Political Scene: R.I. lawmakers help constituents from home during coronavirus crisis

Like most Americans, Rhode Island’s part-time state lawmakers have had their lives upended by the COVID-19 crisis.

With a return to the State House this session, or remote sessions, still unclear, the 113 representatives and senators are working from home, social distancing, helping out neighbors and fielding scores of calls from worried constituents.

Political Scene reached out to them to find out how they are spending their days and what concerns they’re hearing most from the public.

“The main inquiries I’m receiving from constituents are in regard to helping them with the [Department of Labor and Training] website,” wrote Rep. Deborah Fellela, D-Johnston, echoing the overriding constituent concern of the coronavirus period so far.

“This pandemic is really hurting our economy and people are nervous,” said Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown. “Many have never collected unemployment and are having difficulty navigating the support systems.”

Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, said constituent calls have been “mostly about unemployment insurance, specific pieces of legislation of interest to particular individuals and one query about an essential business.”

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, said challenges with jobless benefits and “individuals coming back to Rhode Island earlier than they typically do, from such states as [New York and Florida],” dominate constituent concerns.

Also on Rhode Islanders’ minds is how schools’ switch to “distance learning” will work out.

“I have been spending my time figuring out how to deliver my 8th grade social studies curriculum to my students,” said Sen. Adam Satchell, D-West Warwick.

“I hear from constituents concerned about housing and on-line learning,” said Rep. Rebecca Kislak, D-Providence. “Even though the governor and the courts have indicated that no evictions should happen right now, I’m concerned that some landlords might be taking steps to make people move, even though they have nowhere to go.”

At the college level, Rep. June Speakman, D-Warren, a political science professor, is “spending lots of time moving my four Roger Williams University classes online.

“Teaching at a distance is a whole new world for students and faculty,” she said, adding that she is also worrying about a son and niece in New York City.

Not all the constituent calls this month have been related to coronavirus. After a giant fire engulfed blocks of mill buildings in Pawtucket and Central Falls, Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls, has been fielding questions from displaced residents of the Rand Place apartments.

Small business owners are also calling out for help.

“I’m making daily visits to my WWII veteran neighbor, bringing him food and sitting with him,” said Rep. Robert Quattrocchi, R-Scituate. “By far, the most concerns I’ve received from constituents are related to small businesses in distress.”

Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, is owner of a marine plumbing firm and has suspended operations to allow employees to stay home.

“Let me tell you that it has been very challenging to figure out how we are going to keep employees safe and meet customer needs,” she said. “Our plans have been changing on a daily basis in response to changing federal legislation, suppliers closing down production and so many other unknowns.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio are keeping in close contact with each other, the governor and the treasurer about state cash flow.

Mattiello is also social distancing on his Harley, catching up on his law practice and spending time with family while Ruggerio has been dog-sitting for his daughter, who is a pharmacist.

Most lawmakers are social distancing, but some are going further and self-quarantining.

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, has been in isolation since leaving the State House on March 12 and has been keeping a video journal of the experience.

To pass the time, he’s been studying the medical literature on how COVID-19 affects people who are immunocompromised, like he is. He’s also reserved time to do at least three things he loves each day, like playing guitar, drums, woodworking, illustrating, writing and pyrography (decorating wood or leather by burning).

Rep. Susan Donovan, D-Bristol, has been self-quarantining with her family since her husband returned from a medical mission to Haiti on March 14 and her adult daughter returned from a vacation.

“I have asthma so I have been careful, only venturing out to buy groceries during the ’seniors only’ times at the store,” she said. “I do walk my dog in a wooded area near my home about 45 minutes a day but other than that I’m indoors.“

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, is also self-quarantining as a precaution since she is over 60.

“I spend most of my day keeping current with the fast-moving developments about the virus,” she said. “I continue to troubleshoot issues for my constituents, helping them cut through red tape on unemployment claims, business issues and the delivery of necessary services.”

Not everyone can work from or be home. Coronavirus has added a new complication to Rep. Ray Hull’s job as a Providence police officer.

“I am adhering to all directives that we now have in place,” he said. “N95 Masks, glove, goggles etc. My biggest challenge has been reassuring all my constituents and non-constituents that we will get through this pandemic as long as we follow the protocol put in place.”

Former state trooper Sen. Cynthia Coyne, D-Barrington, was supposed to go to a law enforcement conference before coronavirus became an emergency.

“When asked what my most unfavorable part of my job as a state trooper was, it had to be leaving my family in a time of crisis when my natural instinct was to protect my own,” she said.

Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, is still at work as the athletic administrator and a teacher in the East Providence public schools, even as classes have gone virtual.

Geologist Sen. Sam Bell, D-Providence, used the extra time away from the General Assembly to finish the revisions on his paper about the chronology of the moons of Saturn.

But Bell would rather be back in the State House and has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers on having the General Assembly to convene in remote session.

“As more and more people have realized the awful truth that the legislature is doing nothing to help the state, my constituent contact has turned to anger and fear.”

Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, is managing a day job at Navigant Credit Union, but said what’s really keeping her busy is having a 7-month-old at home and an older father, with some underlying health conditions.

Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, is social distancing with a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old and now a 10-month-old niece at home.

“I am lucky that both of my kiddos love school, but that means that videos from their teachers bring both joy and tears,” she said.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, has been getting used to virtual meetings on Zoom and the occasional interruptions when a household pet walks in front of the camera.

He’s also been trying to help residents of nursing and health-care facilities deal with new strict rules banning visitors.

What are some popular diversions while at home?

Rep. Daniel McKiernan, D-Providence, is gardening. He’s also practicing reflection and prayer.

“We take many, many things for granted in our modern world. We often forget that we are not all-powerful. The current situation provides an opportunity to see what is important and to also see human limitations.”

Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, is playing a tile-based game called Rummikub while at home with her family. And starting this week she is launching a “get to know your neighbor” virtual event on her website.

“I think we are all struggling with balancing a new normal — houses filled with family members who are usually at work and school, fears about illness and personal finances, as well as the uncertainty of what will happen next.”

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, said she’s spent the last 12 days calling constituents older than 65, checking in to see if they need food, support, or prescription medicine.

In addition to attending to her legal practice, Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, is doing some “cooking, cleaning, puzzles, books, reaching out to friends and neighbors by phone. Ordering from local restaurants, grocery stores, fish markets and liquor stores!“

Rep. Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket, has been spending his extra time helping out The Elisha Project, a nonprofit that provides food to vulnerable communities.

Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, has done some troubleshooting around tele-medicine.

“I have a constituent who is a speech therapist and was told that she couldn’t get paid to video conference teaching sessions with her students. Through a series of telephone calls, the problem was solved, students are being taught and speech therapists are being paid.”

Rep. Liana Cassar, D-Barrington, has, among other things, been “keeping track of family and friends who are in hot spots around the country, helping my high school student adapt to distance learning, business planning for my own consulting work … and supporting organizations like Meals on Wheels.”

On the bookstand

Coronavirus Book Club. Here are some of the titles lawmakers have been reading this month:

Satchell: “Trumpets in Jericho,” a history of West Warwick and Kent County

Amore: “American Lion,” a biography of Andrew Jackson by Jon Meecham

Goldin: “Nothing to See Here,” by Kevin Wilson.

DiPalma: “Strangers In Their Own Land,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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