PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Senate Democrats have voted to endorse Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to remain as leader of the chamber, paving the way for him to be formally re-elected in January, and also tapped Sen. Michael McCaffrey to continue as majority leader.
The two moderate Democrats were elected by separate votes of 24-to-7 over more progressive challengers Sen. Gayle Goldin, a Providence Democrat who ran for Senate president, and Sen.-elect Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who ran for majority leader.
The Democratic caucus met in a socially distant manner in the Providence Marriott downtown, and allowed members to submit votes remotely.
In a surprise announcement given Senate leaders’ prior opposition to the idea, McCaffrey said in his remarks following the vote that “the time has come to legalize adult cannabis use.” That prospect had previously been ruled out by the leaders of both the Senate and House.
McCaffrey also called for other policies typically supported by progressives including a $15 minimum wage and a potential tax hike on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, suggesting the chamber’s center of gravity will move to the left in 2021.
Ruggerio announced that the Senate would rent the fifth floor of the R.I. Convention Center in order to meet during the pandemic with more space and better ventilation than the State House. He said a contract is still being worked out, but retrofitting the space to be the new home of the Senate would cost about $20,000.
The chamber could begin meeting there within two weeks, he said. The General Assembly still needs to pass a budget for the current year, a process that has been delayed as the state awaits potential stimulus funds from the federal government.
On recreational marijuana — which has been twice proposed by Gov. Gina Raimondo but opposed by both Ruggerio and outgoing House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — Ruggerio said the Senate would now “take a good look.”
“I’ve had some concerns in the past with the social costs that exist with that,” Ruggerio told reporters. “We’re in a tough situation as far as our revenue is concerned. I don’t want to look at it just as a revenue source, so I’m interested in seeing what we can come up with similar to what they’ve done with the medical marijuana.”
He said the Senate would begin by holding hearings on the issue, but would look at it more closely in the new session that starts in January.
Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, whom Ruggerio reappointed as majority whip, said the leaders are looking at increasing the tax rate on wealthier Rhode Islanders to raise more revenue as the state faces a significant budget shortfall amid the pandemic. The threshold for the potential tax increase has not yet been fleshed out.
“Let those who make more money pay more,” Goodwin said.
Despite losing the vote for Senate president, Goldin called her run for the job a “victory,” taking credit for helping push the Senate leaders toward more progressive proposals.
“We saw nine people not vote with Senate leadership, and so many of the issues that were brought up by the current Senate leadership are progressive issues that people care about,” Goldin said after the caucus. “The proof is going to be in the pudding. Are these really issues that they are going to carry through to make sure that they get to the governor’s desk?”
Goldin won the votes of four of the newly elected Democrats who take office in January — Sens.-elect Kendra Anderson, Jeanine Calkin, Tiara Mack and Cynthia Mendes — plus incumbent Sens. Sam Bell, Bridget Valverde and herself.
Two other newly elected Democrats, Sens.-elect Alana DiMario and Jonathan Acosta, abstained from the Senate president vote. Only two of the eight new members of the caucus — John Burke and Meghan Kallman — voted for Ruggerio.
Tuesday’s election netted three additional seats for women in the Senate, ending the upper chamber’s male majority for the first time. There will be 19 women and 19 men in the Senate come January once the new members are sworn in.
Ruggerio announced new leadership posts and chairs at the caucus, replacing Goldin as deputy majority whip with Sen. Ana Quezada. He endorsed Sen. Hanna Gallo, the current Education Committee chair, for president pro tempore, replacing Sen. Harold Metts after he lost his primary race to Mack in September.
Sen. Ryan Pearson was named chair of the Finance Committee, replacing Sen. Billy Conley, who also lost his primary race. Sen. Cynthia Coyne was named chair of the Judiciary Committee, replacing Sen. Erin Lynch Prata, who did not seek re-election in order to apply to be a state Supreme Court justice. Sen. Sandra Cano was named the new chair of the Education Committee.
The R.I. House will have a new speaker come January, after Nicholas Mattiello lost re-election on Tuesday to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. The House Democrats picked Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi to succeed Mattiello in January, and Shekarchi told reporters Thursday that anything is on the table to close the budget gap including tax increases or spending cuts.
Shekarchi took no position on cannabis legalization, saying he was open to looking at the issue.