Speaker Fox resigns, is the RI House ready for a chaotic speaker transfer?

Mar 22, 2014

This just in: Gordon Fox has resigned as RI House Speaker. Here's why in a post that predicted this and was posted several hours before the Fox announcement:

It was extraordinary enough that state police and federal IRS and FBI agents raided R.I. House Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and his ornate speaker’s office Friday on the third floor of the Statehouse. From a political calculus, what was just as surreal was an attempt by House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston to line up the votes to become the next speaker barely  hours after the law enforcement agencies were carting boxes of evidence out of both the capitol and Fox’s East Side home.

One doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna to wonder if Mattiello and his allies have the collective heart of a loan shark. (Maybe that's why the pay day lenders do so well on Smith Hill). Politics ain’t bean bag, in the famous words of Finley Peter Dunne, but the plotters seeking to take down Fox could have waited until the corpse was at least cool.

Fox had few options. At some point, he doesn’t need this level of personal anguish and distraction. The optics of this- the feds raiding the most powerful office in the capitol-  were just awful for Fox and Rhode Island's political hierarchy.

Here’s one prediction that anyone who has been around Rhode Island politics for more than a few years can safely make: If Fox resigns, the succession battle will be nasty and chaotic, likely spilling into this year’s September primaries and November general election. Politics as contact sport, an old Rhode Island game.

``I am confident I have the votes to be the next speaker, absolutely,`` boasted Mattiello. But many others in the House don’t feel that way and he didn’t get a majority of Democratic representatives to attend his hastily called caucus Friday night at a Providence hotel near the Statehouse.

Reports filtering through the ranks of Democratic representatives say that Mattiello will likely try again tomorrow to call a caucus where he will put together a show of strength that includes the 40 votes he would need to succeed Fox. Those insiders say that the prospective majority leader in a Mattiello speakership would be longtime Rep. John DeSimone, D-North Providence. Another majority leader possibility being mentioned is veteran Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick.

DeSimone is a lawyer, wily insider and so adept at the patronage game that his nickname at the Statehouse was once ``Johnny Jobs’’ because of his ability to place allies on Rhode Island public payrolls. McNamara is known for his stentorian voice and frequent floor speeches. (He was also te sponsor of the Calamari legislation).

A mid-session speaker battle will upset the running of the House in an election year. One element of Fox’s four-year tenure has been consistency and consensus. The Providence Democrat, Rhode Island’s first African-American and first openly gay speaker, has been a seeker of consensus and with a few exceptions, has forged widespread support among the Democratic reps who control the House by an overwhelming margin.

But a Fox departure now means that House legislating grinds to a halt. House committees would become chaotic because there would likely be big changes in leadership. A fact of life on Smith Hill: No one gets to be speaker without promising some allies committee chairmanships and other patronage goodies, such as Statehouse jobs.

This was not the case the last two times the speaker’s office changed hands. Longtime Speaker John Harwood seamlessly passed the leadership to William Murphy, D- West Warwick. Harwood and Murphy later had a falling out, but it occurred only after the speaker’s gavel had changed hands without a battle royal.

Then in 2010, when Murphy thought it was time to leave, the transfer of power to Fox was greased. The only thing that some House observers noticed that Murphy made taking Mattiello as  majority leader a condition of support for Fox. Fox may be a bit rueful about that arrangement after yesterday’s events.

The sad part of all this is that one can make a case that Fox has done a good job presiding over the messy welter of political interests and prickly personalities that make up the 75-member chamber. On Fox’s watch, lawmakers successfully tackled major public pension overhaul, pushed a historic education funding formula into law and enacted a same-sex marriage law with help from Gov. Lincoln Chafee and a strong lobbying effort by Rhode Island labor unions and gay rights activists.

There is a part of Fox’s personality that makes him a consensus seeker – he genuinely likes most people and treats just about everyone with respect.  He and Gov. Lincoln Chafee had decent rapport. And he tried to balance the interests of business and labor as best he could. The downside of that is that some in a House where someone is always plotting a coup view him as too nice a guy and not tough enough.

What do you think would happen to a group of representatives who tried to topple say, Harwood? Siberia would be too warm a place for such plotters.

The other problem with Fox is that unlike Murphy, one of the state’s top criminal defense lawyers, or Harwood, who had an established Pawtucket law firm long before becoming speaker, Fox is basically a solo law practitioner.  He has relied on legal work from public bodies too often, whether it be the title work that he was slapped for not disclosing by the state Ethics Commission, or representing bar owners before a Providence liquor licensing panel of which he was once a member. Murphy never needed state connections to support his family;  his client famously was the only defendant in the infamous Buddy Cianci –Plunder Dome federal corruption trial in 2002 to get off.

The grand irony here is that the state’s tiny Republican Party gets little respect in our cobalt blue state. There are currently no Republicans holding any statewide office. The GOP has only 6 members of the House in its tiny caucus. But if the Democrats split right down the middle between two unyielding factions, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry could hold the deciding votes. That would give Republicans some leverage in the House for the first time since the 1990s, when then-House Minority Leader Wayne Salisbury of Scituate cut a deal to throw Republican support to Harwood, of Pawtucket,  and his majority leader, George Caruolo of East Providence.