If you were just looking to grab a doughboy and some clam cakes at Iggy’s on Thursday night, May 30, you likely got more than you bargained for, as a protest of a political fundraiser held by Warwick freshman Senator Mark McKenney drew over 200 firefighter union representatives and clogged Oakland Beach Avenue.
The impetus for the demonstration, which also brought a fire truck from the Providence firefighters’ union, was in response to statements McKenney made on the Senate floor over a month ago during a vote regarding a bill that would dictate whether or not firefighters get paid overtime similar to how other workers are owed overtime – a bill which has since been passed and signed by Governor Gina Raimondo.
“Our picket of Senator McKenney is because of his disparaging remarks he made about firefighter safety during the Senate hearing of Senate Bill S-747 on May 1, 2019,” said Joseph Andriole, President of the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters, in a Facebook post prior to the protest. “The Senator’s statement during the hearing was, ‘I’ve been told there is a safety issue, but I take a look at that and it seems to me that when overtime is paid the safety concern seems to disappear.’ That comment is not true, nor fair and it is disrespectful to the men and women who put their lives in jeopardy every time they respond to an emergency protecting the communities throughout this State.”
Reached on Monday, McKenney said that he felt as though there was a serious misunderstanding regarding his statements.
“I'm looking at this and perhaps I could have stated my point more clearly. But I went back and looked at the video myself and I simply didn’t disparage the firefighters. I disparaged their argument,” he said. “It was my view that it [the bill] wasn't needed and unfortunately they were not pleased with that. They also felt some of the remarks I made on the Senate floor were suggesting that firefighters don't care about their own safety. I didn’t say that. I never would. I think it’s ludicrous to suggest firefighters don’t care about their own safety.”
McKenney said that he enjoyed support from the firefighters during his bid for election this past November, but also insists he was doing what any good politician should do in that situation – voting based on what he felt was best for his constituents, and not based on who supported him or what they would want him to do.
“I didn’t consider the argument they were making on this bill to be strong,” he said. “My understanding is that a senator in America votes for what he think is right.”
McKenney said he was also disappointed in the reaction because, according to people he spoke to at the protest, many were looking for an apology regarding his statement. He said he had offered that apology to both the firefighter union’s head lobbyist, Paul Valletta, and Warwick Firefighters’ Union president Michael Carreiro in mid-May.
“Apparently the leadership didn't pass along to them that I apologized,” he said. “To have that not be known by the folks who were on the line picketing was just disappointing.”
Carreiro said that he recalls the conversation with McKenney, but that of the roughly 1,600 firefighters not everybody likely heard about the apology. He also denied that the protest was purely a retaliation for McKenney’s ‘no’ vote against the overtime bill.
“We've had other senators vote no and we don't go to their events,” he said. “It was not a retaliation.”
McKenney said he felt bad about causing any inconvenience to businesses like Iggy’s during the protest, and about the regular people just trying to enjoy a night out being caught up in the action. He said that he stood by his vote.
“I'm going to do what I think is right,” he said. “You can't please everyone and you can't vote the way that everyone wants you to vote.”
Carreiro said that he accepted McKenney’s apology and was looking to move forward.
“Our safety is always a priority and a concern to us,” he said. “Hopefully we can move past it and work up our relationship back and work together.”