Mr. Speaker: Joe Shekarchi named Speaker of the House

Rep. Joe Shekarchi is officially the new Speaker of the House in Rhode Island. The state’s House of Representatives met today for the first meeting of the new legislative session. Shekarchi became speaker-presumptive last fall, shortly after then-Speaker Nicholas Mattiello lost his race to Barbara Fenton-Fung in District 16. 

“The COVID crisis has dealt a crippling blow to our communities and our state,” said Shekarchi in his first speech to the assembly as Speaker, also promising that his approach in office would be different in a clear nod to his predecessor’s prickly personality. Shekrachi was a prime mover in getting the budget passed for the current fiscal year in the lame duck session. 

In the days leading up to the new session, he also came under fire for his background as an evictions lawyer and comments concerning the minimum wage and progressive members of the house.

Shekrachi was nominated by Rep. Mary Messier and seconded by Rep. Katherine Kazarian. Both spoke highly of Shekarchi’s willingness to listen to the representatives, stressing that he does not impose his viewpoints on others. “A vote for Joe Shekrachi today is an affirmation to our constituents that we are ready to get to work on their behalf.”

Mike Chippendale (District 40) on the Republican side nominated Minority Leader Blake Fillipi for Speaker, speaking favorably of Fillipi’s willingness to work across the aisle, as well as his passion for the U.S. Constitution and libertarian causes. Fillipi’s nomination was seconded by Brian Newberry, who promised if given the votes for House leadership and budget, the budget would look radically different under Fillipi leadership.

Final vote tally was 59 votes for Shekarchi, 9 for Fillipi, and four abstentions. Reps. Cassar, Morales, McGaw and Henries abstained from the House leadership vote. Cassar announced a run for Speaker originally when Mattiello held the position. The other three reps made a point of abstaining from the leadership vote. The Rhode Island Political Cooperative, rapidly becoming the state’s preeminent progressive politic organization, called last week for House representatives to abstain from today’s leadership vote. The Co-op in a statement said, “Joe Shekarchi represents nothing more than a continuation of the corruption we have seen under past Speakers.” The statement goes on to claim that Shekarchi has taken more than 300 donations from lobbyists. 

Notably absent was Barbara Fenton-Fung, not attending for reasons related to COVID-19. While her vote did not count in absentia, in a prepared statement from her read by the clerk, Fenton-Fung stated that had she been there, she would have voted for Shekarchi, officially breaking with her party. Also absent with messages read by the clerk were Grace Diaz (out with a serious bout of COVID-19) and Art Handy. Both stated they would have voted for Shekarchi.

Shekarchi appointed Rep. Arthur Corvese to chair the rules committee, with Reps. Michael O’Brien and Camille Vella-Wilkinson serving as vice chairs.  Other reps on the committee include Samuel Azzinaro, Julie Casimiro, Grace Diaz, Katherine Kazarian, Brian Kennedy, Alex Marszalkowski, Joe McNamara, Brian Newberry, Robert Phillips, David Place, Pat Serpa, Evan Shanley, Scott Slater and Anastasia Williams.

The next meeting of the Rhode Island House of Representatives will be on January 19.