Profile: U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

Our junior senator wants everyone to wake up.

Photography by Jesse Burke.

On the evening of July 27, 2017, Sheldon Whitehouse gave a speech about health care on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Unlike his fiftieth, 100th and 150th Senate floor speeches imploring his colleagues to address climate change, this speech didn’t receive national attention. It was overshadowed by the most dramatic moment of the evening when eighty-year-old Republican Senator John McCain, fresh off of a recent brain cancer diagnosis, broke ranks with his party and delivered a thumbs-down vote to kill the GOP’s much-touted effort to repeal Obamacare.

But Whitehouse’s speech was notable, nonetheless. “This [repeal] bill is the product of the most secretive and partisan process I have seen in my ten years in the Senate,” he told his colleagues, standing at a rostrum in front of a pair of marble columns. “Who did the magicians who came up with this listen to?”

He proceeded to list a number of public opponents of the repeal, including the American Medical Association, the American Pediatrics Society, the Academy of Family Physicians, the American Hospital Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, various addiction treatment groups and community health centers, and numerous Republican and Democratic governors.

It is a bill, he said, “that everybody hates…that will cause damage in everybody’s home state,” and yet this doesn’t matter because it is the bill that the GOP’s anonymous, deep-pocketed donors wanted to pass. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when a party becomes beholden to a small handful of creepy billionaires and stops listening to the people,” he said, before yielding the floor.

It was a striking accusation: Whitehouse was not only calling Senate Republicans corrupt, at one point in the speech he accused them of “conducting a freakish social experiment…on other people’s health coverage.” But it was hardly uncharacteristic. In the decade since arriving in Washington, the junior U.S. senator from Rhode Island has become perhaps the state’s most outspoken and nationally visible politician — and also the bearer of its darkest message.

He has written that “Congress is unwilling or unable to stand up to corporate power” and that the American media system is awash with a “massive propaganda effort…churning full steam to deny the facts of major policy issues wherever those facts are contrary to corporate interests.”

He has said that the “Supreme Court…shows patterns that are completely inconsistent with disinterested neutrality” and that “lawlessness is the rule” at federal regulatory agencies like the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

He has called the current Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump, “disgraceful,” “childish” and “careless with the truth,” and said that the current White House has a “toxic spirit.”

And on his trademark issue, climate change caused by human activity, he has said that potential future effects are so grave that, if unchecked, they will completely change the landscape of our state, with rising seas turning Rhode Island into an archipelago (“Warwick Neck…becomes Warwick Neck Island,” “Warren and Bristol…get several of their own new islands”), and flooding into Providence high enough to cover the steps of City Hall.

Whitehouse has cast himself as a bulwark against these encroachments on the environment, on electoral and regulatory integrity, on the sanctity of scientific facts and the rule of law, and, in that late-July speech inside the U.S. Capitol, the health of hundreds of millions of Americans. Indeed, in Whitehouse’s world, the stakes are so high and conditions so dire, it would not be exaggerating to say he is simultaneously trying to save American democracy and the planet on which it exists.

But, first, he has to get re-elected.

Whitehouse is the great-great-grandson of the West Coast railroad baron Charles Crocker, and with an estimated net worth of more than $6 million, he is reportedly the Ocean State’s wealthiest politician. But when he tells his story, he emphasizes a different kind of inheritance. “If you don’t know me, I grew up in the foreign service,” he said during an event at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, this spring. “My dad was a foreign service officer. My grandfather was a foreign service officer. My uncle was a foreign service officer. And I suspect my dad’s brother would have been a foreign service officer, except that he was killed flying a Navy fighter plane over the Philippines in World War II, so he never came home. But I was brought up in that tradition.”

Whitehouse’s upbringing was a mix of the extraordinary and hyper-traditional. On one hand, he spent part of his childhood accompanying his father, Charles, on his far-flung assignments as a foreign service officer and U.S. ambassador. “As I was growing up, my father was posted to Cambodia, South Africa, Congo, Guinea, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand,” he writes in the introduction to his 2012 book, On Virtues: Quotations and Insight to Live a Full, Honorable, and Truly American Life.

These places were physically dangerous (a friend’s mother died of rabies, he notes) and politically volatile, and they left him with a strong sense of American exceptionalism. On one level, events in the foreign countries threw the security and stability of the United States into stark relief. And, on another, the fact that foreign service officers would subject their families to such risk indicated that there was something special about America inspiring them. As he said at the event in Boston, “There was something about the city on the hill; there was something about the lamp that made a big difference. And that has been baked into me.” At the same time, Whitehouse came from a socially and politically connected family — his father dated Jacqueline Bouvier before she married JFK and was known to enjoy fox hunting — and when he returned stateside, he followed a classic blue-blood educational track: prep school at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire; college at Yale; law school at the University of Virginia. Whitehouse graduated from UVA in 1982 and began a career in public office almost immediately, when he was hired in 1984 as a special assistant attorney general of Rhode Island. He would remain in the AG’s office until the early 1990s when he shifted to Governor Bruce Sundlun’s office where, as special counsel, in one famous instance, he was literally standing by the governor’s side when he made the controversial decision to shut down the state’s credit unions during the RISDIC crisis.

Colleagues from that time remember Whitehouse as smart, focused and prodigiously hard-working. And, in interviews today, he still points to his role in wonky, behind-the-scenes projects such as the worker’s compensation reform package passed by the General Assembly in 1992 as something he’ll “feel a lot of satisfaction in, in a rocking chair in a nursing home.” In the mid-1990s, he was appointed Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney by then-President Bill Clinton, when, among other things, he began early work on the investigation that eventually turned into the Plunder Dome prosecution of Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, and helped secure a massive, multi-million dollar settlement from the company responsible for the 1996 oil spill that dumped more than 850 million gallons of heating oil into the waters between South Kingstown and Block Island. After four years in that appointed post, he set his eyes on what would be his first elected position: Rhode Island’s attorney general.

By this time, Whitehouse had established himself as a capable public official, but he was far from a natural retail politician. He once told the story of how, at a political event early in his career — the opening of the train station in Kingston — he realized he was “too chicken to talk to strangers” before retreating to his car to muster the courage to meet the crowds and shake hands.

Veteran political consultant and strategist Bill Fischer, who served as Whitehouse’s campaign manager in his run for AG and later as his chief of staff once he was elected, remembers the difficulty of convincing Whitehouse to take off his blazer and roll up his sleeves when he walked in a parade. When they finally convinced him, Fischer remembers Whitehouse saying ruefully, “I can’t imagine if my father saw me right now.”

Whitehouse won the AG’s office by nearly a two-to-one margin. But he would soon face some of the most severe turbulence of his career. After a relatively quiet first year, 2000 brought the accidental shooting of off-duty, black Providence Police Officer Cornel Young Jr. by fellow police officers — an incident that briefly made Rhode Island a national flashpoint for tense discussions of race and the police, and brought legions of protestors outside of the AG’s office in Providence.

“That summer…we probably traveled to [almost] every black church in Providence [to] meet with reverends and constituents to explain grand jury process and things of that nature,” Fischer says.

Then, just four months later, a fifteen-year-old Providence girl named Jennifer Rivera, who was waiting to testify as a key witness in a murder trial, was fatally shot in the head while skipping rope on a South Providence sidewalk. The incident, which spurred a Whitehouse-led reform of the state’s witness-protection protocol, still haunts him. “Oh my God, I wish I caught that sooner,” he says in a recent interview.

After three years as attorney general, Whitehouse threw his name into the Democratic primary race for governor, a campaign he ultimately lost by fewer than 1,000 votes to Myrth York, who herself went on to lose to Republican businessman and first-time politician, Donald Carcieri. The loss was painful for Whitehouse. The fast-moving hubbub of the campaign had abruptly turned to silence, and when his term as AG ran out in 2003, he became a private citizen for the first time in years. Though he soon found work at the prestigious local law firm Edwards and Angell, he didn’t seem particularly fulfilled by his new life. “I’m no longer doing what I believe I was raised and trained and basically bred to do,” he told Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst.

He wouldn’t stay on the sideline for long. In the mid-2000s, with President George W. Bush’s national approval rating drifting down toward a second-term average of 37 percent, Whitehouse saw an opportunity in a U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Lincoln Chafee. Once he joined the race, the Associated Press would describe it as a battle between “scions of wealthy blue-blood families with a history of public service.” But, at that time at least, there was a party line separating them. In his TV ads, Whitehouse touted the endorsements of prominent Democrats (former president Bill Clinton, former Senator Claiborne Pell, acting Senator Jack Reed), emphasized his resume and his family tradition of service, and cast himself as a foil to the Bush-led national Republican party. His slogan was a pun that played to disgruntled Democrats: “A Whitehouse in Washington You Can Trust.”

It worked. Whitehouse won the seat by more than 26,000 votes, and, in doing so, swung a U.S. Senate seat blue that had been red for forty years.