Talking Politics

Good vibes and good times for the leaders of the House

By Ian Donnis
Posted 5/15/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: Rhode Island House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski has a bit more gray hair these days, but his status as the heir-apparent to House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains …

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Talking Politics

Good vibes and good times for the leaders of the House


STORY OF THE WEEK: Rhode Island House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski has a bit more gray hair these days, but his status as the heir-apparent to House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains undiminished. At 44, Blazejewski has been in the House for almost a third of his life – and he still has a long runway. This helps explain why the Providence Democrat exudes patience and keeps his powder dry regarding Shekarchi’s future.

On Political Roundtable this week, Blazejewski was asked if he and Shekarchi have discussed whether the speaker (who outraised Gov. Dan McKee and Helena Foulkes in Q1) will seek a different office in 2026. “We have not,” Blazejewski responded. “When we’re talking, we’re talking about legislation that’s happening this year.” C’mon! I interjected; it’s hard to imagine the two top Democrats in the House not having some private chatter about the future. Blazejewski remained resolutely on-message: “We really work on the people’s business. This is a part-time legislature, and in this time of year, it is all about getting legislation done. You know, Speaker Shekarchi can do whatever he wants to do. He’s shown the talent to be able to do it, at any level. I hope he continues to serve in the legislature as speaker.”

This approach stands in contrast to recent events involving the Senate, where Majority Leader Ryan Pearson’s stock has fallen after visiting Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and expressing interest in succeeding him. In one hint of how things have changed, as Kathy Gregg noted, Ruggerio dispatched Majority Whip Val Lawson, not Pearson, when the president was unable to make a scheduled recent appearance with the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. Regarding the House, time will reveal whether Shekarchi makes a move in 2026.


POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY: Leader Blazejewski brought Thursday’s lengthy floor debate on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to a close by describing the revised bill as a significant accomplishment. It wasn’t that long ago, Blazejewski noted, when the late former Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns head Dan Beardlsey predicted that the General Assembly would never approve LEOBOR reform. Now, after a series of faltering attempts in recent years, the legislation is on the cusp of becoming law.

Critics say the bill doesn’t go far enough. The Rhode Island Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus expressed concern that an officer who uses unjust lethal force could remain employed for years. Supporters noted, though, that the bill allows for indefinite suspension, and the measure won the support of the League of Cities and Towns.

After a 58-to-14 vote in the House, the Senate is expected to approve the revised bill Tuesday. Meanwhile, some less-than stellar vibes persist in the aftermath of the vote; opponents are on the lookout for possible payback, and some supporters lament the impassioned opposition to an approving vote once seen as unattainable.


HEALTHCARE SUMMIT: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will keynote a healthcare summit in the RI House of Representatives’ chamber from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on May 28. One focal point will be the reimbursement issues that have bedeviled healthcare in Rhode Island – and how to address them. Dozens of industry leaders, policy makers, hospital executives, Medicaid executives and other specialists, along with Attorney General Peter Neronha, are expected to discuss various issues of concern in healthcare. Speaker Shekarchi is slated to give opening remarks and Senate President Ruggerio closing comments. (While Whitehouse may be better known for his outspoken criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Citizens United decision, healthcare is also a longstanding area of interest for the state’s junior senator. On Wednesday, he spoke during a Budget Committee hearing on reducing paperwork and cutting costs in healthcare.)


LEGISLATIVE MIX: With the House version of the budget looming on the horizon, Leader Blazejewski signaled during our interview that leadership priorities include a safe storage bill sponsored by Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-East Greenwich) and a bill to shield doctors who provide abortion coverage from out of state laws, sponsored by Rep. John Edwards (D-Tiverton).


STATE GOVERNMENT: As first reported on my X/Twitter: Dr. Jerome Larkin will be the nominee to lead the Rhode Island Department of Health. DOH has been without a permanent director since Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott left in 2022. Via news release from Gov. Dan McKee’s office: “With more than thirty years of experience in the healthcare field, Dr. Larkin is a licensed medical doctor in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and currently serves as the Medical Director of Inpatient Infectious Diseases Consultation Services at Rhode Island Hospital. Dr. Larkin currently works as an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and has received numerous teaching awards during his time there. He received his medical degree from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and completed his undergraduate degree at Boston College.”


THE BRIDGE: With the cost of demolishing and replacing the Washington Bridge rising past $400 million, the Rhode Island GOP this week made its most sustained criticism of the situation.


MEDIA: Back in the day, when the Dallas-based Belo Corp. still owned The Providence Journal, former Gov. Bruce Sundlun made an overture about buying the newspaper, expressing concern about a downward trend, as I reported years ago in The Providence Phoenix. Locals made another unsuccessful attempt to buy the ProJo when Belo sold the newspaper 10 years ago. We can only wonder what things would be like had the paper not become part of what is now Gannett. But a different kind of media transition is playing out in Warwick, where Joy Fox – who has had a wide array of jobs in media and political communications – plans to succeed the venerable John Howell as publisher of Beacon Communications, which publishes the Warwick Beacon, the Cranston Herald and the Johnston Sunrise. (Disclosure: some Beacon publications print this column.)

Howell, a local treasure in journalism, plans to stay actively involved. “Community news will continue to be our priority and our focus going forward,” Fox told Beacon in an online story. “I think that these papers are such a part of the fabric of these communities, not just from a news perspective, but from a local business perspective.”


OCEAN STATE: U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. Gabe Amo were among those on hand Monday for the groundbreaking in Middletown of a new Atlantic operations center for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. While Raimondo (whose portfolio includes NOAA) has a growing amount of star power, Whitehouse credited the workmanlike efforts of Reed, Armed Services chairman and an Appropriations Committee member, with fostering the growing critical mass of assets in and around Naval Station Newport. These include a Navy and Coast Guard presence, proximity to the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, and the somewhat close presence of NOAA’s facility in Woods Hole, Mass. The local operation center will support research efforts in the Atlantic and the Great Lakes.

The groundbreaking also served as a homecoming of sorts. Those making the scene included former DEM Director Janet Coit, now assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, and Raimondo’s spokesman at U.S. Commerce, Charlie Andrews, the son of longtime Reed fundraiser Julie Andrews.


CHANGING GEARS: The relationship between Raimondo and Gov. Dan McKee has warmed since they both served in the Statehouse, she as governor and he as lieutenant governor, and when she made little visible effort to include him in her initiatives or communications. When VP Kamala Harris visited Rhode Island in 2021, Raimondo and McKee chatted on the tarmac at T.F. Green as if they were old friends. On Monday, McKee touted Raimondo’s recent “60 Minutes” profile as a proud moment for Rhode Island, and she said he’s doing an excellent job as governor. McKee told me afterwards that during a governors’ gathering at the White House “I had a good sidebar with both the secretary and Andy [Moffit], and so we keep those lines of communications open.”


HOMELESS: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley’s administration continues to clear encampments of homeless people, over the objections of advocates, as my colleague Nina Sparling reports.


KIDS: My colleague Luis Hernandez spoke with Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, about the advocacy group’s latest factbook. Excerpt: “So this is our 30th anniversary, which we’re really excited about, and we have been tracking a full generation of kids. There have been some positive things that have happened for our kids in the past 30 years. But what is glaringly obvious and evident in almost every single indicator of the Factbook is the large and persistent disparities that exist in Rhode Island for our kids, especially for kids of color. We see large disparities by race, ethnicity, and by income status, language status, disability, immigration, neighborhood and zip codes. So those remain persistent.”


KICKER: “Jon Berberian made all kinds of excuses to his parents when he decided to screen ‘The Doll,’ a slightly racy Swedish film with a bit of exposed breast, at the Columbus Theatre in 1965,” so begins my deep dive in The Providence Phoenix in 2003 (!) into the fascinating history of the venue on Broadway in Providence. “Showing titillating fare, after all, was the last thing on anyone’s mind when Berberian, a Brown University graduate and tenor with the New York City Opera, had returned to Providence a few years earlier to rejuvenate the majestic, vaudeville-era theater as a performing arts center.” Now comes word that the venerable theater is set to close. We can only hope the Columbus – built in 1926 and designed by the same man who devised Veterans Memorial Theatre – finds a productive new life.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.