PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Senate Democrats on Thursday voted 32-0 to make Senator Ryan W. Pearson their new majority leader, backing a 34-year-old former Cumberland School Committee member who supports abortion rights.
Pearson, who has been Senate Finance Committee chairman the past two years, replaces Senator Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat who stepped down after 28 years in the Senate.
“I am excited to serve as the first millennial Senate majority leader where another generation begins to step up to the plate to lead our state,” Pearson said in prepared remarks.
Senate Democrats also voted to nominate Senator Dominick J. Ruggerio, a 73-year-old North Providence Democrat who opposes abortion rights, for another term as Senate president. The tally was 32-0, with Senator Samuel W. Bell, of Providence, abstaining.
Democrats held onto 33 of the 38 Senate seats in Tuesday’s elections, so their choice will prevail when the full membership votes for a Senate president in January.
Meanwhile, House Democrats met during a caucus in Warwick, voting 60-0 to give Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, of Providence, another term as House majority leader, and nominating Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi, of Warwick, for another term as House speaker. Three legislators abstained: Representative David Morales, of Providence; newly elected Enrique Sanchez, of Providence, and newly elected Jennifer Stewart, of Pawtucket.
Democrats now hold 65 of the 75 House seats, so their choice is bound to prevail when the full House reconvenes for the 2023 legislative session.
While the House caucus was open to the press, Senate Democrats met in a closed caucus at the Providence Marriott Downtown. When asked the reason for the closed doors, Ruggerio said the last caucus was not open. “I always felt that we had a closed caucus,” he said.
But actually, Senate Democrats met in an open caucus at the same hotel in November 2020, voting to put Ruggerio and McCaffrey in the top leadership spots.
When reminded of that meeting, Ruggerio said, “Well, some people get a little bit dramatic, let’s put it that way.” In a closed caucus, legislators “can get up and say what they want, they don’t have to worry about the press,” he said. “I prefer that.”
Before the meeting, Bell spoke out against closing the caucus to the press. “I think it’s an unfortunate sign of backsliding on process and open government, and I hope it is not indicative of how this session is going to go,” he told the Globe. “I think it’s disappointing.”
Bell, who has been critical of Ruggerio in the past, explained why he would not vote for Ruggerio at the caucus. “I can’t vote for him due to his deplorable record of personal misconduct and his ideology being widely out of step with the state and the Senate chamber and wildly unnecessarily personal way of running the Senate,” he said.
Earlier this year, Pearson, a bank vice president, had given serious consideration to running for state treasurer but decided against it.
Unlike McCaffrey and Ruggerio, Pearson supports abortion rights, and he voted for the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, which aimed to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (which it did in June).
This year, Governor Daniel J. McKee, a Democrat, has said he will include funding in the state budget for the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.
Pearson said he backs that proposal and would like to see that bill come to floor vote in the Senate this year. “We look forward to taking that issue on in this upcoming session,” he said.
When asked about the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, Ruggerio said, “I want to see what form it comes in. I don’t know if it is going to come in the budget or as a standing bill. I don’t want to take a position on something I haven’t seen at this point in time.”
On Tuesday, Massachusetts voters narrowly approved a “millionaires tax” that will amend that state’s constitution by adding 4 percentage points to the state’s 5-percent income tax, for annual earnings over $1 million, to bring more funds to the budget for transportation and education.
Ruggerio has come out against raising the income tax rate for the richest Rhode Islanders, saying he fears they would move elsewhere.
“I want those people who are getting whacked in Massachusetts to come and move here. That’s what I would like,” he said. “They are the job producers.”
Ruggerio said he is against raising taxes for people at all income levels right now. “I don’t think there is a need,” he said. “We still have federal money. We still have money we can use. The last resort is to raise taxes.”
Pearson, who has been a state senator since 2013 and previously served on the Cumberland School Committee, said education must be at the top of the Senate’s agenda. “We owe it to our kids to give them every opportunity,” he said, “and we also know it is the number one reason companies will choose to locate in one state versus another.”
The task ahead was daunting before the pandemic, he said. “But it is even harder today as our students and educators face significant learning loss, a mental and behavioral health crisis, and limited resources to meet the challenge,” he said.
Pearson called for making “overdue updates” to the state’s education funding formula, which has not been revamped in more than a decade.
“Equity was the cornerstone of that formula, and while we have seen tremendous improvements in school funding due to it, it is beyond due for an update to account for the situations in our schools today,” he said. “This has been and remains a priority for the members of this chamber.”
Ruggerio said he plans to announce additional leadership appointments in January.
In Warwick, House Democrats cast one vote for the Shekarchi-Blazejewski leadership team. No other candidates challenged their ticket at the caucus.
“Two years ago, we both pledged to be a member-driven body,” Shekarchi said. “I think our significant record over the last two years shows we achieved just that.”
Among other things, the House “passed tax relief for working families, seniors, veterans, and small businesses,” “landmark legislation addressing climate change,” and “a comprehensive package of affordable housing legislation,” he said.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.