The Rhode Island House Democratic Caucus elected Representative Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) as Speaker-elect on Thursday evening. 53 members voted for Shekarchi. Representative Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence) who announced her interest in the job weeks ago, voted for herself by proxy, and Representative-elect David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence) abstained. The choice of a new Speaker became necessary when Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) was defeated in his bid for re-election on Tuesday. The caucus meeting was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick and everyone wore masks and mostly social distanced.
Representative Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence) was elected House Majority Leader at the meeting.
“I’m humbled by my colleagues that have shown me their support and the trust to lead a very very important body in state government. As I said, it’s a very diverse group of people and I’m proud to represent them,” said Shekarchi.
Outside the hotel a small group of people opposed to Shekarchi’s becoming Speaker gathered by the entrance to the hotel property on Greenwich Avenue. They cried “Shame!” as representatives who supported Shekarchi left the meeting.
Kate Pezzullo and Joanne Pezzullo from Keep Metacomet Green also were there to protest Shekarchi’s Speakership because of his involvement in developing the Metacomet Golf Course on behalf of Marshall Properties in East Providence. “And many other developments too,” including a new gas station on Newport Avenue.
Asked about this kind of work after the vote, Shekarchi said that he will have to “dramatically” scale back the legal work he does around real estate and development projects. “I’m going to have to because of the time commitment, but I’m also sensitive that when you hold this office, you have a lot of scrutiny… So yes, I have to dramatically cut down my work. I still have to make a living, and feed myself and make some money, but I’m going to be very selective on what, when, how, I do that.”
After the vote, Shekarchi and Blazejewski answered questions from the press.
Asked what specific reforms to House procedures and rules he committed to in securing his new position, Speaker-elect Shekarchi said, “There are no specifics. I’ve been speaking with colleagues, it’s been a whirlwind 48 hours. One thing – I was talking to [Representative Gregg Amore (Democrat, District 65, East Providence)] yesterday, [and] he made a lot of good suggestions. One of them being when we introduce a bill, the bill stays alive for two years, instead of having the bill die and having to be reintroduced again. That was just one of many. I’ll be meeting with all my members over the next couple of weeks…
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“I think there’s a commitment to be heard and implement stuff. I like to streamline stuff. I’d like to see what we could do with marriage bills , see what we could do with some of corporate charter bills – just make the system move faster so we can concentrate on more substantive matters.” Shekarchi added that he absolutely did not make any promises to Representatives Amore or Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown) to get their support.
“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.”
“We’re just different people,” said Shekarchi, explaining how his Speakership would differ from his predecessor’s. “I consider myself a little bit more of a moderate than the [former] Speaker so I look at things through that kind of a lens. But if it’s a good policy, I don’t care who it comes from. The Republicans, the progressives, the conservatives – I’m willing to support it and move it to the House floor. If it’s bad policy, again, I don’t care who it comes from – that’s something that may be held for further study.”
Shekarchi spoke about the process of developing the paid time off bill with former Representative Aaron Regunberg as an example of working with progressives on legislation legislation. After 17 meetings with stakeholders, what was passed “wasn’t a progressive bill. It wasn’t a pro business bill. It was a good bill for all of the people of Rhode Island.”
As for replacing Speaker Mattiello now, so there’s not a “lame-duck” Speaker in charge of the budget this session, Shekarchi demurred. “It’s something that I have not discussed in any great detail with [Mattiello]. I think it depends on when we come back [and] what we come back for. One of the reasons I wanted to have this meeting is because Governor Raimondo’s Chief of Staff [Brett Smiley] wanted a meeting, and I felt very uncomfortable going to represent the House until this caucus was done.”
Shekarchi said that he voted for Mattiello signature legislation such as the car tax phase-out and truck tolls, and he wants to keep all of them. “But I’m not prepared to commit to anything because we have a $900 million deficit. And literally everything is on the table. Whether it might be unfortunately some kind of a tax increase, or some kind of layoffs, or possibly even some kind of a reduction in spending. I can’t make a commitment. Many different organizations have asked me: Don’t cut the social services budget, don’t raise taxes, don’t do layoffs. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a $900 million deficit that has to be made up somewhere.”
“I’m not in favor or against anything,” said Shekarchi. “Nobody wants to raise taxes. Nobody wants to do layoffs. Everything’s on the table.”
As for recreational cannabis as a revenue generator, Shekarchi is open to the idea, but does not have a position on it.
Shekarchi wants to make sure that Rhode Islanders are getting value for what they spend. “I want to make sure that we’re not jut closing our eyes and throwing money at a problem. I want to make sure the money accomplishes what we want which is change or improvement.”
As for potential changes to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) which is the subject of a Republican lawsuit because of the way it’s been run, Shekarchi shared that he met with the Republican Caucus on Wednesday and “I did not promise them anything and I asked for their support and asked that thy consider dropping their lawsuit in the spirit of cooperation. I told them that regardless of whether they support me or not, or they abstain, or they nominate Leader [Blake] Filippi, I am committed to having regular meetings of JCLS.”
“My one commitment to the Republican Caucus was a commitment to communicate,” added Shekarchi.
The Speaker-elect says opening the House online and allowing for online voting is possible and probable, as long as we can find a system that’s “safe and secure.”
Here’s the opening of the caucus meeting, which was run by Representative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence). Representative Craven nominated Shekarchi and Blazejewski. The nomination was seconded by Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence).
The vote was done by role call:
“I want to say that I have spoken to Representative Liana Cassar twice. I spoke with her yesterday, I spoke with her Sunday. We’re going to meet next week. I welcome her input… I welcome Liana’s support and I agree to work with her, as it is with all of you…”
Representative Blazejewski acceptance speech: