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Meet the powerful new business group at the center of R.I.’s hot-button issues

The Providence skyline.
The Providence skyline. (Jonathan Wiggs/GlobeStaff)

PROVIDENCE – As aides to Governor Gina Raimondo spent the spring mulling what to do about Care New England’s planned merger with Partners Healthcare in Massachusetts and whether or not to intervene in the struggling Providence school system, they approached the same group for help.

The Partnership for Rhode Island, a little-known but influential organization comprised of 12 of the state’s most powerful executives – whose companies shell out $100,000 a year to be members – agreed to pay for a consultant to assist Care New England, along with Lifespan and Brown University, as they worked to try and establish an academic health center.

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Around the same time, the partnership paid researchers from Johns Hopkins University to conduct an independent assessment of the capital’s schools. The study laid the groundwork for Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to order a state takeover of the school department.

The group’s willingness to wade into two of the state’s most pressing issues is exactly what its elite membership had in mind when the partnership was formed in late 2016. Now business leaders and elected officials are keeping close tabs on the organization as it considers taking on a more public role in the effort to turn around Providence schools.

“You have to say they’re influential because they’re running most of the larger companies in Rhode Island,” said John Simmons, the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and a top aide to two former Providence mayors. “It would be very difficult to raise the kind of money to do what they’re doing.”

The partnership started as nonprofit organization after the Brookings Institution published a report on the Rhode Island economy that suggested the state would benefit from having more coordination among its high-level CEOs.

The group’s members come with plenty of clout.

Providence Equity founder Jonathan Nelson, Bank of America chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan, CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo, and Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner have seats at the table. Brown University President Christina Paxson is the partnership’s only female member.

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The partnership is chaired by FM Global CEO Thomas Lawson and also includes the heads of Amica Mutual Insurance, Citizens Bank, Electric Boat, Gilbane Building Company, IGT, and the Rhode Island Foundation.

It’s modeled after the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and similar executive-only groups in New York and Charlotte, N.C., according to Tom Giordano, the partnership’s executive director.

“There is a lot of momentum here, but there are challenges,” Giordano said “We want to work on big-picture, long-term projects that will help sustain that momentum.”

Giordano, a Providence College and New York University graduate who previously worked as a director for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political campaign, works out of an office in the IGT building in downtown Providence.

He said that much like the Boston version, the Rhode Island partnership’s core priorities include K-12 education, workforce development, infrastructure, and the business climate.

Members of the group try to meet face to face at least four times a year. Its federal Form 990 from 2017 shows it brought in $1.1 million in revenue through membership fees and spent $435,000 that year.

One of the partnership’s earliest projects was to assist the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation with its pitch to Amazon to build its second headquarters in the state. The company went elsewhere, but Giordano said most of the materials it paid for – like video testimonials from executives – have been used for other business pursuits.

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The group had mixed results when entering the discussion around health care and education.

Giordano acknowledged the partnership was “very disappointed” that Care New England pulled out of merger talks, but said the group is encouraged by the state’s effort to overhaul Providence schools. The partnership spent $50,000 on the Johns Hopkins study and another $15,000 assisting Infante-Green with a series of public meetings she held with Providence residents.

“What happens in education and health care in the next five years will determine the outcome for the state in the next 25 years,” he said.

While partnership members maintain that they function separately from Raimondo’s office, they acknowledge much of their work is strongly supported by the governor.

The informal relationship between Raimondo and the group has raised the ire of some, including state Senator Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat who said he is “generally concerned when our state’s wealthiest corporations feel like they deserve a role in governing our state.”

Bell said the state was right to review the city’s school department, but it should not have had the partnership pay for the report.

“Policymakers need to look past the interests of people wealthy enough to buy influence and focus on what’s best for all Rhode Islanders, including the poor and the middle class,” Bell said.

Lawson, the partnership’s chairman, said the group is intent on being nonpartisian.

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He said the group has spent $500,000 on a program designed to improve the leadership skills of school superintendents and principals. About 80 educators will receive 12 months of intensive professional development training this year.

“These companies and entities will be around a lot longer than political limits,” Lawson said.

The partnership is already planning to play a larger role in Providence schools, but Lawson and Giordano said state leaders have not asked them to fund a specific program at this point.

One idea the group is exploring is providing more professional development for Providence teachers, whose union contract only requires them to participate in one day of training each year.

The partnership is less likely to spend money adopting a single school or group of schools because it wants to have a broader impact, according to Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

While overhauling Providence schools may require national funding, Steinberg said the partnership could be a natural fit when trying to leverage donors outside of the state. And he said he’s confident the group fills a void in the state.

“Leadership and funding are not in abundance in the state of Rhode Island,” Steinberg said. “That’s really the bottom line.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.