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RI General Assembly: Who Are the New Power Brokers?

Saturday, January 15, 2011


The Rhode Island General Assembly is kicking off its new session with five new committee chairs in the House and three in the Senate, selected by the leadership of each chamber. Who are these new legislative power brokers and what impact will they have on state law and politics? GoLocalProv has the rundown of the new chairs.


Helio Melo, Finance This East Providence Democrat was the architect of the income tax overhaul last year and was considered a favorite by former chairman Steven Costantino to be his successor. As the former vice chairman under Costantino, he can be expected to continue his legacy as he tackles the next state budget this session. Melo also is known for being active in the Portuguese community in Rhode Island.

Edith Ajello, Judiciary Her lack of a formal legal background has raised some eyebrows, but that doesn’t seem to trouble progressives, who view the appointment of this Providence East Side as a huge win for their many causes—certainly the former chairman, David Caprio, a conservative Democrat in the mold of his brother, Frank Caprio, could hardly be considered one of their allies.

Just how excited are progressives? One ebullient blogger for Rhode Island’s Future put it best:  “Rep. Ajello will surely see to it that there will be timely hearings and votes on at least two issues: Marriage Equality, and extending Good Time credits to probationers/parolees,” blogger Bruce Reilly wrote. “There are certain issues that have avoided votes, despite a large base of support, and we should expect to see some logjams break free. Unshackling Pregnant Prisoners? Racial Profiling? Probation sentencing reform? Decriminalizing marijuana? It should be an exciting year, especially for those who shook Chafee’s hand and heard a promise or two along the way.”

Jon Brien, Municipal Government Brien, of Woonsocket, is justifiably perceived as one of the stalwart conservative Democrats in the House—he did after all endorse Republican John Loughlin for Congress. As the chairman of the Municipal Government, he will preside over a committee that has handled a medley of hot button issues in the past—from school uniforms in Woonsocket to a bond for a wind turbine in Portsmouth to taxes on fire hydrants. Just how important will be the committee this session? Two words: Central Falls. In other words, any major reforms of the governmental structure of Central Falls—such as the proposed merger with Pawtucket—likely will have to be cleared by his committee.

Peter Palumbo, Rules Another conservative Democrat, Palumbo became a lightning rod for the illegal immigration issue last year when he proposed that Rhode Island adopt its own version of the Arizona bill. Palumbo, a long-time state rep from Cranston, tells GoLocalProv his appointment to the Rules Committee caught him off guard—especially since he has never even served as a member. “It is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you,” Palumbo said. “I didn’t even know I was getting it.”

This is one of the easier chairmanships—just about all of the work has to be done early in the session, when the committee reviews all the rules of the House and resubmits them to the full body for approval. Palumbo said he has just started poring through all the rules, but he already has some ideas about what he would like to see changed. For one, he’d like to tweak a rule that allows a state rep to yank a bill that is blocked in committee as long as he or she gets enough of their fellow reps to sign a petition. Palumbo, who at first liked the rule as a freshman lawmaker, said it is better for bills to go through the thorough vetting process of committees before making it to the House floor.

Raymond Gallison, Veterans' Affairs Anything involving veterans in Rhode Island could be affected by the work of this committee—and Gallison tells GoLocalProv he is expecting the number of veterans will go up as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Top priorities this session include overseeing the establishment of the new Veterans' Affairs Department and possible legislation to build a new Rhode Island Veterans Home. The Bristol Democrat tells GoLocalProv that he also plans to hold hearings on the problem of homeless veterans.


Frank Ciccone, III Government Oversight Ciccone also is the vice chair of the Labor Committee. This Providence Democrat also happens to be employed as the field representative for the Rhode Island Laborers District Council. In an interview with GoLocalProv, Ciccone denied there is any conflict of interest between his committee post and his employment. “I’m pleased to be appointed (Vice) Chair of the Labor Committee,” Ciccone said. “Our committee focuses on the law and what the state spends and where it spends it. We do work with directly with the unions.” (Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred to Ciccone as chairman of the Labor Committee. He is the vice chair.)

James Doyle, II Rules The son of long-time Pawtucket Mayor James Doyle, this Pawtucket Democrat is stepping out of his father’s long shadow. First elected in 2004, he also serves on the powerful Senate Labor and Finance Committees.

Walter Felag, Jr. Special Legislation Felag is a Warren Democrat who championed legislation on concussions and pushed for raising the exclusion on the estate tax last session. As chair of Special Legislation, he will preside over a committee that has historically handled anything dealing with gambling and liquor. Will another bill to expand gambling in casinos come up this session? Felag told GoLocalProv he isn’t sure. Last year he voted for the bill to put the matter before voters. For now, he says his top priority as chairman is to ensure a fair hearing for all legislation that comes before his committee.


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