Rhode Island Island State Senate Democrats caucused at the Marriott Providence Hotel Friday evening and endorsed Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) as Senate President and elected Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) as Majority Leader for the 2021-2022 term. They have held these positions since 2017. Every Democratic Senator was either present or voted by proxy. [The original version of this story said that this was the first time such a Senate Caucus meeting was open to the media. This was incorrect. All caucuses held under the leadership of Senators Ruggerio and McCaffrey have been open.] Ruggerio was challenged by Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence), McCaffrey was challenged by Senator-elect Jeanine Calkin (Democrat, District 30, Warwick).
The final vote to endorse a Senate President was reported as 24 votes for Senator Ruggerio, seven votes for Senator Goldin and two abstentions. Senators-elect Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls) and Alana DiMario (Democrat, District 36, Narragansett) abstained. Senators Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) Bridget Valverde (District 35, North Kingstown, Narragansett) and Senators-elect Kendra Anderson (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston), Jeanine Calkin (Democrat, District 30, Warwick), Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence) and Cynthia Mendes (Democrat, District 18, East Providence) voted for Senator Goldin. The vote for President of the Senate will be taken by all members of the Chamber on the first day of the 2021-2022 session, right now scheduled for January 5, 2021.
The final vote for Majority Leader was reported as 24 votes for McCaffrey, seven votes for Calkin and two abstentions. Senator-elect DiMario and Senator Valverde abstained. Senators Bell and Goldin and Senators-elect Acosta, Anderson, Calkin, Mack and Mendes voted for Senator-elect Calkin.
Upon winning the vote, Ruggerio announced the following leadership team:
- Senator Hanna Gallo, President Pro Tempore
- Senator Maryellen Goodwin, Majority Whip
- Senator Ana Quezada, Deputy Majority Whip
- Senator Cynthia Coyne, Chairperson of the Judiciary Committee
- Senator Ryan Pearson, Chairperson of the Finance Committee
- Senator Susan Sosnowski, Chairperson of the Commerce Committee
- Senator Dawn Euer, Chairperson of the Environment & Agriculture Committee
- Senator Sandra Cano, Chairperson of the Education Committee
- Senator Joshua Miller, Chairperson of the Health & Human Services Committee
- Senator Frank Lombardo III, Chairperson of the Housing & Municipal Government Committee
- Senator Frank Ciccone III, Chairperson of the Labor Committee
- Senator Walter Felag Jr, Chairperson of the Special Legislation & Veterans Affairs Committee
- Senator Louis DiPalma, Chairperson of the Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee
Below is all the video, beginning with opening remarks and roll call:
There was an unexpected and lengthy debate about changes to the caucus rules. Though the discussion was a little wonky, at its core the rules discussion was about fair process and openness, and about limiting some of the power of the Senate President.
Senator Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence) nominated Senator McCaffrey to continue to serve as Senate Majority Leader. Senator Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket) seconded that nomination. Senator Goodwin will continue as Majority Whip in the Senate and Senator Cano will serve as the Chair of the Education Committee.
Senator Goldin nominated Senator-elect Calkin as Majority Leader, and Senator-elect Mendes seconded the nomination.
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“If elected, I would like to work on improving how the Senate works,” said Senator Calkin. “This includes rules reform and allowing bills that we’ve worked so hard on to have a chance to come to the floor for a vote. It includes creating an atmosphere of open communication, mutual respect and the sharing of ideas to make the Senate better.”
Senator-elect Calkin said she would work to raise the minimum wage, work on affordable health care legislation and environmental legislation that creates jobs and renewable energy.
Senator Roger Picard (Democrat, District 20, Woonsocket) called the roll. See above for the results.
In his acceptance speech, McCaffrey promised to once again pass the Equal Pay Act, invest in affordable housing, expand access to healthcare and codify the Affordable Care Act into state law. He also talked about revising the State’s tax system to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share, legalizing recreational Cannabis, and passing the Economic and Climate Resiliency Act, which includes a carbon fee. He also said he wants to continue to work on juvenile criminal justice reform.
Senator Cynthia Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington) nominated Senator Ruggerio to continue to serve as Senate President. Senator Ryan Pearson (Democrat, District 19, Cumberland) seconded the nomination. Senator Coyne is the new Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Pearson is the Chair of the Finance Committee.
Senator-elect Calkin nominated Senator Goldin as Senate President. Senator-elect Anderson seconded the nomination.
“We know that President Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court and federal benches will have a profound impact on how equality an justice are interpreted in our laws,” said Senator Goldin. “LGBTQ, civil and voting rights, gun safety, even access to health care- are all on the line. We can choose to potect those rights on a state level, or we can watch them be eroded.”
Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown) call the role. See above for results. Senator Euer is the new Chair of the Environment and Agriculture Committee.
Senate President Ruggerio said that the Senate is in the process of developing changes to the Senate rules that will allow Senate Committees to work and vote remotely “so we can pass a bold agenda early in the coming season.”
The Senate is working to secure accommodations at the “spacious and well-ventilated” convention center and that before convening in January, the Senate will b working “in the coming weeks” to pass a “fair state budget and place bond issues on the ballot.”
Ruggerio pushed back against the ongoing cuts to the distressed communities payouts imposed (perhaps illegally) by the Raimondo Administration, saying that the cities and towns need to receive this funding “without delay.”
Among the announced legislative priorities mentioned by Ruggerio were a path to $15 minimum wage and improved access mental health care.
Afterwards, Senators Ruggerio, Goodwin and McCaffrey took questions from the press.
Ruggerio said that with the Presidential election coming to a close, he’s hoping there is Federal stimulus money on the way and that the General Assembly can meet within the next two weeks to work on the budget. Everything being on the table for the next budget, Ruggerio suggested there may be a delay in the car tax phaseout, but that he fully supports it.
The advent of COVID-19 and the subsequent deficit has moved Ruggerio to rethink his position on the recreational use of cannabis, but he doesn’t want to look at it purely from a revenue point o view, there are social costs to legalization that must be addressed. McCaffrey suggested that Rhode Island might learn something from the way neighboring state like Massachusetts have revisited their efforts to legalize recreational cannabis.
Senator Goodwin said that even without the deficit, addressing he tax code and increasing the taxes on the rich is “good policy.”
The policy goals outlined by Senate leadership reflected the policies of the new, younger, recently elected progressive Senators. Senator McCaffrey said that much of this legislation has been vetted and discussed now for years, and that the time has come to begin implementing some of it. He said that his door is always open to his fellow Senators and noted the input accepted and received at the caucus meeting regarding changes to the rules as evidence that leadership is open to progressive ideas.
“Realize that the people that voted for me today, some of those people are progressives,” said Ruggerio. “We do get some progressive support.”
“$15 is not a lot of money,” admitted Ruggerio. “We’re looking to get to that point gradually, so that it’s fair to the businesses and everyone knows what’s coming. Ruggerio added that he’s hoping to convince the House to go along with that.