On Politics
4:00 am
Sun November 11, 2012

Of Gordon Fox, the State House and the ProJo

Should the ProJo have its editors to take a refresher course in Political Science 101?

It appears that way after the strange coverage of House Speaker Gordon Fox’s reelection.

No ProJo reporter or columnist, with the notable exception of Mike Stanton, did any real ground-level reporting in the East Side district that Fox represents, which is about a mile from the Fountain Street newsroom.

Fox had a spirited challenge from independent Mark Binder. Binder make Fox work. The speaker did and he cruised to victory in a double-digit blowout. Anybody who knows anything about electoral politics in our cozy corner of New England had to understand that when voters were lined up for an hour Tuesday evening at the Martin Luther King School polling place that they weren’t standing in the November chill to vote for Binder.

Then came a front-page ProJo story on Thursday, two days after the election. This article noted the Democratic romp in General Assembly races and covered some issues, including marriage equality, that are likely topics in the legislature that convenes in January.

But in the middle of the piece, by State House reporter Randy Edgar, comes this passage: “Before the 2013 session begins there is speculation about the status of House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, who staved off an aggressive challenge from independent Mark Binder. Binder portrayed Fox as a politician who cuts late night deals, controls the flow of legislation and accepts campaign donations from special interests…’’

The article jumped from the front page to page 6, where an editor tacked on a headline `backlash brewing against Fox?’

Then the piece brings up the 38 Studios fiasco and what impact it might have on Fox’s speakership. “Binder’s aggressive campaign also boosted speculation that the bad press it brought Fox might encourage him to think of stepping down as speaker.’’

Where is the evidence of the simmering backlash against Fox? There was not one quote from any rank-and-file Democratic member of the House who will have a seat in the chamber come January. There was word from lame-duck Rep. Rene Menard, D-Lincoln, who lost a primary election to a candidate Fox supported. Menard, who longs still for former Speaker John Hardwood’s leadership, has been on the outs with Fox for quite a while.. The other quote comes from Bob Weygand, who hasn’t served at the State House since the 1990s and is pretty much irrelevant to the comings and goings on Smith Hill.

By Friday afternoon, RIPR political reporter Ian Donnis broke the story that Fox had called a caucus of Democratic House members to cement his leadership for the Assembly session that begins New Year’s Day.

There was more intrigue over dinner choices than whether Fox would earn the support of his caucus. Two younger, progressive Democrats were spotted dining at the Capital Grille before heading to the caucus at the Asian Palace, a restaurant in Fox’s district. They said they wanted a better meal than what would be offered at the Palace. (If you can name these two lawmakers you get two free RINPR bumper strips personally delivered by yours truly).

Fox won support unanimous support from the caucus. Finally, on Saturday’s front page, State House projo chief  Kathy Gregg had a story calming the speculation and setting the record straight: Indeed Fox and his leadership team were unanimously supported! Wow, what a difference 48 hours makes!

We carry no water for Fox. He has many challenges greeting him in January. Besides 38 Studios, which he handled very poorly, the speaker heard a lot of complaints from constituents, especially the substantial gay community in the Summit neighborhood, about his failure to achieve marriage equality.

It is a sad fact that Rhode Island, birthplace of tolerance, is now the only New England state without same-sex marriage. Fox also got an earful from liberals and some in the district’s large African-American community about his support for the state’s voter i.d. law, which appears to have had no impact on last week’s election other than to slow the voting process, creating longer lines at the polls.

You may not like Gov. Linc Chafee, but in the 38 Studios mess he has been the only politician in any position of authority in state government to try to get to the bottom of what happened and how the state might recover some money. He has hired lawyer Max Wistow, who is suing a group of law firms, EDC functionaries and financial advisors who greased this foolish deal that has taxpayers potentially on the hook for as much as $102 million.

Fox and Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed, the Senate president, have done little but try to sweep the 38 Studios mess under the rug. Why no Senate or House investigation?  It could get very interesting in discovery or at trial for the lawyers, financial advisors, EDC brass, Fox, Paiva Weed, Thanks Don Carcieri and the rest of this gang if they to have to testify under oath about their roles in Curt Schilling’s taxpayer-backed pipe dream. (Truth be told, these things almost never go to trial; they get settled).

An overarching issue is Rhode Island’s slow recovery from the recession. The Assembly, including Fox, has had plenty of time to try to help put Rhode Islanders back to work and build a work force ready for the 21st Century. Problem is, too many lawmakers focus on their parking spaces and license plates, who gets to be the next judge or magistrate and where can they find a friend or relative a state job or sinecure. And, of course, which fund-raiser is hosting the free food and drink tonight.

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