PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi on Wednesday quickly emerged as the most likely candidate to succeed Nicholas Mattiello as House speaker after the powerful Cranston Democrat lost his seat in Tuesday’s election.
Shekarchi, D-Warwick, had long been seen as the frontrunner to succeed Mattiello whenever the incumbent moved on. But other names have bubbled up, most notably Democratic Rep. Liana Cassar of Barrington, who made the unusual move of formally announcing that she would run even if Mattiello was re-elected in Cranston.
“I’m stepping up to run because I would like to have another option,” Cassar told 12 News, adding that she wants to shake up what she sees as the “status quo.”
“There are people who want something a bit more transformational that puts us in a position to work more equitably together to make sure everybody is valued in the room,” she said.
After Mattiello conceded his race to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung Wednesday morning, Shekarchi released a statement announcing he would run for speaker on a ticket with Rep. Chris Blazejewski, a progressive-leaning Democrat from Providence, as the candidate for majority leader. While the R.I. Democratic Women’s Caucus endorsed Cassar, the pair of men quickly released a list of nearly 20 Democratic women in the House who are supporting them, and called a caucus for Thursday evening at the Warwick Crowne Plaza to vote.
Cassar said Wednesday afternoon she intends to still put her name forward for speaker, planning to make her case Wednesday to the House GOP caucus and then to her fellow Democrats on Thursday.
“Everybody goes into every election optimistic,” Cassar said when asked if she has the votes to become the next Speaker. “I’m optimistic we’re going to get some things done and make some changes.”
But a potential rival leadership duo — Democratic Rep. Gregg Amore of East Providence and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown — indicated they were throwing their support behind Shekarchi and Blazejewski rather than mounting a run.
“Joe Shekarchi and Chris Blazejewski have committed to a substantial restructuring of House rules and culture that will have an immediate and positive impact on the way the Rhode Island House of Representatives does business,” Amore and Craven said in a joint statement Wednesday evening.
Even if Shekarchi shows he has the votes to become speaker at Thursday’s caucus, it’s expected Mattiello would remain in the job through the end of the year, meaning he could preside over the planned lame-duck session later this fall to finalize the state budget. The full House would vote on a speaker when the new General Assembly session begins in January and members who were elected on Tuesday are sworn in.
It’s unclear though whether Mattiello will play his usual role in negotiating the final budget behind the scenes with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Gov. Gina Raimondo, or if he would cede that role to the Democratic caucus’s new choice for speaker.
Mattiello declined interview requests on Wednesday.
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 Raimondo’s successful first campaign for general treasurer in 2010.
Shekarchi is less conservative than Mattiello, who is on the conservative side of the House Democratic caucus, and has cultivated close ties with the different factions of the group with wide-ranging ideologies. But he has also spent years representing real-estate developers as an attorney, giving him some credibility with business-minded representatives.
And 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 his predecessor, 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.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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