PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island House of Representatives opened its 2021 session Tuesday with the election of new leadership. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) was overwhelmingly voted in as the new Speaker of the House, gaining the unanimous support of local representatives.
Shekarchi was sworn into the role by Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg and afterwards thanked his family and fellow members of the House for their support.
“Courage, judgment, integrity, dedication,” said Shekarchi. “These ideals have guided me as I’ve worked to honor the friendship and trust the constituents of my beloved city of Warwick have blessed me with over the years. These same ideals will guide me as I honor the confidence that you have placed in me on behalf of your constituents in this new office.”
Fifty-nine votes were cast for Shekarchi, including those of local representatives Justine Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich and West Warwick), Julie Casimiro (D-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter), Robert Craven (D-Dist.32, North Kingstown), Kathleen Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown), Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown and Narragansett) and Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown and Narragansett). House minority leader Blake Filippi (R-Dist. 36, Block Island, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown) received nine votes. There were four abstentions from the proceedings.
Shekarchi, a member of the House since 2012, operates a law firm based in Warwick. He was chairman of the House Labor Committee until being elected by fellow members as the House majority leader in 2016.
In a statement, Hagan McEntee voiced her support for the new speaker.
“I have known Joe since the late 1980s in Warwick,” she said. “He has proven himself to be a friend and an honest, hard-working colleague since I arrived in the House in 2015. He is a good listener and knowledgeable about the legislative process. He has been sincere and honest as a majority leader and he has always worked to build a consensus between members.”
“I believe that under his leadership the House will be member driven, meaning the members will have more say on what legislation gets passed,” Hagan McEntee continued. “I feel that I will have more opportunity to serve my constituents from Narragansett & South Kingstown with Joe as Speaker.”
Former House speaker Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston lost his re-election bid for District 15 in November to Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. In his remarks to the House, Shekarchi thanked Mattiello.
“I would be remiss not to thank former speaker Nicholas Mattiello for his many years of public service,” he said. “I am confident that history will look kindly upon his legislative accomplishments.”
Shekarchi will serve a two-year term and will need to be re-elected to the position in 2022.
In his address to fellow House members, who sat socially distanced in Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium in Providence, Shekarchi spoke to the pandemic that is currently taking its toll throughout the state.
“The COVID crisis has dealt a crippling blow to our communities and our state,” he said. “None of us have escaped its grip. We must adapt to new realities and find new solutions in order to achieve what the Constitution of the United States requires of all of us – to establish justice, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty. This past year has forced us to confront our failings in this regard. As the economic tide went out, it exposed a society where, in too many ways, justice has not been established equally, the general welfare has not been promoted fairly and the blessings of liberty remain out of reach for far too many of our fellow Rhode Islanders through absolutely no fault of their own. We need to do better.”
The new speaker continued that the R.I. House of Representatives would provide relief to small businesses and families while working with Governor Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Senate to achieve “rapid and effective” distribution of vaccines.
“In the long term, we will roll up our sleeves, clear away the rubble of the pandemic and build a new and better Rhode Island,” he added.
Shekarchi concluded by championing fellow House members and marking the journey forward.
“As you know, my goal for this office is to facilitate collaboration and consensus in pursuit of the common good,” he said. “My approach will be different…To my colleagues in the chamber, I believe in you. Today we humbly begin our duty to solve the problems of our day.”
As for the 2021 session and the work to be done in it, Hagan McEntee targeted the pandemic and the role of vaccines.
“We have had a year of disease-driven heartache that has affected everyone whether it was through personal tragedy or dire economic conditions,” she said. “No Rhode Islander has been untouched by COVID-19 and its devastating impact. First and foremost, we need to get this disease under control. With the promise of the vaccine, I am hopeful that most Rhode Islanders will be vaccinated by the summer. As a member of the House of Representatives I feel we have an obligation to help get people through this trying time by making sure that we have the testing, vaccines and financial resources to help Rhode Islanders survive.”
“We need to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Hagan McEntee added, noting that at least 75 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated in order for effectiveness. “I urge all Rhode Islanders to get the vaccine when it’s offered to you… I look forward to the input of the business community to help me to address their needs and make RI more business friendly.”
Outside of the pandemic, Hagan McEntee said her top priorities were addressing public funds for charter schools, a plastic bag ban, renewable energy and overall reduction of carbon footprint and racial inequality.
“I look forward to a difficult but productive 2021 session at the General Assembly,” she concluded. “I thank the people of Narragansett and South Kingstown for the privilege of serving them for another term in the House of Representatives. I ask the people of RI to stay safe and have HOPE for a better tomorrow. I urge my constituents to reach out to me with their issues and concerns. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.”