Teachers union leader to take on power role in State Senate

Upcoming staffing, leadership changes hinge upon outcome of Nov. 7 special election

By: - October 6, 2023 4:16 pm

State Sen. Valarie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, has been tapped to serve as the next Senate Majority Whip. (Rhode Island Senate)

An East Providence Democratic senator and leading voice for the state teachers union is poised to take an even more powerful role at the State House.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on Thursday unveiled his plans to make Sen. Valarie Lawson the next Senate Majority Whip as part of a series of leadership and staffing changes that will take effect after the Nov. 7 special election. The special election for State Senate District 1 will fill the vacancy left by former Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, who died in April.

State Sen. Valarie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, has been tapped to serve as the next Senate Majority Whip. (Val Lawson for EP Facebook page)

As its name suggests, the whip acts as an assistant to the senate president by counting, and and, when necessary, “whipping up” votes in support of legislation.

Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, praised Lawson, who has served as the deputy majority leader, for her active voice on issues including education, public health and senior citizens.

“Senator Lawson is already a valued member of our leadership team, providing counsel on matters ranging from politics to policy,” Ruggerio said in a statement. She has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues in the Senate. While no one can replace our beloved Maryellen Goodwin, I know that Val Lawson will make an exceptional Majority Whip.”

Lawson was elected president of the National Education Association Rhode Island this year, having taught in East Providence public schools for more than three decades.

Meanwhile, with his chief of staff, Jake Bissaillon, running for Goodwin’s seat, Ruggerio is also making plans to promote from within for that presumed vacancy. John Fleming, secretary of the Senate and deputy chief of staff, will be promoted to the chief of staff role held by Bissaillon following the special election, Ruggerio said.

Of course, there is an election between now and then – but I have great confidence that Jake will be successful in his campaign,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “I know that all of us who have had the privilege of working with Jake recognize and appreciate his dedication to our state, his tremendous intellect, and his tireless work ethic. These same qualities will serve the people of District 1 well.”

The upcoming leadership and staffing changes drew swift criticism from Bissaillon’s Republican rival, Niyoka Powell. Powell, who will face Bissaillon on the Nov. 7 ballot, denounced Ruggerio’s actions as an “overt form of voter suppression.”

“This is the outrageous entitlement typical of the Democrat machine that dominates Rhode Island politics,” Powell said in a statement Friday. “My opponent’s campaign has been colored by such arrogance from the start. The sad fact is, the Democrat establishment thinks it owns this seat. But it doesn’t. This seat belongs to the people. And the people deserve an election, not a coronation.”

While the Smith Hill neighborhood that comprises Senate District 1 has long been viewed as a Democratic stronghold, Powell sought to separate herself from the typical Republican candidate, pointing to her identity as a young, Black immigrant and working mother focused on grassroots campaigning.

“The Senate President and his puppet (my opponent) are counting their chickens before they hatch,” Powell said. “Meanwhile, I’m engaging the citizens and small businesses of my district; I’m continuing my work of community advocacy and grassroots organizing.”

Greg Pare, a spokesman for Ruggerio’s office, responded in an email on Friday, reiterating that the changes are conditional upon Bissaillon winning the Nov. 7 election. 

“He doesn’t want the Senate to be caught flat footed, but wants to be prepared for a smooth transition,” Pare said. “And he has great confidence in Jake, who won a majority in a four way primary in September.

The Senate District 1 is dominated by Democratic voters, who comprise 57% of the 14,400 registered voters as of October, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office. Another 36% of district voters are unaffiliated, while 7% are registered Republicans.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.