Valley lawmakers played major role in race for House speaker
Valley lawmakers played major role in race for House speaker
PROVIDENCE - They were the five days that shook the foundation of Rhode Island's political establishment, potentially reshaping the state's future, and most of the key players were from northern Rhode Island.
"Millions of dollars and months of time will be spent on the (governor's) race and the past five days will have more impact on the state. Amazing," said Rep. Brian Newberry, the Republican House minority leader from District 48 in North Smithfield and Burrillville, in a tweet Tuesday evening.
Newberry and his small caucus of Republicans, along with the three-member Woonsocket House delegation, were the pivotal votes in an unexpected race for speaker of the house, helping Cranston Rep. Nicholas Mattiello beat out Scituate Rep. Michael Marcello Tuesday for what many see as the state's most powerful seat. Providence Rep. Gordon Fox resigned as speaker last Saturday, a day after authorities from the FBI, IRS, U.S. Attorney's Office and State Police raided his home and office.
Even before Fox made his resignation official, a number of Democrats, including Mattiello, Marcello, and Pawtucket Rep. J. Patrick O'Neill were working behind closed doors to curry favor with enough colleagues to replace him as speaker.
Marcello, the reform-minded lawmaker from District 41 in Scituate and Cranston, told the media he thought he had 41 votes by last Saturday morning, three more than needed to be speaker. But five of six House Republicans, as well as the three Woonsocket Democrats, all ended up supporting Fox's former second-in-command Mattiello by Sunday, when Marcello was only claiming 33 "solid" votes.
One meeting in particular, when Mattiello and his chosen majority leader Rep. John DeSimone went Saturday evening to Woonsocket City Hall to speak with Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and the three city's House members, was considered a critical reason that support shifted from Marcello to Mattiello between Saturday and Sunday.
By the time Tuesday's vote for speaker came about, most of those who had supported Marcello had bolted to Mattiello's camp, sending Mattiello into the post by a 61-6 margin. Mattiello took the rostrum promising a House "run by the members themselves" instead of by its leadership and pledging a strong effort to rebuild the state's economy.
Marcello told The Breeze that he had received assurances from both Newberry and Baldelli-Hunt that he had the support of the Republicans and the Woonsocket Democrats.
"As of 1 a.m. Saturday, after speaking with the mayor, I was very confident that the Woonsocket delegation was in my camp," he said. "What happened after that I have no idea."
Marcello is Woonsocket's city solicitor and was appointed by Baldelli-Hunt just a few months ago.
Baldelli-Hunt did not return a call for comment by press time. She said little about the situation when reached Friday.
“Who would not want their city solicitor to be speaker of the House?” she said.
Marcello said he had earlier met with Rep. Stephen Casey, of House District 50 in Woonsocket, and Rep. Michael Morin, of District 49, both men unionized city fire fighters, and both indicated they were supporting him after he promised to "do more for distressed communities" like Woonsocket.
Marcello, who said he's worked hard to develop a reputation as a reformer, said the effort to become speaker "proved to be a treacherous process, with human frailties involved," and it is "unlikely" that he will try again.
"It really opened my eyes to human nature, not with the Woonsocket delegation but others who promised me their support," he said. "To me if you give someone your word, you give them your word."
He added, "how do you get from 33 votes to six? That's a huge bloc that could have stuck together to influence votes."
Neither the Republicans nor the Woonsocket House members were confirming the statement that they changed their allegiance from Marcello to Mattiello.
Casey told The Breeze that neither of the rampant rumors about the Saturday evening meeting were true. One said that Casey and Morin had been persuaded by leaders of the Cranston firefighters union to switch sides and then convinced Baldelli-Hunt to join them. The other was that Baldelli-Hunt had been given certain promises by Mattiello and had secured the votes of Casey, Morin and Rep. Robert Phillips, of House District 51, in return.
Casey said the Woonsocket delegation wanted to "act as a group" to make the decision that was "best for the people of Woonsocket."
"That was pretty much the only issue we had," he said.
Woonsocket had previously received "a lot of support" from Fox and his leadership team that included Mattiello, said Casey, making him the right choice as the delegation hopes to continue getting support.
The Woonsocket legislators never indicated that they were backing Marcello before they decided to support Mattiello, said Casey. He and the others were even more convinced on Saturday evening that Mattiello was the right choice as a "logical transition" from Fox.
"There wasn't any switch," he said. "Each team was saying the Woonsocket reps had committed, but we made it abundantly clear that we all wanted to be on board together and had not made a decision. We waited and we made our decision."
Newberry told The Breeze that the Republicans had "three choices," to back one of the two competing teams of Democrats or "sit it out."
"In this case all three options had pros and cons too complex to explain in sound bites, and there were differences of opinion among the Republicans as to which was the best course," he said. "In the end we made the decision we did and we hope that it was the right one. Time will tell."
As much as Marcello offered, said Newberry, the fact remained that he had "staunch support" from progressive Democrats, "a major concern" for Republicans.
"Mattiello had 39 Democrat votes on Sunday, which was one more than he needed but hardly overwhelming," said Newberry. "Republican backing appears to have started the stampede of Democrats that led to his (61 votes) and he has us to thank for that."