How Mattiello Won the Votes to Become Speaker

Mar 25, 2014

When House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello held a caucus at the Providence Marriott Friday evening -- on the same day when state and federal investigators raided House Speaker Gordon Fox's home and Statehouse office -- the race to succeed Fox was up for grabs. Mattiello himself put the number of supporters at his caucus between 25 and 27.

At least one supporter of the rival camp led by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate), Majority Whip Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston), and Deputy Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski boldly predicted that Mattiello wouldn't have the votes to become speaker.

But as the hours pass until the legislative session starts Tuesday afternoon, Mattiello will have overwhelming support when he backs the official endorsement of his 74 colleagues in the House of Representative. The tally will include a large number of Marcello's former supporters.

So what happened to change things so dramatically between Friday (when Mattiello asserted, seemingly prematurely, he'd have enough votes to become speaker), and Sunday, (when he actually had sufficient support to gain the powerful leadership post)?

As Mattiello shifted to favor Representative Joseph DeSimone (D-Providence), a longtime aspirant to the speakership, as his majority leader, DeSimone brought along about 7 votes, including such allies as Representatives Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston), John Carnevale (D-Providence), Raymond Johnston (D-Pawtucket), Mary Messier (D-Pawtucket), and Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston).

The typically powerless six-member GOP caucus became a player in the leadership fight, with five of the reps, including House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield), siding with Mattiello, The majority leader was a more comfortable fit for the Republicans due to his centrist/semi-conservative leaning profile.

As the fight for votes went into high gear, a meeting unfolded Saturday evening at Woonsocket City Hall featuring Mattiello, DeSimone, Woonsocket reps, and former Rep Lisa Baldelli Hunt, who won election as mayor last November. By the next morning, Baldelli Hunt's successor in the House, Michael Morin -- who was sworn in less than a month ago -- and Stephen Casey were telling reporters of their support for Mattiello. (While Marcello landed the job as city solicitor in her administration, Baldelli Hunt is close to DeSimone.)

Let's use Mattiello's lowest estimate of his support on Friday: 25. Add 14 votes to that and you get 39 -- enough to win his fight with Marcello. That explains why hedging reps broke in Mattiello's favor as the weekend played out.

Fallout from the latest Statehouse shakeup is already resounding. Frank Anzeveno, the powerful longtime chief of staff to three speakers, is out, and the reassignment of committee chairs is under way.

As he takes power in mid-session, Mattiello faces a trial by fire as the House will have to contend with a host of thorny issues -- the proposed pension settlement, the debate over repaying 38 Studios' bondholders, and the perennial need to whittle down a deficit of more than $100 million -- before reps get out to seek re-election.

Assuming Mattiello wins back his house seat later this year, could face another challenge for the speakership in January. In that respect, his best insurance policy might be passage this session of some tangible measure that is seen as helping the economy.

So while there will be plenty of back-slapping and perhaps even conciliatory talk Tuesday afternoon, the challenge for Mattiello and his team -- in a place dubbed by former speaker William Murphy as "the House of ambition" -- is just beginning.