A black tarp covering an empty Senate desk and a vase of white flowers perched atop served as a visual reminder of the late Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin’s influence on the R.I. Statehouse through the final days of the legislative session.
Goodwin died in April at age 58 after a nearly four-year battle with cancer. First elected in 1986, she represented Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood and was the second-longest serving member of the Senate.
Two months later, the longtime Providence senator’s name and policy priorities continued to influence debate among policymakers.
“Maryellen’s legacy will live forever,” Sen. Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat who called Goodwin her friend and mentor, said in an interview on Thursday. “Her impact for Rhode Island was one that will be remembered for people that had the honor to work with her and the people she fought for.”
That impact was especially strong when it came to the causes Goodwin cared most about: health care coverage and early cancer screening, consumer protections, elder care and labor standards.
Case in point: Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski referred to Goodwin when presenting her bill to mandate insurance coverage of medically necessary mammograms in a June 15 floor debate.
“She was a huge proponent of this issue,” Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, said of Goodwin.
Mandating insurance coverage of early cancer screenings was personal for Goodwin, whose own colorectal cancer diagnosis could have been detected sooner, as she told lawmakers when pushing for insurance coverage of preventative screenings and colonoscopies.
That bill, named the “Maryellen Goodwin Colorectal Screening Act” was signed into law in 2021.
But Goodwin didn’t stop there. She introduced 15 bills in the 2023 session, ranging from capping patients’ copays on specialty drugs to preventing convicted felons from buying firearms.
Not all her proposals proved successful — the firearms legislation died alongside other gun-related bills, as did a controversial push to name the Newport campus of the Community College of Rhode Island after former Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed. Critics opposed honoring Paiva Weed, who resigned in 2017 to become president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, because of her opposition while in the State House to legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion rights, among other topics.
Paiva Weed was not available for comment.
Cano couldn’t help but think the outcomes of some stalled bills might have been different if Goodwin was there to champion them.
“She was very passionate about her priorities,” Cano said. “She would have been a force until the end.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio agreed.
“You did not get in her way,” he said of Goodwin, who he called a close friend during their nearly four decades together in the Senate.
One legislative victory with special significance for Cano was a bill she introduced on Goodwin’s behalf that merges the state’s Independent Provider Program into its Personal Choice program, streamlining the way in which people can sign up for in-home care providers.
“Maryellen’s legacy was to always do what’s best for Rhode Islanders, and long-term care insurance was an issue that was really important to her,” Cano said. “I was honored to carry it to the finish line for her.”
A provision added to the state’s fiscal 2024 budget that ensures Medicare coverage for people throughout their pregnancies was another win Goodwin would have been proud of, having introduced legislation attempting to create that same coverage in prior years, Cano said.
The race to replace Goodwin
A special election is planned to choose Goodwin’s replacement for the Senate District 1 seat. As of Thursday (eight days ahead of the candidate declaration deadline) four candidates have entered the race.
The three Democratic candidates are Providence Rep. Nathan Biah (who dropped out of the 1st Congressional District race to instead vie for Goodwin’s seat); Jake Bissaillon, Ruggerio’s chief of staff; and Michelle Rivera, policy director for Progreso Latino. Niyoka Powell, second vice-chair of the Rhode Island GOP, is also running as a Republican.
The primary is scheduled for Sept. 5, with a Nov. 7 general election.
Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.