PROVIDENCE – When push came to shove, most of the House of Representatives fell in line to elect Cranston Rep. Nicholas Mattiello as speaker by a landslide; only six stood by challenger Rep. Michael Marcello of Scituate, while six others abstained.
Mattiello garnered 63 votes, many more than the 38 he needed to win, and well over the 50 he will need to pass a budget later this year. The vote caps a breakneck five-day period that saw state and federal agents raid the Statehouse office of former Speaker Gordon Fox on Friday, Fox’s resignation on Saturday and a succession of closed-door caucuses over the weekend in which Mattiello and Marcello each tried to build winning leadership coalitions. Marcello took the suspense from the vote earlier in the day, conceding to Mattiello and announcing on Facebook that he did not have the votes to win the Speakership. After that, the vote on the House floor was a mere formality.
Once Mattiello was ensconced on the rostrum, the House adjourned for a Democratic caucus that unanimously elected a Mattiello-picked leadership team that includes Providence Rep. John DeSimone as majority leader, Tiverton Rep. Jay Edwards as majority whip and Providence Rep. Joseph Almeida as deputy whip.
Once the gavel was in his hand, Mattiello pledged that “jobs and the economy” will be his “No. 1 issue.
“Having the highest unemployment rate in the nation is truly unacceptable,” Mattiello declared. “Business can not – and will not – continue as usual.” Mattiello acknowledged that “I hoped some day to be the Speaker of this House. But I never expected such a stunning and rapid turn of events.
There is no time for transition. To say that I am hitting the ground running is an understatement.”
The new Speaker thanked his predecessor, saying that Fox “put the best interest of this House first and foremost by stepping aside after the events of last Friday.” Fox did not attend Tuesday’s session and did not vote on his successor. Fox has announced he will serve out his term but will not seek re-election. Helping Mattiello pad his vote tally were five of the chamber’s six Republican members.
After the vote, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry of North Smithfield told Mattiello, “There was a time that predates both your time in the chamber and mine, when Republicans and Democrats were able to work together on things – not just at social occasions – but to substantively work on things with mutual respect.
“We’re not always going to agree on issues -- if we did that would be kind of strange, frankly -- but to the extent that we Republicans can work with you to do things for the betterment of the state, which is indeed in economic trouble, we will do that.”
Added North Kingstown Republican Doreen Costa, “let’s all work together – forget about the D’s and forget about the R’s and come together for the people we represent.”
West Warwick Republican Patricia Morgan abstained after she was gaveled to silence and told to sit down by Pawtucket Rep. Elaine Coderre, the president pro-tem of the chamber, for trying to make a statement during the roll call vote. After two nominations for each candidate, there was no discussion and an immediate vote was called for. Morgan had issued a release challenging both candidates to commit to issues such as eliminating the so-called “master lever” that allows single-party voting, eliminating taxation on Social Security benefits and granting a charter for a new Central Coventry Fire District.
Marcello confessed after the vote that he was “a little bit disappointed,” that colleagues who were in his camp deserted him when the time came to vote. As of Monday, Marcello said he had 33 votes; only six actually voted for him when the roll was called.
The election of Mattiello, Marcello said, “really means more of the same. The fact that he won’t bring up an ethics vote (bringing the General Assembly back under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission), payday lending (barring high-interest rate short-term loans and the master lever is a sign we are going to get more of the same.
“We had the FBI up on the third floor (in Fox’s office),” he said, “People are really sick and tired of the same thing. We need to make a change. We had the opportunity to make real dramatic change, change the leadership, change the leadership, change the way the House is governed and the fact of the matter is that we didn’t. We stuck with the status quo. It has nothing to do with Nick Mattiello, he is an honorable person. It has everything to do with the inertia of the chamber. We have to stand up and say enough is enough, let’s do things a different way.”
Marcello told reporters this would be his last bid to become Speaker. He said he expects to be ousted as chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
After the vote, Gov. Lincoln Chafee offered congratulations to Mattiello, and told him, “I look forward to working with him, the new Majority Leader, the leadership team as well as the General Assembly on initiatives and issues that are important to Rhode Islanders. I commend the Rhode Island House of Representatives for ensuring that government continues to move forward and remains focused on key issues Attorney Gen. Peter Kilmartin, a Pawtucket representative for decades before being elected to his current post, added, "I congratulate Speaker
Mattiello on his election and wish him well as he professionally guides the House during these difficult times."
Somewhat ironically, as the House was voting to replace Fox, who left under the cloud of a criminal investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee was talking testimony on a Kilmartin bill that would increase the penalties under state law for “violating the public trust.” Crimes such as bribery and theft of honest services would become felonies punishable by imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of $150,000, under the bill. It was held for further study.
Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron.