11 highlights from the battle between Mark Binder and Speaker Gordon Fox

Oct 18, 2012

In most election years, someone like House Speaker Gordon Fox could laugh off a challenge by a relatively obscure challenger. But in the aftermath of the state’s disastrous investment in 38 Studios, independent Mark Binder is using that epic fail – among other issues – in a pointed campaign against perhaps the most powerful person in Rhode Island politics. The duo squared off Wednesday evening at Summit Commons, as part of a forum sponsored by the Summit Neighborhood Association. Let’s get to the highlights:

1. Binder says it doesn’t pass the laugh test to think Fox didn’t know a $75 million expansion of the EDC’s loan-guarantee program was intended for 38 Studios. Binder says he ran because he got tired of hearing about how someone else was supposed to keep track of the state’s dubious investment in a very high-risk field. Fox responded by saying the House “never voted on 38 Studios” and expanded the EDC’s loan fund out of a desire to improve the economy. The speaker nonetheles said he was “sorry for doing it” and “probably” wouldn’t vote for the same thing today. Fox says it’s easy for Binder to criticize the deal after the fact. (Fox has acknowledged knowing about 38 Studios’ interest in coming to Rhode Island, as he did again in a letter to constituents.)

2. Fox is striking a humble profile in response to the challenge from Binder. The speaker calls himself a biracial gay kid from economically diverse Mount Hope who seemed an unlikely future speaker. “I am of this place, as so many are,” he told the audience of a few-dozen people at Summit Commons. Binder is a stylistic opposite from Fox, ranging from frequently impertinent to occasionally snotty (stuff from one of the auctions involving 38 Studios “looks really cool”) in his rhetoric against the speaker. Binder twitted Fox on same-sex marriage legislation at another point, saying, “Can you take a bill out of committee and bring it to a vote?” Fox responded, “You’re very glib, but that’s insulting to me.”

3. Binder is attacking Fox’s roots as a progressive, partly on the lack of progress in the House on the same-sex marriage issue. Fox says his progressive roots are evident in supporting efforts to reopen the Nathan Bishop School and provide funding for housing and the Rochambeau branch of the Providence Public Library. He repeated plans to call a vote on same-sex marriage early in the 2013 session, expressing hope it will take place in January.

4. Fox calls education “the most passionate issue I stand for.” He cites the passage of the state’s education funding formula as a milestone and says the state needs to look for savings in regionalizing educational spending, while calling one statewide school district impractical. Binder points to where he grew up — Maryland’s Montgomery County — as an example of an area with a similar number of students as Rhode Island can make do with one district.

5. Congressman David Cicilline, who took part in a debate at the same venue with Republican Brendan Doherty and independent David Vogel prior to the Fox-Binder tilt, stuck around to listen to the latter event. Cicilline is a friend and political ally of Fox. Some of the others on hand included Jeff Britt, the storied strategist who is piloting Binder’s run, and communications guy Peter Kerwin; Fox’s chief of staff, Frank Anzeveno; Fox’s recently hired campaign spokesman, PR man Bill Fischer; and consultants Peter Baptista and Nick Hemond, who are aiding Fox’s campaign.

6. Fox, in the first time that I heard him mention it, raised the possibility of using the state income tax to reduce the high burden of property taxes. He didn’t offer further specifics. The comment came in response to a question from a resident troubled by high property taxes on the East Side.

7. Binder says too much power resides with Fox. “Do I look like a domineering person?” Fox responded, before acknowleding — news flash — “It is hardball” at the Statehouse.

8. Fox and Binder are set to square off again Friday morning during a taping of WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers.

9. Binder is staging a 2 pm news conference today (Thursday) as part of his campaign against Fox.

10. During the Summit Commons debate, Fox said Binder was creating an inaccurate picture of how things work at the Statehouse. The speaker said Binder’s characterization was “icky.”

11. Fox cited the availability of more information about legislative votes, on the General Assembly Web site, as well as improvements to the state’s public records law, as accomplishments. Binder described these steps as long overdue.

This post has been updated and expanded.