PROVIDENCE — For East Providence legislators Katherine Kazarian and Gregg Amore, they truly took a “fresh” approach to governance as the first-time lawmakers waded their way through the waters of their inaugural session in the State House of Representatives earlier this year.
Both Miss Kazarian, who represents District 63, and Mr. Amore, who represents District 65, sought and accepted the challenge of being a “rookie” on Smith Hill in stride and with great exuberance. They’ve formed a close bond and a mutual respect through their initial experiences, serving together on the House Committee on Municipal Government. Miss Kazarian also has a seat on the Corporations Committee while Mr. Amore also sits on Health, Education and Welfare.
Recently, the pair of Democratic freshmen, each of whom never before held elected office of any kind, sat down to discuss their first term in office, what they gleaned from it and what they did and didn’t accomplish during their initial six months at the State Capital.
“It’s been a very exciting experience and it’s been very interesting to see how state government really works,” Miss Kazarian, just a few years removed from her undergraduate studies at Columbia University, said. “And also to see how state government works in committee because we’re both on Municipal Finance. It was interesting to learn about the other parts of Rhode Island, meeting the representatives and listening to their concerns. It’s just been exciting and I’m very honored to be here.”
Added Mr. Amore, in his third decade as a history teacher at East Providence High School, “It’s been a great learning experience. You’re never prepared for it. When you get here you find out how unprepared you were. But that’s it. It’s a learning experience. The great part about a part-time legislature is that everyone brings their own background and expertise into the room and so both of us have been able to contribute because we each have individual strengths that other people don’t have. I tell people it’s like a university setting. In each committee you learn so much from the experts in their fields. You become more well rounded learning the subject matter.”
What passed and what didn’t
Both freshmen had what could be called signature pieces of legislation passed during their first sessions. For Mr. Amore, whose wife, Lee, recently battled and beat breast cancer, his was one of a more personal in nature than most.
“I think there were a lot of good things that were passed but the media, by and large, doesn’t give much attention to, but for the oral chemotherapy parity bill was important to me personally. I don’t know if it was the most important bill we passed as a body, but I do think it will help hundreds and possibly thousands of people,” he said.
He continued, “It allows people to purchase oral chemotherapy drugs at the same rate as they purchase or co-pay intravenous chemotherapy. The average rate for intravenous chemotherapy is anywhere from $30 to $100, but there are oral treatments that you may have to pay $500, $800 or $1,000 a month in order to take those particular drugs. Unfortunately, there were people where the better course of treatment would have oral chemotherapy, but their budgets or their health coverage did not allow it. This takes that out of the equation. Now, the only thing they have to worry about is getting better.
“It’s important to those people and it’s also important because we were the 26th state to pass it, which means the Federal government will be forced to take a look at how its policy applies and whether Medicare and Medicaid should be brought into the mix. That’s something I’m proud of. I got a lot of help from Katherine. She was a co-sponsor. I received support from (E.P. Rep. and House Finance Committee) Chairman (Helio) Melo. And it passed with unanimous consent. It was a long journey. I think we had five hearings. It was a battle because you’re dealing with one of the largest corporations in the state, Blue Cross-Blue Shield. But they worked with us, made it a better bill.”
Miss Kazarian was the lead author of a bill passed that streamlines regulatory codes throughout the state, though the piece of legislation she sponsored that didn’t pass it what stands out for her.
“There were a lot bills that passed that I was a part of that I’m proud of, but there was one issue that I chose kind of as my baby that didn’t pass,” she explained. “I talked with a lot of social workers around Rhode Island to get a feel of what the climate was for them and as right now the ratio between the number of social workers and students in schools in rather high. It’s making their job more difficult and they’re not being as effective as possible. And we’re finding that as they retire their positions aren’t being refilled. Their students are just being reallocated to other social workers in the system.
She added, “It’s something I became more aware of after Newtown and then we almost had another shooting recently in Georgia. Mental health issues are a problem society needs to address. There’s a disconnect between some students, teachers and parents, and I think the social worker can fill that gap. They’re really important to education and to the State of Rhode Island. That’s why I put in a piece of legislation to limit the ratio to 1-to-400, which the NEA suggests. It didn’t pass, but we did have a hearing, which was a great. It didn’t go anywhere, but that’s something I hope we address in the future.”
Reality vs. idealism
Neither Miss Kazarian nor Mr. Amore could be considered the typical wide-eyed optimist first year legislators are often portrayed as being. They both said they knew going in things wouldn’t be easy or cut-and-dried.
“I think you become more realistic in your ideals, if that makes any sense. You kind of see how the process works and how you fit into it,” Miss Kazarian said.
Mr. Amore, while understanding the nature of the beast, still admitted to being a bit dismayed at the lack of exposure some important accomplishments made by the legislature received.
“Katherine had a bill passed that went in the right direction dealing with regulatory codes,” he explained. “That’s what I hear from businesses. It’s not so much about the taxes as it is about getting through the regulatory red tape and how to get more consistent between the state and the town or from town to town. That’s the type of thing that doesn’t get the publicity.
“We passed a bill in Municipal Government that would allow developers to count slope when it comes to measuring land, which allows them to put more dwellings on the piece of property. We were one of the few states that still had that restriction and it’s one of those things that has no environmental impact. So as the market comes back, as more houses are built, that’s going to have an economic impact. It was an important bill, but you didn’t see or read that anywhere, which is disappointing.”
How long to serve
There was little during their first go-round to disappoint either of Miss Kazarian or Mr. Amore in terms of the actual task of governing. The legislators said their first year in office did little to sway them in any direction, whether it be away from service or to increase their desire to remain in the House for a longer duration.
“I don’t see me having a set number of years. I just see everyday being here as an honor and it’s an honor to have been elected by the people of my district. As long as I serve a purpose up here and as long as they want me serve, that’s what I’ll do,” Miss Kazarian said.
Added Mr. Amore, “It’s a tremendous honor to chosen by your community to represent them and it’s a tremendous honor to walk in here every day. It’s such a beautiful building, a historic building. I don’t know if it does, but it should, it should humble you to walk in here and realize you’re supposed to be doing the people’s business and representing them the best you can.
“The thing that is obvious is the longer you’re here, the more you can get done. That’s just the nature of politics. So seniority has its rewards. But does that mean I’m going to be staying for a long time? I don’t know, but one of the things I learned this year is that the average length of terms for Rhode Island legislators is eight years. Some of them, like the Speaker, have been here for 20 years, but they’re kind of an anomaly now.”
How best to serve
The new reps each acknowledged the level of cynicism the public has about the legislature, admitting to some of it themselves prior to their election. Both, however, believe good, meaningful work has and can be accomplished on Smith Hill.
“I think there’s a lot of speculation on talk radio and in the newspaper that things aren’t getting done up here and that people are only working for their own self interest. But I can definitely say from what I’ve seen, and it’s a mantra Gregg and I both came up here with, is that we really are working for the people of East Providence,” Miss Kazarian said. “And there’s definitely a positive vibe from the other East Providence officials. There’s a good camaraderie between the group and we’re definitely working on behalf of the people of the city.”
Added Mr. Amore, “What I’ve tried to do my first year and it’s something I want people to know is that I have been in constant contact with any constituent who wants to be in constant contact with me. I returned every call, answered every email, had breakfast with them. I’m their voice even though we may not agree on every aspect of every issue. I just want them to know that the line is open and I’m doing the best I can to represent their interests.”