Learning the Ropes
Six months ago we sat down with four freshmen lawmakers on the eve of their first General Assembly session to talk about their goals and expectations for 2017. This week, Jim Hummel circles back with each - to see what they learned, what they accomplished and what they might do differently in 2018.
They arrived that first day in January, eager to make a difference for their constituents and take what they had said on the campaign trail to each of their respective chambers.
We sat down in December with four of Rhode Island’s 16 new lawmakers, representing a cross section of the freshman class: They include Representatives Julie Casimiro of North Kingstown and Jason Knight of Barrington, both Democrats; Republican Robert Quattrocchi of Scituate - and Senator Jeanine Calkin of Warwick, also a Democrat.
We wanted to know what they know now that they didn’t know then.
Casimiro: ``It is a lot of work getting a bill through from your conception to getting it out of committee to getting it to a floor vote to a Senate vote. It’s a lot of process, takes a lot of time.’’
Quattrocchi: ``I’m really surprised by how many people are really reliant on government for necessarily, or unnecessarily, just totally reliant on government. And government is not just some crazy entity - you know government is us. We’re the people. We are the government. So, they are relying on us to take care of them.’’
Hummel: ``What surprised you the most?’’
Calkin: ``I would say really how much work is really involved if you want to do a good job. I spent many nights reading bills, preparing for committees. Not that I didn’t think there was a lot of work involved, it’s just sometimes you want to go and you want to watch the hearings from other chamber or things like that just to get a good understanding. So to do all that does take a lot of time.’’
Knight: ``It’s like when you’re swimming and you go into the pool and you go underwater and open up your eyes you can sort of see everything but all the lines are blurry and you can’t see too much detail. That’s what it’s like to be a voter looking in. When you get inside it’s like putting on a pair of goggles, and all of a sudden you’d be like: `Oh, now I see what’s going on under the water.’’’
The new lawmakers quickly found out what their veteran colleagues have known for years: the early part of the session can be frustratingly slow, with a rush of bills at the end.
Casimiro: ``I think in January, February, March timeframe we might have had three or four bills to vote on, on the floor. We’d hear a lot in committee then only three or four would make it out, then all of a sudden, the end of the session we’re getting bills all over the place.’’
Quattrocchi: `` I gotta say I’m not a big fan, I think it’s a very burdensome and sluggish system, the way everything gets jammed in at the very last minute.’’
Knight, who is a lawyer, had to change his approach to hearing bills in the Judiciary Committee.
Knight: ``I was treating committee like court: Witnesses would come up and testify and if I didn’t agree with them I would challenge them and I quickly learned that committee is not court. Rule No. 1.
Hummel: ``They’re there to give their side and if you need a clarification, but it’s not a cross examination.’’
Knight: ``Exactly. So they’re there to get testimony for the committee to take in, to listen to and we’ll talk about it later but you start to think of think of yourself as a jury.’’
He was also not hesitant to speak on the House floor.
Knight; ``Senior reps would say: `What are you doing?’ If you press your button to talk. And I’d be like: `I’m going to talk.’ So it’s mostly people watching out for you. Everything you do on the floor is on TV, it’s live and nobody wants to see you get embarrassed by standing up and maybe saying something that maybe you don’t want to say.’’
For Quattrocchi, who had testified many times before the House Finance Committee before becoming elected, being on the committee gave him a different perspective.
Quattrocchi: ``I gotta say it’s definitely surreal. Sitting up there and looking down and saying I started there where these folks are sitting in those chairs and are speaking and I think it gave me a total respect for listening to the people that I was listening to, because I was there sitting there.’’
Of course the session was overshadowed by the events of June 30th, when House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello sent his chamber home, leaving the budget - and a score of bills - in limbo.
Calkin: ``I know some of the people who spent hours coming here, once a week or they knocked on doors all over Rhode Island trying to get these bills passed, it’s really tough to think that that effort could be wasted.’’
Knight: ``I Thought `Wait a minute, this is not how it’s supposed to go.’
Hummel: ``It’s not the script they gave us at orientation.’’
Knight: ``I’ve been watching politics for a long time, this is not how the end of Rhode Island’s legislative season happens. That was June 30th, the Friday before the 4th of July weekend, and I’ve been thinking about it every day since, trying to parse what exactly is going on being the scenes that caused this breakdown between the House and the Senate.’’
Hummel: ``As you’re driving home, what’s going through your mind?’’
Casimiro: ``I was wondering about my two bills that are in limbo. I’m keeping my own scorecard, I want to make sure I’m doing a good job and delivering for my constituents, so what about my two bills? I really want to end this year on a high note.’’
As it turns out Casimiro - and 46 other House members received an email from Senate President Domenick Ruggerio on July 13th, saying that some of their bills, two in Casimiro’s case - which had passed the House and then the Senate - were, in fact, being sent to the governor. So barring an unlikely veto, they will become law.
But the fate other legislation - and a $9.2 billion budget - remains uncertain for now.
Knight: ``What keeps going through my head as the days go by is the doctor’s rule: Do no Harm, and the longer this goes on, there’s going to be some harm and I would like to get back to the table.’’
Quattrocchi said he has no problem with the way the session ended, because it means several bills he opposed - including the paid sick time bill and some of the gun control bills - were not passed. Nor was a budget that he and other Republicans opposed.
We asked all four what they learned in 2017 that will help them going into 2018.
Knight: ``We have legislative action to try to move the wheels of government to pass legislation, but it’s backed up by community action - people who are interested in it, to apply pressure to legislators; and it all has to be undergirded by strong policy ideas and it’s this golden circle of policy, community activism and legislative action. That’s how things get done and what I do is only one third of that.’’
Hummel: ``Did you know that before you went in?’’
Knight: ``No, but I’ve seen it in action.’’
Hummel: ``What will you know going into next January that you didn’t know this year?’’
Casimiro: ``I’m filing legislation early, I’ll be doing that in the fall and I will be a pain to leadership to get my bills heard early.’’
Calkin: ``We have a great staff here in the Senate, there’s so much knowledge and the people who are willing to help you. Starting earlier to hook up with some of those people, to use those resources I think will be beneficial.’’
Quattrocchi: ``I would love to see more Republicans - ‘18 is the year.’’
At the State House, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.