Shekarchi taps Kazarian, Ackerman for House leadership team

Politics

Rep. Katherine Kazarian, D-East Providence, is now the third-ranking Democratic leader in the R.I. House of Representatives (file photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — New House Speaker Joe Shekarchi on Monday announced more members of his Democratic leadership team, giving women lawmakers a more prominent role in running the House than ever before.

Shekarchi tapped state Rep. Katherine Kazarian of East Providence as House majority whip, the House’s No. 3 job, and Rep. Mia Ackerman of Cumberland as deputy House majority whip, the No. 4 job.

The House Democrats voted in favor of the new leadership roles during a caucus held virtually Monday night, also keeping in place three other leaders: Providence Rep. Grace Diaz as caucus chair, Cranston Rep. Charlene Lima as deputy speaker, and Hopkinton Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy as speaker pro tempore.

Kazarian replaces Rep. John Edwards of Tiverton as whip, while Ackerman takes over deputy whip from Providence Democrat Chris Blazejewski, who was elevated to majority leader — the No. 2 job formerly held by Shekarchi — when Shekarchi was endorsed by the caucus for speaker in November.

A House spokesperson said it marks the first time women have held two of that chamber’s four top leadership positions simultaneously, and Kazarian is just the second woman to be House majority whip.

Both Kazarian and Ackerman were first elected in 2012.

The change in leadership is the latest visible effect of the defeat of former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who lost re-election in November to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.

Shekarchi also hired a new chief of staff — Ray Simone, current chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed — to replace Leo Skenyon later this month. He also named Nicole McCarty as chief legal counsel to the speaker.

The new speaker has yet to name committee members and chairs for the new session.

While Shekarchi and Blazejewski were key members of Mattiello’s leadership team, they have thus far garnered support from legislators who previously opposed Mattiello.

Kazarian, for example, put forth the nomination for Shekarchi for speaker, though she had been a member of the Reform Caucus that opposed Mattiello’s re-election to speaker back in 2018.

“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 at a Democratic caucus back in November, before her colleagues endorsed Shekarchi for the speakership. “Under his leadership, the days of being bullied and ostracized will be over.”

Shekarchi referenced reform efforts in a statement following Monday night’s leadership votes.

“I am very excited about our leadership team, which brings a combination of new energy and vast experience on all matters pertaining to the House,” Shekarchi said. “We will work with our Democratic colleagues to embrace their ideas and talent and reform the way business is done at the State House. Collectively, we will help our economy recover in a manner that works for all Rhode Islanders and protects our most vulnerable populations.”

The top four leadership positions in the General Assembly still remain all-male, with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio winning re-election to the Senate last week, along with Sen. Michael McCaffrey, his majority leader. Ruggerio’s leadership team also includes multiple women; he named Sen. Maryellen Goodwin as majority whip back in November, and Sen. Ana Quezada as deputy majority whip.

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

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