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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

On with the show

The General Assembly leadership battle is over, and just beginning

By Steve Ahlquist 

House Trumplicans are expected to vote for Charlestown's
state rep (and House GOP Minority Leader) Blake "Flip"
Filippi. His role in the upcoming legislative session
will be to be as big a pain in the ass as possible.
The Rhode Island General Assembly opens its 2021 session today, Tuesday, January 5. Under Covid, of course, it will not be an ordinary session. 

The State House remains closed, so the House of Representatives will be meeting at 2pm at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence and the Senate will be meeting at Rhode Island College‘s Sapinsley Hall at 4pm. Both sessions will be carried by Capitol TV.

After new members of both houses are sworn in, there will be a leadership vote in both chambers. 

In November, the House Democratic Caucus endorsed Representative Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) for Speaker and the Senate Democratic Caucus endorsed Senator Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) for another term as Senate President.

Both of these caucus nominations were challenged from the left by women, and both challenges failed. Challengers Representative Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66 Barrington, East Providence) and Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) have now formally withdrawn their names from consideration, virtually ensuring Shekarchi, Ruggerio and their teams take control of the state legislature on Tuesday.

“For far too long, our General Assembly has been led by a small group of powerful members who tightly control every aspect of the legislative process and ultimately determine what bills will come to the floor for a vote,” wrote Senator Goldin in a statement. “Too often, good legislation stalls or dies because it isn’t sponsored by the right member, or supported by the right lobbyist, or championed by the right special interest. There’s a better way for the legislature to function.”

Goldin pointed out that in response to her challenge Senate leadership supported “several progressive policy positions for the first time, including a $15 minimum wage.” Goldin continued, “We will continue to push for the priorities a majority of Rhode Islanders agree are important including reproductive justice, gun safety, affordable housing, the climate crisis, paid leave, civil rights, voting access and healthcare.”

Representative Shekarchi made no such progressive policy promises in his ascent to the Speakership, saying, “I didn’t commit to anybody for chairmanships or offices – I did not promise any legislation to anyone or any group. I think the broad base of support I enjoyed tonight is the relationships that I have made over the last eight years in the House.”

The Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which helped to elect four new representatives and five new senators to the General Assembly in November has called for House Representatives to abstain from voting for Representative Shekarchi for Speaker. They write:

As Nick Mattiello’s handpicked number two and the architect of his disastrous speakership, Joe Shekarchi represents nothing more than a continuation of the corruption we have seen under past Speakers. Since assuming the position of Majority Leader in 2017, Shekarchi has collected over 300 donations from lobbyists. Like his predecessors he remains beholden to these lobbyists, the fossil fuel companies, and the out-of-state corporations that have funded his campaign warchest.

A vote to abstain matters. In 2019, 19 abstentions led to the creation of the Reform Caucus. This year, every legislator who votes to abstain will put themselves on the side of the growing movement to finally end corruption and corporate control in our state and build the path toward a governing majority devoted to serving the people.

UpriseRI asked Representative Cassar, who was a member of the Reform Caucus but is not a member of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, about her vote on Tuesday and about her thoughts on the process in general.

“I’ve been open about what I’m going to do. I’m going to abstain,” said Representative Cassar. “I have the same situation I had two year ago, where there isn’t a candidate who supports my priorities in the chamber and who has made a commitment to equity and inclusion in the chamber as a basic step.

“I would like our chamber to work better and I think it will work better in some ways, and that’s a good thing, but I don’t have a candidate that represents my values. I am very optimistic that there will be changes, [but] I haven’t heard any specific commitments to what those changes could be.”

Representative Cassar isn’t so much looking for a change in leadership as she is advocating for a better process.

“My priority is a better process, as opposed to hoping for a win on this or a win on that,” said Representative Cassar. “If we have a democratic process that we can trust, that the Rules Committee will hear all rule change suggestions and vet them and have a democratic vote on them that is not a politically guided vote, then I think that’s better. More than having any particular rules change, having a transparent process is really my priority.

“If the same leadership team gets elected in two years, through a more open process, fabulous, we can have confidence,” continued Representative Cassas. “Right now, if Joe Shekarchi is going to be the Speaker and Chris Blazejewski is going to be the Majority Leader, history predicts that Joe will move onto something else and Chris will ascend to be Speaker. That part of the story is already written. I think it’s worth asking, over the next two years: Do we want to keep writing it this way?”

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.

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