Last Friday, Rhode Island’s political circles were shocked to learn that Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and State House office were being searched by the FBI, IRS, State Police and agents from the U.S. Attorney’s office. At this writing there is still no indication of what they are investigating or what they were able to gather in their raid, but in less than 12 hours, Fox went from being the most powerful public official in Rhode Island to a political afterthought. Power abhors a vacuum and before the sun had set on Friday night — or Fox had even made a statement — legislators were caucusing to pick a new leader. While the vote will take place on Tuesday (well after press time) most House watchers believe that Representative Nick Mattiello of Cranston, House Majority Leader, has the votes to be the next Speaker.
While it’s important to note that Fox has not been indicted — or from what we can tell, even questioned — an investigation and a raid by federal officials indicates that there was enough “there there” to warrant dramatic action. At the same time, he did the right thing by resigning his speakership to allow for a smooth transition of power and to help take whatever scandal he might be implicated in and put it outside the doors of the State House. Nevertheless, the impact of Fox’s legal problems will have a seismic effect on Rhode Island this year.
In baseball terms, we’re in for a rebuilding year. With the session more than halfway over, some legislation that had been scheduled for a hearing under Speaker Fox may never see the light of day with a new speaker in the chair. And while Speaker Fox was likely to dissect Governor Chafee’s budget and put his own stamp on it, the new speaker will barely have enough time to address his priorities. More importantly, the new Speaker is coming into leadership knowing that a huge chunk of House members favored another leader. To get anything passed — a budget or a bill — will require the kind of horse trading that a General Assembly leader is not accustomed to. He is going to have to be prepared to lose some votes and share some power to get anything done.
And just like in baseball, changes in political leadership can present opportunities. When the Red Sox imploded in 2012, trading key players and falling to last place, most fans thought it would be a long time before we saw another playoff game, forget about a World Series trophy. Rebuilding was more of a rebirth and just a few weeks from now, players will be putting on their new World Series rings. The fall of Fox may have created opportunity in the General Assembly where few have existed in years past.
In June, candidates for office will file paperwork to run for office and some seats that were considered untouchable with Fox’s support may be vulnerable, while some other members may just decide not to run. If Mattiello’s opposition is serious, that team will want to field a candidate in every Democratic primary with a Mattiello loyalist in hopes of picking up a few seats and weakening him before the new Speaker is voted on in January. Nasty Democratic primaries can create opportunities for Republican candidates, particularly in suburban districts, giving new hope to the tiny GOP caucus. While we know Rhode Island can’t move from worst to first in one year, perhaps trading a few players and getting rid of some dead weight will provide the boost we need to get back on track.
Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, at http://straightupthemiddle.blogspot.com/ and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.