Contentious Confirmation: Carol O’Donnell’s RI Commerce Corporation Nomination Ignites Debate
Carol O’Donnell’s nomination to the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation stirred controversy. Criticisms from her past as a landlord, lobbyist, and fire district chair clashedI am with commendations for her industry expertise. Now, the Senate is poised to confirm her, but not without raising serious questions.
The Rhode Island Senate Committee on Commerce voted 5-1 on Tuesday to approve the nomination of Carol O’Donnell to the board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation for a term expiring in 2027. The nomination now goes on to the full Senate, where her confirmation is all but assured.
You can watch the hearing here:
“Carol’s 30 plus year career in the construction industry will be a great asset to the board. I am confident her work in this new role will continue to help make our state’s diverse and growing economy even stronger,” Governor McKee said in a statement made when he announced the nomination. O’Donnell is a businesswoman, landlord, lobbyist, and Bonnet Shores Fire District Chair.
An op-ed by Uprise RI’s Steve Ahlquist was published opposing O’Donnell’s nomination, based on three facts:
O’Donnell admitted, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in March 2022, that she may sometimes violate the recently passed law that prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income – in this case the use of public assistance money to pay rent. Under the law a landlord can evict tenants for reasons other than nonpayment, but they can’t use nonpayment as a pretext for eviction. Uprise RI wrote about that here: Video: Landlords sometimes illegally refuse lawful rent payments as a pretext to evict tenants
“[We evict] people that we don’t want their rent because they’ve become a burden on the building, a burden on their neighbors,” said O’Donnell during that House Judiciary Committee hearing. “They’ve become self-entitled. We don’t want their money, we don’t want the income. They could go to court to hide behind the lack of rent when we’re trying to get rid of them because we don’t want them.”
Carol O’Donnell, as President of the Bonnet Shores Fire District, resisted a lawsuit that sought to give residents the right to vote in fire district elections. Previous to the lawsuit, and still today, pending the approval of a new charter, enfranchisement was based on owning at least $400 of property.
In 1841 Rhode Island experienced a legitimate rebellion, the Dorr War, to establish the right to vote for people who did not own property. This is as close to settled law as we have in this state. The Bonnet Shores Fire District Charter dates to 1836.
Finally, the op-ed pointed out O’Donnell’s fiscal irresponsibility. As President, O’Donnell allowed the fire district to waste tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the disenfranchisement of hundreds of her neighbors – all in an effort to defend anti-democratic, anti-American policies.
Also problematic, and not mentioned in my original piece but brought up during the committee hearing by Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), was O’Donnell’s opposition to tenant rights bills.
“I am really concerned about the nominee’s views on landlord and tenant issues – and that’s really important because one of the things the Commerce Corporation needs to do is to vet a lot of housing projects [and] make sure to vet them on landlord and tenant issues,” said Senator Bell. “Some of the views [O’Donnell] expressed, saying it shouldn’t be illegal to ask tenants about immigration status [and] sticking to the view that it shouldn’t be illegal for a landlord to refuse to accept rent relief for back rent and standing by her opposition to that pretty uncontroversial legislation.
“I don’t think this landlord would apply adequate vetting to landlord and tenant issues,” concluded Senator Bell.
In defense of the first point made in the oped, O’Donnell claimed that the video was edited by Uprise RI to change the meaning of her words and place her in a bad light. However, O’Donnell was quoted accurately and the video was not doctored.
“With my testimony last year, it was cut and pasted by Uprise RI so my verbiage wasn’t exactly what my verbiage was,” said O’Donnell. “What I testified then was when they wanted to pass a law that you had to take Rent Relief money and what I said was I didn’t feel we should be forced to take rent if a tenant is not in good standing for behavior that disrupts a building.”
The video of O’Donnell’s comments do not corroborate her claims. Uprise RI did not “cut and paste” her words. The video was presented as is, along with the video of Eviction Defense Attorney Jordan Mickman pointing out that what O’Donnell was admitting to was both wrong and illegal. Here is the video, exactly as presented:
The fact that O’Donnell maintains that she does not evict tenants because of race or other forms of discrimination – even if true – is beside the point. There was no claim that she was motivated by racism. She was quoted accurately, and quoted a critique brought by a lawyer who was in the room when she said it.
As to O’Donnell being the Chair of the Bonnet Shores Fire District and her fiscally irresponsible defense of anti-democratic policies, her defense isn’t really a defense at all. Under questioning from Senator Bell, O’Donnell said that she was not in charge “when we were sued” and that she embraced the decision of the Judge who in his decision mandated that all residents who are registered voters have the right to vote.
Under questioning from Senator Bell, we learned that in her Advice and Consent Questionnaire, filled out before the committee hearing, O’Donnell maintained that she was not a party to any lawsuit, but as Chair of the Bonnet Shores Fire District, she most certainly was.
“I didn’t feel I was a party to [the lawsuit],” said O’Donnell. “I felt more that the position I was in in the fire district was a party to it because it was about the fire district, not me. So I didn’t feel I was being sued personally.”
Two people, both of whom own property in Bonnet Shores, testified in favor of O’Donnel’s nomination.
Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) said that O’Donnell was a constituent and call her a good landlord, lauding her volunteer work and her career as a business woman in the male-dominated construction industry.
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Lynch, in full uniform, testified as the President of the Bonnet Shores Beach Club.
Also speaking in favor of O’Donnell’s confirmation was Senator Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, Block Island, South Kingstown), the Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Senators Sosnowki, Roger Picard (Democrat, District 20, Woonsocket), Frank Lombardo (Democrat, District 25, Johnston), Victoria Gu (Democrat, District 38, Westerly, Charlestown) and Hanna Gallo (Democrat, District 27, Cranston) voted in favor of O’Donnell’s nomination. Senator Bell was the sole vote against.