James Henry Kiernan

Inducted: 2017
Born: 1884
Died: 1965

On a crisp January morning in 1915, a thirty-year-old freshman representative from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Providence strode into the Rhode Island state capitol. This novice legislator was James Henry Kiernan. For nearly fifty-one years thereafter Jim Kiernan would serve with distinction in the Rhode Island House, and for thirty-five years, until the opening day of the 1950 session, he would never miss a meeting.
Back in 1915 Jim Kiernan was a member of a dynamic but outnumbered Democratic party in the General Assembly. In the half century that followed, Jim not only witnessed the rise of the Democrats to a position of dominance in the General Assembly but was among those most responsible for that ascendancy.
In the Fall elections of 1934 the Democrats finally gained control of the General Assembly. In the session of January 1935 which followed, Kiernan was in the thick of the bitter fight that removed the infamous Brayton Law from the books and reorganized state government, including the state Supreme Court.
Jim Kiernan’s prominent role in the “Bloodless Revolution” of ’35 was soon acknowledged when his colleges chose him Speaker of the House for the 1937-38 session. It was during this turbulent era that “Mr. Democrat,” as he was called, became chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, floor leader of the Democratic majority, a member of the Democratic State Committee, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for over twenty years, and Democratic National Committeeman from Rhode Island.
Representative Kiernan held the judiciary committee post continuously from 1939, and the position of majority leader continuously from 1940, until his death in 1965. In these offices he displayed the leadership and skill that earned him the respect of political colleagues and adversaries alike. As the party’s floor leader, he sponsored hundreds of bills that benefitted Rhode Islanders in all walks of life. Jim Kiernan was a fighter for humane legislation throughout his career.
As a lifelong bachelor he made politics his life and was even appointed by Governor Dennis Roberts to be chairman of a committee to study the state’s divorce laws. He was also active in several Irish and Catholic organizations and served as president of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.
On December 9, 1965, the venerable eighty-one-year-old Jim Kiernan died. An appreciative public was allowed to pay him a final tribute when his body was placed in the rotunda of his beloved state capitol, the first time a public official had been so honored since Governor Aram J. Pothier lay in state in February 1928.

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