PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Warwick Democrat Joe Shekarchi was formally elected Rhode Island’s speaker of the House on Tuesday, putting a new face in the General Assembly’s most powerful role for the first time in nearly seven years, as lawmakers face tough decisions amid the pandemic.
Shekarchi’s elevation — preordained since November, when House Democrats endorsed him to replace defeated speaker Nick Mattiello — was the biggest headline on a highly unusual opening day of session for the General Assembly’s 113 legislators.
Democrats maintained their overwhelming dominance in both chambers of the legislature during last November’s elections. The newly sworn-in House includes 65 Democrats and 10 Republicans, while the new Senate has 33 Democrats and five Republicans, unchanged from last year.
To allow for social distancing amid the pandemic, the House met Tuesday at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, while the Senate met at Rhode Island College’s Sapinsley Hall. The two chambers are expected to continue using those spaces as long as required by public health guidelines, despite spending $166,000 last year on plexiglass partitions for lawmakers’ desks at the State House.
A House spokesperson said two of the 75 representatives, Republicans Justin Price and Robert Quattrocchi, refused to wear a mask for Tuesday’s session at the Vets. Instead they participated remotely from another room elsewhere in the building.
Shekarchi was elected speaker with 59 votes, as just four of the Democrats present abstained: Reps. Liana Cassar of Barrington, Brianna Henries of East Providence, Michelle McGaw of Portsmouth and David Morales of Providence. Two other Democrats were absent due to personal or family illness — Rep. Grace Diaz of Providence and Rep. Art Handy of Cranston — but both said they would have voted for Shekarchi.
“Joe Shekarchi is not your average Joe,” declared Rep. Katherine Kazarian, D-East Providence, in a nominating speech. Like others, she praised him as consensus-oriented and pragmatic.
In his speech, Shekarchi cited the farewell address John F. Kennedy gave in Massachusetts just before becoming president, saying he was guided by the same four words Kennedy called on all public servants to keep front of mind: “Courage. Judgment. Integrity. Dedication.”
“This past year has forced us to confront our failings,” Shekarchi said. “As the economic tide went out, it exposed a society where in too many ways justice has not been established equally, the general welfare has not been promoted fairly and the blessings of liberty remain out of reach for far too many of our fellow Rhode Islanders, through absolutely no fault of their own.”
“We need to do better,” he said. “Much better.”
Republicans put forward the House minority leader, GOP Rep. Blake Filippi of New Shoreham, as an alternative. House Minority Whip Mike Chippendale said he nominated Filippi to give the House “a choice,” rather than simply hold a coronation for Shekarchi.
Still, GOP Rep. Brian Newberry of North Smithfield joined in the kind words for Shekarchi, noting that they got to know each other when they had nearby seats during Shekarchi’s first session.
“He was sincere. He was respectful. He listened to other people’s views. He was eager to learn,” Newberry said. “That was eight years ago, and if I was a Democrat I’d think he was an excellent choice to be speaker.” But, he continued, Rhode Island needs bigger policy changes than a Democratic speaker would support.
“This state is slowly bleeding people and money and jobs,” Newberry warned.
One Republican said she was ready to vote for Shekarchi, though: Cranston Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who defeated Mattiello last fall. However, Fenton-Fung was unable to attend Tuesday’s session because she is in quarantine after her husband, outgoing Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, tested positive for coronavirus Monday evening.
In a message to the House, Fenton-Fung said she would have voted for Shekarchi “given his significant efforts to reach out across the aisle to me since the time of the election and his value of my viewpoints as we talked about how to get Rhode Island to a stronger place.”
If the three absent representatives had been present, Shekarchi would have received 62 of 75 votes.
Shekarchi has already selected Rep. Chris Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, to serve as his majority leader and indicated he could appoint some members of leadership, such as committee chairs, next week. The House Rules Committee will begin meeting immediately to start hammering out how the chamber will operate amid the pandemic, ahead of the next session on Jan. 18.
Along with tackling the public health crisis, Shekarchi said a top priority for the House will be balancing the state budget, which faces a shortfall estimated at $300 million to $400 million for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. He said he remains hopeful Congress will provide more fiscal support to states.
“If there’s a real significant need of revenue, we’re going to have to look at everything — everything,” Shekarchi told reporters. “The car tax, raising taxes, cuts — we’ll have to look at everything.”
On Tuesday night, Shekarchi confirmed his first major staff appointments, announcing that Ray Simone will serve as his chief of staff and Nicole McCarty as his chief legal counsel.
Simone is heading back to the State House after 30 years as chief of staff to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, dating back to Reed’s days in the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1990s. Simone has long been the senior senator’s eyes and ears on the ground in the world of Rhode Island politics.
“Joe is a dear friend and superb leader,” said Simone, who worked in the State House decades ago as a young aide to then-Gov. Joe Garrahy. “I’m honored he asked me to serve and look forward to the challenge.”
McCarty, a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University School of Law, had already been serving as Shekarchi’s legal counsel for the past three years while he was majority leader.
Ruggerio wins new term leading Senate
A few miles up the road from the temporary House chambers, members of the Rhode Island Senate took the oath at their own new home at RIC. The 33 Democrats and five Republicans elected in November were sworn in by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who drove over after performing the same duty at the Vets.
The senators re-elected Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to his leadership post in a vote of 31-0; unlike in the House, the Republicans did not nominate their own candidate, with all voting for Ruggerio. The North Providence Democrat was first elected to the General Assembly in 1981 as a member of the House, then to the Senate in 1984. He became Senate president in 2017.
Democratic Sen. Frank Ciccone of Providence voted for Ruggerio remotely, after recently testing positive for COVID-19. He said Tuesday he had relatively mild symptoms and was receiving an antibody treatment.
Seven of Ruggerio’s fellow Democrats abstained from the vote rather than support him to lead the chamber, however: state Sens. Jonathon Acosta, Kendra Anderson, Sam Bell, Jeanine Calkin, Gayle Goldin, Tiara Mack and Cynthia Mendes.
In remarks following the vote, Ruggerio said his top priorities this year include education, housing and health care, including battling the COVID-19 pandemic. He urged his colleagues to get the vaccine when it becomes available, and celebrated the record number of women – 19 – in the chamber this year.
The Senate president also warned, “ideological hyperbole may play well on Twitter, but it’s not likely to help in the development of successful legislation” — a less-than-subtle shot at the growing group of vocal progressives in the Democratic caucus.
Ruggerio specifically mentioned legalizing recreational marijuana– an idea which he had opposed until recently – in the speech, telling colleagues he has asked Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, to come up with a framework for regulated cannabis.
Afterwards, Ruggerio told reporters he does not support Raimondo’s proposal for state-run marijuana shops, preferring a private business model.
“I’m not supportive of that,” Ruggerio said of the governor’s idea, modeled on how New Hampshire regulates liquor. “I don’t think the state should be in that type of business.”
Freshman Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, one of the Democrats who didn’t vote for Ruggerio, said she was pleased with some of the progressive policies put forth by Ruggerio at a recent caucus meeting, but plans to push for an “even more bold” agenda.
“We can say we want to legalize marijuana, we can say we want to have expanded health care access, but if we’re not fighting for health care that includes every single person — Medicare for all — in this entire state, if we’re not fighting for a minimum wage that families can afford, not just a $15 minimum wage but a minimum salary of $24, $25, then those are policies that I can’t support in good faith,” Mack told reporters following the session.
Ruggerio said he anticipates the Senate continuing to meet at RIC until June, costing roughly $524,000 in rent, equipment and meals according to the lease with the college. The Senate can cancel the lease with 24 hours notice.
“I don’t see us going back into the State House for Senate sessions,” Ruggerio said. “I just don’t feel comfortable with the HVAC system in that building.”
The House also has a lease with the Vets, at a price of $14,700 per week if they meet three days. But Shekarchi does not anticipate meeting there three days a week at the beginning of the session, according to a spokesperson, which would decrease the cost.
Asked about the spending on plexiglass shields last year, Shekarchi said the situation was different because the installation was done during the summer, when the virus was on the wane.
Who is Joe Shekarchi?
Shekarchi, 58, was first elected in 2012 to represent House District 23, which includes Buttonwoods and its surrounding neighborhoods. Mattiello tapped Shekarchi to become the new House majority leader in late 2016, after the previously No. 2, Providence Democrat John DeSimone, lost his primary for re-election.
State House observers generally view Shekarchi as a moderate, business-oriented Democrat — neither as conservative as Mattiello nor as progressive as many in his caucus. His legislative priorities over the years have included economic development and animal rights. But he has also been defined by his desire to remain in good standing with as many people as possible.
“As you know, my goal for this office is to facilitate collaboration and consensus in pursuit of the common good,” Shekarchi said in his speech Tuesday. “My approach will be different, but it should never be confused with an unwillingness to make difficult, final decisions at the appropriate time – and make them stick.”
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. He had $1.16 million in cash on hand as of Nov. 30, according to his most recent R.I. Board of Elections filing, plus another $105,000 in the account of his political action committee, the Rhode Island Good Government PAC.
However, Shekarchi’s political résumé is much longer than his time in the General Assembly.
His uncle, the late jewelry executive Ray Esposito, was a fixture in Rhode Island Democratic Party politics who helped introduce his nephew to politics; friends recall Shekarchi, still in high school, visiting the offices of Gov. Joe Garrahy’s advisers to learn the trade.
After graduating from Mount St. Charles Academy in 1980, Shekarchi went on to earn his bachelor’s and law degrees at Suffolk University. He made a name for himself trying to win Rhode Island for presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas during the 1992 campaign, even as most state leaders lined up behind Bill Clinton. He also built a successful and lucrative law practice, often appearing before local boards and commissions to help clients win approval for their projects.
Shekarchi also has a very different relationship with Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo than Mattiello, who regularly clashed with her over policy and politics — Shekarchi managed her first political campaign, when she ran successfully for general treasurer back in 2010. However, he has emphasized his independence from the governor, and at the moment it’s not clear how long they will serve together amid speculation she could be offered a cabinet position.
Shekarchi lives in Warwick with his partner, Kevin Murphy. Shekarchi’s father, Khalil, is a 94-year-old retired surgeon who came to the United States as an immigrant from Iran in the 1950s, while his mother is deceased. His two siblings, Mary and John, are also lawyers.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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