RI House Dems back Shekarchi to replace Mattiello as speaker

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Rhode Island’s House Democrats on Thursday night overwhelmingly backed Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi to replace Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, giving the Warwick Democrat a clear path to take over as the state’s most powerful lawmaker.

During a House Democratic caucus meeting at the Warwick Crowne Plaza, 54 representatives and representatives-elect voted to back Shekarchi for speaker and Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, as his majority leader. Mattiello, who has been speaker since 2014, lost his re-election race in Cranston on Tuesday.

Shekarchi will not formally replace Mattiello until the newly elected House meets for the first time on Jan. 5 and elects a new speaker — meaning Mattiello may still preside over a lame-duck session this fall to complete the still unfinished state budget.

Speaking to his colleagues following the vote, Shekarchi promised to “always answer the call and always return the text,” and asked for input when it comes to closing a budget gap that was estimated at roughly $900 million last spring.

“Literally everything is on the table,” he told reporters. “Whether it might be, unfortunately, some kind of tax increase or some kind of layoffs, or possibly even some kind of reduction in spending.”

He did not commit to any particular policy — not even the continuation of Mattiello’s signature plan to phase out the car tax, citing the budget crisis.

“Many different organizations have asked me, don’t cut the social services budget, don’t raise taxes, don’t do layoffs,” Shekarchi said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a $900 million deficit that has to be made up somewhere.”

He described himself as more moderate than Mattiello, who is a conservative Democrat. Blazejewski is considered to be more progressive than both men.

While Shekarchi is now all but assured to be elected speaker in January, he still has at least one opponent: state Rep. Liana Cassar, D-Barrington, who had announced a challenge to Mattiello before the election. She declined to attend the caucus, arguing it was premature as well as irresponsible due to the pandemic, but cast a proxy nomination and vote for herself.

No other votes were cast for Cassar, though seven members — Edith Ajello, Brianna Henries, John Lombardi, Rebecca Kislak, Michelle McGaw, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Teresa Tanzi — neither attended the caucus nor cast proxy votes, while Rep.-elect David Morales of Providence attended but abstained from the vote. Six other representatives who were absent cast proxy votes for Shekarchi.

Shekarchi said he was looking into the possibility of allowing proxy voting and remote participation in the House chamber once he takes the helm, potentially using a service such as Webex, which House committees have already used to receive remote testimony during the pandemic.

He also said he wants to streamline some of the processes in the House that can slow down progress, such as taking votes on individual solemnization of marriage bills — which allow a civilian to perform a specific wedding ceremony — or the need to reintroduce bills every year even when the members of the chamber are the same.

Shekarchi won support among a vast swath of his colleagues, including members of the so-called “Reform Caucus” that had opposed Mattiello’s return to the speakership after the 2018 election. One of those members — Rep. Katherine Kazarian, who was famously frustrated by how Mattiello handled her allegation of sexual harassment against one of his former committee chairmen — seconded Shekarchi’s nomination.

“Joe has the utmost integrity, and he is committed to making our chamber a more professional, welcoming and open-minded workplace,” Kazarian said in a speech before the vote. “Under his leadership, the days of being bullied and ostracized will be over.”

Shekarchi said he made no promises to the Reform Caucus members in order to earn their votes.

“I didn’t commit to anybody, or chairmanships or positions … I did not promise legislation to anyone or any group,” Shekarchi said. “I think the broad base of support I enjoyed tonight is the relationships that I have made over the last eight years in the House.”

He did say he promised Republicans regular communication when he asked for their support Wednesday — all 75 members of the House, including the GOP representatives, vote for speaker — and committed to having regular meetings of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the five-member body that controls the General Assembly’s budget but almost never meets.

The GOP is currently suing over the JCLS, arguing its authority is being used improperly because decisions are made unilaterally by Mattiello, the committee’s chairman.

A pair of potential rivals for the House leadership — Democratic Rep. Gregg Amore of East Providence and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown — announced Wednesday they were throwing their support behind Shekarchi and Blazejewski in exchange for a commitment to “a substantial restructuring of House rules and culture.”

Craven offered the formal nomination of Shekarchi and Blazejewski at the caucus, which was open to reporters and TV cameras, a change from the caucuses during Mattiello’s term as speaker, which were closed to the press.

In an unexpected twist, the Rhode Island Political Co-operative — a recently formed progressive group that helped elect multiple Democrats on Tuesday — announced it was cutting ties with one of its winning candidates, Rep.-elect Brandon Potter of Cranston, over his decision to back Shekarchi.

“The Co-op ran on getting new leadership in the GA [General Assembly], therefore Brandon is no longer associated with the Co-op,” the organization tweeted.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are slated to hold their own caucus on Friday evening to decide whether to keep Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and his leadership team in their posts. Sen.-elect Jeanine Calkin, a Co-op leader who won back her old seat in Warwick on Tuesday, has announced she will challenge Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey for his position.

Shekarchi, a 58-year-old lawyer, is a longtime fixture in Democratic politics in Rhode Island who cut his teeth trying to win the state for presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas back in the early 1990s. Before entering elected office himself, he ran Gina Raimondo’s successful campaign for general treasurer in 2010.

Despite serving as Mattiello’s No. 2 in the House for the last two sessions, Shekarchi is viewed as having a degree of independence from the current speaker, partly because he was not Mattiello’s original majority leader. (Mattiello tapped Shekarchi after the previous majority leader, Providence Democrat John DeSimone, lost his re-election race in the 2016 primary.)

Shekarchi is also a champion fundraiser, and in recent years has had more money in his campaign account than any other state-level Rhode Island politician.

The majority leader had $1.16 million in cash on hand as of Oct. 26, according to his most recent R.I. Board of Elections filing, plus another $106,023 in the account of his political action committee, the Rhode Island Good Government PAC. Those deep pockets have allowed him to sprinkle campaign contributions to many of his House colleagues, earning him their goodwill.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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