- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 3, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A state legislature with one of the most lopsided Democratic majorities in the country opened its 2017 session Tuesday with the swearing-in of lawmakers and the election of a House speaker and Senate president.

About 86 percent of Rhode Island lawmakers in the new General Assembly are Democrats. That’s second only to the Hawaii Legislature, which is more than 90 percent Democratic and where the lone Republican state senator was defeated in November.

Democrat-led state governments are becoming increasingly rare as Republican President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office this month. Republicans made gains in statehouses around the country during the November election and now have total control over 24 state governments, while Democrats have just five, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Besides Rhode Island and Hawaii, the other states where Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office are California, Delaware and Oregon.

Among Rhode Island’s traditionally Democrat-leaning New England neighbors, Massachusetts has an 80 percent Democratic majority but a moderate Republican governor. Connecticut Democrats still have a majority in their state’s House of Representatives but share power with the GOP in an equally divided Senate.

Rhode Island’s lopsided Democratic majority doesn’t necessarily make it one of the most liberal states. Several newcomers elected in November add to an informal wing of self-described progressives who supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic presidential primary. But many Rhode Island Democrats lean socially or fiscally conservative.

Lawmakers from each chamber took the oath Tuesday.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, both Democrats, were each re-elected Tuesday to their leadership roles. The Senate unanimously picked Paiva Weed to continue the role she’s held since 2009. Mattiello also easily won re-election along partisan lines with 63 Democrats supporting him and all 11 Republicans voting for GOP House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan. One Democrat was absent.

Mattiello’s leadership vote came after a bruising re-election fight he won by just 85 votes over a Republican challenger to represent his suburban Cranston district.

Mattiello’s views on gun rights and other policy issues put him to the right of many of the new Democratic House members taking office for the first time Tuesday, but he still won their votes and there was no other Democratic alternative nominated. He and Paiva Weed had already won unanimous support in party caucus meetings.

One of the Democrats who won a House seat after defeating an incumbent Democrat in the primary said she talked with constituents about Mattiello and they were on board with her supporting him.

“My neighborhood is one of the lowest-income districts in Providence. I’m not going to spit in the speaker’s eyes on Day One,” said Providence Democratic Rep. Moira Walsh.

Mattiello said during an acceptance speech Tuesday evening that his priority this year will be phasing out car taxes and eliminating them within the next five years. He also said he wanted to reduce the estate tax, provide more tax relief for retirees, invest in education and raise the minimum wage.

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