Representative Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) was, as expected, officially elected as Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives today. In accepting the position, Shekarchi invoked the words of of President John F Kennedy in an address he made at the Massachusetts State House before assuming the presidency in 1961. He thanked his fellow lawmakers, especially those, like Representatives Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence), Mary Messier (Democrat, District 62, Pawtucket) and Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence), who have supported him in his rise to power.
Shekarchi also spoke fondly of former Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) who was defeated in his re-election bid by Republican Barbara Ann Fenton Fung, who had to ski the days proceedings due to Covid. Still, Speaker Shekarchi was quick to differentiate himself from the previous Mattiello’s style of leadership.
“As you know, my goal for this office is to facilitate collaboration and consensus in pursuit of the common good.,” said Speaker Shekarchi. “My approach will be different, but it should never be confused with an unwillingness to make difficult, final decisions at the appropriate time… and make them stick. Let us pledge to listen to each other, and always treat each other with respect and kindness. I will continue to be anchored by the values instilled in me by my hardworking parents. I will also be guided by the values so eloquently addressed by President Kennedy sixty years ago: Courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.”
Speaker Shekarchi was opposed in his bid for Speaker by Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly), and also by members of his own party who wanted a better, more democratic process for electing leadership and determining the rules that govern the House. In the end Shekarchi received 59 votes, four House Democrats, Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence), Brianna Henries (Democrat, District 64, East Providence), David Morales (Democrat, District 7, Providence) and Michelle McGaw (Democrat, District 71, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton), abstained, and all eight Republicans present voted for Filippi. Representatives Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence), Arthur Handy (Democrat, District 18, Cranston) and Fenton Fung were absent.
This was a very different convening of a new House of Representatives from those in the past. Due to Covid, the House met at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, across the street from the State House. There, the Representatives could spread out more. All wore masks, however, two House Republicans, Representatives Justin Price (Republican, District 39, Richmond, Exeter, Hopkinton) and Robert Quattrocchi (Republican, District 41, Scituate), refused to wear masks, and watched the proceedings from a separate room, somewhere in the auditorium.
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Below is all the video from the first meeting of the Rhode Island House in 2021:
The Rhode Island Constitution specifies that a new General Assembly must be convened by the Representative (or Senator, in the case of the Senate) from Newport. This year that fell to Representative Marvin Abney (Democrat, District 73, Newport), who chairs the influential House Finance Committee, which builds the yearly budget for the state. Abney introduced Father Robert Marciano to deliver the deliver the invocation, and Representative Nathan Biah (Democrat, District 3, Providence) to lead in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The clerk read the names of all Representatives certified as having won their elections by the Rhode Island Secretary of State.
The clerk then read a gubernatorial proclamation from Governor Gina Raimondo that set the legal stage for meeting outside the State House. Normally, the general Assembly is only allowed to convene inside the State House, but under special circumstances, like Covid, that limitation can be relaxed.
Next came attendance. As noted above, Representatives Diaz, Fenton Fung and Handy were absent.
Representative Abney then took some time for some personal remarks, what he called a “small, fireside chat.” Abney began by acknowledging guests from “the executive branch, from the judicial branch, from the Senate, [and] from the religious branch.” He obviously misspoke, there is no religious branch in government.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea swore in the new representatives.
The next item was the election of the Speaker. Representative Messier nominated Representative Joseph Shekarchi.
Representative Kazarian seconded the nomination of Joe Shekarchi.
Many other Democrats in the chamber rose to second the nomination of Representative Joseph Shekarchi as Speaker.
Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester) rose to nominate Representative Blake Filippi as Speaker of the House.
Representative Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield) rose to second the nomination of Representative Filippi for Speaker of the House, but took some time to give unsolicited advice to those few House Democrats who were planning to abstain from voting for Shekarchi.Representative Newberry sang the praises of Representative Shekarchi, saying that if he (Newberry) were a Democrat, he would vote for Representative Shekarchi as Speaker.
Representative Newberry defended Representative Shekarchi from attacks he has suffered from the left when it was revealed that in his law practice, Representative Shekarchi profits from evicting people from their homes. “When we disagree, we’ll be respectful about it,” said Representative Newberry. “Nobody will be on the internet saying you’re a terrible person because you have a job.”
Representative Newberry then told a story about a couple he knows that moved from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to avoid paying higher taxes, a common conservative tactic to raise concerns about raising taxes on the rich, a key part of the progressive agenda.
Representative Newberry’s advice to what turned out to be four Democrats who abstained from the Speaker vote amounted to this: “When you abstain from the Speaker choice, you are really insulting the people who are put up there. If you can’t, in good conscience vote for other Joe or for Blake because you disagree with their politics, there’s nothing wrong with that… but to sit there and say, ‘Those two are unacceptable, but I’m not going to put myself forward or someone else I agree with…’ I think – Everybody’s human. I like to think I wouldn’t take it personally – maybe Joe won’t, maybe Blake won’t – but people are human. Think about that. If you don’t support them that’s fine. Vote for an alternative. Just don’t say no.”
Representative Cassar explained her abstention here.
Representative Henries explained her abstention here.
Other Republicans seconded the nomination of Representative Filippi.
The vote: Shekarchi 59 votes, Filippi eight votes, and four abstentions. Note that the official tally sent out by the House is wrong. Representative-elect Fenton Fung was absent, and the House rules do not allow for proxy voting. Representative-elect Fenton Fun sent a correspondence to the House declaring that had she been present, she would not have voted for fellow Republican Representative Blake Filippi, but for Democratic Representative Joseph Shekarchi.
Representative Shekarchi was sworn in as Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House.
Speaker Shekarchi delivered the following address:
Members of the House, Honored Guests, Family and Friends:
To my colleagues in the House, I offer a most sincere thank you for the faith and confidence that you have placed in me today. I pledge to work every day with all of you to ensure that we are a member-driven, inclusive House of Representatives.
I’d like to extend my deepest appreciation to Chairman Marvin Abney for doing an outstanding job as the presiding officer at this first session and to Representatives Mary Messier and Representative Katherine Kazarian for your kind words in placing my name into nomination – and I know Representative Grace Diaz is watching at home and wanted the opportunity to second my nomination as well.
I’d especially like to thank Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski for lending me great assistance throughout the transition process. Chris will be a terrific Majority Leader.
I’d also like to thank Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg for swearing me in and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea for administering the oath of office to all of us. I’m so pleased that Senate President Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey are here on this special day.
I would be remiss to not thank former Speaker Nicholas Mattiello for his many years of public service. I am confident that history will look kindly upon his legislative accomplishments.
Thank you all.
Sixty years ago, a short drive up the road from here, at the Massachusetts State House, President Kennedy gave farewell remarks to his home state just before assuming the presidency.
His remarks that day still serve and guide us as public servants. He challenged those of us who have been entrusted with public office to question ourselves in four fundamental ways:
First – the president asked – are we truly people of courage? Do we have the courage to withstand public pressure, as well as private greed?
Secondly, are we truly people of judgment? Can we perceive judgment of the future as well as the past – can we recognize our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others? Do we have enough wisdom to know that we don’t know everything, and do we have the humility to admit it?
Third, are we truly people of integrity – who never run away from the principles we believe or the people who believe in them? Are we people who will never divert from the sacred public trust … not for financial gain or political ambition?
And finally, are we truly people of dedication – with an honor devoted solely to the public good and never compromised for any individual or group, or private obligation?
Courage. Judgment. Integrity. Dedication.
These ideals have guided me as I’ve worked to honor the friendship and trust the constituents of my beloved city of Warwick have blessed me with over the years.
These same ideals will guide me as I honor the confidence you have placed in me, on behalf of your constituents, in this new office.
The desire to honor and serve my constituents has brought me here today, but the unconditional love and support of my family through the years has been my inspiration. I know my late Mother is watching over me with pride today while my Father, who is 94, is watching me at home.
My father came to America as an immigrant in the 1950’s. He became a successful surgeon and always went the extra mile to help others. I learned the power of kindness from the actions of my parents… and I also learned that kindness should never be mistaken for weakness.
The qualities instilled in me by my parents have led to an ethic of hard work, honesty and compassion that I will apply to the difficult tasks before us.
The COVID crisis has dealt a crippling blow to our communities and our state. None of us has escaped its grip. We must adapt to new realities and find new solutions in order to achieve what the Constitution of the United States requires of us all – establish Justice, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty.
The past year has forced us to confront our failings in this regard. As the economic tide went out, it exposed a society where in too many ways justice has not been established equally, the general welfare has not been promoted fairly and the blessings of liberty remain out of reach for far too many of our fellow Rhode Islanders, through absolutely no fault of their own.
We need to do better – much better. And while I am humbled by the confidence that you have put in me, I am extremely confident in all of you. I know that many of the solutions are already present in this room, in you.
So, in the coming months, to honor our oaths of office, we must all collaborate to prioritize some difficult challenges.
In the short term, we will work – every day – to ease the pain and lighten the burden of the pandemic, particularly for those communities who have borne the brunt of it.
We will listen to and support our first responders, our health care professionals and our teachers.
We will find new ways to support and protect our small businesses, lift up the unemployed, and creatively assist our families.
We will work with Governor Raimondo and the Senate to achieve the rapid and effective distribution of the vaccine.
And in the long term, we will roll up our sleeves, clear away the rubble of the pandemic, and build a new and better Rhode Island.
We will strive for a Rhode Island that provides a just, secure and prosperous future for everyone, regardless of our zip code, regardless of the color of our skin, and regardless of how long their family has proudly claimed the title of “American.”
This coming session, I am looking to all of you to continue our “Lively Experiment”. I am looking for your new ideas, new energy and new perspectives. As with all experiments, honest mistakes will be made. But I believe that a mistake can be a powerful teacher.
As you know, my goal for this office is to facilitate collaboration and consensus in pursuit of the common good. My approach will be different, but it should never be confused with an unwillingness to make difficult, final decisions at the appropriate time … and make them stick.
Let us pledge to listen to each other, and always treat each other with respect and kindness.
I will continue to be anchored by the values instilled in me by my hardworking parents. I will also be guided by the values so eloquently addressed by President Kennedy sixty years ago:
Courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.
I ask you to join me in committing to these things. To my colleagues in this chamber, I believe in you.
Today, we humbly begin our duty to solve the problems of our day. You have each earned the sacred trust of the voters in your districts. I await your unique perspectives and ideas.
Let us resolve, after an honest discourse, to come together to make our mark on this great state. I am certain that many of the answers are in this room – let us find them together.
I am honored to embark on this new journey with each and every one of you.
Thank you. God Bless you all.
The next order of business was the election of the Clerk of the House.
The clerk read correspondence from Representatives Diaz and Handy, and from representative-elect Fenton Fung.
The clerk announced Speaker Shekarchi’s appointments to the House Committee on Rules.
- Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) – Chair
- Representative William O’Brien (Democrat, District 54, North Providence) – Vice-Chair
- Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick) – Second Vice-Chair
- Representative Samuel Azzinaro (Democrat, District 37, Westerly)
- Representative Julie Casimiro (Democrat, District 31, North Kingstown, Exeter)
- Representative Grace Diaz
- Representative Katherine Kazarian
- Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy (Democrat, District 38, Westerly, Hopkinton)
- Representative Alex Marszalkowski (Democrat, District 52, Cumberland)
- Representative Joseph McNamara (Democrat, District 19, Warwick)
- Representative Brian Newberry
- Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket)
- Representative David Place (Republican, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester)
- Representative Patricia Serpa (Democrat, District 27, West Warwick)
- Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick)
- Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence)
- Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence)
Minority Leader Blake Filippi:
Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski addressed the House.
He noted that legislation needs to be introduced as soon as possible. New Representatives can go the Legislative Counsel and have their bills drafted. The Speaker’s desk will be open for the next two weeks for bills to be introduced. The next two weeks will be a busy time for the Rules committee, as they not only set the rules for the next two years, but the rules for organizing the House during covid – remote meeting, voting etc.
The next meeting of the full House will be on Tuesday, January 19. Time until then should be spent drafting and submitting bills.
“Once we get committees appointed and rules done,” said Majority Leader Blazejewski, “we’re going to have an extremely busy year with the committees and with this floor.”
Speaker Shekarchi adjourned the House: