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POLITICS AS USUAL: Fox farewell didn’t end the game; it kicked it into gear

March 27, 2014

Editor's note: This column was first published on March 24, 2014

When House Speaker Gordon Fox banged the gavel to close last Thursday’s session of the House of Representatives, he had no idea he was performing that function for the last time.
In one whirlwind weekend, the State Police and federal agents raided Fox’s home and his Statehouse offices, Fox resigned the speakership, and that touched off palace intrigue and plots to take the crown in political huddles in different parts of the state.
But before we get carried away in the great swoosh of events, we should pause briefly to contemplate Fox’s departure.
Fox has been the Speaker for about four years now, plenty of time to make unpopular decisions and create political foes (see: 38 Studios, Sakonnet Bridge tolls). That comes with the territory; uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and all that.
I have no idea what this business with the State Police, FBI and IRS storming his office is about; Fox has to deal with that on his own, and he started dealing with it by resigning the most powerful office in state government.
Putting that aside until we know more about it, however, Fox has been, all in all, a pretty good Speaker as Speakers go.
He seemed to genuinely want to do what he thought was best for the state and to help people. There was always a sense of decency about him.
The fact that Fox almost immediately resigned and wasn’t grasping to hold on to the power that was fast slipping through his hand, demanding his day in court before he ceded the speakership, speaks well of him. This already bad situation could have gotten a lot uglier if Fox made his colleagues wrestle to wrench the gavel from his fingers.
You can usually tell when a politician is a phony backslapper, and you can usually tell when one is sincere. Fox always seemed sincere.
There have been the inevitable occasional blowups, but for the most part he seemed to wield the gavel fairly. People didn’t always get their way, but they usually got to make their arguments on the House floor.
Fox will have to face the music for whatever the feds and the Staties are investigating but I, for one, wish him well.
That being said, you have to know that what the investigators are looking at and what they are looking for is pretty heavy-duty.
Think about it. The judicial branch of government authorized (by search warrant) the executive branch of government (federal agents, State Police) to raid the Statehouse office of a top leader of the legislative branch. That is not something to be done lightly. Any judge is going to make sure his or her backside is fully and completely covered before issuing a warrant in a case like this.
Even before Fox announced his resignation on Saturday, the elbowing and scrambling to succeed him was well under way.
As of late on Sunday, the battle seemed to be between two factions. One, led by Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, seems to represent the current leadership establishment, and another, led by Scituate Rep. Michael Marcello, represent what they call the reform side who want to see both structural changes in the way the House works and policy changes.
Both sides are claiming they have the votes to win. Both sides have to claim this. If on-the-fence representatives think they see a clear winner, they will embrace that candidate, bragging about how they have been with him all along. Conversely, if they see one side as not having the votes, they will abandon that team like rats leaving a sinking ship.
A vote for Speaker is serious business, especially if you cast your vote for the side that doesn’t win. The smaller a group is, the more intense the political maneuvering is. This is a group of 75 people — 75 politicians, which means they are ambitious by nature — at least a few of whom think it should be them up on the rostrum banging that gavel. Others see chairmanships and other political goodies within their grasp, and still others see their speakership vote as leverage to promote some policy or legislative aim. Still others know that if they vote for the losing side, no bill with their name on it is going to pass anytime soon. If you don’t believe that some lawmakers are going to use their vote for Speaker to extract promises to advance their own legislative aims, then the East Bay representatives have a bridge they’d like to sell you.
If both sides are speaking the truth about their number of supporters, then the names of at least a few legislators have to be on both lists. I know it is shocking to think that some representatives would tell both teams he or she is on their side, keeping their options open until they actually have to cast their vote, but there it is.
Marcello blew an uncertain trumpet when I spoke to him on Saturday, saying “I think it’s too early,” to declare a winner in the election because “there are groups still trying to coalesce” around different candidates. Mattiello, on the other hand, was trumpeting as of Friday evening that he “absolutely” had the 38 votes he needs for victory.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect in all of this is that it rips open a schism in the Democratic caucus of the House that had been widening below the surface for some time now. Once the vote is taken and one side is declared the winner, will everybody shake hands and bury the hatchet? Or will the fight go on in other arenas?
If both sides are as close to a 38-vote majority as they claim, and if the losing side can stick together, it can still have influence.
A budget needs 50 votes to pass, so if the losing side can keep at least 26 votes in line, they have bargaining power to affect the outcome of many bills and policies.
No matter what happens, this is going to spill into the November elections and, this being Democrat-dominated Rhode Island, into the September primaries. Both sides will be working to increase their numbers, the winners looking to shore up their position and the losers trying to elect new blood to affect the next vote for Speaker in January, when new members will be seated.
You should expect to see a lot of politicians knocking on your door this summer and fall, handing you brochures and asking for your vote.
You should use that leverage to extract promises from candidates on important issues:
Where do they stand on paying the 38 Studios bonds?
Will they support the pension reform deal or will they vote against it?
How would they vote on the master lever, or bringing the General Assembly under the purview of the Ethics Commission?
That is how democracy is supposed to work. Unchallenged one-party rule is not what this country is supposed to be about. The dynamic tension of having a minority that must be attended to leads to more compromise and bi-partisan solutions and less capricious rule.
Make no mistake: The future course this state is going to take will be determined Tuesday, when the vote for a new Speaker takes place.

-- Jim Baron is The Times' Statehouse reporter and political columnist.


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