House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello ascended to the powerful post of House speaker on a 61-6 vote Tuesday, vowing to focus on improving Rhode Island's moribund economy and to work collaboratively with lawmakers of both parties.
"I have only been a representative for seven-plus years, and I was never involved in politics before that," Mattiello, a lawyer who resides in Cranston, said during his victory speech. "I have no long allegiances or political ties to anyone. I have a different style. There will be a much greater emphasis on collaboration in the decision-making process among everyone in the room, Democrats and Republicans alike."
Mattiello takes over what is commonly called the most powerful post in state government, just four days after Rhode Island was taken by surprise when state and federal investigators raided House Speaker Gordon Fox's East Side home and Statehouse office. The reason for the probe has not been disclosed. Fox resigned from his post as speaker Saturday, and his resignation was read into the House record before the vote to decide his successor.
Two camps emerged in the fight to become speaker: Mattiello's and another ultimately led by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate). The battle quickly shifted over the weekend from a close contest to a runaway for Mattiello, who found broad support among the establishment legislative mainstream, reps aligned with his new deputy, Representative John DeSimone of Providence, and five of six Republicans in the House.
The ultimate vote, with many former Marcello supporters crossing over to vote for Mattiello, was 61 for Mattiello, six for Marcello, six abstentions, and two reps not-voting. The former Marcello supporters backing Mattiello included a few lawmakers who have already been stripped of leadership roles, including former Finance chairman Helio Melo (D-East Providence), former deputy majority whip Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence), and former majority whip Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston).
Mattiello's leadership team was voted in a quick caucus following his election as speaker: DeSimone as majority leader; Rep John Edwards (D-Tiverton) as majority whip; and Rep Joseph Almeida (D-Providence) as deputy majority whip.
Mattiello says his leadership marks a fresh start for a state battered by high unemployment and unflattering national headlines about what looks like another outbreak of corruption. He called having the nation's highest unemployment rate "unacceptable," and vowed, "Business can not -- and will not -- continue as usual."
"We will look at our tax structure to see how we can help reduce the tax burden on every class," Mattiello said. "That especially includes the taxes that impede our businesses and hold them back from achieving success and prosperity. This will include scrutinizing our unemployment tax and disability insurance. We must also provide relief from our overbearing regulatory structure."
Mattiello also softened some remarks from a day earlier in which he called issues like payday lending and ethics reform inconsequential compared with the economy. Speaking Tuesday, Mattiello said the issues deserve debate as important topics -- just not as significant as attempts to add jobs.
The new speaker, who famously switched his vote last year in favor of same-sex marriage, emphasized family in his remarks. He thanked his wife, Mary Ann, and their two sons for supporting his political efforts.
Marcello congratulated Mattiello in a statement, but expressed regret, too, that his support "dwindled under the enormous institutional pressures that work against change and reform every day under this heavy marble dome. Unless and until we as elected leaders have the courage to place the public's interest above self-interest and self-preservation, real reform and [the] hope that Rhode Islanders so desperately want will be nearly impossible."
Marcello says he doesn't intend to pursue the speakership again in the future. The speaker is elected to a two-year term, in the January of odd-numbered years.
For his part, Mattiello rejected suggestions that he's likely to continue the status quo on Smith Hill. “I’ve been in politics less than eight years," he told reporters following the vote. "I’m a businessman, I’m an attorney, I’m a regular Rhode Islander, so I have no allegiances to anybody but the people of Rhode Island. My record discloses that and I’m going to keep working for the people of Rhode Island.”
Meanwhile, Cranston Mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung held a Statehouse news conference prior to the vote for speaker. Fung says the raid of Fox's home and office underscores the need for a more competitive two-way party system in Rhode Island.
Fung outlined a six-pronged reform plan. The elements include limiting legislators to five two-year terms; instituting a line item veto for the governor; restoring Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly; ending the last-minute rush of passing bills at the end of the legislative session; eliminating the master lever; and instituting a voter initiative process. Fung says he'll exert pressure on the General Assembly to move forward his plan, through legislation and a constitutional convention, if the issues go unheeded.