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Why R.I. House Speaker Shekarchi isn’t running for Congress

After having a “heartfelt” 90-minute discussion with Senator Jack Reed, Shekarchi concluded he could accomplish more at the State House than in Washington, D.C.

Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, in his State House office.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi sat down with US Senator Jack Reed at the International House of Pancakes in Warwick on Sunday, and for 90 minutes the top Rhode Island Democrats had a “heartfelt” discussion about whether Shekarchi should run for Congress.

Reed had just flown into nearby Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport, and Shekarchi, who considers Reed a friend and political mentor, wanted his advice.

Shekarchi was confident he could win the special election for the seat that US Representative David N. Cicilline is vacating on June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. After all, he had campaign cash, labor support, and a “free shot” at an open congressional seat.

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But Reed, the state’s senior senator who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, leveled with him about how hard it would be to achieve anything as a member of the House’s Democratic minority — as the 435th member of a 435-member legislative body rather than as top dog in a state legislature dominated by Democrats.

“He basically told me what I could expect in reality down there — as a member of the minority party not being able to get a hearing on a bill, not being able to get an amendment on a bill,” Shekarchi told the Globe.

Reed’s comments made him pause.

“I am proud of the work I’ve done in two years,” Shekarchi said. “I’m proud of passing three balanced budgets. I’m proud of cutting taxes. I’m proud of moving the needle on housing. I am a results-oriented person. I want to be judged on my results, what I’ve accomplished, and I don’t know if I’d be able to accomplish a lot in D.C.”

So on Wednesday night, Shekarchi sat down alone and wrote out a two-paragraph statement about why he will not run for Congress.

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“The outpouring of support I’ve received to run for Congress — from friends, family, neighbors, supporters, advocates, community leaders, elected officials, and well-wishers, both here in Rhode Island and beyond — has been humbling, overwhelming, and inspiring,” Shekarchi wrote. “It is an honor to know so many people have confidence that I could help get good things done in Washington just as we’ve done at the State House.”

“At this time, however, I believe I can do more to help our state by continuing in my role as speaker,” he wrote. “This decision is not a political one but a deeply personal decision, after discussions with my family, close friends, and House colleagues. I remain ever grateful for the opportunity to serve as speaker — a job I truly love. While I will not be a candidate for Congress this year, I look forward to continuing to work with partners in federal, state, and local government to bring people together and improve the lives of Rhode Islanders.”

In an interview, Shekarchi told the Globe he was “very close” to entering the race. In fact, he said he was thinking about announcing his candidacy on Monday — perhaps at his old high school, Mount St. Charles Academy, in Woonsocket.

“I’ve been involved in politics and government service all my life, and I’ve never been in a race where I saw victory so clearly,” Shekarchi said. “I felt like every political analysis, every box that I checked to look at this objectively, it was a very favorable situation.”

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For one thing, if he ran and lost, would remain House speaker. “It’s a free shot,” he said.

Also, Shekarchi said he stood a “very good chance” of receiving the Democratic State Committee endorsement. That’s an understatement. In Rhode Island, it’s the House speaker, and not the governor, that holds the most influence over Democratic Party endorsements.

Shekarchi noted that he has amassed more than $1.7 million in his state campaign account. And while he would have to convert that into contributions for a federal campaign, he displayed his fund-raising prowess last week with a Washington, D.C., event that he said netted another $15,000 to $20,000.

If he ran, he would have enjoyed high-level support. On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Shekarchi said US Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo, a former Rhode Island governor, encouraged him to run. But he said she also told him to “follow your heart” and that she’d support whatever decision he made.

Shekarchi cited several reasons for forgoing the congressional race.

For one thing, he said, “I really love the job I have.” And while House colleagues offered their support if he ran, they asked him to stay, he said.

Shekarchi, whose Warwick law office handles zoning and land use permitting, said he is reluctant to give up the law practice he has built over the past 30 years. “I didn’t really want to leave the people that work for me and my clients there,” he said. “And I wasn’t prepared to take a significant cut in pay.”

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Also, he said he wants to remain close to his 97-year-old father, and working in Washington, D.C., would make that difficult.

Shekarchi, 60, acknowledged he probably won’t get another shot at running for Congress. “I don’t see it ever happening for the rest of my tenure, whatever that length is,” he said. “I don’t see this opportunity coming again.”

But he has goals he wants to achieve at the State House.

For example, he said he wants to build on the 14-bill package that he unveiled earlier this month to address the state’s housing crisis, and he wants to pursue the idea of making Rhode Island a hub for biotech and life sciences.

While a Shekarchi campaign would have deterred many potential candidates, his decision to skip the race is bound to prompt others to now jump in.

Earlier this week, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos announced that she is running for the First Congressional District seat. A former Providence City Council president, she would be the first Afro-Latina and the first Democratic woman to represent Rhode Island in Congress.

Allen Waters, a perennial candidate who lost to Cicilline last year as a Republican, has said he now plans to run as a Democrat.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes, a former CVS executive who came within 3 percentage points of defeating Governor Daniel J. McKee in last year’s Democratic primary, is considering a run. On Friday, Foulkes said she plans to announce her decision about whether to run early next week.

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And the list of potential candidates includes presidential aide Gabe Amo, Senator Sandra Cano, Senator Meghan E. Kallman, Senator Dawn Euer, Representative Nathan Biah, former Senator Gayle L. Goldin, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, former Providence City Council member Nirva LaFortune, and former candidate for lieutenant governor Aaron Guckian.

But former state senator Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor last year and had been considering a bid for the First Congressional District seat, on Friday announced on TikTok that she will not be running.

Shekarchi said many people were waiting to see what he would do before deciding whether to enter the race, so he didn’t want to draw out his deliberations any longer. He declined to say which of the potential candidates he might support, but he said he’s committed to electing a Democrat to that seat.

“I think the Rhode Island Democratic Party will be well served by all of the candidates,” Shekarchi said. Some who have expressed interest have not announced their interest publicly yet, but, he said, “I think you will see them all emerge next week.”


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