat, is also a longtime former history teacher with an appreciation for civics. Considering that, I asked him on Political Roundtable to diagnose why Rhode Island Republicans are struggling to win more offices. His response: “I think Gerry Leonard is a good example of the type of candidate that Republicans should start to put forward in Rhode Island. I would call those old New England Republicans or Chafee Republicans. The national playbook does not work here in Rhode Island for Republicans. And what, what has happened is Republicans in Rhode Island, and many of my former colleagues in the General Assembly don’t fit this bill, but Republicans in Rhode Island have kind of taken on the talking points of the national party. And that really is not a recipe for success in Rhode Island. Look, we’re, we’re so much better off with a strong two-party system, both nationally and here in Rhode Island, it creates a better democracy, more debate, more competitive elections. That’s healthy. I would say that the Republican Party needs to shift back toward the center, and back toward its New England, Republican roots.”

PAYDAY: Efforts to cap interest on payday lending cleared the RI House this year, on a 66-2 vote, and then died in the Senate. Rhode Island remains an outlier on payday lending in New England. Now, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is co-sponsoring a bill, modeled on the Military Lending Act, that would cap interest on consumer loans at 36%. “The MLA’s success demonstrates a feasible framework that protects consumers while preserving access to credit,” Reed said in a statement.  “Our service members and their families should not lose important consumer protections simply because they retire, separate from honorable service, or lose their loved ones. Frankly, no American should be subject to such exorbitant interest rates.  As such, our legislation would extend the MLA’s protections to veterans and Gold Star families as well as ensure that all Americans are shielded from predatory loans.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders

RI House GOP Leader MIKE CHIPPENDALE of Foster: “The I-195 bridge closure is devastating in so many ways to Rhode Island. We are blessed that the failure didn’t lead to catastrophic loss of life. As the state works to address the immediate public safety and commuter horrors, I wish to commend Mayors DaSilva and Smiley — and all mayors in affected municipalities — for their rapid response and efforts to ease the pain of commuters. However, the negative impact of this closure on public safety, commerce, scholastic sports, education, daily commuters, and people desperately trying to get to a hospital or doctor will be long lasting and severe.

“I call on state leadership to break from tradition and demonstrate intrepid innovation to overcome this devastating blow to our infrastructure and economy and fix this problem quickly. It is imperative that without interfering in the emergency response to the bridge failure, we immediately begin the oversight process in the House to determine how such a devastating failure could have occurred without our inspectors discovering it, and how we must change our demonstrably inadequate inspection system. The administration’s insistence that they are not to blame, rather heroes for shutting it down — coupled with their violent pushback to anyone questioning accountability, is completely out of line and answers must be given.

“How many other bridges underwent the same ‘inspection’ process? How many other bridges are on the verge of collapse? How do we go forward with any faith in the transportation experts in our state?”

VIMALA PHONGSAVANH, senior director for external affairs at Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island: “This week the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine et al v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration et al. This case centers around the anti-abortion movement’s effort to end FDA’s approval of mifepristone, a safe, effective medication that has been used by over five million people in the United States for over two decades. It is imperative that the court rejects this calculated effort, recognizing it as part of a long-term strategy by anti-abortion groups to use the court system to ban abortion nationwide. This case not only endangers abortion care but also sets a precedent that could jeopardize the entire drug approval process, putting all approved medications at the mercy of political agendas.

“The intentional chaos and confusion generated by this case undermines accessibility to a medically approved and decades-old medication, posing a direct threat to patients’ autonomy to make their own private medical decisions. Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island remains steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that all individuals have access to essential health care they need on their terms. The Planned Parenthood health center in Providence continues to provide medication abortion as an option for eligible patients seeking abortion care in Rhode Island and as always, will follow evidence-based standards to provide safe, high-quality abortion care consistent with all state and federal regulations.

“As this case continues, elected officials must continue to prioritize protecting access to abortion and reproductive health care. This fight extends beyond the courtroom; it is an urgent call for bold action to safeguard the fundamental right of individuals to make their own health care decisions.”

Businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate KEN BLOCK: “The emergency closure of the 195 West bridge in Providence and the state’s messaging during the crisis has been many things: shocking, inconvenient, maddening, and outrageous, for just a few. I want to add ironic. RhodeWorks — the hugely expensive Gina Raimondo-era road maintenance program that state officials have described as a shining example of government working well  — was supposed to rid our state of poorly maintained roads and bridges. How did this program miss the failing 195 bridge — for the better part of a decade? More importantly, how did the DOT not see this catastrophic, and nearly deadly, failure coming?

“Their job is to proactively protect the public and our infrastructure, not sever critical arteries because they could fall if more than one ambulance crosses at a time. The press conferences have been a disaster. Gov. McKee skipped the first one that announced the emergency, but his campaign posted photos of the governor schmoozing it up at a pizza joint just an hour before. The leadoff to each press conference has been a simpering stream of acknowledgments and thanks to individuals and groups working on the disaster. At the same time, over 100,000+ people try to decide if they should hit the road at 5:30 am or 5:45 a.m. to make what should have been a 20-minute trip in less than an hour — and thousands of people who left after 6:00 am suffered two, three, and four-hour gridlock. School buses in East Providence had police escorts with flashing lights to help cut through the traffic jams.

“Worse has been the continuing message by state officials, from the governor on down, congratulating themselves for preventing a fatal failure. Apparently, failing at doing their job to ensure the safety of our roads and bridges is just fine, as long as nobody dies. Why are our elected and appointed officials wasting our time spinning a message that most people — especially those sitting for hours in their vehicles — know not to be true? In a crisis, shouldn’t those managing the crisis simply be concerned about conveying crucial information and critical updates on how to cope and when things will get better? Stop the spin! It comes across as desperate. Maybe it is.

“Across several years of inspection reports that the DOT has slowly provided over this week, what is clear is that the steel in this bridge has been disappearing for quite some time. Critical components are described as having lost half of their original material — in reports dating back several years. The bridge’s failure should have surprised no one tasked with maintaining it. With all of the spin, deflection, and aggression displayed by the governor and director, it is hard to determine why we have arrived at this place. We deserve a full accounting of what happened and where the failure lies – not in the bridge itself, but with the government entities tasked with ensuring that our bridges do not disintegrate mid-air.

“It is the government’s responsibility to restore lost trust, not angrily demand that trust. Our transportation infrastructure and the Department of Transportation are not covered in glory. And now, we have a massive reminder of just how terrible our infrastructure remains. Do these public officials not understand how incidents like this shake the public’s trust and confidence to the core? I’ll take my pizza without spin, please, governor.”

COMING UP I: The General Assembly resumes action on Jan. 2.

KICKER: Happy holidays to all and best wishes for a happy New Year! My column is taking a break for two weeks, but I’ll be back in early 2024.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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