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Senator Bell abstains from voting for Senate leadership slate at caucus meeting



During his campaign then candidate now Senator-elect Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) promised his constituents that he would not vote to elect Senator Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) to the position of Senate President or Senator Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) to the position of Senate Majority Leader. Bell attended the Rhode Island State Senate‘s Democratic Caucus meeting in the State House Senate Lounge and declared his opposition.

I wanted to register a vote in specific opposition to McCaffrey and Ruggerio,” said Bell to me, “but I was told that my only procedurally valid options were to abstain or vote for them.”

You were not allowed to vote no? I asked.

“If [no votes] had been allowed, I would have cast them,” replied Bell.

In his planned comments, Bell says that Ruggerio does not support many of the core principles of the Democratic Party.

“He opposes repealing the tax cuts for the rich. He is endorsed by Right to Life and is not pro-choice,” says Bell. “He even voted against marriage equality–something that still stings members of the LGBTQ community today. While we have some areas of agreement, such as protecting social services and workers’ rights, he and I simply do not agree on some fundamental issues. If I voted for Senator Ruggerio, it would be hard for me to face so many of my constituents, including my fiancée.”

As for McCaffrey, Bell writes:

“So why did I commit to oppose him? Why did so many constituents ask me to? Because Senator McCaffrey is quite conservative. He is not pro-choice. He has yet to publicly support repealing the tax cuts for the rich, and he even voted against marriage equality.”

But there is another reason Bell opposes McCaffrey, having to do with the history of the Senate going back two decades. Bell writes:

“Our chamber went through a very contentious series of leadership battles during the 1980s and 1990s, pitting the conservative wing against a coalition of moderates and liberals. During much of the 1990s, for instance, the conservatives who are now in power formed a dissident caucus and used aggressive resistance tactics to seize the Senate Presidency in 2000. When Senator Joseph Montalbano (Republican, District 17, Lincoln) became Senate President, he took an important step towards healing the divide by selecting Senator M Teresa Paiva Weed (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown) as Majority Leader.

“Senator Paiva Weed was a true moderate. Although mostly a social conservative, she fought hard for social services, political reform, and better budgetary policy. She served as Judiciary Chair when moderates were ascendant in the 1990s. She lost that gavel in the 2000 leadership challenge. She was even drawn into the same district as Senator Cicilline, and she had to beat him in the primary.

“When Senator Montalbano brought in Senator Paiva Weed, it was a gesture that mattered. It brought the chamber together. It ended the discord. So when Senator Paiva Weed succeeded Montalbano, she respected the tradition by selecting Senator Ruggerio, a conservative, to be her Majority Leader. When Senator Ruggerio became Senate President, however, I expected him to return the favor. Instead, he selected one of the very few Senators even more conservative than he is, Senator McCaffrey.

“Next in line was Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence). If Senator Ruggerio had selected her, I would be voting for her here today. Senator Goodwin is a moderate. She’s nowhere near as left-wing as I am, particularly on reproductive justice, but her views are pretty close to the center of our chamber. She has a ton of experience, and she is widely respected by our whole caucus. The reality is that Senator McCaffrey was selected over a more qualified woman.”

Update: Bell abstained from voting, rather than vote against the Senate leadership slate.

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About the Author

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.