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Majority of Anti-Pension Reform Lawmakers Returning to Smith Hill

Monday, November 19, 2012


Despite having been targeted by House and Senate leadership and in some cases, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, the majority of state lawmakers who voted against last year’s statewide pension overhaul bill will return to Smith Hill for the 2013 legislative session.

Of the 17 nay votes cast last November, only two State Representatives –Leo Medina (D-12) and Rene Menard (D-45) — were defeated. A third Rep., Roberto DaSilva (D-65), ran unsuccessfully for State Senate and Senator John Tassoni did not seek re-election.

That means 13 Representatives and Senators who voted against the bill were re-elected earlier this month.

Most didn’t even have to sweat. Senator Frank Ciccone (D-7), Rep. John DeSimone (D-5), Rep. Ray Hull (D-6), Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-17), Rep. Scott Guthrie (D-28) and Deborah Fellela (D-43) all won by at least 19 percentage points while four Representatives –John Carnevale (D-13), Charlene Lima (D-14) Raymond Johnston (D-61) and Mary Messier (D-62)— walked to re-election without an opponent in either the September primary or November’s general election.

Three others, Rep. Peter Palumbo (D-16), Rep. Spencer Dickinson (D-35) and Rep. William San Bento (D-58) all squeaked by in their Democratic primaries (San Bento won by just one vote). Dickinson also faced a difficult challenge in the general election, winning by less than ten points against Republican James Haldeman.

Unions Make a Statement

Union officials say both the primary and general election results should serve as a statement to those who are considering running for higher office in 2014 (Raimondo is widely considered a potential candidate for Governor).

“EngageRI, RI-CAN, and other anti-pension players proved to be non entries in the election,” said National Education Association government relations director Patrick Crowley. “The real players were teachers, public employees, women's organizations, Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Ocean State Action and other progressive groups. Democrats should look to partner with these groups if they want the corner office in 2014 - even if it means re-thinking their current strategy on the pension lawsuit."

The unions are taking the state to Superior Court early next month in an attempt to block the pension reform legislation, which switches public employees to a 401k-style hybrid plan, freezes cost-of-living-adjustments for retirees and alters the retirement age. When the bill was signed into law, Raimondo said the changes immediately cut the state’s unfunded pension liability by $3 billion.

Last week, the state announced that it had added New York lawyer David Boies to its defense team. Boies represented then-Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore in the infamous Gore V. Bush case that went to the Supreme Court.

Mixed Results for House Leadership

Still, not every anti-pension reform lawmaker went unscathed. Menard, a retired firefighter on a disability pension who has long clashed with House Speaker Gordon Fox, watched as his primary opponent Mia Ackerman received an outpouring over support from Fox and several groups who supported the reform package. Raimondo even campaigned on behalf of Ackerman, who won the primary by less than 9 points. Rep. Medina, who has had numerous run-ins with the law over the last year, also lost his primary despite being backed by organized labor.

But House leadership also swung and missed on two other Representatives they chose to target. Dickinson, who was highly critical of a redistricting process he considered unfair, watched as House leadership handpicked his primary opponent (Kathy Fogarty), but still managed to pick up the victory. He then attempted to fire back at Fox by supporting the Speaker’s primary opponent (Mark Binder). Fox won re-election.

House leadership also went after Palumbo, the conservative Cranston Democrat who defeated Michelle Bergin in September’s primary. Bergin was unsuccessful despite receiving campaign contributions from Fox and two of his leadership PACs.

Bought and Paid For

While organized labor didn’t exclusively support candidates who voted against pension reform, those who did were able to cash in the form of campaign contributions. In August, GoLocalProv reported that the elected officials who voted against the bill had received over $120,000 from union political action committees (PACs) in the months following its passage.

At the time, Rhode Island Statewide Coalition executive director Donna Perry suggested the campaign contributions gave an appearance that legislators were “bought and paid for” by the unions. She noted that “for far too long, they have had an upper hand in influencing how a legislator votes.”

“If ever there was a vivid example of the direct connection between union financial muscle and a major legislative vote, it’s this,” Perry said. “When you are casting a vote that is so significantly against the best interests of the RI taxpayer and so clearly aimed at appeasing a powerful interest, and you end up in the distinct minority with that vote, I suppose it’s not a surprise that rewards are doled out after the fact.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.


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