PROVIDENCE, RI – House Speaker Gordon Fox is considered the most powerful state official in Rhode Island. But just like rank and file lawmakers, Fox has to run for re-election from his legislative district every two years. He faces an aggressive challenge in Providence in the aftermath of the state's losing investment in failed video game maker 38 Studios. Independent candidate Mark Binder is trying to use 38 Studios as a lever to overturn the apple cart of Statehouse politics.
Fewer than 9000 voters will decide one of Rhode Island's most important elections on November 6. House Speaker Gordon Fox has a firm hold on his powerful leadership post at the top of the House of Representatives. But that won't mean anything unless Fox can convince his constituents on Providence's East Side to send him back to the Statehouse for his 11th term as a state rep.
Rosalie Fain is just one voter. But the resident of the Laurelmead retirement complex off Blackstone Boulevard is ready to throw her support to Fox's opponent, independent candidate Mark Binder. And that's before Binder starts talking to a group of about 15 residents at Laurelmead. "I'm looking forward to your comments, because I think we need a change in the legislature, for the positive," Fain says. "Thanks," responds Binder.
Binder introduces himself as an author and storyteller who cares about how Rhode Island's government works. He points to the 75 million state loan guarantee for 38 Studios as a disaster that should have been anticipated. Although former Republican governor Don Carcieri was a cheerleader for 38 Studios, Binder puts the blame for the mess squarely on Fox. "He met with a business associate of his named Michael Corso," Binder says. "He was introduced to Curt Schilling, and over a period time they added $75 million to a bill that the Economic Development, the EDC, wanted. They brought it to a late night vote."
Binder describes Fox as a self-serving political boss who rewards his friends, punishes his enemies, and doesn't do enough to move Rhode Island forward on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the interest rate charged by payday lenders.
State Representative Spencer Dickinson of South Kingstown joins Binder on this campaign stop. Dickinson barely eked out a victory in the September primary after being challenged by the wife of one of Fox's top aides. Dickinson points to Rhode Island's underperforming economy as a further indictment of Fox. "In terms of actual performance, our legislature is a complete failure," Dickinson says. "And our speaker, the leader of that legislature, is responsible for that. We are rated 50th in business-friendly climate year after year after year."
Binder ends his talk at Laurelmead by telling the residents a vote for him would bring a strong message of change to Smith Hill. "After I get elected," he says, "there's an opportunity for the legislature to stop running the way it's done before."
Across town, in the hardscrabble Mount Hope section of Providence, Gordon Fox is knocking on doors and looking for votes. Fox grew up in this neighborhood, the son of a Cape Verdean mother and an Irish father. He strikes a humble stance and emphasizes a message of accessibility while handing a piece of campaign literature to resident Tom Castro on Duncan Avenue. "On the back of mine I've got some of the programs that I've been working on that are very important to the community," Fox says. "Most important on that card is I've got my phone number and my email address. Any questions, concerns, always feel free to reach out to me."
Fox rejects the idea that ousting him would improve the political culture of the Statehouse. "The problem with that argument, the way this Constitution is designed you're always going to have a speaker," he says. "So it's going to be the speaker who happens to be Gordon Fox that cares about marriage equality, who cares about education funding , cares about public schools, cares about housing. Or is it going to be another speaker that may not care about that?"
Fox rose to the top post in the House in 2010. He says the multi-faceted causes of Rhode Island's high unemployment can't be laid at the feet of the General Assembly. The openly gay Fox says he plans to call a vote on same-sex marriage in the new legislative session starting in January.
Some Mount Hope residents, like Vera Almeida, remember Fox from when he scooped ice cream at a former Carvel shop in the University Heights shopping plaza on North Main Street. She offers him her unquestioning support. "I know Mr. Fox for a long time, way back," she says. "He's a good person and I know he's going to help Rhode Island."
But reminders of the 38 Studios debacle are nearby. Retiree C.J. Johnson has known Fox since the powerful legislative leader was a young man. And Johnson doesn't hesitate to let Fox know how he feels when the speaker shows up asking for a vote. "Gordon, what about the 38 Studios?" Johnson says. "I'm very disappointed in you."
Johnson points to how Curt Schilling couldn't get government help in Massachusetts. The retiree says taxes are killing him, and he's worried about how Rhode Islanders remain on the hook for about $100 million due to Schilling's bankrupt company. "Where was Gordon Fox when all this was going on?" Johnson asks. "You held the keys. You were in charge up there. You were the man. This guy didn't deserve that."
Fox responds by saying it was the state Economic Development Corporation that approved the $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studios. He says he helped usher in a new education funding formula and last year's landmark overhaul of the state pension system. "But you know what?" Fox adds. "That's why I like coming out here because I need for you who know me since when to give me the good swift kick in the butt when I need one, and to talk to me. So that numbers always on. That email, if you do emails."
Johnson isn't ready to let Fox off the hook. "Do you deserve a good swift kick in the ass, or what?" he asks. Fox laughs and sighs, "Eh, well." Johnson says, "Do you think you do?" "To keep me focused, absolutely," Fox responds. "We all do. We all do, from time to time. Because that's what community supposed to be about, right? Johnson brightens and says, "That's stepping up. Thanks, man. I'll give you consideration." "That's all I can ask for," says the powerful legislative leader.
Fox has a variety of advantages as he seeks re-election, including a far bigger campaign war chest than his independent opponent. The speaker also has the backing of Rhode Island's two most popular politicians, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo.
In most years, the speaker of the House could coast to re-election without worrying about a challenge from a poorly funded political outsider. Yet this time around, the race between Fox and Binder will reveal just how angry voters remain about the meltdown of 38 Studios.
For all of our election coverage, visit our "Rhody Votes 2012" webpage at RIPR.org.
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