Monday evening’s kickoff for the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP) Women’s Caucus became contentious when RI House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) found himself on the wrong side of a discussion about the Reproductive Heath Care Act (RHCA), a bill that would codify Roe v Wade into Rhode Island state law, preserving women’s reproductive rights in the event that a Donald Trump-stocked Supreme Court overturns that decision.
Attendee Tracy Ramos, who has a Change.org petition with over 1,000 signatures calling for the passage of the RHCA said it was “disappointing” when Shekarchi told the women at the meeting that a vote on the Reproductive Heath Care Act this year was unlikely.
“To say the least, it was disappointing that Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi said that he didn’t know how the RHCA could get to a vote on the House Floor,” said Ramos in a statement, “Given that the bill is consistent with the state and national party platform, it seems like a no-brainer that a Democratically controlled House and Senate would pass this legislation to take a stand for women’s reproductive rights across the state.”
Shekarchi also refused to say what his personal opinion on reproductive rights was, to the consternation of attendees. Shekarchi, as can be seen in the video below, said that he would “be happy to talk to anybody at any time on any issue” but when Capri Catanzaro, political director of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, asked him, “Why not now?” Shekarchi demurred.
“Because I’m at a public forum and people are Facebooking and uh, video cameras…” said Shekarchi.
Catanzaro pressed, asking for a show of hands from those in the audience who wanted the RHCA to pass and a second show of hands from those who wanted to know Shekarchi’s position on reproductive rights.
Representative Grace Diaz stepped in and rescued a flustered Shekarchi, asking for “respect.”
Another attendee told me that “Shekarchi straight up said that he didn’t want to give his personal opinion [on the issue] which was kind of frustrating and it was a frustration that was felt in the room.”
You can watch the video below for some of this:
— Shawna Rihani (@ShawnaRihani) June 13, 2017
Shekarchi denies that he was at the Women’s Caucus to try to prevent the passage of the resolution in support of the RHCA, telling me “That is simply not true. I never asked anyone not to pass anything. Never discussed a resolution.”
The Women’s Caucus resolution to pass the RHCA passed unanimously with one abstention – Representative Camille Vella Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick). Kristina Fox, vice president of the Young Democrats of America, ran the vote for the resolution, telling me, “We opened the floor for a discussion. Nobody offered any comments and we closed the floor. There was a motion for a vote. We moved it. Then I said, ‘All in favor?’ The vast majority of people said, ‘Aye.’ Nobody said no, there was one abstention. But I did specifically say, ‘Are there abstentions?’ And one person spoke up, Representative Camille Vella Wilkinson.”
RIDP executive director Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye also addressed the Women’s Caucus. Afterwards, we spoke for some time on the phone about what happened.
“Nobody from either House leadership or the Democratic Party took any overt or covert action to try to stop the Women’s Caucus from passing this resolution,” he said. “When the resolution was passed, Leader Shekarchi was gone, and I wasn’t even physically in the room at the time the resolution was debated and passed.”
Kristina Fox agrees. “I don’t recall them saying ‘I don’t think its a good thing for you to pass it.’ They didn’t say anything like that.”
Olasanoye explained to attendees that the Democratic Party counts anti-choice advocates among its members. “Taking the view from 10,000 feet, I would say the party is, and I hate this stupid cliché, but it is actually very true, that [the Democratic Party] is a big tent, and there are a lot of different types of people in the Democratic Party that have a lot of different types of beliefs…
“What I said to [the Women’s Caucus attendees] is what I say to all Democrats, which is, in order for our party to function well, we need to have folks who represent all walks of life. I would rather have a Democrat that I disagree with on one issue, than a Republican that I disagree with on many issues.”
Olasanoye told me that the party platform, where it deals with reproductive rights, “speaks directly to the concerns, I believe, of the folks that were represented in the Women’s Caucus… if you look at the women who are the co-chairs of this caucus, you will see that we have elected officials who are women who run the gamut, frankly, on that particular issue and all types of issues.”
I reminded Olasanoye that the resolution passed unanimously, with one abstention.
“Right,” said Olasanoye, “As I said, if House leadership didn’t want that resolution to pass, how did it come to a vote? How is it that it passed unanimously? I just don’t think that that’s accurate.”
“Are you saying that if House leadership wanted to stop it they could have?” I asked.
“I don’t know how they would have done that,” replied Olasanoye, “because if you read the bylaws of the Women’s Caucus you have to be a voting member to vote, you’ve got to file an application, you’ve got to pay a fee. Members of the House leadership are not qualified per the bylaws of the group to even cast a vote. And what pressure they would have been able to put on members that did is frankly lost on me.”
“Actually,” I said, “there’s lots of ways leadership could pressure people at the State House… We all know how that works.”
“I suppose,” said Olasanoye.
“The RIDP supports a woman’s right to choose, correct?” I asked, “It’s in the party’s platform.”
“That’s right,” said Olasanoye, “As I said, the Party’s platform specifically addresses this issue. With respect to what the party’s position is on that issue it’s in black and white and it speaks for itself.”
Then why the trouble passing the Reproductive Health Care Act?
“I can’t speak for House and Senate leadership,” said Olasanoye, “You’ll have to ask individual members why they feel the way they feel on this particular issue. What I will say is that I think this is a contentious issue. People have strongly held beliefs on both sides of the issue. As a party, I think our job is to embrace people from all points of view.
“Are we going to take the micro view and scrutinize every single position that every single person has and if we disagree with them we’re going to say, ‘They’re not Democrats?’ Or do we take the macro view that is, on the whole, when you look at where the Democratic Party stands on issues, you know, Candidate X, Elected Official X, shares our values.
“Do we have disagreements?” continued Olasanoye, “Absolutely We should have disagreements. But I want someone who represents my values and as I said, I think the lesson of 2016 is that if we fight inside, too much, and we don’t figure out a way to channel our energy, and not aim our arrows at one another, then we risk the potential of having folks we absolutely know don’t share our values, not just on this issue, but on a whole slew of issues, all across the gamut. We risk those folks being in a position to govern.”
“It seems that you’re asking the Women’s Caucus to compromise, but not House and Senate leadership,” I said.
“Not quite,” said Olasanoye, “What I’m asking folks to do is just look at the bigger picture. I don’t believe I’m asking one side to compromise or the other because I respect the fact that people disagree on this issue. I respect the fact that we may not be able to come to a consensus on this issue.”
“I guess what I’m missing is: How does something get into the Party Platform and not become a consensus?” I asked.
This question was met with a long pause. Finally, Olasanoye said, “Because the party has agreed to include this language in its platform, I don’t believe that it means that everybody agrees with that assessment. I think that you can have a 50 percent majority or a 55 percent majority or a 60 percent majority and you’ve got a sizable number of folks who are on the other side of a particular issue.”
“The consensus was closer to 100 percent last night,” I reminded Olasanoye.
“It was a hundred percent last night but I would say that the women’s caucus- one of the things that we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make sure that the women’s caucus is more representative of all the women around the state,” said Olasanoye.
“Would that mean recruiting anti-choice women into the caucus? Is that what you are suggesting?” I asked.
“No,” said Olasanoye, “That’s not what I mean. What I’m saying is to be more representative. For instance, I think it’s fair to say that was a very white-woman filled room, yesterday. So we need to diversify. We need to make sure there are more African-American women and more Latino women introduced into the caucus. We need to make sure there are more LGBT folks who are part of that caucus.”
“Being Latina and queer, I don’t agree with the implication that access to abortion is only important to straight white women,” said Kristina Fox when I asked her about Olasanoye’s observation. “Because I do agree that the caucus needs more diverse representation. That is a view shared by the organizers and many members too. And good work is being done to make that change.
“We’re talking about a piece of legislation that’s going to ensure that our fundamental right to our own bodies is protected,” said Fox, “If we don’t have this, and Roe v Wade gets overturned, we know that women are going to suffer. Women will die. It’s going to have a hugely negative impact on us. So I don’t think it’s very fair or feasible to expect women to be ‘calm’ about it or to ‘take it lying down’ for lack of a better phrase.
“Our lives depend on it. I think that’s something that could be a little bit more acknowledged.”
“What about the big tent?” I asked.
“If that’s what we’re saying, it’s important that we not talk in these vague generalities. It’s important for us to talk about the nuances of the position,” said Fox, “I was talking about this with somebody yesterday and they said, ‘You know, I do think there’s room in the Democratic Party for someone who is pro-life, but the pro-life position cannot just be, ‘I’m going to protest in front of an abortion clinic.’ It could be, ‘I want to see the rates of abortion go down so I’m going to make sure we pass legislation that expands the use of contraception, comprehensive sex education, teaching consent in schools, empowering young people to say, ‘no, I don’t want to have sex,’ pushing for stronger social programs that help single parents, especially younger single parents- If that’s how your pro-life views manifest themselves, I say yes, there is room.
“But really, if we are saying that you can actively work to restrict or make illegal access to a safe abortion, are you really a Democrat? I think that’s the important question.”
Despite their differences in opinion, Fox has nothing but kind words for Olasanoye. “I thought that Kevin handled himself very well and I thought he was very respectful. He definitely was presenting himself as an ally to women.”
Tracy Ramos has collected over a thousand signatures demanding that the Rhode Island House and Senate have a vote on the RHCA. “I’m not trying to convince anyone to believe one way or another,” said Ramos, “We just want a vote in both chambers. We want to know where our legislators stand.”