Illinois flap spurs R.I. bill on naming senators

By Journal State House Bureau
Published February 2nd 2009 in The Providence Journal

Allegations that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama prompted the filing of legislation here to strip Rhode Island’s governor of the power to appoint replacement U.S. senators.

The bill introduced by freshman Rep. Christopher Fierro, D-Woonsocket, would require a special election to choose a successor to any U.S. senator who dies in office or resigns in mid-term.

“U.S. Senate seats belong to the voters. No one person, regardless of his or her party affiliation, should get to decide who is going to represent the entire state in the Senate,” said Fierro, in a statement issued by the General Assembly press office. “Inevitably, politics are going to play a role in that appointment, and that’s not how the Senate is meant to be constituted. The 17th Amendment was meant to stop the Senate from being a body of politically appointees and turn it into one whose members are directly elected, and in that spirit we should adopt this legislation.”

The bill (H 5094) would require that special election unless the vacancy occurs after July 1 of an election year. In that case, the vacancy would be filled during the regular general electoral cycle.

Former U.S. Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee first went to Washington as an appointee of then-Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, after the death of his father, John H. Chafee. A version of Fierro’s bill was introduced last year after speculation arose that Senator Reed, a Democrat, might step down to take a Cabinet position in an Obama administration. That would have left the appointment to Republican Governor Carcieri.