AROUND THE HOUSE: While the décor in Segal’s East Side apartment is unremarkable for a
20-something, his dedication and unassuming manner have endeared him to fellow legislators.
When state Representative David Segal staged a fundraiser in May at Nick-a-Nee’s, the watering hole in Providence’s Jewelry District, the idiosyncratic crowd indicated just how different this event was from your standard legislative money-maker.
Aside from the reasonably expected throng of 20-something activists, creative-types, and some older Fox Point constituents, the attendees encompassed the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House of Representatives. Even Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, with whom Segal had sparred when he served on the Providence City Council and who had worked against Segal’s preferred council successor, made the scene. The What Cheer? Brigade, a roving brass band with a punk rock spirit, offered the soundtrack for the free-wheeling evening.
“He throws a hell of a party,” acknowledges House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), who says he attended the event to help maintain a working relationship with Segal. “He may be liberal,” Watson says, “but I also believe him to be open-minded. Republicans appreciate an open mind on the House floor. It’s ironically rare these days.”
Segal is rare in more ways than one. For starters, the well-liked 27-year-old Providence Democrat, who enjoys a relatively high profile for a freshman, nimbly moves between the worlds of Smith Hill politics, Providence’s creative underground, and the post-collegiate realm of young activists.
More significantly, the soft-spoken Segal, the second-youngest member of the House, offers a prime example of how young people can advance progressive politics even while serving in a legislature dominated by social conservatives.
“I respect the fact that he shows so much chutzpah at a young age,” says House Speaker William J. Murphy, who attended the time at Nick-a-Nee’s with Majority Leader Gordon Fox and a half-dozen or so other reps. Pointing to how Segal helped pass a renewable-energy measure into law this year, Murphy says, “He’s not afraid to take on an issue, and he understands how to build consensus. He’s very respectful of the other members. He’s just a pleasure to have in the chamber.”
Segal, a Maryland native who moved to Providence after graduating from Columbia University in 2001, faced sharp criticism and charges of being a carpetbagger when he won a city council seat a relatively short time later — becoming the first Green Party candidate to win an election in Rhode Island — at age 22.
Mixing idealism and unabashedly liberal politics with a seriousness of purpose, the rep has long since converted many, if not most, of his critics into believers. And while elected officials are generally wary of making detailed public statements, Segal frequently blogs on the progressive site www.rifuture.org, regularly publishes op-eds in the Providence Journal, and he is one of two managing editors of a new, mostly entertainment-related blog,www.providencedailydose.com. One friend even likens the representative, given his ubiquity, to Adrian Grenier’s hip actor character on the HBO hit Entourage.
If politics is the art of the possible, as Otto Von Bismarck once remarked, Segal seems like a skilled practitioner.
The Providence Democrat, though, who says he never planned on a career in politics, talks about sometimes being left with a sense of awkwardness, feeling older than his age in some settings and younger in other ones.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering how few people move, say, between a seat in the State House and meetings of Brown University’s Student Labor Alliance. Yet it also raises a provocative question: if Segal can do it, why haven’t more young progressives made their way into Rhode Island politics?