Freshmen majority leaders learn the ropes
K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-House District 23) and Michael McCaffrey (D-Senate District 29) certainly have a lot in common. They both received law degrees from Suffolk University, they’re both Warwick-born and bred and they’ve maintained a friendship for 30 years.
But perhaps the most unique quality Shekarchi and McCaffrey share this year is that they both helped lead the Democratic Party in the Rhode Island legislature for the first time in their legislative careers as majority leaders for the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively.
McCaffrey has been around the block longer, being elected to the Senate for the first time in 1994 while Shekarchi was elected to the House in 2010, but the duo are now on even footing as the second-in-command for the Democratic Party within the Rhode Island State House.
Their roles have always held significance – and both have been members of committees that target key areas of importance to them – but now they are in charge of the House and Senate agendas, and the chairs of those committees now report to them.
“It’s a brand new role. You have to be very accessible to your members at all times and you have to be accessible to different constituencies,” Shekarchi said. “I floor manage every single bill...So I have to learn a little bit about every piece of legislation. I have to learn mental health issues; I have to learn education issues; I have to learn about opiate use.”
“It [involves] a much more broad array of issues,” concurred McCaffrey.
McCaffrey and Shekarchi wagered that two of the bigger issues that will be coming up in the next couple of years will involve the possible legalization of recreational marijuana and the ongoing opioid crisis.
Shekarchi and McCaffrey now have to manage a good deal many more voices – each with a different agenda, matter of importance and relevancy to their constituents – and said they must rely on knowledgeable individuals, whether they’re lobbyists, employees of the governor’s office or individual voters, to help them make decisions and recommendations.
“You depend on lobbyists and your constituencies to get your information,” said McCaffrey, adding that it is sometimes more valuable to present a legislative hang-up to lobbyists representing both sides of an argument and have them work out a possible compromise before returning the issue to the debate floor.
“If you have any questions on a specific issue on a bill, oftentimes there are two lobbyists that you respect who aren’t going to give you misinformation and you can go to them and say, ‘This is the issue,’ and it’s better for them to work it out than for us to say ‘We’re going to do it this way,’” McCaffrey continued. “Most times they’re able to work it out in one way or another.”
There are 97 Democrats and just 16 Republicans in the Rhode Island State House. Despite this disparity, the Democratic leaders maintain that the significant disparity doesn’t lead to an exclusion of all opinions being heard on the debate floor.
“On a daily basis I talk with [Minority Leader Dennis] Algiere and I go over things with him that are coming up on the floor and if he has issues with it, sometimes we kick those issues over,” McCaffrey said. “Dennis is, since I’ve been up there, he’s been very open minded and receptive to things.”
“She’s a freshman leader as I am,” Shekarchi said of House Minority Leader, Patricia Morgan. “We’re learning together and we get along very well. We have very spirited floor debates but they’re just about the issues, they’re not about the personalities.”
Some political differences, however, are beyond even the compromising efforts of those who are just one step from the top of the leadership within the State House. The state remains without a new budget, as the House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggiero refuse to bend on a disagreement over an 11th hour amendment made by the Senate.
“Hopefully, at some point in time in the next couple of weeks, the two parties will be able to sit down in a room and talk about the issues and come up with a resolution to those issues,” said McCaffrey, adding that he hadn’t felt much pressure from impatient constituents hoping for a resolution.
McCaffrey also said to not lose sight of the fact that various pieces of legislation have successfully gone through and been approved, such as reinstating free bus passes for senior citizens, reforms to the state’s human trafficking laws and a bill requiring insurance providers to pay for non-opioid treatments, which was just signed by Governor Raimondo last Tuesday.
In other positive news, both Shekarchi and McCaffrey said that they felt that economic conditions in Warwick are showing positive signs for the future.
“I think if you just go around to the restaurants in the area, they seem to be saying that business is picking up, and that’s a sign that people have more expendable money and are spending it on themselves in that nature,” McCaffrey said. “I was at the beach this last weekend and the lots at Sandy Hill Cove Beach were filled early and the line was going down the street, so that’s an indication that people are opening their wallets and have more money to spend.”
After all, despite their more prominent roles and increased responsibilities, McCaffrey and Shekarchi are still representatives of Warwick, and Warwick remains their most important constituency.
“We’re still local legislators,” Shekarchi said. “We still introduce our own legislation. As a matter of fact we work cooperatively together. Some of Mike’s bills, I have the House version while he has the Senate version. All politics is local and you really try to represent your constituents and what matters to the people in Warwick."