By KEVIN MOCLAIR The battle between progressives and moderate Democrats that defined the 2020 Rhode Island Senate primary elections carried into the nomination process for majority leader and president at the Providence Marriott on Friday evening,
The battle between progressives and moderate Democrats that defined the 2020 Rhode Island Senate primary elections carried into the nomination process for majority leader and president at the Providence Marriott on Friday evening, although the outcome was clear from the start.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and President Dominick Ruggerio signaled a shift to the left, promising to reach out to progressives to try to unify the party.
The Senate Democratic Caucus once again nominated McCaffrey for Senate majority leader and Ruggerio for president of the Senate. Now that the Democratic Caucus has voted for Ruggerio, he will have to win the vote of the full Senate when it convenes on Jan. 5 before officially retaking the role of president. He is expected to be easily reelected in the heavily Democratic Senate. Though both senators won their nominations by comfortable margins, each getting 24 of the 31 votes cast, the increasing pressure from progressive Democrats was visible in the acceptance speeches.
McCaffrey issued a list of commitments towards traditionally progressive issues in his speech, including passing the Economic and Climate Resiliency Act, the legalization of cannabis, and “legislative initiatives that strive to bring socioeconomic justice.” He welcomed the eight newly elected members of the Senate, promising an open-door policy that would allow each of them to bring their policy priorities to fruition.
On the issue of marijuana legalization, McCaffrey promised that the Senate would begin working on legislation to legalize cannabis in the state of Rhode Island in January. The shift towards legalization comes as a reaction to neighboring states legalizing marijuana use. McCaffrey noted that Rhode Island is forced to deal with the social consequences of cannabis use from other states, but gets none of the revenue to be able to address and deal with those social consequences. The hope is that the Senate will be able to pass a bill that will allow Rhode Island to get new revenue from legal marijuana sales that will be able to go toward addressing the social issues already caused by illegal use.
Asked after the vote about how supportive he expected newly elected progressives to be of his agenda, McCaffrey reiterated his open-door policy. He pointed out how throughout the meeting, progressive candidates’ issues were both heard and incorporated into the process. Several rule and process changes offered up by progressives like Sen.-elect Tiara Mack were openly debated and ultimately accepted. The nomination process served as a first example of the balancing act that Rhode Island Senate leaders will be tasked with in the coming months and years.
The coronavirus pandemic will be approached as a dual crisis, according to McCaffrey, as both economic and public health needs will have to be addressed. The majority leader promised the government would play an important role going forward, saying “our constituents have not only charged us with navigating our state through a pandemic, they have charged us with fundamentally rebuilding it.”
Ruggerio struck a similar tone of moderate-progressive unity, demanding a clear path toward the enactment of a $15 minimum wage. He also raised concerns about increasing opioid deaths in the state and a lack of treatment for depressed youth, indicating a push for increased access to mental health services across the state.
Those policy battles will not occur in the Rhode Island State House as expected, as Ruggerio announced that the Convention Center would be used to convene the Senate instead. (That may prove problematic as with the surge in the virus, the state is delaying dismantling the field hospital at the center.) The cause for the move was ventilation, according to McCaffrey. The State House has very little ventilation, potentially exposing senators to undue risk. The Convention Center will allow senators to meet in an open and well-ventilated environment. Additional changes to the Senate Rules are also in process, and the hope is that committees will be able to meet remotely.
In spite of the attempts at outreach by the president and majority leader, dissent among the progressives remained strong. Nowhere was criticism of the sitting leadership stronger than with Sen.-elect Kendra Anderson of Warwick. Her speech in support of Gayle Goldin for Senate president included a scathing rebuke, as she said “current leadership supports the outdated ideals of a minority of Rhode Islanders with the support of the NRA’s agenda, marriage inequality, anti-immigrant rights, and disregard for climate injustice.”
Though Goldin was ultimately unsuccessful in her run, earning just seven votes, Anderson’s speech on her behalf stood out as a highlight of the night and a symbol of the battles within the Senate Democratic Caucus yet to come. Anderson called for an end to “the old way of doing business,” and her main push was for changes to the rules and processes of the Senate that would allow for more debate and issues to come to the floor. She also called for more transparency within government processes and that the will of the public be placed ahead of special interests.
Sen.-elect Jeanine Calkin, also from Warwick, was the progressive challenger for the majority leader position. She delivered her speech while fighting through tears, seemingly struck by the extraordinary nature of her nomination. Calkin lost a reelection bid in 2018 to Mark McKenney after just one term. In 2020, she successfully ran again and regained her seat to return to the Senate. Several senators congratulated her on her comeback, and she admitted that though she never expected to run for majority leader, “hearing the struggles of friends and neighbors made me think about how after being elected to the Senate I might be able to help them.”
Calkin was especially choked up as she listed the people she promised to help, including “those who face huge medical bills or avoid coming to the doctor because they can’t afford it” and “those young people who worry about what kind of planet they will be left with.” She promised legislation that would help shift Rhode Island toward renewable energy, and policies that would ensure people could go to the doctor without going bankrupt. Finally, Calkin concluded with a promise to overhaul the rules of the Senate to ensure that bills make it to the floor for a vote.
Ruggerio concluded the night by revealing his committee and leadership appointments, highlighted by the appointment of Sen. Maryellen Goodwin to the position of majority whip.