Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, in third bout with cancer, is resolute about his role. “I’ll get by this.”

By: Katherine Gregg

Providence Journal USA TODAY NETWORK
Tuesday, March 19, 2024   


PROVIDENCE − One of the most powerful men in Rhode Island has cancer.

As a proud − and some close to him say “stubborn” − 75-year-old Italian man who has been a part of Rhode Island’s political life for more than four decades, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was not keen on talking about his health − or the very private conversation he had about it with his No. 2.

But he broke his silence earlier this week about his health, his slow, cane-assisted gait, the Senate sessions he missed earlier this year and his election year plans amid a swirl of fresh and not entirely unfounded rumors.

Where to begin? “I don’t know if I should say this, but this is the third time I’ve had cancer,” Ruggerio told The Journal during a sit-down in his State House office Tuesday.

“Look, a lot of things might kill me, but I don’t think [this] is going to be one of them,” he said. “I feel I’m in good hands. I get good advice. I’ve got a lot of people around me that are really helpful … I know I’ll get by this.”

As he talked, he also acknowledged the truth embedded within the rumors that sparked this sit-down, the visit to his North Providence home by Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson several weeks back to talk about the future of the Senate presidency.

As State House insiders told it: Pearson went to Ruggerio’s home with an offer to take his place as president midsession with the equivalent of a Power-Point presentation to make his case for succession sooner rather than later.

As Pearson, D-Cumberland, tells it: “There is no race for Senate president ongoing now, no vote counting is being done and no discussions have been had …. Anything you are hearing is unfortunately a bad and false rumor.”

But Ruggerio confirmed it: “He did call me. He did come to my house. It was on a Saturday. He wanted to talk to me. I did not know what it was about.”

Without going much into detail, Ruggerio said Pearson asked about his health – and signaled he would be interested in succeeding him. He said he told Pearson he has “no intention of leaving at this time.”

“I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever be gone,” Ruggerio joked, “because [as] I tell people, I got nowhere to go, nothing to do and all day to do it … I have no hobbies. I enjoy what I’m doing. I absolutely love representing the people that I represent in the 4th Senatorial District.”

As for the rumored tension between him and Pearson, Ruggerio said: “I don’t see that. I will work with anyone here on issues, on anything that affects the Senate.”

What Ruggerio’s colleagues say about this

Sen. Frank Ciccone: “He says he is feeling good and he is getting better.”

Freshman Sen. David Tikoian said Ruggerio has not briefed his fellow senators, “But it’s obvious, he’s using a quad cane and so on and so forth. I never asked him and I never would … [but] I keep telling him, ‘you’re looking good.'”

The Senate president’s role

As the Senate president, Ruggerio controls the flow of legislation through the Senate – what moves, what doesn’t from gun control to the House Speaker’s housing package.

Ruggerio is more conservative on many issues than Pearson, whom he chose to be his No. 2 for the 2023-24 session.

Pearson has been a bridge for vocal progressives in the Senate and has cosponsored many of their bills.

A succession fight is likely to follow when Ruggerio eventually steps down, and its resolution will ultimately require a full vote by the Senate. Pearson has said he is interested, but he is not likely to be the only one. Senate Majority Whip Valarie Lawson – president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island – is viewed as a contender.

Ruggerio plans to run for reelection this year. While he was out walking his district two years ago, this year “I don’t know how much walking I’m going to do, I might have to change my mode of operation as it relates to campaigning this year.”

Ruggerio has been a state legislator since 1981, first in the House and then in the Senate, where he was elected in 1984 to the seat vacated by his then-fatherin- law Rocco Quattrocchi, the Senate majority leader in his day.

Ruggerio has been Senate president since the March 2017 mid-session resignation of his predecessor.

He has remained on top, in no small part, because of his skill at reading a room and knowing when to bend. Take his stance on guns, for example.

Faced with significant progressive gains in the once stodgy Senate, the politically pragmatic Ruggerio − who had long had an “A” rating from the NRA − shepherded a three-bill gun control package that included the new ban on firearm magazines containing more than 10 rounds to passage two years ago.

Why did he lead the Senate passage of those bills? “I’d be horrified if something ever happened to my grandchildren because of something like that and I stood by and did nothing.”

This year, the Senate has already approved a safe-storage requirement for guns, which is now in the House.

He missed at least three Senate sessions early on while he voted remotely by proxy. And now he’s back.

In the meantime, he says, he is in treatment.

He expected to have shed the cane by now, but “I think I expected a little too much at that time. Obviously I’m a little older. I don’t heal as quickly. I mean that’s part of life, but it might take a little longer, [and] that’s OK.”

With reports from Journal Staff Writer Patrick Anderson


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