The turning point in the contest for speaker of the House of Representatives came Saturday, according to a key leader in the battle to secure the seat for Cranston’s Nicholas Mattiello.
With the outcome of Tuesday’s vote assured and representatives on the floor talking excitedly among themselves, Warwick state Rep. Joseph McNamara said the drive for Mattiello – who previously served as majority leader – started Friday at 11 a.m. as news began to spread that state and federal authorities were searching Gordon Fox’s home and office. The outcome of the vote, he said, wasn’t guaranteed until Tuesday morning.
Fox, a Providence Democrat, on Saturday announced he would step down as speaker and not seek a new term in the House. He made his resignation from the leadership post official on Monday.
The nature of the law enforcement action remains unclear, with neither authorities nor Fox discussing the matter.
McNamara said he worked the phone throughout the weekend and on Monday, rallying support for Mattiello under the banner that he would make economic growth and job creation the top priorities.
The feeling the effort could be successful came at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“We brought in John DeSimone [D-Dist. 5, Providence] as [the planned new] majority leader with six votes, and we had the momentum to win,” McNamara said.
DeSimone’s post was the only leadership promise Mattiello made to garner votes, but McNamara expects he’ll play a major role going forward. He currently chairs the Health, Education and Welfare Committee.
McNamara sees himself in a role as a top advisor to the speaker, as they are in agreement that improving the economy and the business climate must come first.
Asked what will be different with Mattiello as speaker, McNamara said he expects to see a focus on workforce education, business development and tax changes to make Rhode Island more competitive.
Mattiello added definition to the agenda after taking the oath of office administered by Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney. With the votes counted, Mattiello had 61 versus six for state Rep. Michael Marcello of Coventry. There were six abstentions and two non-votes, including Fox, who was not present.
While the final tally was lopsided for Mattiello, his victory wasn’t a foregone conclusion Monday. At that point, Mattiello was thought to have had a two- or three-vote edge on the 38 votes he needed to win. On Monday, McNamara put the count at 45 for Mattiello.
In his remarks, Mattiello said there would be changes, and that in the next few days he would meet with “our finance team to begin making tough decisions.”
“Having the highest unemployment rate in the nation is truly unacceptable. Business cannot – and will not – continue as usual. People want to work, and I am committed to collaborating with businesses to grow jobs and put people back to work. I believe there are policies and legislative opportunities that support these goals,” he said.
Specifically, he said his team would look at the state’s tax structure, unemployment tax and disability insurance. He also cited the need for regulatory reforms to make it easier to do business in Rhode Island.
Warwick Republican Rep. Joseph Trillo said Mattiello represents a “shift from the progressive issues” – which he listed as gay rights, a ban on plastic bags and clean air and water issues – to a focus “on what we can do to get jobs.”
Trillo, who voted for Mattiello, said hard work lies ahead.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said.
Referring to lobbyists and special interests, he said, “there’s a little army ready to blow the ship up as soon as it turns.”
Trillo put the unions as leading the army.
“They’re part of the problem of attracting business,” he said.
In addition, Trillo said, many legislators owe their election to the unions, making it all the more difficult to bring change.
“It’s a vicious circle,” he said. “I’m expecting Mattiello to keep some balance so it doesn’t get crazy.”
It did get a bit crazy, however, before the vote for Mattiello was official. During the roll call vote, Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-Coventry, West Warwick, Warwick) sought to speak, prompting debate whether she could interrupt the vote. Morgan said she was looking for both candidates for speaker to answer questions so that she might make her decision. Earlier in the day she released a statement listing six issues she was looking for them to commit to, including elimination of the master lever and state subsides of the Deepwater offshore wind farm among other issues.
“Our energy is too expensive, our regulations too many, our legal environment too hostile to businesses, our property, sales, estate, income and corporate taxes too high. The average guy is simply getting crushed, and as a state representative, I can’t stand back, close my eyes and pretend that this is OK,” Morgan said in her statement.
She was shut down, however, and her questions weren’t addressed. As the session started, it was apparent Mattiello had the votes and some lawmakers questioned whether Marcello would release his commitments and likewise fall in behind Mattiello.
Marcello was under no illusions.
“I’m out,” he said, explaining that he no longer will chair the House Oversight Committee.
Soon after Mattiello’s election, the speaker’s office announced leadership appointments in addition to DeSimone’s selection as majority leader. Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton Portsmouth) was named majority whip, and Rep. Joseph S. Almeida (D-Dist. 12, Providence) as deputy majority whip.
The office also profiled Mattiello.
He was first elected to the House in 2006, and has served on the Finance, Judiciary and Rules committees.
A self-employed attorney concentrating in personal injury and family law, Mattiello, 50, is a 1988 graduate of Suffolk University School of Law and is a member of the Rhode Island Bar Association. He earned his undergraduate degree from Boston College in 1985 and is a 1981 graduate of La Salle Academy. He and his wife, Mary Ann, have two sons: Nicholas, a 21-year-old University of Rhode Island student, and Anthony, who is 19 and attends Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.
A Cranston resident since he was 7, Mattiello’s law office is on Park Avenue. He still attends his childhood church, Immaculate Conception Church in Garden Hills, and is a member of the St. Mary’s Feast Society and Oaklawn Grange.
Mattiello was a co-sponsor of landmark 2011 pension reform legislation and worked closely with General Treasurer Gina Raimondo in crafting the legislation and working out compromises to make the bill fairer to taxpayers, state employees and retirees.
He was also a co-sponsor of the state’s education funding formula, which was enacted in 2010 after the state went 15 years without one. He has been a committed advocate for the elderly, community hospitals, schools and businesses, among others.