The hippest guy in state government

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 26, 2007

In 2004, Segal enjoyed an easy time of it when he ran for reelection (a handwritten tally from the race remains posted to the outside of the bedroom door in his East Side apartment, since, he says, he will likely never again enjoy such a large margin of victory).
The political environment was just as congenial for Segal in 2006, since the long-time representative in the House District 2, Paul Moura, a member of Speaker Murphy’s leadership team, had moved into a different district. Making the pragmatic move of running as a Democrat, Segal easily vaulted into the General Assembly.

Hale fellow, well met
The décor in the Ives Street apartment that Segal shares with two roommates — heavy on cassette tapes, vinyl LPs, snapshots, and assorted ephemera, including an easy chair that once belonged to New York Times’ journalistic heir Arthur Gregg Sulzberger — is unremarkable for a 20-something in Providence.
Yet Segal’s regular whirl of activity offers a window into his focus as an unassuming, hardworking activist. When I caught up with him for an interview last Thursday, he had just returned, toting a copy of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, from Washington, DC, where he attended the presidential nominating convention of the Service Employees International Union and spent some time working on a tax-policy project with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
He hopes the latter will result in a regional compact that would reduce corporations’ ability to play New Eng¬land states off against one another for tax benefits. In another sign of his populist tendencies, he plans to keep hammering the Providence-based multinational Textron, in part for what critics call the company’s production of cluster bombs.
Considering how Governor Donald L. Carcieri, Speaker Murphy, and Senate President Joseph Montalbano share a pro-life point of view, it’s fair to question the legislative impact of a Green-turned-Democrat like Segal.
The representative acknowledges it isn’t easy in a 75-member chamber with perhaps 15 like-minded progressives, but that hasn’t daunted him.
He plans to make another run in the new legislative session on a measure — limiting prison time for probation violators — that died after passing the House this year. A petition he circulated with Repre¬sentative Art Handy (D-Cranston) and Sen¬ator Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), to restore some of the cuts in this year’s budget, although ultimately unsuccessful, attracted prominent attention in the ProJo and was signed by more than 40 Democrats.
Segal says he looks for alliances on those issues — like environmental ones — that might enjoy broad support. Not coincidentally, he thinks Rhode Island could overcome its current budgetary woes by becoming an incubator for renewable energy initiatives.
In some respects, the Providence Democrat is highly unorthodox. Earning $14,000 (plus health coverage) as a legislator, he continues to spurn full-time employment, explaining, “I make a point of having a schedule that allows me to be more of an activist.” This sheds light on why the white Toyota Camry in his driveway remains broken, and how, “I’ve been walking for a few years now.”
Yet if Segal’s politics put him firmly to the left of the General Assembly mainstream, his manner and dedication have made him a hale fellow, well met.
Representative David Caprio (D-Narragansett), a conservative-leaning Democrat who sits next to Segal in the House, says their intense discussions on the issues make his colleague a fun neighbor. “It’s nice to have another person, someone of the younger generation, in the room to sometimes educate the rest of us as to what might not be obvious on a day-to-day basis,” Caprio says. “He really has a strong desire for public service.”
Peter Asen, a former Segal campaign strategist who is now the manager for Michael Brennan’s US representative campaign in Maine, says, “I think he’s a very hard worker, and the success that he’s had, in terms of getting stuff passed in the council and in the General Assembly, is a reflection of the hard work he’s put into it. He’s willing to do a lot of the hard work, when you don’t always get the credit. I think he is still that person who first ran five years ago who is not always that comfortable with public attention.”
Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, says, “At a relatively young age, he [Segal] has figured out how to work with the system that’s up there [on Smith Hill] and to actually get legislation passed. It seems it came to him so easily that you forget how hard it is to actually accomplish.” Walsh notes that some Democrats disagree with Segal’s views, and may even find some of them offensive, “but not the person. That makes a world of difference in trying to get things done.”

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