For Some Rhode Island Senators, Revens’ Appointment to PUC Smacks of Insider Politics
March 13, 2021
Former senator John C. Revens Jr. will be joining the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC), but his approval came with a reminder of the Statehouse’s ugly history of patronage and insider politics. Some of which is apparently still alive and well, at least according to a handful of lawmakers.
Nine progressive senators opposed Revens during the March 9 vote by the full Senate — eight of whom are in their first or second terms in office. Twenty-nine senators confirmed Revens to a six-year term on the PUC.
Sen. Samuel Bell, D-Providence, serving his second two-year term, was one of three senators who spoke against Revens’ appointment from the Senate floor, temporarily relocated to the Sapinsley Hall auditorium at Rhode Island College because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bell noted that when Revens came to the Senate in the late 1960s he took principled stances, challenging autocratic party leaders such as Rocco Quattrocchi and John Bevilacqua. But he eventually transformed into the people he opposed, according to Bell. As Revens ascended to Senate majority leader in the ’80s he and his staff, Bell said, helped marginalize moderate leadership and that led to a rising wave of conservatism and vindictiveness in the Senate — a time punctuated by an ethics scandal that led to the resignation of William Irons, whom Revens backed as Senate president.
“But one uncomfortable theme lies at the heart. A theme we don’t often want to talk about: how long years of playing Statehouse power games changed us, changed who we are,” Bell said. “The process was slow, at the time barely evident, but now as we stand across the chasm of decades, seeing the full story, the change is painfully clear. It’s not an easy thing to grapple with but it’s the truth.”
The review of the Senate’s sordid past didn’t sit well with Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, who twice burst out with calls for Bell confine his talk to Revens.
“It’s a complex record,” Bell responded. “You have to talk about the good as well as the bad.”
Bell postulated that the Revens at the start of his political career would likely have voted against his own nomination to the PUC for its appearance of political patronage. While the Revens from the later part of his three decades in the House and Senate would have supported his appointment.
“I do not have the confidence he will vote against rate hikes,” Bell said.
Vocal support for Revens’ nomination came from long-tenured members of the Senate who severed with the Warwick democrat who left office in 2008.
“He’s a man of his word. He’s a good man and he’s smart,” said Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, who has been in office since 1986.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, who has been in office since 1994, pointed to Revens’ accomplishments with education and protections for children. McCaffrey noted that Revens supported open space referendums and renewable energy bills.
“We wouldn’t have DCYF [Department of Children, Youth & Families] in the state of Rhode Island if it wasn’t for Jack Revens,” McCaffrey said.
Freshman Sen. Kendra Anderson, D-Warwick, however, noted that serving on the PUC requires a knowledge of utilities policy and an appreciation for the urgency of addressing the energy transformation the state is facing in the next six years.
“Here’s the problem, Senator Revens has no experience in energy science, environmental economics, or environmental justice,” Anderson said.
Revens has been a private-practice attorney for the past 20 years. He previously owned a liquor store and was a real-estate developer.
After speaking with him twice, she said Revens didn’t appear to have rudimentary knowledge of topical energy issues such as the percentage of income payment plan (PIPP) and the 2019 natural-gas outage on Aquidneck Island.
“I believe Senator Revens to be a highly knowledgeable person with lots of legislative, judicial, and political experience but we need a public utility commissioner that has been involved with solutions to these challenges and has a working knowledge of the energy and utility landscape that we will be facing over the next six years,” Anderson said. “Lets find a commissioner who is already knowledgeable about, and enthusiastically committed to, this process.”
Another first-term senator, Sen. Cynthia Mendes, D-East Providence, noted his appointment reeks of a handout to a political pal.
“There is an unspoken and unreasonable expectation that is heavy in the ethos of this chamber to heap heavy praise on the powerful,” she said. “We were not voted in these seats to pat political dynamos on the back and dole out accolades.”
She told ecoRI News that insider politics and a lack of transparency were big reason voters elected her in an upset win over a powerful incumbent.
“In Rhode Island we’ve had enough with power handoffs behind closed doors,” Mendes said.
Revens’ nomination was opposed by Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, among others.
According to the PUC, no dates has been announced for Revens’ first day on the job. The position comes with a $139,000 annual salary. He was nominated to the three-member commission by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo.
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I agree with Rep Mendes. We need PUC commissioners who are familiar with the energy sources and grid of the future, not the past. This was a bad choice that could make our Power Sector Transformation slower and more difficult.