RI GOP lawmaker in Conn. pot bust loses top job
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The top Republican in the Rhode Island House, who was arrested in Connecticut two weeks ago on charges of driving drunk and possessing marijuana, was voted out of his leadership position Tuesday.
Republican lawmakers decided Rep. Robert Watson will be replaced as minority leader by Rep. Brian Newberry.
Police arrested Watson at a police checkpoint in East Haven, Conn., on April 22. Watson smelled of alcohol and marijuana and performed poorly on field sobriety tests, according to a police report documenting the stop. The officer who detained him said he found a bag of marijuana and a wooden pipe in his pocket.
Watson, who is from East Greenwich, a wealthy town of 13,000 residents in the center of the state, drew criticism in February after he gave a speech to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce in which he said facetiously that state lawmakers had their priorities right “if you are a Guatemalan gay man who likes to gamble and smokes marijuana.”
Watson declined to address the specifics of his ouster but said he plans to keep his House seat.
“I’m not going anywhere. I will continue to be the same voice that I have always been,” Watson told The Associated Press. “I’m proud of the role I have played.”
Fellow Republican Rep. Joseph Trillo, of Warwick, said he didn’t anticipate further sanctions. He said it was up to Watson’s constituents whether he survives the next election cycle.
“If I were one of his constituents, though, I would be concerned about this,” said Trillo, who has worked with Watson for 11 years.
Watson, who has served as minority leader since 1998 and was first elected to the House in 1992, said last week that he uses marijuana to treat recurring pain from a severe bout of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, which hospitalized him last fall. However, he insisted he hadn’t smoked any on the day of his arrest.
Rhode Island has a medical marijuana law, but Watson said he never sought a marijuana prescription because he wanted to keep his use private.
That explanation persuaded only two of Rhode Island’s 10 House Republicans to side with him in Tuesday’s vote of no confidence.
Newberry was one of six House Republicans to vote against Watson, and one was absent.
“He had illegal drugs on him in Connecticut. You can’t get around that,” Newberry said. “When our own leader gets involved in that — that reflects badly on us all.”
A second vote, to install Newberry as the new Republican leader in the House, was 6-2, he said, with Watson casting one of the votes against him. Newberry, who is from North Smithfield, a small town in the northern part of the state, said he hopes to delegate more tasks to other members of his caucus and to reach out more often to Democrats.
On April 26, a day after reports of Watson’s arrest surfaced, his House colleagues unanimously voted to retain him as minority leader.
At that point, Newberry said, none of the politicians had had “a chance to digest things.”
“We hadn’t even had a chance to talk to one another,” Newberry said. “The safest course of action was to keep the status quo.”
Watson said last week that he had consumed “several” drinks at the time of his arrest but wasn’t drunk. An alcohol breath test performed at the East Haven police station determined that Watson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.05, below the state’s 0.08 limit. He still faces drunken-driving charges after failing the field sobriety tests.
Watson said police targeted him, adopting a more aggressive attitude once they saw a legislative ID in his wallet. East Haven police called that claim “ridiculous.”
Watson was released on $500 bond. He faces a May 11 court date in Connecticut.
Associated Press writer David Klepper contributed to this report.