Ruggerio backed as new RI Senate president

Sen. Dominick Ruggerio

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Senate Democrats on Thursday formally chose Sen. Dominick Ruggerio to succeed Teresa Paiva Weed as Senate president, ratifying a fast change of leadership in the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

Ruggerio, a 68-year-old North Providence Democrat and the longest-serving member of the General Assembly, was chosen during a caucus at the State House on Thursday afternoon. He had served as majority leader under Paiva Weed. The full Senate voted 37-0 to ratify the choice a short time later.

“I can’t express how deeply humble I am that you have placed your confidence in my abilities,” Ruggerio said after the vote.

The Democrats also chose Sen. Michael McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat and the longtime Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, as the new majority leader, the No. 2 position in the Senate. Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, will stay on as Senate majority whip, the No. 3 job.

“We come from many different backgrounds and all regions of the state, and we each bring our own perspectives, but our goal is fundamentally the same: we want to make Rhode Island an even greater place to live and work,” Ruggerio told the Senate in a short speech after his election.

There was no outright opposition to Ruggerio or McCaffrey, though two progressive senators – Gayle Goldin of Providence and Jeanine Calkin of Warwick – did not attend the caucus or designate a senator to vote by proxy for them.

Ruggerio had long been the favorite to succeed Paiva Weed, but few expected the change to happen this week. Paiva Weed decided to step down after accepting a new position as president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island.

A key question now is who Ruggerio will appoint to lead key committees. McCaffrey’s ascension to the No. 2 job means the Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanship is now open. Ruggerio also declined to say Thursday whether he’ll keep Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dan DaPonte in place.

Ruggerio was first elected to the Assembly in 1980, serving two terms in the House before winning a seat in the Senate. He has long served as a top official in the powerful Laborers International Union of North America, though an aide said Wednesday he plans to leave that post in May now that he will be Senate president.

Ruggerio’s major achievements in recent years include passage of the 2011 law that created the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, which is overseeing development of the old highway land, and the 2016 RhodeWorks law, which created new tolls on trucks to fund bridge, road and other infrastructure projects.

Ruggerio has occasionally faced negative headlines during his political career. In 1990, a decade into his State House career, he was infamously arrested for shoplifting condoms from a CVS, and in 2012 he was arrested for alleged drunk driving. But voters in his district continued to re-elect him after both incidents.

“Everyone makes mistakes in life, and I want to move forward – I want to move the Senate forward,” Ruggerio told reporters when asked about those incidents. “I don’t want to be looked at as a rubber stamp here.” He added, “I always feel that I’m my own harshest critic.”

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who was close to Paiva Weed, said Thursday she was confident she can work well with Ruggerio.

“I have an excellent relationship with him, as well as with the rest of the leadership in the Senate,” Raimondo said before the vote, adding: “I would be excited to work with anyone who they pick. But if it is Leader Ruggerio, that would be terrific.”

Raimondo also said she does not think the change in the Senate will harm the chances of passing her free tuition plan, which Paiva Weed strongly supported but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello isn’t sold on.

“The Senate has been supportive, many reps are supportive, the Providence Chamber of Commerce came out and supported it,” she said. “It’s early in the budget process. But I feel as strong as ever about its chances.”

Paiva Weed told Eyewitness News she plans to formally retire from the Senate next week, which will trigger a special election to fill her seat in Newport and Jamestown. Newport City Councilor John Florez on Thursday became the first candidate to say he will run for the seat. Rhode Island Public Radio reported David Allard, a former aide to Raimondo, may also run. Dawn Euer, a lawyer, is also said to be considering it.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram