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Rep. Joe Shekarchi becomes next Rhode Island House Speaker

January 5, 2021 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island lawmakers opened the new legislative session on Tuesday, taking their oath of office and formally selecting their leaders.

State Rep. Joseph Shekarchi was named House Speaker, while Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a long serving North Providence Democrat, was reelected to another two-year term.

Shekarchi, a 58-year-old Warwick Democrat, succeeds former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who was defeated in November.

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“My approach will be different,” Shekarchi told lawmakers after the vote at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium near the Statehouse. “But it should never be confused with an unwillingness to make difficult, final decisions.”

Shekarchi was first elected in 2012 and served as House majority leader under Mattiello.

The son of an Iranian immigrant, Shekarchi becomes the state’s second openly gay House speaker. The first was Gordon Fox, who paved the way for Mattiello to become speaker when he resigned in 2014 amid a federal corruption probe.

Shekarchi, a practicing lawyer, was also campaign manager for Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo when she ran for her first political office — state treasurer — more than a decade ago.

Mattiello, who was considered more socially conservative, frequently clashed with Raimondo.

Shekarchi, in his remarks, promised to work cooperatively with his fellow lawmakers to help the state move past the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the tiny state particularly hard.

“We will strive for a Rhode Island that provides a just, secure and prosperous future for everyone, regardless of our zip code, regardless of the color of our skin, and regardless of how long their family has proudly claimed the title of American,” he said.

The speaker vote was virtually preordained: the House’s 65-member Democratic caucus picked Shekarchi to lead them immediately after Mattiello’s stunning election loss.

On Tuesday, the chamber’s diminutive, 10-member Republican caucus also put forward House Minority Leader Blake Filippi for speaker, which is considered one of the most powerful offices in the state due to the chamber’s control of the state budget process.

But Shekarchi ultimately garnered support from nearly all 75 lawmakers.

Filippi later praised Shekarchi’s character, relating how the new speaker had helped him as a young lawyer.

State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who defeated Mattiello in November, also said in a statement that she would have voted for Shekarchi.

The Cranston Republican wasn’t in attendance Tuesday because she was quarantining after her husband, outgoing Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, recently tested positive for COVID-19.