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RI state Senate leaders withstand challenge, outline progressive agenda

Democrats vote 24 to 7 to keep Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio over Senator Gayle L. Goldin

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, left, speaks to reporters after Friday's Democratic caucus along with Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, left, speaks to reporters after Friday's Democratic caucus along with Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffreyEdward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Legalizing marijuana. Taxing the wealthy. Boosting the minimum wage. Addressing climate change.

Those were among the priorities that Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey outlined on Friday as they fended off a leadership challenge from a pair of progressive women.

In Tuesday’s elections, Democrats held on to 33 of the state’s 38 Senate seats. And during a Democratic caucus at the Providence Marriott hotel on Friday night, Ruggerio and McCaffrey held onto their positions by votes of 24 to 7, with two abstentions.

Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, won’t be formally chosen as Senate President until the full Senate, including the five Republicans, vote in January.

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But in Friday’s vote, Democrats backed him for that top spot over Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat. And they voted to keep McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, as majority leader rather than Senator-elect Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who co-founded the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative.

“Let’s be frank, the 2021-'22 Rhode Island Senate will be a different chamber,” Senator Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, said in seconding Ruggerio’s nomination.

The Senate includes eight new members – a significant amount of fresh blood for a 38-member chamber, Pearson noted. “And surely, the membership will be more liberal, more diverse, younger, and...50 percent will now be female,” he said. “These are changing times for this chamber.”

But the new energy is needed, especially as the state grapples with the pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused, he said. And Ruggerio “welcomes all of these voices,” he said.

Goldin had challenged Ruggerio’s leadership, arguing that his opposition to abortion rights legislation and his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association put him at odds with the national Democratic Party platform.

But in nominating Ruggerio, Senator Cynthia Coyne, a Barrington Democrat, said Ruggerio supported her efforts to remove firearms from domestic abusers and to ban 3D-printed guns and “ghost guns”.

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“He has given support to each and every member of this chamber whether or not he personally agreed with you on the issue at hand,” Coyne said.

For example, she said that while Ruggerio voted against last year’s Reproductive Privacy Act, he made sure Senate attorneys were available to meet with legislators and advocates, making repeated revisions to secure passage.

“Despite the political cost to him personally, he approved the bill’s transfer to a different committee to ensure it would go to the floor where the full membership of the Senate could vote on it,” she said. “I don’t know how many of us would have done the same thing on such a high-stakes issue on which we disagreed. But that is what an effective leader does.”

In his acceptance speech, Ruggerio called for acting early in the 2021 legislative session on a “statutory pathway to a $15-an-hour living wage.” He said the Senate has boosted the minimum wage consistently over the years, but “now, we must insist on enactment of a clear pathway to $15."

Last year, Ruggerio said he would not support legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island.

But in his acceptance speech Friday, McCaffrey said, “The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use.”

He said Rhode Island can incorporate the best practices developed in other states that have legalized pot. And, he said, "Our policy of prohibition no longer makes sense with Massachusetts moving toward a robust legalization system. We can create jobs, capture lost tax revenue, and fund important social programs.”

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McCaffrey signaled a willingness to raise taxes on the rich as the state looks for ways to plug huge budget gaps.

“There is broad support to implement a more just tax system that will provide relief to Rhode Island’s working families while ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share,” he said.

Also, he said it’s time to address climate change.

“Let’s pass the Economic and Climate Resiliency Act,” McCaffrey said. “There is no greater threat to our coastal state than climate change.”

As a senator from Warwick, he said he understands the threat posed by rising sea levels. “The carbon fee and dividend legislation has been worked on extensively and improved over the past several years,” he said.

Goldin has also criticized Senate leaders for not making better use of technology to bring the Senate back into session to address the pandemic.

But Ruggerio said he is working on rules changes that would let Senate committees work remotely. “We are in the process of securing off-site accommodations in the spacious and well-ventilated (Rhode Island) Convention Center to enable us to meet regularly, and safely,” he said.

Although she lost her bid to become Senate president, Goldin said she was pleased when she emerged from the caucus.

“To me this is a huge victory,” she said. “Everything they talked about today were progressive issues that many of us have been talking about.”

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She claimed her campaign made Senate leaders focus on the need to bring progressive priorities to the forefront in the coming legislative session.

But, Goldin cautioned, “The proof is in the pudding. You can say a lot of things in that session and make a lot of promises. There is no guarantee that those bills will make it to the governor’s desk.”

The Senate caucus came one day after House Democrats held a caucus and threw their support behind Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi as the new House Speaker and Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski as the new House majority leader. The current House Speaker, Nicholas A. Mattiello, lost his Cranston district seat to Republican Barbara Ann-Fenton Fung in Tuesday’s elections.

During Friday night’s caucus, Ruggerio announced his leadership team, including Senator Maryellen Goodwin as majority whip and Senator Ana B. Quezada as deputy majority whip. He asked senators to support Senator Hanna Gallo as the next President Pro Tempore when the Senate reconvenes in January.

Also, Ruggerio named Coyne as the new chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, Pearson as chairman of the Finance Committee, Senator V. Susan Sosnowski as chairwoman of the Commerce Committee, Senator Dawn Euer as chairwoman of the Environment and Agriculture Committee, Senator Sandra Cano as chairwoman of the Education Committee, Senator Joshua Miller as chairman of the Health & Human Services Committee.

In addition, he named Senator Frank Lombardo III as chairman of the Housing & Municipal Government Committee, Senator Frank A. Ciccone III as chairman of the Labor Committee, Senator Walter S. Felag Jr. as chairman of the Special Legislation & Veterans Affairs Committee, and Senator Louis P. DiPalma as chairman of the Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee.

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