Representative Moira Walsh: The exit interview“If you don’t mind, I would love to skip ahead to the very first thing that got me in trouble…“ For four years, waitress turned activist turned legislator Moira Walsh was a constant thorn in the side of the Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. Having this year lost her primary to challenger Nathan Biah in House District 3, Walsh
Published on September 28, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist
“If you don’t mind, I would love to skip ahead to the very first thing that got me in trouble…“
For four years, waitress turned activist turned legislator Moira Walsh was a constant thorn in the side of the Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. Having this year lost her primary to challenger Nathan Biah in House District 3, Walsh is now finishing this phase of her political career. The legislative season still isn’t technically over, so Walsh has a few more months in which to make waves and throw punches, but she sat down and did an exit interview of sorts with Uprise RI editor Steve Ahlquist shortly after the election. There was a lot of help from Sarah Van Horn in getting the audio transcribed for publication.
UpriseRI: Let’s start at the end. You just lost your election and you mentioned that you were feeling bad for about, whatever, like four minutes then you felt pretty good. Like you’re free for a while, is that fair?
Walsh: It is a very difficult job. It is very thankless. And when you are in Siberia, it’s all uphill. And while I know that there is a lot of work left to be done, and I know that we’re really, really close – I mean, we’re nine votes away from rules reform, right? I am okay with letting these new voices lead for a little while. You can’t pour from a cup that’s empty. And while I am very impressed that I have colleagues who have done this for 15 if and 20 years and still have the motivation to go in every day, it was taking a real toll on my soul. When you have a regular job and you screw up, worst case scenario, your boss yells at you. At the State House, you screw up and people die. And what started out with Kristen’s law and things like that, where I would just end the day devastated and demoralized became more frequent and the good bills were fewer and further between. I needed to be able to feel like what we do up there matters. But I never would have stopped running. I am grateful that Nathan ran and won. And as I said, and it wasn’t a political thing, I really am super happy for all of my neighbors who have been waiting for a representative like Nathan. I wasn’t just saying that because it’s the polite thing to do. I grew up with the Biahs and seeing how excited the immigrant community was to finally get an opportunity to vote for somebody who understood their experience and lived their experience was really powerful. That said, I’m obviously not done, I promise. Just my eye bags have eye bags and I need a nap.
UpriseRI: You said that you’re not done. And you said earlier, “For a while, I’m out for a while.” Do you have future plans? Is anything concrete?
Walsh: Yeah. I’m thinking about a run for Lieutenant Governor. I think that Aaron Regunberg made a very valid point that the Lieutenant Governor position is highly underutilized. It has a really big budget that could make a really big impact on our state. And instead we use it as more of a figurehead position to attend events and show up at fundraisers and things like that. And I say all the time before we asked our constituents to tighten their belts, we should be tightening ours. And I think that the LG position could go a long way to reallocating and reusing some of that really intense budget for things that are actually important.
UpriseRI: You don’t think Aaron is going to run for LG again?
Walsh: I don’t know. I haven’t heard he was planning on it. I know that he’s in law school and he’s got a lot of stuff going on. I just kind of figured that he was focusing on his home life. If he reached out to me, you know, we could obviously have a conversation about that, but I have not yet heard of anybody who is considering running for Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee’s seat. So I’m trying to put my hat in first.
UpriseRI: Let’s rewind a little bit to what I consider, and maybe I’m wrong here, the beginning of your political career. You’re working as a server at a restaurant. You’re a single mom, and you become interested in raising the minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised for servers in this state for 28 years or something. Is that a good analysis or am I missing something?
Walsh: Yeah, no, absolutely. That’s exactly how it started. It was, you know, a first for me and then for us. When I discovered how difficult it was to make a change for me and my family and how important – a dollar might not seem like a big deal, but as a waitress, a dollar was a difference between a negative paycheck and a positive paycheck. It seemed like it was six months of beating our heads against a wall, but it got done. And then I started working with Jobs With Justice and one of my main jobs there was to organize direct actions to get back wages for workers who had been robbed. And we were also really successful at that. My favorite protest – I’m pretty sure you were at this one – at the Teriyaki House. It was Phoebe Gardner and my first protest that we had ever organized without help. And we had no plan for what to do if we won. So within five minutes of us being outside this guy’s restaurant, he was like, “Alright, fine, that’s it, I’ll pay you.” And we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We were like, oh, shit, it never occurred to me that he would agree.
UpriseRI: Right. Um, I was at that Teriyaki House action and I had no idea that you and Phoebe didn’t have a plan. I just thought, wow, this went really great.
Walsh: Yeah, no, we had never had a protest that ends that quickly and be that successful. Like usually the cops get called and they make you, you know, walk across the street or whatever. But at this particular one, the manager walked to the department of labor and training and cut the check.
UpriseRI: I remember all that. That’s right. I forgot about him walking to cut the check. That was early in my career too, in a way, because I’d only been doing this for a couple of years at that point. That was a good day.
Walsh: I remember us being like, do we keep beating the drum? Do we keep chanting? I didn’t have a plan for this. But at that point I realized that like, I can’t just jump from Restaurant Opportunity Center to Jobs with Justice, from nonprofit to nonprofit, every time somebody needs something. I needed to find a more centralized way to make a difference. And when I first ran for rep, it was mostly to make my opponent knock doors. I thought, you know, he has not had an opponent in a really long time, at least if I make him knock doors, he will have to talk to people. And then he didn’t knock doors and we won.
Walsh: If you don’t mind, I would love to skip ahead to the very first thing that got me in trouble.
UpriseRI: Yeah, let’s do it. You get elected…
Walsh: So [former State Representative Thomas Palangio] gets diagnosed with cancer and says that he’s going to be dropping out of the race. And I get a call from the Speaker’s people. The Speaker’s people call my people. I didn’t talk to anybody directly. And they say, Nick Mattiello will give Moira the democratic endorsement if she agrees to vote for him for Speaker. And I had already publicly stated that I was planning on supporting Nick for a couple of reasons. One, he was the only person running and two, I thought it was a little pompous to have never done this job before and to walk in on day one and say, I’ve never done this but I’m positive you’re doing it wrong. I felt like, you know, even if I didn’t know him, there was—my dad says, you give everybody 90% of your trust and respect, and they could either earn the 10% or lose the whole thing. So I had already planned on voting for Nick. So I agreed to that. And a couple of weeks later, [former House Majority Leader] John DiSimone convinced Palangio to stay in the race. I had the district committee and the district endorsement, they had asked me to make a district committee. I had put in the paperwork. It had been stamped and received by the Secretary of State’s office. I was listed on the website as having the endorsement from the Democratic Party and then Tom Palangio didn’t drop out of the race. They took the endorsement away. The Secretary of State called me and said that the district committee was improper and therefore not authorized and nobody was endorsed in my election.
So fast forward, I win, I have my first lunch meeting with the Speaker and he says, “You’re welcome.” And I said, “For what?” And he said, “Well, we didn’t endorse anybody in your race.” Right. But that wasn’t the agreement. The agreement was that you would endorse me and in exchange, I would vote for you. And he said, “Well, you know, Tom jumped back in and we couldn’t endorse the non-incumbent.” I said, “That’s all well and good. But I’m just letting you know that, you know, I’m not going to say, thank you. You didn’t do anything for me.” And he said, “Well, are you still going to vote for me for Speaker?” And I said, “My word is my bond and how would I look if the first time I gave my word, I went back? So, yes, I do intend on voting for you as Speaker.” I said, “But this is your mulligan. I expect that from now on, when we make compromises that we’re both going to hold up our ends and not just me.”
The Speaker then said, “Well, what if I give you $500 for your campaign?” And I said, “What for? I already won.” And that was putting my one foot on the banana peel. I wasn’t even aware that I was already in trouble. I was not supposed to call him on his bad behavior and I was not supposed to turn down what was effectively a bribe.
Shortly thereafter, we had our first set of votes on the floor. I had a few of my constituents on the floor because there was a bill that was being passed that I wanted them to be there for. And in addition to that bill, we had the rules reform votes. So the whip comes up to me and he says, “Walsh, do you know what you’re doing on these votes?” And I said, “Yes, I am going to read the bills. And then I’m going to listen to the arguments. And then I’m going to vote based on that.” And he shook his head and I could tell by the look on his face that my answer was wrong, but he never said anything. He just walked away from my desk. I did my thing. I made my votes. I immediately got a text message from one of my colleagues that said, “You’re going to have to go apologize to the Speaker.” I said, “For what?” And he said, “You’re not allowed to vote no unless you ask permission first.” And this was when I realized that all of the rules in this building are unspoken. All of the rules in this building are inferred, and you could very well be following Robert’s Rules and the actual rules and guidelines of the State House. But that doesn’t mean anything if you’re not following the social rules of the State House.
I kind of decided at that point that if I’m going to keep getting in trouble by accident I may as well deserve it. That was the point at which I decided that I wasn’t going to ask permission to vote no on bills. I wasn’t going to go upstairs and kiss the ring and beg for things to be passed on my behalf. I wasn’t going to push the green button just because one guy in Cranston told me to. I was going to read every bill. I was going to ask the questions and I was going to vote based on whether or not it was going to help my community. And up until that point, that had not been the system. You go along to get along, You vote for these horrible bills that make it hard for you to sleep at night, you choke it down, and you push the green so that next week you could get a dollar for minimum wage raise or a sick day for a nurse.
I can’t say whether or not one way is better than the other. I can say that any bill that I cared about, I never put my name on because I knew that the bill itself was irrelevant. My personality was what the bill’s trajectory was going to be based on. Anybody who asked me to put a bill in, I would say, listen, if you want this to pass, go talk to so and so, so and so, or so and so. Understand that if you give it to me, I’m going to work my hardest, I’m going to do a lot of research, I’m going to get a lot of witnesses, but it is going to get thrown directly into the held for further study drafting. And I was okay with that because the agreement that I had made with my constituents when I first got elected was not that I’m going to raise minimum wage or pass new laws. It was that I was going to find out what they were doing with our tax dollars and I was going to find out why things were so poorly handled up there. And as far as I’m concerned, I made good on both of them.
UpriseRI: On the minimum wage, you did actually get the first dollar raise for servers in the state.
Walsh: That was before I got elected, technically. I believe it was signed in 2016, but that was my first taste of, Oh, we can actually get things done if we try.
UpriseRI: In that first two year term, do you think you got any legislation that you wanted to get passed?
Walsh: I fought really, really hard for the free fare bus passes for elderly and disabled constituents. There were five or six versions of that bill floating around. The biggest issue was the funding for it. It had been funded by the gas tax for a very long time and because the gas tax fluctuates, it can get very hard to predict how much money is going to go into that pool. So a lot of different bills have different budgetary areas for that money to come out of as opposed to the gas tax. The one that they ended up going with was Bill O’Brian’s. But there was an entire night of testimony on the free fare bus passes that really made a huge impact on leadership in making them understand that this was a necessity.
UpriseRI: That was an important bill. We both live in Providence and the bus is important.
Walsh: Absolutely. A lot of it is just a misunderstanding of what poverty looks like. One of the things that I had explained to the Speaker after that first night of testimony – when you’re in trouble, what tends to happen is that your bill gets put last on the committee docket so that you have to sit there through hours and hours and hours of testimony. And it’s just another way to hurt your feelings and waste your time and remind you that you’re not on the appropriate team. So when I had my version of the bus pass bill, testimony didn’t start till 10 or 11 o’clock at night. And I ended up having to drive home several people who stayed to testify because buses stopped running at 11:30. Which you only know if you take the bus. So I scheduled a meeting with the Speaker the next day and said, “You know, I don’t necessarily care how you guys feel about me, but what happened last night was a travesty. We had elderly and disabled people – those were the people who were here to testify on this bill – who had to walk home because you guys didn’t understand that buses stop running 11. We had lobbyists who got to testify before citizens.
UpriseRI: That happens all the time there. That is common.
Walsh: Of course. We want to put money into Nick’s campaign account and not the old lady who needs the bus to get to her doctor’s appointment. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. And particularly for the lobbyists who are getting paid to be there, why we would consider their time more valuable than the neighbors of ours who are sitting outside with their children or paying a sitter or coming in their work clothes to testify on a bill that literally impacts their lives is beyond me.
UpriseRI: I see this all the time. I sit through a lot of committee meetings, as you know, and one thing I see is they say, “Let’s pull this bill up because this particular lobbyist has to get home or has to catch a plane” or whatever. And so they call this bill up, so the lobbyists can testify. And then they’re all chummy with that lobbyist, that lobbyist smiles, waves. He leaves. Meanwhile, there are people sitting in that room, waiting for their turn to speak thinking, “Oh, I guess that man must be a very important person.” And it’s like, no, that person is just representing another facet of this case. They’re representing people who are opposed to you and they are getting first dibs. I think it’s obscene.
Walsh: Of course it is. And here’s the thing. We should not have to make a rule about that. That should be common decency and common sense, right? That if you are here on your own time of your own free will, you get first dibs. That’s just how our democracy is supposed to work. It’s not supposed to be pay to play. But there also has to be a culture shift and a desire for there to be a culture shift in order for any of that to even have an opportunity to shift.
UpriseRI: At the State House historically there’s no desire whatsoever to change the way things work.
Walsh: Nobody wants to be the first one, right? Nobody wants to be the first one to not get a single bill passed. Nobody wants to be the freshmen who gets nothing because they’re in trouble. But I very sincerely doubt that had we not started throwing stones at the Speaker that we would have had the kind of progressive push that we had this year. I sincerely doubt that the Reform Caucus would exist if normal people hadn’t gotten up there and shown that nothing happens when you call out the bad behavior. Yes, they will take your bills, they’ll take your committees, they’ll take your office, but they’re not gonna take you. And that’s something that I think a lot of people compromise.
One of my very favorite people up there, Kathleen Fogarty, used to be on leadership and immediately had her office removed when she had the audacity to go against the Speaker. And I bumped into her husband at the supermarket a couple of weeks after we had all voted against the Speaker. And he said, “She’s so happy. She’s all smiles. She’s less stressed. I don’t think we realized what a toll it was taking on her to deal with that horrible man.” And there’s strength in numbers. I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t scary to be persona non grata when I had the audacity to suggest that it was irresponsible for representatives to be drinking at the state house. That was a really lonely couple of weeks. Even my friends weren’t in agreement with me. But I think that, for me at least, that was a real catalyst to realizing that, what’s the worst that can happen? They’re not going to hit me. They’re not going to hurt me. The worst that’s going to happen is I’m going to be a very lonely voice.
UpriseRI: There have been times that I’ve been at the State House where, after I’ve done a particularly damning article, that I felt like I might get hit.
Walsh: Yeah, but you also know that if they could have, they would have already.
UpriseRI: I guess you’re right.
Walsh: The only reason that I am confident that people are not going to come for my knee caps is because if he could have done that, he would’ve already done that. He does not like me, like he would endorse a bloated corpse over me in an election.
UpriseRI: I think he did…
Walsh: Yeah, I think two years ago, that’s 2018. I’m pretty sure that was his campaign slogan. But you know what I mean? If he could have, you know, Buddy Ciancied me with poker, I’m sure he would have done that already. Now, of course, try telling that to my parents who grew up in Buddy Cianci times and are constantly terrified that I’m one nasty comment away from ending up with concrete shoes, but I trust that probably I’ll be fine.
UpriseRI: That’s interesting about the drinking because I’ve been up there for a long time and I’ve seen legislators obviously inebriated.
Walsh: It’s frustrating, right? Because you don’t want to get accused of slander. It’s not like I’m up there giving people breathalyzers, but at the same time, unless that person was actively having a stroke, I can’t possibly imagine what else could have caused that behavior. And you know as well as I do, that the drinking used to be a lot more rampant on the floor. One of my proudest accomplishments is banishing them to the basement, is that they had to be secret, is that they couldn’t walk around with their solo cups and their mud slide makers in their desk and all that garbage and that they had to go down to the basement poker room instead. I think that you shouldn’t be proud of that behavior. Like damn, dude, like how were you raised? That you’re going to commit all your like grossest acts out in the public. On-camera.
UpriseRI: It’s like a fraternity up there. Animal House.
Walsh: Did you see the week before we left for coronavirus? Cause that crushed me.
UpriseRI: Well, no, because even before coronavirus closed it, I was being a little bit more careful about going there.
Walsh: Right? How is she by the way?
UpriseRI: Oh, she’s great. The whole family is good. Everybody in the family is doing amazingly well.
Walsh: Yeah. Well I know my mom is also immunocompromised and I know that it’s just a lot of worries.
UpriseRI: Yeah, it is. You know, but we’ve been navigating it pretty well and I’ve still been out there. So from my personal point of view, it’s been okay.
Walsh: The week before coronavirus, the vibe at the State House was like frat party gone awry. It was obvious that we were going to be leaving soon and then we were not going to be continuing to pass legislation. So nobody really had any incentive to pay attention, be responsible. And for me, the thing that really made my blood boil was the Chris Millea cutout. He brought in a cardboard cutout of his face and all the young male reps were bobbing it around like Chris Millea agrees on this, Chris Millea likes this bill. And it was so hurtful, while there was a literal fucking crisis going on in our country, to see the people who were supposed to be in charge just yucking it up and having a great time and looking forward to vacation. It’s not like we were getting sent home because of a pandemic, it was vacation time. And then the fact that Millea had the audacity on his mailers to put something like “the mature and stable voice for our community,” like, eat my shorts.
I do not have any issue with people having fun at work. When the reform caucus finally came to be, I enjoyed going to the State House. We were all in it together. We all had nothing left to lose. I was watching people stand up for things that they couldn’t stand up for for years. I don’t begrudge people for enjoying their work, but there’s a difference between loving your work and being the class clown.
UpriseRI: The other thing is that Millea was oftentimes was not right on the issues. He would say things on the floor and I’d be like, well, that’s just not the case.
Walsh: Hey, well at least he talked. Mario Mendez never picked up that microphone except to record a vote that he forgot to record. Never stood up for a bill, never stood for anything. Never.
UpriseRI: I don’t see what Mario Mendez did in two years there. He was a very big disappointment to me.
Walsh: We knew he had decided that he was going to be a one term rep when he promised not to vote for the Speaker, and then did. Buddy, you signed a paper. We have proof. What are you doing?
UpriseRI: Well, it was too bad because I think his community, District 13, has been poorly served for a long time now.
Kristin’s law, you mentioned it and it was on my list. So I think we should get into it a little bit. It was the Speaker’s darling bill. The law is to make sure that for people who share drugs, if someone dies, the person who survives goes to jail for life. It was terrible. It was a step back. Every authority on drug use and epidemiology in the state was opposed to it except for Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott. The Governor was for it. The Speaker was for it. The Senate President said, “Sure.” You were against it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Walsh: I guess it’s the same concept of me saying I can’t afford to get my car inspected and you say no problem and slashing all four of my tires. The big issue that I have is upwards of 70% of intravenous drug users started with a perfectly legal pain prescription. So even if you arrest every single heroin dealer today, you will still have doctor’s offices, hospitals, and physical therapy places generating new addicts every minute, every hour. Drug addiction is not a character flaw. It is not a moral shortcoming. It is something that I’ve been privy to, unfortunately, for most of my adult life because of my brother, but also because of the community that I grew up in. Addiction has always been a very big issue in my community. And when low income issues, quote unquote, migrate to affluent (read: white) communities, the solutions are drastic, reactionary, and often wrong. I think that’s exactly what happened with Kristin’s law. A systemic problem that has existed for a very, very long time, that has notoriously been swept under the rug and put behind bars, was now rearing its ugly face with lawyers’ children, and accountants’ kids, and Cranston West High School students. And then it became a problem that needed solving.
UpriseRI: But let me just say, this law doesn’t solve any of that.
Walsh: No, this law doesn’t help anybody. As I said, this was a reactionary emotional response to a problem that these communities did not understand.
UpriseRI: And it added penalties, criminal penalties, to desperate behavior for people who are addicted that in no way could help any particular person. We know it won’t be applied to a Cranston West High School student. He or she finds himself or herself in trouble and they share drugs and somebody dies – that kid from an affluent Cranston West family is not going to go to jail, is not going to be facing Kristin’s law. They’re going to be in rehab somewhere getting help.
Walsh: We can use a literal example. Look at the gentleman from the State House who was caught dealing heroin. Do you think they went through his client base to see if anybody died so they could charge him with murder?
One of the things that’s really frustrating – I remember the last days of Socrates and they said, Socrates is the wisest man. And he went and spoke to all of the wise men and realized he was only the wisest man, because he knew he was not wise. Whereas all of the other men believed themselves to be the wisest. And that was why they weren’t. I know that there’s a lot that I don’t know. And I, as a waitress, would never purport to understand tax loopholes the way somebody like maybe Nick Mattiello does. And so it blows my mind that somebody as highly educated as Nick Mattiello does not have the confidence or security to say, I, as a lawyer, do not know what I am talking about when it comes to medical intervention in drug-addicted communities.
There’s nothing wrong with not having all the answers. There is something deeply wrong with pretending that you do. What’s Trump’s medical advice? Inject bleach. What’s Nick’s? Arrest drug addicts, as if that is going to do anything to solve this problem. But I also think that there’s a malicious side to it, where I don’t know that Mattiello wants to solve the problem. I think that he wants to hide it. Let’s not forget that the ACI is in his district. And that it’s nice to keep that count high so he has less doors to knock.
UpriseRI: Interesting. So you’re saying he directly benefits from this…
Walsh: You wonder why he makes laws that specifically incarcerate people in my community. It seems pretty obvious.
UpriseRI: You had mentioned that he’s highly educated as a lawyer, but I have a friend who’s a lawyer. My friend is very, very bright. And he thought to himself, when he was younger and going to school, that being a lawyer sounds too hard. It sounds like a lot of work. But then he had a cousin who became a lawyer. And he said to me, my cousin’s an idiot. My cousin became a lawyer. And that convinced me that I could become a lawyer.
Walsh: I want to be clear. I said educated. I did not say that he was smart.
UpriseRI: I get that difference. But we look at somebody fresh out of law school and we automatically defer to that person. There’s this idea that they passed this benchmark.
Walsh: No, no, no. This is a man who does not know that slavery existed in Rhode Island. This is not a man who’s in tune with the public. My favorite lack of common sense, Nick moment was during rules reform two years ago when the rules reform committee was packed, you remember? And even John Marion (Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island) said, you know, I’ve been doing this for years and I’m the only one who’s ever in this room, this is really nice to see people caring about the thing that actually matters: rules reform. And I remember the Speaker said, I don’t understand why everybody cares. Nobody has paid attention to this until now. I don’t understand why people are paying attention now. And my thought process was: when you cause as much trouble and have as many open investigations as you do and are fucking things up to the colossal level that you are fucking them up, people are going to start paying attention!
UpriseRI: Right, right.
Walsh: It blew my mind that he thought that he could just cause this much chaos for the six years that he’s been there, – millions of dollars to chiropractors and I know I won re-election even before my votes were in – like we’re not going to talk about how shady that is to know your exact number of mail ballots, you creep. Like all of the shady stuff. And then you wonder why people are finally paying attention? It’s because you’re drawing attention to yourself. Nobody caused this. Nick just got lazy with his corruption and he got to the point where he thought that he could keep doing this stuff and he didn’t have to hide it anymore because he was so powerful that nothing was ever going to happen. And I mean, you know, four primary races later and we’re seeing that that is, as it turns out, probably not true.
UpriseRI: I think when things run well, the public goes, it’s running well, what do I care? That’s great. Right? Every time they get a check from the government or every time I have to pay my taxes, it seems like the system’s working. I might not love it, or I might like it, but it works and I’m happy. But if it’s not working, suddenly people become very interested. Like why isn’t this working?
Walsh: And there’s only so much blame that he can put on the Governor, right? Every other press conference: it’s fucking Gina’s fault. It’s the Governor’s fault. It’s all Gina. She’s the worst person to ever – She has less than no authority in this state. The only time that she was allowed to govern was during coronavirus when Nicholas was hiding in his basement and she did an impeccable job. Notice her approval ratings now that she’s actually in charge. But all this time, all Nick does is “Oh, it’s Gina’s fault. Gina’s budget sucks. Gina’s administration.” No, Nicholas, the buck stops with you. The Speaker of the House is the most powerful legislator in that building. And so the fact that he has all the power and then still wants to pin all the blame on a Democratic woman, mhmm, wonder why.
UpriseRI: I find it interesting being a reporter up there, asking a legislator – not you usually, because you’re pretty open – but I say, why can’t this bill get passed? Why can’t a popular idea like this, let’s say fair wages for women, pass the House?
Walsh: Yeah, what do people say to you? What’s the excuse they give?
UpriseRI: Most of the time they just look at me with a pained expression, like I can’t tell you really why. Occasionally they’ll say something. Susan Donovan was pretty open: the Speaker destroyed her fair pay bill. But other people will say, I can’t really tell you why, you know why, but I can’t say it out loud. You’re putting me on the spot by even asking that question. You’re making it impossible for me to answer you, Steve, because I can’t say the truth-
Walsh: But why can’t we?
UpriseRI: I don’t know. Because they’re afraid?
Walsh: We can say the truth. As I said this past year, when everybody said, you’re going to keep doing this? And I said, what are they going to do? Shred my bills twice? What are they going to do – take my bill out of the trash can and then put it back in? I’m willing to look like the ineffective legislator that all of my opponents have pitched me to be, because I know at the end of the day that I had a huge hand in the reform caucus and then I had a huge hand in the political co-op and then I had a huge hand in showing regular people that you could go up there and you could be true to yourself and you could vote your conscience and at the end of the day, you weren’t going to die. You weren’t going to lose a limb, you weren’t going to get a car bomb, everything more or less was going to be okay.
UpriseRI: I remember before you were in, before you were elected, when the Speaker first took power, one of the first things he did, the next election, was he went after Maria Cimini because he was a mouthy woman like yourself and she got up there and she would give him a hard time and he didn’t like that. So he backed McKiernan. McKiernan went in and beat Maria Cimini and then what I heard the next year from at least two different legislators – so I know this was a phrase – they were saying, well, I don’t want to be Cimini-ed.
Walsh: Yes! It became a verb. Don’t get yourself Cimini-ed.
UpriseRI: That’s what the Speaker did. He took power, looked at somebody, and destroyed their political career. Took them out. And everybody got the message. This is what happens to anybody who gets in my way. So that’s why it was so impressive that after your first two years of being a constant thorn in his side, you won your next election against his chosen person and against a huge amount of money that was spent against you. And I felt a little bit a part of that victory because I had taken a picture a year or so before of your opponent, and the Speaker’s chosen candidate, Michael Earnhardt.
Walsh: Oh yeah, that was a huge portion of our campaign. That’s still up around the internet every time he’s an asshole on Twitter.
UpriseRI: I have to say, when I took that picture I had no idea who he was. I was really taking a picture of Robert Malin who was in that picture. There’s this guy towering over Robert. It was funny because when I’m looking at it later, I had this impression that Michael Earnheart was this tall guy because he’s towering over Robert.
Walsh: Compared to Robert Malin, he might’ve been.
UpriseRI: Then I realized, Oh right, my context was totally wrong. And Robert passed away, which is really sad. So I take that picture. And then we find out Earnhardt’s running and someone writes to me and says, “Hey, you know, you have a picture, you took a picture of Michael Earnheart, like a year or two ago.” I’m like “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, it was at this Trump rally.” So I’m going through all the pictures. I have no idea who Michael Earnheart is and I have no idea which of these many pictures is Michael Earnheart and I’m starting to figure out, okay, I think it’s this one. So now I’m asking people, is this Michael Earnheart? And finally I heard yes, that is Michael Earnheart.
Walsh: Yeah, that was a fun year. That was when Debra Messing tweeted at me. Really fun.
UpriseRI: That was weird. You were getting retweeted in England.
Walsh: I was in The Guardian. I was like, why do you care?
UpriseRI: Well, it was a big deal because from the point of view of people outside the country, they’re thinking, “Oh, most Democrats in America must hate Trump.” And then like, Oh no, that’s not the case at all. There’s a lot of Democrats that are in America who were like, “Yeah, we’re cool with Trump. We’re cool with people who support Trump. We’re cool with this guy, this is fine.”
That was more trouble for you though. After you won that election, not only was the Speaker mad at you, but the head of the Democratic Party was personally and nationally embarrassed for endorsing a Trump supporter over an incumbent.
Walsh: Yeah, I know. It was a big mess. Can I tell you? I am, at my core, a Little Sister and you know, there’s a part of me that is antagonizing when it comes to bullies. And on the night that I won against Earnheart, I texted the Speaker and said, “Thanks for all your help, bud. Let’s do it again next year.” He weirdly didn’t respond. It was kind of disappointing.
UpriseRI: He never responds on Twitter.
Walsh: Yeah, but I wanted to ruin his night in real time.
UpriseRI: So now you’re in your second term. Pretty much like the first term, except now you’ve got a whole bunch of potential allies who came in. Six or seven people who come in and they’re like, “Hey, we’re with you. We’re going to vote against the Speaker.” People who maybe weren’t your allies before, like Representative Ray Hull are suddenly on your side. What was that like?
Walsh: That was a fun two years. Again, because everybody knew going into it that we were all going to be in big trouble. Nobody had any illusions about that. With the exception of two of the reform caucus members, everybody stuck to their guns. And it was liberating. It was really empowering to see Teresa Tanzi be able to get up and speak her mind on these bills and talk with such eloquence. It was inspiring to see Katie Kazarian stand up and demand the respect that she deserves after what happened to her in that building. It was a lot of women and our committees had been removed and our responsibilities had been taken. So we spent a lot of time doing what we wanted. June Speakman attended almost every single environment committee because that was her passion. Liana Cassar spent a lot of time in H.E.W. and Judiciary. We were able to keep track of bills in other committees and talk to each other about what bills we needed to stay together on to kill or we needed to stay together on to pass. It brought with it a level of comradery and loyalty and, again, power because it wasn’t just that there were 19 of us Democrats who were saying, this system sucks and I’m not playing like this anymore. It was that our constituents were behind us. I saw very few voters who were against the reform caucus.
UpriseRI: I really loved what you wrote on Facebook about your fellow women legislators. I thought it was really sweet.
Walsh: They made my life amazing. And there are people that are missing from that list because they did not. I’m gonna go ahead and say it because this is deeply offensive and she’s got a race coming up. Justine Caldwell is everything that’s wrong with Democrats. She took all the help that she could get in her election. She took help from the women’s caucus. She took help from the Democratic Party. She took help from everybody. And then after being a rep for 35 seconds, went into meetings and said, do you know who I am? You’re the person that was elected by the people to serve the people. She sold the reform caucus downriver for a piece of paper at CVS, written in English only, that says opioids are addictive. And it sets us back so far. It sets us back so far when people make compromises not for the movement, but for their own personal gain.
I find that the worst Democrats are the ones that are cajoling the rest of us for not doing enough. You know, the political operatives who have only ever worked for rich, white men, who then look down their noses at women Democrats and women of color and tell them that they’re not doing enough. You know, the people who sold their Democratic brethren down the river, the minute things got a little bit uncomfortable and spent every moment on mic extolling the virtues of the kind and magnanimous Speaker. They’re the ones who are going to look at us and say, “Oh, you know, progressives better get along.” As if it’s progressives that have made all of these problems. As if it’s progressives that have been running the state for the last 15, 20 years. No, it has been conservative Democrats. It has been people who are Democrats in name only.
It used to be that you would meet a Democrat and maybe there were one or two things about the national party platform that they didn’t agree with. At the State House, what does Mattiello agree with the national Democratic Party on? He’s anti-choice. He’s pro-gun. He’s anti poor people. He’s anti-women. In what way is he a Democrat? Words mean things. You don’t get to just say, “I’m a zebra.” And so it really bothers me when people who ought to know better say, “Oh, the progressives are in danger of becoming the do-nothing Republicans.” Well, no. Only if we sell our souls to the devil and compromise the way that you guys have.
UpriseRI: So your second term was much nicer, but then the second term ends with COVID or hasn’t even ended yet. I mean, theoretically, you’re still a legislator –
Walsh: I still can go back to work on the budget.
UpriseRI: Right. Are we really going to do the budget this year in November?
Walsh: There are no rules. Nick makes the rules up as he goes along. So if Nick decides that he does not want to vote on a budget, he will find some weird arcane rule, have his legal team twist it to mean what he wants it to, and then use that as the precedent for not doing a job.
UpriseRI: Right. So I’ve been thinking about the budget a lot. I’ve written a bit about it. They’re pushing the budget past the November election and saying, we’re going to deal with it after the November election when it becomes clearer what kind of federal aid package might come.
Walsh: What that means is when it becomes clearer whether or not Barbara Ann Fung takes the Speaker’s seat. That’s all that means.
UpriseRI: If he loses, that means he’s going to be a lame duck Speaker guiding the budget process, which sounds like a bad idea to me.
Walsh: Especially for somebody as petty and mean as he is. He may very well pull a Kenny Marshall and his last vote be a big middle finger to whatever community he is angry with.
UpriseRI: So that’s one thing. And then the second thing is, if he wins, there is no still no absolute guarantee that he will retain the Speakership. There could be big changes in January. And so I wrote a thing saying that we should push the budget off until January. Let’s let the new General Assembly take it up because what does it matter at this point?
Walsh: I think there’s pros and cons. If left to their own devices, [Senate President Dominick Ruggerio] and Nick will come up with a very austere budget is going to do some real damage to the poorest among us. I think that has been evidenced by even just the things they’ve said.
I will say, and I am among the minority of people here, I believe, I am glad that the Speaker and the Senate President sent us home for a couple of reasons. Number one, and I’m not saying this to be ageist in any way, but the average age of my colleagues is on the older side and they are in a demographic that is very vulnerable to infections. And whether or not I agree with all of my colleagues, I don’t want them to die. Number two, I think that trying to get an IT guy at the State House to explain to representatives how to participate in a zoom meeting – and now remember he’s going to be teaching them this remotely because you can’t see them because of coronavirus -I feel like there’s no world in which we pay our IT guys enough money to do that.
UpriseRI: On the other hand, we did spend like what $200,000 to put up plastic screens all over the State House.
Walsh: It was $160,000 and thank god that the coronavirus doesn’t know how to travel backwards. Because then we would’ve been really fucked.
UpriseRI: How was that session, by the way, going in?
Walsh: That was terrifying for me because [Representative Edie Ajello] was my seatmate. I love her like she is my own mother. I have a six-year-old at home who is germy, disgusting, and gross and my greatest fear was that I was going to hurt my favorite person. And even though we were all separated, I still had to walk back to my desk to vote. I still had to go and be six inches from her to press my button. It was really frightening. I didn’t want to be responsible for that. For getting her sick by legislating during a pandemic.
And then the final reason that I was glad that we did not legislate and that we left things to Governor Raimondo is because Governor Raimondo is a wise woman who knows what she does not know. And what did she do? Did she pretend that as you know, a former investment banker that she had the medical expertise? No. She put the medical experts in charge and as such, Rhode Island has been hailed as doing an impeccable job at handling this virus. Yes, we’ve had our issues—every state has. We have had our trials and errors. The school startup isn’t going great, but you know what, everybody is doing their best and they’re trying, and they’re listening to science and I do not believe with the history of Mr. Mattiello and the medical profession that he would have. And so I think that Rhode Island was a lot safer in Governor Raimondo’s hands. I think that she was able to accomplish a lot more without the constant nitpicking and negativity from Mattiello. And I think that she kept us safer than he would have even tried to.
And I think that’s evidenced by his immediate response in the aftermath, which is to cut funding to the vulnerable populations, to cut budgets, to create austerity measures, to stop tapping into the rainy day fund and start putting money back into the rainy day fund as it is not fucking pouring right now. His instincts are bad. And so I’m grateful that he relinquished responsibility because I do not think that he would have been a responsible leader in this. I think that this is perfect for him because he gets to sit at home and play Monday morning quarterback. He gets to not be in trouble for any of the things that are going on or responsible for any of the solutions. And he can do his very favorite thing: blame a Democratic woman for his shortcomings.
UpriseRI: You talked about the basement where the poker room is. Do you know if that’s true?
Walsh: So I’m going to be honest. All of the party room knowledge that I have is hearsay because obviously, Steve, I was never invited. You would think that I would have been down there every afternoon based on how much they fucking love me up there.
UpriseRI: Well, you’d get to see the dart board with your face on it.
Walsh: But in fact, no, I was never invited. I don’t know how to play poker for shit, so I probably wouldn’t have been much fun, but I wasn’t actually at the State House to play poker. I was there to help my constituents so I wasn’t like super butt hurt that I wasn’t invited. I’m sorry. I was super offended, I probably shouldn’t say butt hurt.
UpriseRI: I don’t think anybody would expect you to say offended over butt hurt.
Walsh: I know, I think that that would probably say, wow, that was really diplomatic, Moira.
UpriseRI: Is there any bit of you that’s disappointed that you’re not going to get to go there and work with some of the new people who’ve been elected?
Walsh: That does bum me out because Brianna Henries – I went to high school with. She actually reached out to me before she ran to ask if I thought that she could do it. And I’m a little biased. I personally think that Brianna could do anything. I’m a little bummed I’m not going to get to serve with her. Let’s see, who else? Jonathan Acosta. And I realized that he’s on the Senate side, but I say to him every time we’re together, whenever you’re done talking, you have me so fired up, I’m ready to light the fires of revolution and burn capitalism to the ground. That man is so inspiring and makes me feel like I’m already president like, forget that I could be. Meghan Kallman – I’ve known her for years. She’s an impeccable human and I’m so excited to see what she’s going to be like as a legislator. David Morales – I’m surprised he has knuckles left based on how many doors that kid knocked. Jose Batista from Providence External Review Authority who has always had the back of the community. Like I’m not gonna pretend that I’m not more than a little bummed out that there’s this whole group of progressive badasses that I’m not going to get to serve with for two years. But it’ll only be two years. I’ll be back in that building 2022, I promise.
UpriseRI: Nice. If you had a preference for the next governor, based on all the rumors you’re hearing, who do you think you’d like to see?
Walsh: Give me the rumors.
UpriseRI: I’m hearing Gorbea, Magaziner, Elorza, McKee. I mean, those are rumors. There could be others that haven’t even announced yet.
Walsh: I’m a little biased. I personally think that Secretary Gorbea can do no wrong. I think that she is like such a bad ass mother shut-your-mouth. She would be so good. The woman’s organizational skills alone – like the amount of waste and cost reduction that she has brought to the Secretary of State’s office, the matter of streamlining – the logs, the voter IDs, the cleaning of the roles – she has done so much in such a small box, right? Like the Secretary of State, there’s only so many things that you have the authority to change and she has made so many things so streamlined that I can only imagine what she would do statewide. I think that her administrations would probably be the leanest, most on budget. That’s what I see from her is that she’s very good at cutting away the crap and leaving the necessities behind. So I think that she would – and not to say that everybody other than Dan McKee wouldn’t make a great Governor other than Dan McKee. Mayor Elorza is a really, really wonderful man. He and I are friends and I think he is also an impeccable leader. Magaziner has also been a very kind and supportive individual. So it’s nothing against either of them. It’s more just that I think that Nellie is excellent at everything she puts her mind to. And I feel like she would be a really incredible step from Governor Raimondo.
And I’m also really psyched for Governor Raimondo that she gets to end her term on her successes and not other people’s failures. Because as I’ve said, people spend a lot of time blaming our Governor who has no authority in our state. And when she finally got the authority and ability to do the things that she needed to do – her approval rating is like 60% or something, the highest it’s ever been. So I think that really shows that if we had given her the opportunity by changing the rules and taking some power away from the Speaker seat that we could have had a much cooler state much sooner, but it’s not too late. We can get rid of Nick Mattiello pronto and start today.
UpriseRI: Do you think Raimondo is going to finish her governorship in two years or do you think a successful Biden Administration would ask her to come to Washington?
Walsh: That’s really cute. I don’t think that any president is ever going to intentionally pick a Rhode Islander to do anything. I know we’re one of 50 States and I know that everybody wants to believe that we’re in the same level of competition as everybody else, but we’re not. And I very sincerely doubt that, barring something really extraordinary or newsworthy, I think that people only vaguely know about Rhode Island. How often do you travel out of state? I can’t tell you how many times I have told Americans, United States citizens, that I am from Rhode Island. And they go, oh, Long Island?
UpriseRI: Yeah, exactly. They think we’re part of New York. I get that all the time.
Walsh: We’re a literal state. And maybe that’s cynical of me. Because I think that she would be a great stateswoman. Tim Cain has better options. I think she’s wonderful. I just think that Rhode Island is so small and Rhode Island is the only place that cares about Rhode Island.
UpriseRI: Last question: is there anything I should have asked or anything you wanted to talk about or anything you want to say that you didn’t get a chance to talk about?
Walsh: Not yet. If I think of anything, I’ll let you know. I would love to pick your brain about podcasting because I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to do this until it was suggested to me. And now it’s all I want.
Uprise RI: You think you could get a job on WPRO like Buddy Cianci?
Walsh: Well, that’s honestly what I would love. Katie Kazarian was the one who recommended it to me. She’s on my Facebook and she texted me, she goes, girl, why are you telling this stuff for free?
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