Rhode Island politicians responded quickly and candidly to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, which ran as the third-longest State of the Union in the country’s history.
While, perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of the leadership from the Democratic state found much to criticize within the address, those on the opposite side of the political aisle thought the speech good and that the president had much to be proud of in his first year in office.
The state’s Democratic Congressional delegation issued statements soon after the speech.
“Tonight the president briefly mentioned infrastructure, but he’s spent the last year ignoring our nation’s infrastructure needs and spent $1.5 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthiest instead of on our nation’s infrastructure needs,” said Senator Jack Reed.
“I encourage President Trump to get off the sidelines and start providing real concrete proposals to this debate. Congressional Republicans haven’t been willing to move on infrastructure without a clear signal from the President. Democrats can’t do this alone. I hope President Trump can help break Republican gridlock and get his party moving forward because we need a bipartisan bill,” said Reed.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse likewise joined the call for the president to cooperatively work on behalf of the country.
“Democrats and Republicans will work in Congress to solve our long-term budget impasse, bring some common sense to our immigration policy, and put Americans to work building the infrastructure that will power our economy. If the President wants to join those efforts in a constructive way, I welcome his help. Otherwise, just let us do our work,” Whitehouse said in a release.
The reaction of Democrats listening to the president at the House of Representatives irked Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who visited St. Kevin School in Warwick Wednesday as part of Catholic School Week events.
Discussing the speech with Father Robert Marciano, pastor at St. Kevin, Polisena said, “They’ve got to stop fighting…get out if they don’t want to do the job.”
Father Marciano agreed, adding he was sickened by the sour expression of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, suggesting she could use a “facelift.” He called the president’s message positive, saying he especially liked Trump’s comment that “Americans are dreamers, too.”
Asked about the Democratic response by Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III (the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy), Father Marciano said he didn’t stay up to listen to Kennedy.
“We’ve had it with the Kennedys,” he said.
Polisena said he was touched by some of the personal stories, like the people who lost their daughter to the MS-13 gang.
“I was touched, especially with me being in the medical field, by the soldier who basically put a hole in his fellow soldier’s throat and was ventilating for him. It reaffirmed the fact that we have heroes in this country. Those were very touching stories,” he said.
Independent candidate for governor Joseph Trillo, who served as the honorary chairman for Trump’s campaign in Rhode Island, said he thought the president did a good job of outlining his first year accomplishments from the economy and tax breaks to tracking down terrorists, points he felt were indisputable, yet “the Democrats sat on their hands.”
He said that the “message is clear that they will fight him at every turn.”
Trillo also took a shot at his former party.
In announcing for governor he declared as an independent.
He said the party is split between “the real Trumpers” and a group that consider they are “the party of [the late U.S. Senator] John Chafee.”
Although running as an independent, Trillo said, “I’m the only real Republican in the race.”
Neither Republican candidates for governor weighed in. Mayor Allan Fung declined to comment, and Rhode Island minority leader Rep. Patricia Morgan did not respond to a phone or email request for comment.
Mayor Scott Avedisian didn’t get to hear the speech as he was listening to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was talking at Temple Beth-El in Providence.
When informed where Avedisian was, Democratic State Committee Chairman Rep. Joseph McNamara said, “That was probably a better option…I would have gotten a lot more out of it.”
On a serious note, McNamara said Trump “was reading a good speech and staying on script…the scripted one and not the one that he thinks on Twitter.” Noting Trump’s pause for applause and clapping of his own remarks, McNamara said, “It was more of a campaign speech and pep rally with little substance.”
Yet McNamara was pleased that Trump has made infrastructure a priority. He didn’t think Trump’s suggestion of private/public partnerships on projects would fly with Democrats. Also, while he thinks there can be agreement on infrastructure improvements between the parties, reaching a consensus will be in the details.
McNamara was surprised by Trump’s call to allow those who are terminally ill to use drugs that are in experimental trials and haven’t gained FDA approval. McNamara sponsored the “right to try act” that gained RI House approval last year. He said the bill has been reintroduced as the Neil Faschon Right to Try Act, in memory of the East Greenwich young man who was denied use of experimental drugs in his fight for life. His parents took the FDA to court and won the right to use the drugs, but unfortunately Neil never made a recovery.
“He will be judged by actions and not this speech,” McNamara said of the president. To lead, McNamara said, “You have to work and to compromise.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo was asked for her reaction at an event in Providence Wednesday morning.
“I think there's a big difference between what President Trump said last night and what he's actually been doing,” she said, adding that he claimed to be a supporter of jobs training initiatives but actually cut funding to such programs. “He claimed last night that he cares about folks struggling with opioids, but he hasn't really put any effort into it since he's been president. It was a sales pitch, and I'm not buying it.”
Former Senator, Governor and Mayor Lincoln Chafee said he didn’t get the chance to watch the speech. He said he followed some of the feedback on talk radio and wasn’t surprised by the reaction.
“I pretty much disagree with everything he’s doing,” he said of Trump.
Congressman James Langevin said the President’s tone must be weighed against the legacy of his first year, “which was largely devoid of bipartisan accomplishments or even sincere attempts at collaboration. Rather than work together to address rising healthcare premiums and the high price of prescription drugs, the President and Congressional Republicans attempted to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, increasing uncertainty and driving costs up further. Rather than pass much needed tax reform, the President rammed through an unpaid tax giveaway to corporate America that provides only crumbs to middle-class Rhode Islanders in need of real tax relief."
On the positive said, Langevin said, “I was glad the President said that his Administration is committed to fighting the opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of three Rhode Islanders every week. However, his first year in office has been deeply disappointing on that front as the 56 recommendations of the President’s own opioid commission remain on the shelf.”
(With reports from Tim Forsberg and Ethan Harley)