As this bizarre year ends, we have compiled our top lists. To help us, we asked some current legislators, current and former general officeholders, retired journalists, and individuals active in some of the state’s most connected non-profits.

Over the next few days, we will list, beginning today, the people to watch in 2021 (today), the people to watch in Newport County in 2021 (tomorrow), the top stories of 2020 (Thursday), and on New Year’s Day we will speculate on the important stories and issues to expect in 2021.

So, here’s our list of:

People to Watch in 2021 – statewide

State Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Dist. 23, Warwick. Shekarchi, a lawyer, was recently elected by the Democratic Caucus as Speaker of the State House of Representatives. He will be confirmed once the legislature meets in January. The position is arguably the most powerful in state government, controlling what bills move through committees to the House floor, and engaged in review and revision of the governor’s proposed budget. Shekarchi will replace Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, who lost in the general election. Shekarchi promises to bring a new style to the House, greater transparency, promising to move bills through committees and to the House floor for debate. After a year in which the legislature seldom met because of COVID-19, this promises to be a lively session.  

Gov. Gina Raimondo, entering her last two years in office, will continue to dominate COVID-19 policy, extending regulations through executive order rather than in concert with the legislature. That’s been her style since March. Meanwhile, she will be looking to her own future. She is term-limited, so she will either return to the private sector or seek another role in government. There has been considerable speculation about Raimondo joining the Biden administration. She reportedly was vetted for the vice president’s position and has been mentioned for a possible cabinet post. That speculation now has Raimondo under consideration for Secretary of Commerce.

Timothy J. Babineau, president of Lifespan, and Dr. James E. Fanale, president and CEO of Care New England. In September, the boards of both hospital groups signed a letter of intent to merge. Talks continue, and some Warwick politicians have raised concerns about the role Kent Hospital would play in the merged group. A merger of Lifespan and Care New England would put under one ownership the state’s major healthcare institutions, including Rhode Island, Miriam, Kent County, Hasbro Children’s, Newport, Women & Infants Hospitals, plus several other healthcare facilities. 

Keith Stokes, who has held a number of public positions and is currently president of Strategic Economic Planning & Development with the Mayforth Group and Vice President at 1696 Heritage Group, has been instrumental in the development of an African American history curriculum, which is expected to be incorporated in the overall curriculum of the state’s public schools this year. Stokes: “During these present times of social unrest, let’s honor what brings us together rather than what separates us. Let’s celebrate our shared Rhode Island history that is not only inclusive but also empowering. The time has come to establish African American history learning for all Rhode Island students and acknowledge that Rhode Island history is the collective memory of its entire people.”

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who has focused his efforts in support of business, primarily small business.  If Raimondo takes a position in the Biden administration, McKee will transition to the governorship. Whether or not that happens, McKee is likely to be a candidate for governor in 2022. If Raimondo does take a post with the Biden administration, McKee would not only ascend to the governorship but put himself in a very favorable position come 2022, when he would run as an incumbent. According to elections finance information, McKee has a campaign fund balance of $104,562. 

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, also expected to be a gubernatorial candidate in 2022, has been at the forefront of election reform. She has been a strong advocate for reforms that make it easier to vote and increase turnout, efforts that will certainly continue. Gorbea, a native of Puerto Rico, has $329,676 in her campaign account, according to election records.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is another likely gubernatorial candidate. He, like Raimondo, Gorbea, and McKee, is term-limited. Magaziner’s office oversees the state’s retirement system, investments, and several other areas. He has been active in several economic development efforts. Magaziner’s campaign account is nearing a million dollars ($963,654), according to election records.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has also been considered a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2022 and is also amassing a considerable campaign account, reported at $733,292.

Former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who was term limited and who twice ran and lost to Gov. Raimondo, has not indicated whether he will again run for governor. A Republican, Fung has a modest campaign account of $23,090.

Evan Smith, longtime executive director of Discover Newport. In 2020, as the pandemic proved devastating to the tourism industry, Smith began redefining Discover Newport. The tourism group closed its visitors’ center, refocusing on its core mission of marketing. In 2021, Smith has said the agency will consider whether to open a scaled-down visitor center, while it faces the challenges of revitalizing the local tourism industry as the pandemic marches on. The fortunes of Newport as a tourism destination has a significant impact on all of Rhode Island.

Similarly, the executive leadership of the festivals – jazz, folk, and music. After losing 2020, will they be able to reopen fully in 2021, or perhaps a hybrid model, or close for another. These are Rhode Island’s marquee events, and have a significant economic impact on Newport County, and all of Rhode Island. 

Educator/students/families as they continue to balance in-person/distance learning

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.