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Senator Donna Nesselbush: This is not the way to run a democracy



Last week, the Rhode Island Senate adopted its rules, a bi-annual debate that determines the way in which the Senate operates. I hoped to move the Senate to a more democratic process but was utterly thwarted in my efforts.

In a stunning and revealing show of the obedience required by leadership, the Senate failed to adopt even benign measures of democracy to offset the further consolidation of power at the top. The Senate also refused to adopt a simple rule regarding how we address sexual harassment and discrimination.

One example of the consolidation of power was leadership’s proposed rule that the Senate president could remove a senator from a committee “for cause only.” Sounds benign, but what is “cause?” Should one person alone determine what constitutes “cause” to yank someone off a committee? Is being charged with a crime “cause?” Is missing five committee meetings “cause?” Is being part of a political movement before that movement gains traction or changes social norms “cause?” Unquestionably, there were times in history when certain behaviors shocked some consciences, especially those of the ruling class. The idea that one person can determine “cause” is antithetical to a democratic process.

There is already a power imbalance between women and minorities vis-à-vis the dominant culture, and there is an additional power imbalance between leadership’s insiders and outsiders. To balance those power differentials, I proposed that if a senator felt aggrieved by being removed from a committee by the Senate president, that senator could have the issue decided by a majority vote of the Senate. This small “check and balance” on the Senate president‘s power was voted down by 35 out of 37 senators present. Sadly, Sam Bell was the only other senator in favor of both amendments. Thank you Senator Bell!

It gets worse. In the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and at a time in history when both chambers have been dinged by disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct, I proposed a simple rule affirming that senators deserve to work in an environment free from sexual harassment and discrimination and advising senators of their right to complain to the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. This too was voted down by 35 out of 37 senators, but astonishingly by every single woman in the chamber (except me, the proponent of the amendment). How could this happen? At a time when increasing numbers of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people are running for and winning office, should not the Senate have a clear policy against sexual harassment and discrimination and affirm that policy within its rules? You see there’s something else going on here.

Can we please ask a favor?

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Far more frightening than the failure of these amendments is the sad and dangerous truth revealed here about Rhode Island government. Senators, by and large, cast their votes with leadership so that their own bills have a chance of passing. They don’t vote their conscience for fear of retribution. They don’t rock the boat to prevent being ostracized. This is not the way to run a democracy; we know that engaging in meaningful debate and incorporating diverse viewpoints is the best approach. Consolidating power in the hands of the few is autocracy not democracy.

Rhode Island is great place to live, but our General Assembly is badly broken. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil (or the demise of democracy) is for good people to do nothing.” That is what happened in our Senate last week.

And that’s why Rhode Island will continue to lose population and why the public will continue to lose faith in its government, frustrated by the “leadership” and “followship” we have here. I ask you to join me in a call for more and better democracy, with less concentration of power in the hands of the powerful few. Until the public demands change, the few will continue to take advantage of the many. For a state whose symbol is hope, it feels almost hopeless.

Rise Up Rhode Island!

Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) is a state senator in her fifth term.

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