PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey’s shock announcement that he will retire rather than seek re-election is causing upheaval in the General Assembly’s upper chamber, as other lawmakers jockey to be in position once he exits.
Unlike some Smith Hill retirement announcements that are planned behind the scenes for weeks or even months, McCaffrey made his decision abruptly but firmly on Saturday, according to multiple people familiar with his thinking.
“I was very surprised,” Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, who has worked with McCaffrey for decades, told 12 News. “My understanding was he had filled out his paperwork on Friday.”
The Warwick Democrat, son of a former city mayor, was first elected in 1994 and has been widely seen as Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s most likely eventual successor. Yet this election season McCaffrey was also facing another aggressive Democratic primary challenge from Jennifer Rourke, a co-founder of the leftist Rhode Island Political Cooperative that has been a thorn in Senate leaders’ sides.
Their primary suddenly gained national attention over the weekend, after Rourke was punched by Jeann Lugo, the Republican seeking the seat, during Friday night’s State House rally to protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Rourke was expected to receive a surge in campaign donations from around the country due to the incident. (Lugo is now facing criminal charges and no longer running.)
For McCaffrey — who previously defeated Rourke in both 2020 and 2018 — the prospect of spending the summer fighting a campaign dominated by abortion was likely unappealing. A devout Irish-Catholic, he is among Smith Hill’s shrinking but still powerful cohort of pro-life Democrats, and voted against the 2019 state law codifying abortion rights.
On Saturday morning, he called Senate chief of staff Jake Bissaillon — his own former top aide — and requested a meeting with Ruggerio. The pair met on Sunday at the Iron Horse Tavern in Warwick, where McCaffrey made clear his mind was made up. After informing colleagues over the weekend, he announced his decision Monday.
“He seems very much at peace, so I’m very happy for him,” said Goodwin, while adding that his departure is “a loss for the Senate.”
With the General Assembly in recess as of last week, Ruggerio said McCaffrey will remain as majority leader into the fall, meaning his successor in the position will be chosen by the caucus of Democratic senators elected this November — a different lineup from the group finishing their current two-year terms.
McCaffrey’s natural replacement would be Goodwin, a Providence Democrat who has held the chamber’s No. 3 job for years. But she told 12 News she isn’t interested, in part because she is prioritizing her health amid a multiyear battle with cancer.
“I’m not going to play any games,” she said. “Serving in the No. 3 position I think I serve the Senate well, and I think I’m just as effective as No. 3 as I could be as No. 2.”
“Being in politics my entire adult life, I’d love to be majority leader,” she added. “But I’m comfortable with this.”
With Goodwin taking herself out of contention, State House speculation about who will be the next majority leader centers on three senators: Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson, Environment & Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer, and Health & Human Services Committee Chairman Josh Miller.
Pearson, 33, has represented a swing district in Cumberland since 2012 and decided against a bid for general treasurer this year.
A Citizens Bank executive, Pearson has led the Senate’s budget-writing panel for the last two sessions, and is known for his work ethic and expertise on fiscal issues. Pearson would be the first openly gay person and the first Millennial to serve in the top ranks of Senate leadership.
Pearson told 12 News it had been “a privilege” to serve with McCaffrey. “Michael was a true partner who understood the dynamics of the State House deeply and his counsel was invaluable,” he said in a statement.
“Looking ahead, I would be honored to follow in his footsteps as Senate majority leader,” Pearson said. “I look forward to working with President Ruggerio, Whip Goodwin and all of our Senate colleagues to put together a team that continues to deliver on behalf of Rhode Islanders.”
Euer, 43, has represented Newport in the Senate since winning a 2017 special election for the seat previously held by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. (Euer’s last name rhymes with “lawyer,” which is also her profession.) Before her election, she played a prominent role in the successful effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.
On Smith Hill Euer has been a champion of legislation to address climate change, including the landmark 2020 Act on Climate. Like Pearson, she would bring a new generation into the Senate’s “big three,” and she also would be the first woman since Paiva Weed to serve as majority leader.
Euer was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
Miller, 68, has served in the Senate longer than the other two, representing a district in Cranston and Providence since 2006. A small business owner, he operates two popular Providence watering holes, The Hot Club and Trinity Brewhouse. He also seriously considered seeking the seat of retiring Congressman Jim Langevin last winter.
While Miller would not mark a generational shift in the Senate leadership, he is ideologically to the left of McCaffrey. Miller is closely identified with the years-long effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, which finally succeeded last month. He has also championed restrictions on guns.
Miller didn’t deny interest in the job of majority leader on Tuesday, but declined to reveal much about his thinking. “I would just say it’s a process that takes place in November, after the election,” he said.
Other Democrats being floated as potential candidates for majority leader include Senate President Pro Tempore Hanna Gallo of Cranston, Labor Committee Chairman Frank Ciccone of Providence and Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano of Pawtucket.
Ruggerio — who himself is facing an aggressive left-wing primary challenge for his Senate seat from second-time candidate Lenny Cioe — will have other plum positions available to hand out if he wins re-election and remains as Senate president.
The leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee, another powerful position in the chamber, is opening up after its chairwoman, Barrington Democrat Cindy Coyne, announced she wouldn’t seek re-election. The gavel on Judiciary could be a consolation prize for Euer or Miller if they don’t get the nod for majority leader.
If Pearson were to be picked as majority leader, that would free up his current position leading the Senate Finance Committee, the other major chairmanship — giving Ruggerio yet another coveted position to bestow on an ally. The selection of Euer or Miller would free up their gavels on the environment and health panels, respectively, as well.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of McCaffrey’s meeting with Ruggerio.