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Senate vacancy bill OK'd in House

Karen Lee Ziner // Published March 11, 2009 in The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- A bill that would strip the governor of his power to appoint a replacement in the event of a midyear U.S. Senate vacancy was passed by the House yesterday in a 64-to-6 vote and sent to the Senate.

Freshman Rep. Christopher Fierro, D-Woonsocket, said he filed the legislation in response to allegations that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. He said the bill calls for a special election to fill a vacancy, “regardless of whether the sitting governor be Democrat or Republican.”

Amid accusations that the bill was politically motivated, Fierro said, “It’s not about Governor Carcieri or any governor. It’s not a power grab from the governor” but, rather, an empowerment “for the people.”

The bill would require a special election unless the vacancy occurs after July 1 of an election year. In that case, the vacancy would be filled during the regular general electoral cycle.

Three Democrats and three Republicans in the House voted no yesterday: Al Gemma, D-Warwick; Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket; Robert B. Jacquard, D-Cranston; House Minority Leader Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich; Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick; and Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown.

Carcieri stopped short of a veto threat when asked about the bill earlier this week. But the Republican governor’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe said, “In general, the governor does not believe the bill is necessary.”

“The situation only arises once in a great while,” Kempe said. “There has never been a problem in Rhode Island with the governor appointing until the next election.”

She added that the governor considers it “a waste of money to hold a special election, especially when there is nothing wrong with the current process.” If the bill passed, she said, Rhode Island “would be one of less than a handful of states that would require an immediate election.”

A version of Fierro’s bill was introduced last year amid speculation that Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat, might step down to take a Cabinet post in the Obama administration. That would leave the appointment up to Governor Carcieri. The bill stalled, however, and Reed has continued to say he is not interested in leaving the Senate.

But yesterday, several legislators raised that speculation again.

Trillo, who cast one of the six opposing votes, said, “A lot of times things happen on this floor are like previews of coming attractions. I get the funny feeling that Jack Reed is about to be appointed to something by President Obama,” and he called the bill “one more power grab” from the governor, and one “that is especially insulting to a sitting governor.”

Predicting the bill would win Senate passage, Trillo said, “I think we’re making a mistake. I hope the governor vetoes it. And I think the press should investigate this about Jack Reed and find out right away what he’s being appointed to.”But Rep. Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat, said, “This is not a partisan bill. This is nothing against Governor Carcieri. This has nothing to do with Governor Carcieri … We’ve had a Republican governor for 14 years. It has to do with correcting a problem we think could happen in the future.”

With reports from Katherine Greg