By JOHN HOWELL Joe doesn't say no. Well, not at first. It's that way of doing things that earned Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi the trust of his colleagues within two days of the election to select him as the next speaker of the House. Within 48 hours of the
Joe doesn’t say no. Well, not at first.
It’s that way of doing things that earned Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi the trust of his colleagues within two days of the election to select him as the next speaker of the House.
Within 48 hours of the polls closing on Tuesday, Shekarchi not only put together the votes to win the powerful position, but also eliminated the possibility of a contest from progressive Democrats with the selection of Rep. Christopher Blazejewski of East Providence as House majority leader. He garnered 56 votes among the 65 House Democrats.
Rep. Liana Cassar of Barrington was Shekarchi’s only opposition. She was the only one to vote for herself.
The House Democratic caucus elected Blazejewski at an open meeting – which in itself reflects what Shekarchi will bring to the House – held at the Crowne Plaza grand ballroom. Since Democrats hold the majority in the House, Shekarchi’s endorsement by the caucus is tantamount to his election, which will take place when the House convenes the first Tuesday in January.
Shekarchi, 58, appeared to be the likely successor when current House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, in a contentious battle to retain his seat for Cranston House District 15, lost to Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the wife of term-limited Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. As early tallies showed Fenton-Fung on the path to a win, speculation swirled that Shekarchi was the heir apparent for the post.
When the dust of the election settled with the counting of the mail and early voting ballots that made almost 50 percent of the votes cast early Wednesday, the Shekarchi train was on the track. Representatives like Julie Casimiro of North Kingstown were declaring their support and affection for Shekarchi.
“I just love, love him,” Casimero told the news media.
The momentum built and Shekarchi was bombarded by calls with the news media looking for Shekarchi’s confirmation and how this might play out.
Shekarchi was ready. He issued a press release including the information that if selected by the caucus as speaker, he was backing Rep. Blazejewski for the second-in-command slot as House majority leader. Seemingly as easy as that, Shekarchi had united party factions and would assume leadership.
But over breakfast Thursday at Buttonwoods Fish and Chips, which Shekarchi frequents weekly, it was evident that not only had he been up a good part of the night before but his antenna were tuned to the political scene. His phone lit up frequently, yet he remained focused on the interview, a portion of which can be seen on the Warwick Beacon website. Shekarchi was also looking to gain insight on the local scene and the election of independent Frank Picozzi.
When it comes to politics, Shekarchi is always sniffing.
Shekarchi is no stranger to the mayor, City Council or city boards and commissions. He is the attorney of choice for developers because he is usually successful in gaining approval of their plans. A trademark to his success, apart from his network of connections, is that he doesn’t say no.
Whether the Carpionato Group is looking to convert a former Benny’s into a Dave’s Fresh Marketplace or developers are seeking to build a Dollar Tree at the intersection of Warwick and Atlantic avenues, Shekarchi starts with a neighborhood informational meeting. At this point there’s a rough plan and Shekarchi aims to inform neighbors to the proposed development and to hear concerns before they calcify into hardened objections. Shekarchi doesn’t reject neighborhood suggestions and requests, although they may not be possible and don’t happen. There’s dialogue and in the end both parties may not have gotten all they wanted, but they have been included in the process.
It’s a style that has earned Shekarchi trust.
The single interrupting applause to Shekarchi’s address to the caucus came when he said he doesn’t see the speaker as the most powerful position in government, but rather the House.
“I just want [the House] to be a member-driven chamber, I don’t have an agenda that we have to do with four or five things in all these bullet points,” he said as he dug into his egg, cheese and ham muffin.
Shekarchi refrains from using labels. Asked where he fits in the chamber, he bristles at the notion that members fit into categories such as progressives.
“I don’t look at people like that. Everybody comes in with ideas,” he said.
Shekarchi explained he wants to see what members propose and he looks at the effects and benefits of those suggestions as they relate to the issue. He has been a proponent of business and what that means for jobs. That isn’t expected to change moving forward.
“If you don’t have jobs, you can’t support the taxes, you can’t support the economy that pays for all social programs,” he said.
First, since he is not speaker until elected by the House, and second, because there is so much uncertainty over the budget, Shekarchi is not in a position to answer the fate of programs. He acknowledges he could be faced with increasing taxes, cuts in spending and layoffs, “so, it’s not a pleasant picture.”
Having served as her campaign manager in her first bid for public office as general treasurer, Shekarchi has a long-standing relationship with Gov. Gina Raimondo. He doesn’t see that as altering the dynamics between the House and the governor’s office, as he said Mattiello and Raimondo have worked well together.
“Despite all of what you hear, what you read, the governor and speaker enjoyed a good relationship. It was a good working relationship with a House.”
And what about the $1.1 million Shekarchi has amassed in his campaign war chest? He didn’t face an opponent this time around, so where does he spend it?
He supports the campaigns of fellow Democrats and the caucus. He said he built the fund with the expectation of running for mayor or going for a statewide office such as general treasurer at one time.
“Those opportunities never really came for me. And I never really had much of an interest as I stayed in the House. I grew to like it very much. And I enjoyed it. And I want to stay for a while,” he said.
He doesn’t have a master plan.
As he sees it, if one does a good job today opportunities will open up down the road.
Joe is not saying “no” to anything.