The speaker in waiting


Considering how the personal is the political, the biggest change from Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to his anticipated successor, Joe Shekarchi, is the difference in their personalities.

During an interview at The Public’s Radio last week, Shekarchi signaled his intent to listen to a spectrum of views on such hot-button issues as guns, marijuana and higher taxes on the rich.

While Mattiello always talked about seeking a range of input, his top-down leadership style alienated a number of reps over time. Shekarchi, by contrast, is seen as a consensus-builder whose approach is more broadly based on active listening.

As far as explicit reform moves, the Warwick Democrat isn’t really going there (he appears most enthusiastic so far about extending the life of bills to years, from one, so they need not be reintroduced with such frequency. He also talks about distributing more authority to committee chairs.) Still, particularly given the reaction of some of representatives, the change in temperament expected under Shekarchi’s speakership is worth noting.

New boss same as the old boss?

As speaker, will Shekarchi stop the way in which legislative staffers, including patronage hires, are pressed into service as de facto campaign workers? That was my first question on Political Roundtable.

Shekarchi’s response: “Everybody will make their own decision. I can only speak for Joe Shekarchi. I can tell you that I’ve been involved in many campaigns, and I don’t have anybody from the Statehouse working on any of my campaigns. They never have. And I will also tell you that I have a great group of Warwick supporters who are friends of mine. They’re not connected to the state or the city, they’re – I just call them FOJs, Friends of Joe, and they help me. And I wouldn’t want them to left out of the loop. My campaign manager, a good friend, is a gentleman from Warwick named John Cooney. He’s been a family friend for 30 years and he’s run my campaigns. Those are the people that I will rely on and they’re not connected to the Statehouse in any way.”

Mixed budget news

The deadline for using federal CARES Act money is Dec. 30, so the clock is ticking for Rhode Island lawmakers to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

On the plus side, Joe Shekarchi said, the deficit is now estimated in the area of $300 million to $450 million, down significantly from the $900 million figure cited earlier this year. But the pall cast by COVID-19 has kept lawmakers away from the Statehouse for months. Now, in anticipation of Shekarchi’s formal election as speaker, efforts are underway to have a virtual legislative session.

In a statement, Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima (D-Cranston) said that House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham) and she will introduce a bill allowing the General Assembly to meet via video conference and asking the state Supreme Court for a ruling on the constitutionality of that. (At issue is whether legislators are required to “convene” at the Statehouse.)

Filippi, who has been calling for a resumption of legislative activity for many months, said,

it is essential that the General Assembly get back to work on behalf of our businesses and our citizens and give necessary oversight to Covid-related decisions affecting their lives.”

Division nation

The ongoing political divide in America is very much evident in Rhode Island, even with the overwhelming control of Democrats of the legislature.

Eleven inland communities from Burrillville to Hopkinton favored President Trump, while more populous coastward-leaning cities and towns from Woonsocket and Westerly (including vote-rich Providence, Pawtucket, East Providence, Cranston and Warwick) voted for Joe Biden.

A similar split can be seen in the vote on the state name change: Biden voters were far more likely to support dropping “Providence Plantations.”

Under the radar

One of the lesser-known stories of Rhode Island’s 2020 campaign is how Bob Lancia, the Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, had the best performance for a GOP opponent to Langevin over the last 10 years.

While even obscure and underfunded challengers can expect to get about 35 percent of the vote in a two-way race, 41.5 percent of voters preferred Lancia over Langevin. (The previous high percentage for a Langevin challenger over the last decade was 37.6 percent for Rhue Reis in 2014.) Langevin still scored a decisive win this year, with 58.2 percent of the vote.

While the fate of Rhode Island’s two congressional districts appears bleak, it’s worth remembering also that CD2 is more conservative than CD1 and that Langevin’s staff strongly objected to some changes during past redistricting.

Inside view on the pandemic

Dr. Laura Forman, chief of emergency medicine at Kent Hospital in Warwick, is one of the physicians who joined Gov. Gina Raimondo for her Thursday COVID-19 briefing.

Here’s part of what Foreman had to say: “I’ve worked in emergency medicine for over 20 years. And what I’ve seen here and experienced here in Rhode Island over the last eight months is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in my career in this country. It is much closer in fact to that which I’ve experienced working in refugee camps and battlefields across the world. Despite the vast health care resources in our state, this pandemic has pressed us to the brink. Our hospitals are rapidly filling up day after day as the numbers in Rhode Island climb even beyond those which we saw in the surge this spring. This is why we need to remain vigilant and do absolutely everything in our power to protect ourselves and others and to halt the spread of the virus.”


This column last week included a note on the outlook for Gov. Raimondo to join the Biden administration. She is still considered a dark horse for Treasury, a post that would be hard to resist. Barring that, a number of observers think it’s more likely that what the governor is saying is true: that she intends to stay in Rhode Island and finish her term. After all, Raimondo’s two children are still young, and there’s a pandemic to deal with, not to mention the vital issue of positioning Rhode Island for an economic rebound.

Thank you, Scott MacKay

Back in 2009, WRNI (now known as The Public’s Radio) was looking to staff up with a political reporter. Scott MacKay, who had taken a buyout at the Providence Journal, and yours truly (working then at the Providence Phoenix) each knew that the other was in the hunt, although we never discussed it when we ran into each other at Nick-a-Nee’s and other spots around town.

The radio station’s then-GM, Joe O’Connor, had a brainstorm: Scott would become the station’s political analyst, and I’d be the reporter. Eleven years later, Scott is hanging up his notepad after a long and impressive career in journalism, stretching from Burlington, Vermont, to the Rhode Island State House and the New Hampshire primary.

Fueled by an acute BS detector and an encyclopedic knowledge of politics near and far, Scott helped raise the profile of WRNI as it became RI Public Radio and The Public’s Radio. His Monday commentary was appointment listening for many.

I’ll miss Scott’s contributions to our airwaves, and I wish him the best with his retirement, as he cuts into stack of books on his reading list and his reproachful pile of New Yorkers.

As the ProJo turns

Poynter reports that about 500 people across the country have taken buyouts from Gannett, which owns the ProJo and a lot of other local newspapers. ProJo Editor Alan Rosenberg offered this tweet on his decision to take the offer:

“After nearly 43 years at @projo, I’ve decided to accept a buyout. The decision is bittersweet, but the timing is right for me. I’m so proud of everything The Journal has accomplished, and eager to see what comes next for them – and for me.”

Alan’s passion for journalism was always clear to me. I wish him the best in retirement.

Ian Donnis is the political reporter for The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit You can sign up for weekly email delivery of Ian’s column each Friday by following this link:


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