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ELECTIONS

General Assembly leaders face a new challenge: progressive women

Two state legislators are launching challenges to the more-conservative, but still Democratic, male establishment

The dome of the Rhode Island State House in Providence.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a nationwide surge in political activism and candidacies by a diverse array of people. Progressive women, in particular, have seen historic gains at all levels of government.

And now, as voters head to the polls in Rhode Island, two progressive female state legislators are launching challenges against the more-conservative Democratic men who lead Rhode Island’s General Assembly.

“If we are ever going to see women step forward to try to take the mantle of leadership, now would be the time,” said University of Virginia politics Professor Jennifer L. Lawless, a former Brown University professor who has written several books about women and politics.

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State Senator Gayle L. Goldin has taken aim at Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, while Representative Liana M. Cassar plans to seek the top spot in the House regardless of whether Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello prevails in Tuesday’s election in House District 15.

Their success will be determined not by wider political dynamics but by the narrow question of how many supporters they can line up among Rhode Island’s 75 representatives and 38 senators. And that figure is a moving target, with Election Day bound to change the current whip counts.

Cassar, a Barrington Democratic still in her first term, is not the only one eyeing the House Speaker position. House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi is well positioned to step in if Mattiello loses his seat. The Warwick Democrat has more than $1.1 million in his campaign account – a veritable pot of gold that can be used to boost fellow legislators facing tight races – and he would be expected to form a leadership team with Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, as majority leader.

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Another possible leadership team would include Representatives Gregg Amore, aDemocrat from East Providence, and Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat.

Mattiello was first elected speaker in 2014, and 19 legislators — many of them progressives — abstained from voting when he was re-elected as House Speaker in 2019. Cassar is presenting herself as the choice progressives may have wished they had that day, and is hoping their ranks will grow after this election.

If chosen by her fellow representatives, Cassar, who is biracial,would make history not only as the first female House speaker but as the first Black female speaker.

Rhode Island may be ready for a Black speaker or a female speaker, but not necessarily a progressive one. The state’s top Democratic legislative leaders have more-conservative views on key issues such as gun control and abortion. Both Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, and Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, are endorsed by the National Rifle Association, with “A” ratings from the NRA Political Victory Fund. Last year, both voted against an abortion rights bill while allowing the legislation to come to the floor for votes.

In most states, divisions over issues such as abortion and gun control fall along party lines, but the Republican Party holds such little power in Rhode Island that those divisions are seen among the progressive and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, Lawless said.

“Rhode Island is strange because it’s basically a two-party state within one party,” she said. “In very few places can you be an anti-choice, pro-NRA candidate and proudly carry the Democratic label.”

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Cassar said that when she arrived in the House two years ago, constituents implored her not to vote for Mattiello for Speaker, but she saw no other option and joined the group of 19 who abstained. She said many dissidents soon found themselves in legislative “Siberia,” with some denied meaningful committee assignments or offices.

Representative Liana M. Cassar, a Barrington DemocratCourtesy of Liana Cassar

So this year, Cassar said, she wanted to offer House members a choice in deciding who will hold what is widely considered the most powerful position in Rhode Island politics.

Cassar, who has a master’s degree in public health from Boston University and a master of business administration degree from Simmons College, is the owner of Cassar Consulting. Shesaid her experience would help in addressing the pandemic and in team building in the legislature.

“We need options for it to be a true election,” she said. “This is the most consequential vote we take.”

Cassar called for changing a House leadership style that “many have described as divisive and exclusionary.” In a letter to her colleagues, she wrote, “We, together, can model good government with inclusive decision-making, diplomatic communication, and transparency that upholds the ideals of ethics and democracy.”

In response, House spokesman Larry Berman said, “Speaker Mattiello is in constant communication with his House colleagues, and his support is very strong.”

House Speaker Nicholas A. MattielloHandout (custom credit)/Handout

Goldin, a Providence Democrat first elected to the Rhode Island Senate in 2012, said the State House rumor mill always focuses on which men have ambitions to assume legislative leadership positions, leaving women out of the equation.

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“Representative Cassar and I stepping forward is a way to actually change the conversation and put the focus on the fact that there are many incredible women leaders within the General Assembly who believe in a different style of leadership,” she said.

Goldin noted the 38-member Senate now contains 16 women, and the number could rise to 18 or so after Tuesday’s election.

“I think we are about to see a Senate chamber where pretty close to half of the members will be women – certainly the highest proportion of female senators in Rhode Island history,” she said. “In terms of the need for gender representation, that is part of what’s going on here.”

Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence DemocratCourtesy of Gayle L. Goldin

Goldin – who sponsored the Senate version of the bill aimed protecting abortion rights in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade – said Trump’s appointments to the US Supreme Court and federal courts will have a profound impact on reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, and voting rights for years to come, and state leaders will be on the front lines of those battles.

Also, Goldin said legislators have not had a sufficient chance to weigh in on legislative matters amid the pandemic, and she said it will be crucial to ensure that state doesn’t “balance the budget on the backs of our most disenfranchised Rhode Islanders.”

Goldin, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Tufts University and works as campaign adviser to Family Values @ Work, said the state is in the middle of a health and economic crisis. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our state,” she said. “We need the kind of leadership that values the talents and skills of all legislators.”

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In response to Goldin’s bid for leadership, Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, issued a statement, saying they have tried to lead in a way that reflects the priorities of all members of the Senate.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence DemocratCourtesy of Rhode Island Senate

“Our leadership team has worked to enact progressive issues, including the Equal Pay Act, Paid Sick Leave, Affordable Care Act protections, ending housing discrimination, and increasing the minimum wage,” they said. “We are grateful to our colleagues for their past support, and we are confident that we will once again earn their support for the next legislative session.”

While legislative leadership battles have traditionally played out behind the scenes, the campaigns by Cassar and Goldin have been highly visible.

Goldin’s bid has received support from groups such as the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative and the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee.

“In 2021, our General Assembly is set to be the most racially and gender diverse it has ever been,” the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee said in a statement. “Nevertheless, unless leadership in both chambers reflects that diversity, then these achievements will be in vain.”

In response to the Latino PAC, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said, “Improving the socio-economic status of all Rhode Islanders, particularly those impacted by systemic racism and injustice, has always been at the forefront of the Senate’s agenda.”

Under Ruggerio’s leadership, the Senate has fought to codify the Affordable Care Act, enact Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections to assist “Dreamers,” raise the minimum wage, prohibit housing discrimination, and overhaul the state’s criminal justice system, he said.

While Goldin and Cassar face uphill battles in their bids for leadership positions — Goldin has also been mentioned as a potential future candidate for RI secretary of state — they could set the stage for future success even if they come up short this year, Lawless said.

“Neither of them is jeopardizing their own political future by going for it,” said Lawless, who unsuccessfully challenged US Representative James R. Langevin in a 2006 Democratic primary while she was at Brown University. “I’m a big believer in not waiting your turn.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.