Matter of the heart, not politics

Posted 3/23/23

A 100-year old constituent played a role in House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s decision not to use a “free pass” to run for the First Congressional District seat that is being …

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Matter of the heart, not politics


A 100-year old constituent played a role in House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s decision not to use a “free pass” to run for the First Congressional District seat that is being vacated by David Cicilline.

In an interview Monday, Shekarchi said he received an unexpected call from Ray Finelli who told him he was painting his portrait. Shekarchi was flattered and wanted to learn more.

“’I’m old you know,’” Shekarchi remembers Ray telling him, “’I’m taking my time … I’m not as fast as I was in my 90s.”

How did that play in Shekarchi’s decision to stay in a job that is often termed the most powerful in the state, but also a political dead end? Former House Speakers have gone on to be lobbyists and return to private lives, but none in recent history have been elected to higher office.

In reaching a decision, Shekarchi put together a check list weighing the possibility of winning what appears to be an inevitable Democratic primary and then a special election this fall for the job. Everything pointed to him being elected from the money to the political support and popular recognition, although he is not a resident of the district.

Then he took a look at what being a freshman congressman in the Republican controlled House would mean and how his life would change if he spent 12 to 14 days a month in Washington. He had a heart-to-heart talk with US Sen. Jack Reed who told him Washington has changed since he was elected in 1992. Reed described an environment that no longer exists, where Democrats and Republicans frequently worked together.

Shekarchi who is gregarious and thrives on meeting people and talking out issues, said Reed described today’s Washington as a place where “Republicans can’t be friends with you during the day.” He also heard that he could expect “to wait a couple of years to get a bill passed.”  Then there were the personal considerations: his 97-year old father, his law business … his friends. “I never want to leave Warwick.”

Shekarchi’s campaigns — he faced a primary and a general election last year — played a significant role in his decision not to run. Shekarchi walked the district every day with the exception of three. His colleagues questioned why he was spending so much time on races that he was sure of winning. Shekarchi wasn’t going to take his reelection as a given. Evident to those accompanying him, Shekarchi enjoyed engaging with constituents and hearing first-hand of their issues and concerns, even those who said they wouldn’t be voting for him.

Shekarchi met Finelli, who lives close by, when he made a campaign stop at his house.  As the two talked on his porch, Shekarchi asked if he could place a sign on his lawn. Finelli said he had no problem with that.

“I think he’s genuine and can be trusted,” Finelli said when asked why he so readily agreed to the sign.  As they talked, Finelli’s daughter Anne snapped a photo of Shekarchi.  Finelli, who ran portraiture classes at the Providence Art Club for 40 years before Covid shut everything down in 2020, revealed he would like to do a portrait. To illustrate his work, Anne showed Shekarchi and the woman walking with him a recently completed portrait.

“She screamed she thought it was so great,” Finelli recalls.

In a visit to Finelli’s home Monday, this reporter found a living room transformed into a studio.  Framed portraits of family members hang on the wall; an arm chair is positioned to catch the natural lighting. It is where a model would sit. Nearby is a table with sets of glasses, ready for refreshments for a class, explains Anne.

In his statement released Friday Shekarchi says,  “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. 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.”

On Monday, Shekarchi made a point of mentioning City Council President Steve McAllister attended his Washington fundraiser earlier in the month and recalling how McAllister pledged his support should he run for the House saying, “‘but please don’t run.”

When Cicilline announced he would step down in May to become president of the Rhode Island Foundation, a job paying $650,000, Shekarchi’s name was among more than a dozen Democrats to surface as possible candidates. Given his role as Speaker of the House and his $1.7 million campaign war chest that would require donor approval to be used in a run for Congress, he was seen as one of the top contenders for the job.  Shekarchi is not a resident of CD1, but that is not a requirement of being a candidate.

Asked at the time if he would run, Shekarchi said he was giving it serious consideration, adding he would be foolish not to consider it because it would be “a free pass.” Since there will be a special election to elect a new representative to complete Cicilline’s term, Shekarchi would not have needed to leave his current seat to run.

Shekarchi turned down the “free pass.” He based his decision on his heart.

In his statement he said, “At this time, however, I believe I can do more to help our state by continuing in my role as Speaker.  This decision is not a political one but a deeply personal decision, after discussions with my family, close friends and House colleagues.”

Finelli couldn’t say how long it will take him to complete Shekarchi’s portrait.

“You know I’m slower now,” he says with a tinge of frustration.

Shekarchi can wait. He isn’t angling to get to Washington.

Shekarchi, artist


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