What promises to be one of the most closely watched contests in Rhode Island this election season has come into sharp focus.
On Monday, Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, wife of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, filed paperwork with the Board of Elections to seek the District 15 seat in the House of Representatives currently held by Democratic Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
Meanwhile, Steven Frias – who nearly defeated Mattiello in both the 2016 and 2018 elections – wrote in an email Monday that he expects to back Fenton-Fung’s bid rather than make another run for the seat.
In a statement, Fenton-Fung was unsparing in her criticism of the speaker.
“In response to a near tsunami of support in Cranston to end what has become the Mattiello horror show, this allows us to legally take the logical next steps to start fundraising and putting a winning team in place prior to formally launching a campaign,” the statement reads. “We are extremely excited about what 2020 has in store, including ridding District 15 of the never-ending scandals that surround its state representative.”
In his own statement, Mattiello defended his record and reiterated his past statements that he intends to seek reelection.
“I look forward to the continued honor of representing the citizens of House District 15 and intend to run on my strong record of accomplishment and leadership for the District and the City of Cranston,” the speaker’s statement reads. “A small snapshot of those accomplishments include legislation that has strengthened our state's economy and job climate, ensured the phase-out of the onerous car tax, eliminated the income tax for many seniors who receive Social Security, addressed the opioid crisis, increased education aid, and strengthened school safety measures. I continue to fight against the governor’s attempts to reduce municipal funding. It’s a privilege to serve as an advocate for the city of Cranston in this fight, and unquestionably, my focus always has been and will continue to be on how I can best represent my constituents.”
In an email statement Monday, Frias said running against Mattiello and “nearly toppling him and his State House machine was an experience of a lifetime for me.”
“I will never forget the support I received from everyone who chose honesty over corruption,” he wrote. “However, as I have stated previously, I was a reluctant candidate in both my races against the Speaker, in particular the second time I ran. I have been aware for some time of Mrs. Fung’s interest in running for the District 15 seat, and I have not discouraged her. Assuming the Speaker even runs again, despite the swirl of scandal and possibility he may be indicted, I expect to be supporting Mrs. Fung over the Speaker in November.”
Asked if he has given thought to pursuing any other elected office this year, Frias – who presently chairs Cranston’s Charter Review Commission – responded simply: “Not really.”
Fenton-Fung received another endorsement following her announcement – from the group Rhode Island Right to Life, which previously supported Mattiello but turned on him following his support last year for allowing an ultimately successful vote to codify the abortion rights in state law. Mattiello voted against the bill, citing his personal opposition to abortion.
“Very happy to see that [Fenton-Fung] is challenging the most pro-abortion Speaker in Rhode Island history!” Rhode Island Right to Life wrote on Twitter.
Mattiello, who was first elected to represent District 15 in 2006, became speaker in 2014 following the resignation of Gordon Fox. He has been at the center of a number of controversies in recent years, including a 2016 campaign mailer that led to the indictment of a former aide and outcry over the allocation of $1 million in the state budget for a Cranston chiropractor.
More recently, Mattiello has been in the spotlight regarding a since-scrapped audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center. Several of the speaker’s top aides have testified before a grand jury investigating the matter, while House Minority Leader Blake Filippi has filed a lawsuit challenging the speaker’s oversight of the powerful Joint Committee on Legislative Services.
Fenton-Fung, a native of Aquidneck Island, works as a physical therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. She has long been active in Republican politics, serving in leadership positions for the Young Republicans organization on the state and national levels. She currently serves on the Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force and was recently named chairwoman of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations.
She met Fung while the two attended the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. They were married in 2016 in Newport, and she changed her last name to Fenton-Fung late last year.
Before her focus turned to the District 15 seat, Fenton-Fung had acknowledged giving consideration to a run to succeed her husband in the mayor’s office. Fung, a two-time gubernatorial candidate who has served as Cranston mayor since 2009, is barred from seeking re-election due to term limits.
City Council President Michael Farina has already announced his candidacy for mayor on the GOP side. Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplausks has said he is “seriously considering” a run, while Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins – who last year said he had decided against a mayoral bid – has hinted at a major forthcoming announcement regarding his 2020 plans, suggesting his thinking has changed.