PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Republican John Pagliarini Jr.’s apparent victory in Tuesday’s special Senate election could reverberate well beyond his East Bay district.
While technically a Pagliarini win would leave the Senate’s partisan status quo in place – the seat was previously held by another Republican, Christopher Ottiano, who resigned in October – in practice it would mark a real change, since Ottiano frequently sided with Democratic Senate leaders while Pagliarini would be an articulate conservative voice in the chamber. (During the special election Ottiano infuriated Republicans by abandoning the party and endorsing Pagliarini’s Democratic opponent, Jim Seveney.)
The situation has now put the spotlight on the future of long-serving Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, a Westerly Republican who has led the upper chamber’s GOP caucus since 1997.
Pagliarini’s election would leave Republicans continuing to control just five of the Senate’s 38 seats, though independent Ed O’Neill of Lincoln also aligns with the GOP. In an interview Wednesday morning, Pagliarini declined to back Algiere for minority leader.
“I need to be sworn in before I make any decisions,” Pagliarini, a Tiverton lawyer, told WPRI.com. “I will sit down with my four fellow Republican senators, and we will probably have a caucus. I don’t want to make that decision until I’m sworn in.”
Coventry Sen. Nick Kettle, the longest-serving Republican in the chamber after Algiere, downplayed the possibility that he might move to oust Algiere this year.
“At this time my goal is to just represent my constituents in District 21,” Kettle told WPRI.com. “Basically, should I get re-elected, typically leadership changes do not occur until – if there’s a leadership change, they do not occur until after the November election.”
“Right now I just have no plans, honestly,” he said.
Algiere, like Ottiano, is known for collaborating closely with Democratic state leaders, and he served on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s transition team in 2014. Conservatives who want to see a more forceful opposition against the leadership of Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, have often been frustrated by Algiere’s approach, with the latest example being his vote in favor of Raimondo’s truck-toll plan last June.
Algiere defended his strategy in an interview Tuesday.
“At the end of the day, because our numbers are so low, we have to work with our colleagues and try to come up with our legislative package and see if they’ll meet us halfway at times, or voice our concerns with various pieces of legislation and issues that might come up, and hopefully people will listen,” Algiere told WPRI.com.
“At the end of the day we hope that works at the ballot box,” he added.
Algiere’s policy preferences and political calculus aren’t the only reasons he looks increasingly isolated from his GOP caucus colleagues. He has served in the Senate far longer than the others, having been first elected in 1992 – an era before Fox News or the Tea Party – while the others joined in 2010 (Kettle) and 2014 (East Greenwich’s Mark Gee and Hopkinton’s Elaine Morgan).
The debate over the toll proposal has illustrated the differences in the caucus. Kettle, Gee and Morgan all voted against the plan last June, while Algiere and Ottiano backed it, and during the special election Pagliarini frequently highlighted his opposition to tolling; his victory surprised those who thought Seveney’s long ties to Portsmouth, which makes up the bulk of District 11, would give him the edge.
“The public spoke loudly and clearly yesterday that supporting tolls is political suicide,” Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the right-leaning Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said in a statement Wednesday reacting to the election results.
Still, Algiere insisted on Tuesday he was not worried about the other Republicans making an effort to change leaders.
“I get along very well with Nick and the caucus,” he said. “We’re going to try to work together as a caucus and look at some of these difficult issues, and we’re going to continue on our course in promoting legislation that support economic development, helping businesses, working families, and do our best.”