WARWICK, R.I. — As he locked up support to become Rhode Island’s next House Speaker on Thursday, K. Joseph Shekarchi described his political philosophy as socially liberal and fiscally conservative — a mix of progressive and pro-business priorities.
“I like to consider myself a Paul Tsongas Democrat,” Shekarchi told the Globe in an interview, noting that when the late Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts ran for president in 1992, he headed Tsongas' Rhode Island campaign. “I consider myself a moderate on all issues.”
Shekarchi’s ascension to the powerful legislative role will mark a move to the left from the current House Speaker, Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and who voted against abortion rights legislation last year.
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, has had a “D” rating from the NRA, and last year he voted for the legislation aimed at protecting abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“We are different people,” Shekarchi said of himself and Mattiello. “I think the Speaker tends to be a little bit more conservative than me. I tend to be a little bit more moderate.”
But Shekarchi noted that he sponsored a small business tax cut and a tax credit bill that has helped to bring thousands of jobs to the state. “I consider myself pro-business, as well,” he said.
In Tuesday’s elections, Mattiello lost his House district to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. Shekarchi, who holds the No. 2 position as House majority leader, called a Democratic caucus at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick on Thursday night.
Democrats hold 65 of the 75 House seats. And at the caucus, 54 Democrats voted for the leadership team of Shekarchi as Speaker and Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, as majority leader. Shekarchi won’t become Speaker until January when the full House votes, including Republicans.
Representative Liana M. Cassar, a Barrington Democrat, was nominated and voted for herself by proxy, but she did not attend. Nine Democrats were absent, and Representative-elect David Morales, a Providence Democrat, abstained.
Earlier Thursday, Cassar issued a statement saying, “I will not be attending tonight’s in-person meeting due to the heightened concern for increasing COVID cases.”
Cassar questioned the urgency of Thursday’s meeting, noting the final vote for Speaker won’t take place until Jan. 5. “I remain a candidate for Speaker of the House and look forward to continuing meaningful conversations with my colleagues about how we together expect to organize our House leadership,” she said.
In an interview, Shekarchi contended that he was not rushing ahead with the House Democratic caucus. He said caucuses usually happen two or three days after an election, and he noted Senate Democrats plan to hold their caucus at 5 p.m. Friday at the Providence Marriott hotel.
Also, he said Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s office has already reached out to him to talk about how the state will fill a projected $900 million budget deficit caused by the pandemic, so he wants to secure support from House Democrats before entering into those discussions.
“I want to be back to work,” Shekarchi said. “My colleagues want to get back to work.”
Noting Thursday’s warm weather, he said he had hoped to hold Thursday’s caucus beneath a large tent outside the hotel, but he said the tent was damaged in a recent snowstorm. While the caucus was held inside, he said the meeting would comply with state health protocols that allow one person for every 100 square feet of space – meaning no more than 72 people.
Shekarchi said he has spoken with Cassar in the last few days. “I value her as a colleague,” he said. “I respect her professionally, and I consider her a friend.”
Earlier, Cassar told the Globe 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.
But Shekarchi said he advocated for giving Cassar, who has health care expertise, an assignment on the House Health, Education, and Welfare Committee.
And, he said, “There is no Siberia with Joe Shekarchi.”
Shekarchi is an affable legislator who has spent years forming relationships while dipping into his $1.17-million campaign account to support allies.
“I helped a lot of my colleagues this year,” he said. “I feel it’s my job as majority leader to protect my caucus, to support them. I supported my colleagues in earnest this cycle and expect to do the same next cycle.”
Shekarchi has long-standing relationships with many state leaders. For example, he managed Raimondo’s successful campaign for state treasurer, and he was co-chair of her gubernatorial transition team.
When asked about Shekarchi at a news conference Thursday, Raimondo described him as “hard working, honest, smart, really collaborative, and just a very solid citizen.”
Shekarchi returned the praise, noting that if Joe Biden prevails in the presidential election, there is a chance Raimondo could be asked to join the Biden administration.
“I hope the governor stays in Rhode Island, but I know she is being courted by Washington for a very big position,” he said. “I don’t think she will leave Rhode Island unless she gets something very substantial. If she decided to take a Cabinet-level position, she would be a rock star wherever she went.”
Shekarchi, 58, has represented House District 23 in Warwick since 2013. He was chairman of the House Labor Committee until being elected majority leader in November 2016.
A lifelong Warwick resident, Shekarchi would be the state’s second openly gay House Speaker, and he has a partner. He graduated from Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, and he earned undergraduate and law degrees from Suffolk University in Boston.
He is an attorney at the Shekarchi Law Office, which focuses on zoning and land use permitting, plus residential and commercial real estate closings.
Shekarchi said he is sensitive to the perception that there could be conflicts between his legal work and his role as House Speaker.
“I know that when you become Speaker, there is a lot of scrutiny on you,” he said. “Also, the time commitment. So I am going to have to dramatically cut down on my practice. But I am prepared to do that.”
Shekarchi is assuming the Speaker’s position at a time when the state faces difficult choices because of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the state economy and the state budget.
He said he is not sure yet how the state will close the projected $900 million budget deficit. But, he said, “Everything must be on the table – including the possibility of layoffs, of tax increases, of cuts in spending.”
Shekarchi said the state is hoping that the federal government will provide more pandemic relief funding, or at least provide more flexibility in how the state can use the money it has already received.
So can the state afford to continue phasing out the car tax – a top Mattiello priority – even if it means increasing state reimbursements to cities and towns?
Shekarchi said the car tax phaseout is a priority for him, as well. But, he said, “I am also a realist. I just got done telling you we may have to look at spending cuts, tax increases. So we may have to look at the car tax reduction – we may have to delay it. We simply don’t know.”
He said the House does plan to put bond proposals on the ballot in an upcoming special election. Raimondo has proposed $497 million in borrowing proposals, including $311 million for housing and infrastructure, $117 million for higher education, and $69 million for parks, recreation, and drinking water projects.
Shekarchi said he would like House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney, a Newport Democrat, to remain in that key budget-writing role. But he said he has not asked Abney yet, and no decisions have been made about future committee assignments. Likewise, no decisions about any changes in legislative staff will be made until January, he said.
Shekarchi said he was surprised by Mattiello’s defeat. But it’s clear he has been preparing for a moment such as this one for years.
“When you become No. 2 and you do all of the daily work that a majority leader does, it is natural and expected that someday you want to be the guy running the show,” Shekarchi said. “It’s just the nature of the business.”