PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly launched its 2021 legislative session on Tuesday with an opening day that included all the ritualistic speeches and leadership votes of years past as well as the indelible mark of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than meeting beneath the State House’s marble dome, the House convened across the street at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in order to socially distance. Members elected K. Joseph Shekarchi as the new House Speaker while wearing face masks and offering words of support for Representative Grace Diaz, a Providence Democrat who was unable to attend after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Senate met at Rhode Island College, re-electing Dominick J. Ruggerio as Senate President while sitting at safe distances in an auditorium usually occupied by undergrads.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo was unable to welcome legislators because she was still in quarantine after a close contact tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
“I know this is not what we are normally used to,” Ruggerio said as he stood on the stage at RIC. “But I think this is where we are going to be for awhile with the pandemic still surging and raging.”
Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, underscored how much has changed since the legislature held its last opening day.
“A year ago, we had a bustling economy. Unemployment was 3.4 percent. An incredible 508,000 Rhode Islanders were working. Businesses were thriving, and state revenues were strong,” he said.
But then COVID-19 struck.
“It wrought havoc on the economy, not just locally, but nationally and globally as well,” he said. “And it took a toll on public health and education.”
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said the pandemic dealt “a crippling blow” to the state.
“None of us has escaped its grip,” he said. “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 the state to confront its failings on those fronts, Shekarchi said.
“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,” he said. “We need to do better – much better.”
Shekarchi delivered his speech after House Democrats delivered him a convincing win in the contest for what many consider to be the most powerful position in state government. Shekarchi received 59 votes, while nine Republicans voted for House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican.
Four progressive Democrats abstained from the vote, including Representative Liana M. Cassar, the Barrington Democrat who abandoned her bid for House Speaker last week while vowing to “continue to fight for a House of Representatives that is transparent, inclusive and efficient.”
After Cassar’s withdrawal, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative had urged legislators to abstain from voting, saying, “Joe Shekarchi has proven himself time and time again to be firmly aligned with corporate interests and against the public good.” Besides Cassar, Representatives Brianna Henries, Michelle McGaw, and David Morales also abstained.
Three people were absent from the vote, including Diaz and Representative-elect Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the Cranston Republican who beat then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello in the November elections.
Fenton-Fung said she did not attend because her husband, outgoing Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday night. But if she had attended Tuesday’s session, the Republican said in a letter that she would have supported the Democratic Shekarchi for House Speaker “given his significant efforts to reach out across the aisle to me since the time of the election and his value of my viewpoints as we talked about how to get Rhode Island to a stronger place.”
Representative Arthur Handy, a Cranston Democrat, also was absent but sent a letter saying he would have backed Shekarchi.
In his speech, Shekarchi thanked Mattiello for his public service, saying, “I am confident that history will look kindly upon his legislative accomplishments.”
But he also vowed to create “a member-driven, inclusive House of Representatives” – indicating that it would be less top-down than during Mattiello’s tenure.
“My goal for this office is to facilitate collaboration and consensus in pursuit of the common good,” he said. “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.”
Shekarchi invoked words that John F. Kennedy uttered 60 years ago at the Massachusetts State House just before assuming the presidency, saying the ideals of courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication will guide him and other officials as they confront the challenges ahead.
In his speech, Ruggerio said, “The challenges before us are daunting.” And he was more specific than Shekarchi in outlining the Senate’s “ambitious goals” for this legislative session.
For example, he said the Senate plans to work toward creating a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing, establishing “a pathway” to a $15 minimum wage, passing the Equal Pay Act, reforming the state’s income tax structure, codifying the protections of the Affordable Care Act, plus “increasing utilization of renewable energy, improving resiliency, and reducing plastic waste.”
Also, Ruggerio said he has asked Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, and Health and Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, to develop a framework for legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.
“The elections are behind us,” Ruggerio said. “It is time for us to set about the hard work of governing.”
Ruggerio was re-elected as Senate president by a vote of 31 to 0, with 7 abstentions from Senators Jonathon Acosta, Kendra Anderson, Samuel W. Bell, Jeanine Calkin, Gayle L. Goldin, Tiara Mack, and Cynthia Mendes.
Goldin had challenged Ruggerio for Senate president but, like Cassar, she abandoned her challenge last week, saying, “It is now up to the Senate as a whole, and to Rhode Island voters, to hold leadership accountable to the promises they have made.”
Over the weekend, Rhode Island’s top-rated TV news station, NBC-affiliate WJAR-TV, declined to air an episode of its weekly public affairs show after host Gene Valicenti came under fire on social media for claiming that three incoming female lawmakers of color – Mack, Mendes, and Henries – were striking a “fierce pose” in a photo taken on the State House steps.
During Tuesday’s session, Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, noted that the 38-member Senate is now 50 percent women and more racially diverse than ever before.
“Diversity is our strength – diversity of experience, diversity of thought, diversity of cultures, diversity of understanding,” Euer said. “When used to bring us together, to learn and to listen to one another, diversity can help us overcome enormous challenges.
And, she said, “It is very clear that both the state and our country are facing enormous challenges right now.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Shekarchi announced that Raymond D. Simone, the longtime chief of staff to US Senator Jack Reed, will join him as House chief of staff later this month.
“He is a highly skilled, dedicated public servant who I have known for over 30 years,” Shekarchi said. “He’s got the experience and drive this job demands, and I’m thrilled he will lead my staff as we work to overcome COVID and deliver for the people of Rhode Island.”
Shekarchi also announced that Nicole McCarty has been promoted to chief legal counsel for the Office of Speaker. “Nicole has been my legal counsel for the past three years and has done an excellent job,” he said. “She is loyal, dedicated and works extremely hard on behalf of the people of Rhode Island.”