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State Senator Sam Bell explains why he cannot support Ruggerio for Senate President



Newly elected State Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) rose to explain why he will not support Senator Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) to continue as Senate President.

Bell began his comments with the permission of Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown) who served as the presiding officer on the first day of the new term. Bell was only a minute and a half into his comments before Senator Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston) interrupted, trying to shut down Bell on a technicality. Euer rejected Lombardi’s interruption. Bell continued. Below the video are Bell’s prepared remarks, as provided by Bell.

“Madam Presiding Officer, I rise in opposition to the nomination of Senator Ruggerio for President of the Senate.

“I understand that in casting my ballot against this nomination, I will be doing something that is typically not done. So I am asking my colleagues to understand–even if they will not join me–why this is a vote I must take.

“During my campaign, I pledged not to vote for Senator Ruggerio for President of the Senate. Over and over, my constituents asked me not to support him. At the debate, I was asked about it, and I wasn’t going to say something differently on camera than I had said off camera, so I said that I would not vote for Senator Ruggerio. A number of his supporters have asked me to break this pledge, and I hope they can understand that that’s not something I’m going to do. When I make a promise to my constituents, I’m going to keep it.

“I am also asking my colleagues to understand how strong my policy differences with Senator Ruggerio are. On issue after issue Senator Ruggerio does not support many of the core principles of the Democratic Party, instead taking the policy positions typically associated with the Republican party nationally. He opposes repealing the tax cuts for the rich. He has taken thousands of dollars from the NRA. He is endorsed by Right to Life and is not pro-choice. He even voted against marriage equality–something that still stings members of the LGBTQ community today, including myself, as a bisexual man.

“His policy positions on these core issues are Republican policy positions. They are wildly out of the political mainstream in a state as Democratic as Rhode Island. They do not reflect the views of Rhode Islanders. And I do not believe that they are reflective of the views held by most members of our chamber. While many of us may differ from the Democratic Party’s core values on a few issues, most of us are either pro-choice or support repealing the tax cuts for the rich, many of us both. This chamber voted overwhelmingly to support marriage equality, and the subsequent years have only made the Senate more supportive of LGBTQ rights.

“Senator Ruggerio and I do have some areas of agreement. We agree on the need to protect social services and workers’ rights. I am hoping we will be able to find some agreement on economic development and general process reforms. I want to credit him with working to restore the upper chamber to its traditional role as the senior partner to the lower chamber. And I was very pleased with both his selections of committee chairs and his willingness to empower those chairs to hold a real voice in setting public policy. However, the vast majority of our policy views are in strong disagreement.

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“I have heard the arguments commonly advanced against my position on this vote, and I have considered them seriously. They have come, in many cases, from people I respect and admire.

“Perhaps the most common counter-argument I have heard is that if I don’t vote for Senator Ruggerio, he will exact retribution on me. My bills won’t pass, and I will fail to get anything done. He will strip my district of legislative grants, and I will get a bad parking space–fortunately, I ride a bicycle. In my view, however, this argument presents a paradox. For another argument often advanced is that the way Senator Ruggerio runs the Senate is so open and fair that it justifies voting for him despite real policy differences. Both arguments cannot be true. Indeed, if retribution from Senator Ruggerio would be so severe, in my opinion, it presents a more powerful reason to vote against him. For his part, Senator Ruggerio has vehemently denied, on multiple occasions, that he will exact retribution on those who vote against him. I take him at his word.

“Another argument sometimes advanced is that his personal character is so excellent that it compels a vote for him even if you disagree strongly with his policy views. To this, I say two things. On the one hand, I think politics should be about policy, that it should whenever possible avoid being personal. On the other hand, there has been a fairly large number of incidents over the past four decades. Honoring Senator Ruggerio’s request, I will not delineate the details on the floor, but I ask my colleagues to understand why this issue makes it yet more difficult for me to vote for him.

“Finally, there is the unspoken argument, one I think many of my colleagues find most convincing–that one simply does not vote no. It isn’t done. As Senator Ruggerio put it at our new Senator orientation, here in the Senate we ‘read off the same sheet of music.’

“But during his 1992 primary, Senator Ruggerio championed his own willingness to stand up to leadership. He proudly told the Providence Journal that he had “opposed the leadership on a number of issues.” During much of the 1990s, the conservative Democratic faction formed a dissident caucus under Senator Montalbano. They used very aggressive resistance tactics. And they used those tactics to successfully seize control of the Senate. During the 1980s, conservative Democrats were even more aggressive. Although they could not command a majority of the Democratic caucus, they were able to effectively run the Senate by allying themselves with the Republicans. While dissent isn’t very common right now, we don’t have to look very far back in history to find it. And often, it was the same conservatives currently calling dissent unthinkable who were using extremely aggressive tactics of dissent not so long ago.

“Most of my remarks today are about asking my colleagues to understand why I will be opposing Senator Ruggerio, but I also want to explain why I will be casting my vote via ballot. The reason is simple. The law governing the organization of the Senate compels us to. We can debate the policy merits of balloting protections, but they are the law. Now, I want to make it unambiguously clear that I believe the punishment the law sets for violations, jail time, violates our state constitution’s speech in debate protections. However, while the punishment is unconstitutional, the law remains the law. If I were to not cast my vote via ballot, I believe that I would be breaking the law. I hope my colleagues can understand why that is something I cannot do, so I will be casting my vote against Senator Ruggerio via ballot.

“To close, I want to stress that I understand that what I’m doing today is something that typically just isn’t done. I understand that my vote today breaks a norm, a new norm, but a powerful one all the same. I know that most of my colleagues will not make the same decision as I have, but I am asking them to understand. I am asking them to understand why I must cast my ballot against Senator Ruggerio today. Thank you.”

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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.