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Thoughts on a year of service in the Senate


My first session in the Rhode Island State Senate is over and the question I am often asked by family and friends is "So, is it what you expected?" I understand why people get frustrated that problems aren't solved faster or decisions don't meet their expectations, but I can confirm the people in the legislature spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it right for Rhode Island.


My first session in the Rhode Island State Senate is over and the question I am often asked by family and friends, “So, is it what you expected?” 

In early 2012, having just started a new job, being a foster parent of a 2-year-old and with a husband just starting a new business, I had no shortage of changes and challenges in my life already.

But I had attended a recent event featuring Rhode Island women in politics and I had listened to elected women at the national level who were talking about the need for more women to become involved in our political process. I decided to come off the sidelines to apply my skills and experience to help affect change in Rhode Island. 
Outside of a day of freshman orientation, there isn’t a formal training on how to be a state senator. For the most part, it is all on-the-job training. Luckily Senate leadership and staff are always helpful and supportive. I am also very fortunate to share my district with Representatives Donna Walsh and Larry Valencia. They have been very supportive, showing me the ropes and working together to support legislation to benefit our towns. 

Although the session starts out slow, for a freshman it picks up speed pretty quickly. Before you know it, you are trying to figure out how to be in three places at once so you can testify on your bill before one committee, attend your own committee’s meeting and try to catch up with a colleague to discuss an issue.
I understand why people get frustrated that problems aren’t solved faster or decisions don’t meet their expectations, but I can confirm the people in the legislature spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it right for Rhode Island. 

I am surprised when I hear that people don’t realize Rhode Island has a part-time General Assembly. The session begins in January and ends in June (or sometimes July, as it did this year), meeting three days a week starting at 4 p.m. The salary for a state senator is $14,639, so, like most of my colleagues, I also have a full-time day job. It takes dedication and hard work to juggle and hopefully balance a professional, family and political life. Obviously people who choose to run for office take this schedule and salary into consideration, and these factors tend to limit who can run and serve. I think it is unfortunate members of the legislature may not have the opportunity to dedicate full-time attention to full-time issues.

Although freshmen are forewarned the legislative chambers get hot in June, you can’t imagine just how HOT it can get and they aren’t just talking about the discussions!  The building is beautiful, but it’s old and there is no central air! It’s not exaggeration to say it felt like we were working in a pressure cooker.

I was assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the Environment and Agriculture Committee. On the HHS Committee, I look forward to continuing our work to ensure all Rhode Islanders have affordable access to quality health care. I also have a personal interest in ensuring that children in state care are provided a safe, healthy living environment. Having fostered before adopting our daughter, I am passionate about making sure Rhode Island gets it right for all children who, through no fault of their own, are in state care. 

My district is made up of five rural towns, so it was also important to me that I was a member of the Environment and Agriculture Committee. One of the most important concerns I’ve heard from constituents is their desire to maintain the rural character of their town while improving the local economy. It is a balancing act and residents, employers, environmentalists, builders and political leaders need to continue working together in order to find solutions. 

As a member of the Senate, it was exciting to witness our democratic process in motion. I appreciate those who took time out of their day to come to the State House to testify at committee hearings or demonstrate in the rotunda. 

Anyone can attend a committee hearing to provide testimony, listen or just show their support or objection to a bill being heard. People can now sign up on the General Assembly website to receive email updates on a bill’s status. It is so important for people to attend hearings, email or phone their legislator to share their knowledge, expertise and experience on issues. These testimonies often provide information that may result in changes to the bill or lead to a recommendation that the bill be held for further study.

Besides legislative activity the State House often echoes with the sound of community or lobbying groups who set up displays to share information or demonstrate for their cause or interests. These events are great opportunities for legislators to learn more about the issues and concerns of all communities. 

The Senate session is also an opportunity to recognize the achievements of local constituents or communities. I was proud to introduce the Exeter-West Greenwich state champion wrestling team, the Chariho Technical School winners of the culinary competition, Wood River Health Services and Exeter residents who were honored with a county music award. 

Of course, two of the most memorable bills during my first session were marriage equality and the proposed gun legislation. Although I didn’t campaign on the issue, I supported marriage equality and many of my constituents let me know that my support was important to them. This bill was 20 years in the making. After seeing people wait hours to testify and share their personal stories in support or opposition, it was exciting to see it finally become law. I am honored to have been part of this achievement in our state’s history.

The legislation to reduce gun violence was also memorable, not only because of the amount of passion it generated, but because in the process of hearing from many of my constituents I was able to learn more about the impact some of the proposed laws would have on responsible gun owners. Before enacting new laws, we need to evaluate how effective our current laws are at preventing gun violence. Solutions need to be fact-driven to ensure we solve the problem and not penalize responsible gun owners. I was happy to sponsor legislation that will set up a task force to evaluate the intersection of mental health and gun laws.

Although I can’t say I knew what to expect as a state senator, I can say I am not disappointed! Serving is a challenge, but I enjoy it, and I am honored to represent Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich in the Senate. During the next few months I look forward to being out in my district and holding town hall meetings to hear from my constituents so that when the Senate returns to session in January I can effectively represent their needs.

(Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey represents District 34 in Exeter, Charlestown. Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich.)​

Op-Ed By

By Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey


Created at 1/20/2014 7:18 AM by spadmin
Last modified at 1/20/2014 7:18 AM by spadmin