Half an hour after their orientation was due to begin, this year’s freshman class of Rhode Island legislators left the tables set with coffee and pastries in the House Lounge and filed into the chamber. With 12 new state representatives and four new senators seated behind the lecterns, the room was much quieter than usual, the surrounding hallways full of Christmas decorations but none of the usual throngs of lobbyists.
House Representative-elect Evan Shanley (District 24), who had been huddling with fellow Warwick legislators State Representative-elect Camille Vella-Wilkinson (District 21) and Senator-elect Jeanine Calkin (Senate District 30) in a corner of the lounge, was looking forward to learning about the day-to-day operations, the equipment on the House floor, and other resources available to legislators. With no specific legislation in mind, Shanley said he was eager to work on “anything to help our economy.”
Vella-Wilkinson recounted that she’d written her own legislation during her six years on the Warwick City Council and hoped to learn the correct procedure for introducing legislation in her new role. An objective, she said, is to work with the council on a home rule charter for Warwick.
As for Calkin, a former field organizer for Bernie Sanders, she’ll be focusing on “the areas of economic justice and fairness,” and on “making sure veterans’ services are protected under a Trump presidency.” She also hopes to address environmental issues and try to get paid sick leave “for the 41 percent of people who don’t have sick days.” Calkin said she will try to stay “connected to the community as much as possible,” setting up local meet-and-greets and keeping her attention on those who got her elected.
Hours after his opponent in the House race conceded the election, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello stepped up to the microphone on the House floor to welcome the freshman class of legislators.
“You’ve worked hard,” Mattiello, who won by a mere 85 votes, told the freshmen. “And believe me, I know what that’s like.”
Mattiello’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks returned often to the theme of conflict. “You’re never gonna please everybody,” he warned his audience. “This is not a popularity contest. We didn’t get elected to bake cookies; we are here to get things done, be impactful.”
Emphasizing the need for cooperation and respectful discussion and the importance of debate, Mattiello told his audience, “The only thing you get 100 percent agreement on are things that don’t matter so much to people.”
In a brief interview, Mattiello addressed the larger picture of the upcoming session. He said he already started on the first phase of eliminating the car tax, as promised during his campaign. While specifics are being worked out, Mattiello said he would look to increase the current exemption and provide municipalities state aid to offset what they would lose in tax revenues.
“There’s the challenge,” he said of the $215 million that would need to go to municipalities if the tax was completely eliminated. Mattiello is looking to do that over the next five years.
The speaker didn’t think the change in the national administration would affect his continued focus on the state’s economy and job creation.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who also addressed the incoming class of legislators, feels the state’s economy is showing strong signs of turning around. She said the state has made the “investments” in job training and other programs to take advantage of the growth. With a new administration in Washington, she thought there could be changes in policy that would impact federal grants.
“There could be a change to block grants, and that requires states to act differently,” she said.
Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed both urged their new colleagues to balance their professional and personal commitments carefully: “Keep your life in order,” Mattiello said. All Rhode Island’s legislators hold what Paiva Weed and Mattiello called “day jobs” (Representative Shanley, for example, is an attorney, while Representative Vella-Wilkinson owns a career coaching business). The speaker and the senate president reminded their audience to make sure these jobs did not fall by the wayside, while also remembering to “pay attention to the needs of your district,” as Mattiello put it.
Paiva Weed brought the freshmens’ attention back to their day-to-day responsibilities: “Attend those committee meetings,” “show up for sessions” and “take time to learn about an issue before you make a commitment.”
“Your word is your bond,” Mattiello reiterated. “Don’t give your word too freely. If you’re not sure that you’re committed to an issue, don’t give it…Talk to people, and once you’ve given your word, keep your word.” This piece of advice, he said, “has served me well in my law practice and in the service of this office.”
New House Majority Leader Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi (District 23) also highlighted the importance of balancing work and life commitments carefully. Cautioning the assembled freshmen that one legislator's good or bad behavior reflects on the entire Assembly, he struck a warmer note by giving the assembled freshmen his cell phone number and urging them to call him anytime.
Shekarchi had nothing but glowing words for his Warwick delegation, “the best delegation,” he said. He is "so looking forward to working with" Shanley and Vella-Wilkinson, praising them for "so much enthusiasm and energy." The good will for Warwick didn't stop at Shekarchi: the Assembly threw Senator-elect Calkin a surprise birthday party during the orientation program.
As for his current priorities as new House Majority leader, Shekarchi sticks by the speaker, whose "agenda is the same as mine," he says. His highest priority will be the car tax, which he hopes to phase out over the next several years.
Tuesday’s program, which ran until mid-afternoon, also included speeches by the House Minority Whip and the Senate Majority and Minority leaders. Members of the State House staff spoke, including the Director of House Communications and the Chief of Staff. The freshmen were briefed on the budget process and their benefits and given an overview of the computer system and a tour of the State House.
General Assembly members will be sworn in on January 3.