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Lawmakers protest new Senate president's transition to power

PROVIDENCE — On the day longtime Senate president M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a consummate consensus builder, resigned from the General Assembly, a group of lawmakers protested the way the chamber’s new leaders have handled the transition of power.

In a vote on the Senate’s biennial rules bill Thursday, Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, called last week’s rapid vote to elect new President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, plus the removal this week of two committee chairs, “undemocratic.”

“There should be timelines that allow for a deliberative process worthy of this body and worthy of the words transparency and democracy,” said Nesselbush, who also questioned the wisdom of giving the power to appoint committees solely to the president. “These rules promote hegemony.” 

Echoing a debate earlier this year in the House, Nesselbush called for giving rank-and-file lawmakers the power to force committee votes on the bills they sponsor.

“Personally I am tired of sitting through long committee hearings only to have bills held for further study and know no one will ask for my opinion again,” Nesselbush said.

The rules passed 31 to three with Nesselbush joined in opposition by senators James Sheehan, D-North Kingstown and Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick.

Sheehan was one of two senators, along with former Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel DaPonte, to lose a chairmanship after the leadership change. DaPonte had made calls about running for majority leader.

Sheehan’s oversight committee was consolidated into a new rules, ethics and oversight committee.

On Thursday Ruggerio appointed Sen. Frank Lombardi to chair the new committee.

Lombardi came to the defense of the new rules and the recent moves by leadership, pointing out that no one objected to the rules when they had a hearing.

“To the extent that there was any inference made on this floor that somehow anyone who is a chair is beholden to the president of the Senate and will do everything the president says is an affront to everybody on this floor,” Lombardi said defending the changes. “That is devoid of reality. We are all independent-minded people here.”

The debate came as the Senate honored Paiva Weed, who submitted her resignation from the legislature, effective Friday, after 24 years in the Senate, the last eight as president.

With the resignation, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea on Thursday scheduled a special election on Aug. 22 to fill Paiva Weed’s District 13 Senate seat representing parts of Newport and Jamestown. Three Democrats have already announced their intention to run.

panderson@providencejournal.com / 277-7384
On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_

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