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POLITICS AS USUAL: Speaker fight offered plenty of noise, precious little change

April 3, 2014

Editor's note: This column was first published in The Times on March 31.
The events between March 21, when the FBI raided then-House Speaker Gordon Fox’s third-floor Statehouse office, and Tuesday, March 25, when Cranston Rep. Nicholas Mattiello put his hand on a Bible and was sworn in as the new Speaker, were seismic, a lightning-fast blitzkrieg of political maneuvering, a fundamental shakeup in the House of Representatives and a change in the most powerful political office in the state.
By Wednesday, March 26, everything was pretty much back to the way it had been: Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. The big news on that day was the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee holding a hearing on making calamari the official state appetizer.
Mattiello will put his imprint on the office — in style and, perhaps to a minor degree, substance — but for the most part expect him to follow pretty closely in the footsteps of his last two predecessors, Fox (except for the FBI thing) and William Murphy.
People are always talking about change in the General Assembly, lawmakers are forever crying about how “the third floor” can kill their bills by ignoring them to death, Republicans constantly carp about how they can’t buy a break in the chamber. But when an opportunity suddenly appeared to make a change, pretty much everybody voted for the guy who was next in line to be Speaker. Even Providence Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, who would have been Majority Leader if Scituate Rep. Michael Marcello became Speaker, voted for Mattiello, as did five out of six members of the Republican caucus. Rats never left a sinking ship as quickly as Marcello’s supporters deserted him once it became clear Mattiello was going to win the Speakership.
I have nothing against Mattiello, he is a smart, sharp, qualified guy who will likely do a good job as Speaker. I like him personally and I wish him well; in some ways he has the future of our state in his hands.
But I don’t think he is going to go out of his way to bring radical change to a chamber that desperately needs it.
What is supposed to be pretty a liberal state, with an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly, has a significant contingent of fairly conservative Democrats.
There is little question about what Mattiello’s focus is going to be. Ask him what time it is, he will say “jobs and the economy,” ask him what the weather is like, he will say “jobs and the economy,” ask him how the Red Sox are going to do this year and he will tell you “jobs and the economy.”
If Rhode Island had a nickel for every time Mattiello has said “jobs and the economy” since he was elevated to Speaker, we would wipe out our budget deficit.

•••

Many people pretended to be shocked – shocked! – at Cranston Sen. Josh Miller’s “good comment” to the gun rights advocate who buttonholed him on camera after a gun control rally at the Statehouse.
In case you missed it, Miller suggested that the guy, whose name is Dan Bidondi, love himself as he loves others. If you saw the movie “Argo,” then you know the exact wording of what Miller told him to do.
I’m shocked that people were shocked. That wasn’t the first time I heard an elected official use that word in that building, it probably wasn’t the 100th, but on the Internet and other places, Miller was called everything but a child of God. There were calls for him to be defeated, there were calls for him to be recalled, if this were the Old West, some of these folks would have brought him out to a tall tree with a short rope.
As I have said many times in this space, I am a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment and its “right of the people” to keep and bear arms.
But all Miller did was tell off a guy who can be annoying to a lot of people (Google him if you don’t believe me) and who has claimed that last year’s Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the FBI. He is a “reporter” for the conspiracy-theory website called Infowars.
Miller issued a statement later in which he sort of apologized. He said his response to Bidondi was a “very human and guttural reaction,” adding, “Regardless of the emotions and atmosphere of the moment, it does not justify the language I used that day. Out of respect for the decorum of the State House and the constituents I represent, I offer my apologies.” It is probably significant to note that none of Miller’s apologies were directed at Bidondi.

•••

I spent four hours on Saturday listening to the pros and cons of Rhode Island calling a constitutional convention when it is put on the ballot later this year, but I heard nothing to convince me that would be a good idea.

•••

Looking for a good Rhode Island read? I can recommend three, all penned by Bruce DeSilva, a former Providence Journal reporter turned novelist.
His most recent work, “Providence Rag,” is a chilling re-imagining of teen-aged murderer Craig Price’s killing spree. Like his other two books, “Rogue Island” and “Cliff Walk,” “Providence Rag” is a compelling story that keeps you reading; the pages practically turn themselves. I have read all three of his books and was able to finish each one in just two or three sittings.
All three books are spilling over with local flavor, street and place names you will recognize, a public official nicknamed “Attila the Nun,” and other quirks that make the Ocean State the delightful place that it is. DeSilva’s insights into the politics and media of Rhode Island are as trenchant as they are humorous. My advice: start with “Rogue Island,” which is now in paperback and read your way through the books in the order they were written to best appreciate the well-drawn and sometimes humorous characters, many of them you will know by the real people they are loosely based upon.

•••

Things got a bit hectic last week, so I didn’t get time to comment on the loss of an important local business.
Osram Sylvania will be shutting the doors of its Central Falls plant soon, putting 88 workers on the unemployment line. That marks the end of a long period of decline at a place that once was THE economic engine in Central Falls, employing hundreds of people.
My mom and dad each worked there – starting when it was Corning Glass Works — for decades, enabling them to provide a comfortable life for our family and to send me to Syracuse University to study journalism.
Mom still gets her pension and a portion of my dad’s and has retiree health care – that was back in the day when a company cared about taking care of its workers.
For Central Falls, and all the people who worked at that Broad Street plant for years, it is definitely the end of an era.
Jim Baron is a columnist and political reporter for The Times.

 

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