Mattiello taps Shekarchi as new majority leader

Warwick Rep. Joe Shekarchi
Warwick Rep. Joe Shekarchi

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has tapped Warwick Rep. Joe Shekarchi to be the new House majority leader.

Mattiello’s decision was ratified unanimously Thursday evening during a closed-door caucus of House Democrats at Chapel Grille restaurant in Cranston. The lawmakers also re-elected Mattiello as speaker, Rep. Jay Edwards as House majority whip, and Rep. Chris Blazejewski as deputy majority whip.

Mattiello repeatedly used the word “collaborative” to describe why he chose Shekarchi to be his top deputy in the House. “He’s a consensus-builder, he has always listened to all people, and I look forward to a leadership team that is exactly that,” the speaker said.

Talking to reporters after the caucus, Mattiello reiterated his campaign pledge to eliminate the state’s much-despised car tax over the coming years, insisting that taxpayers will “get significant real relief in your very first year.” He also said he will continue to focus on improving the economy, and said lawmakers will need to review whether Rhode Island should act after Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana this week.

The caucus took place barely an hour after the R.I. Board of Elections released unofficial results showing Mattiello defeated his Republican opponent Steven Frias by 65 votes thanks to an edge in mail ballots. Frias said he will challenge the results, leaving some lingering uncertainty about the situation, but Mattiello has expressed confidence about the outcome.

The current House majority leader, Providence Rep. John DeSimone, lost his primary in September to a progressive challenger, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, and then made a failed write-in bid against her on Tuesday. He had served as Mattiello’s No. 2 since the Cranston Democrat succeeded Gordon Fox as speaker in 2014.

Shekarchi, a 54-year-old lawyer, was elected to his third term in the House this week. He has close ties to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, having managed her successful campaign for treasurer in 2010, but has also remained a trusted Mattiello ally. He is also a champion fundraiser, with the second-largest campaign cash hoard in the state, behind only the governor herself.

Shekarchi’s legislative achievements include a law repealing the so-called “master lever” straight-ticket voting option and a new tax break created in 2015 for companies that hire workers for high-wage jobs. He told reporters he plans to approach the majority leader’s job the same way he has handled being chairman of the House Labor Committee.

As for his legislative priorities, Shekarchi said he shares the speaker’s focus on “jobs and the economy,” but also pointed to one specific pet cause of his.

“I’m also a very big animal-rights advocate,” Shekarchi said. “I really want to increase the penalties on people who abuse animals.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram