Speaker Mattiello Dominates Rhode Island Politics

Friday, October 30, 2015


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Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello has been at the helm as arguably the most powerful post in the state since assuming the position in March 2014 — and continues to be front and center in some of the state’s biggest debates and controversies.

From the failed PawSox stadium deal, to the truck toll proposal, to the General Assembly investigation of 38 Studios — to more political issues concerning the use of legislative grants and being dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by the RI GOP (on ethics) -- Mattiello is in turn controversial, outspoken, and most often the focal point of politics in RI.  

“The current issues are what's driving this attention,” said veteran RI political pollster Vic Profughi. “First of all, the focus on [Mattiello] is due in part to the frustration on the part of good government groups and the GOP, because they can't get the modifications they'd like to see.  They want openness, and the ethics commission to have more of a role to play. And given the weakness in terms of legal powers that the Governor has, he gets the brunt of the attention. Most of the speakers have tried to be more low-profile, whereas Mattiello’s personality makes him more quotable."

The Speaker said that it is his accessible nature that consistently puts him in the public eye.

“I try to make myself accessible and work as hard as I can to address the important issues that affect the public.  If the media reaches out to me, I take the opportunity to communicate with the people of our state," said Mattiello. “I may be the focal point on the bridge and road proposal because the Governor proposed it and the Senate passed it, which leaves only the House to take action.  It was a very large proposal that I did not want to rush.  We will move forward in a deliberate way to improve our infrastructure while protecting the financial interests of the state.

“Unfortunately, 38 Studios was one of the worst debacles in the state’s history. We are holding House Oversight hearings to learn from the mistakes that were made by others and to make sure they are never repeated.  I may be a focal point because I have subpoena power, which I have indicated could be used if it leads to new information that the Oversight Committee and I believe is important to the oversight process," said Matttiello.  

GOP: Mattiello "Ethics Enemy"

The Rhode Island Republican Party, chaired by lawyer Brandon Bell, recently branded Mattiello “public enemy number one on ethics.”

“Why is he at the middle of everything?  I would say he's making himself the lightning rod -- he's injecting himself and scrapping in the sandbox,” said Bell.  “I can understand him getting in it with me, but the reality is he's putting himself in this position.”

Despite his opposition on ethics, Bell acknowledged that the Speaker has had successes to date.

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The proposed truck tolls are just one of the issues Mattiello finds himself in the public eye.

“Listen, in the last session, he put the brakes on tolls.  Granted, I wouldn't have voted for the budget, but it was the minimum that Republicans could tolerated,” said Bell. “There was a corporate tax reduction, the social security exemption, and I give him credit for punting on the Taylor Swift tax.  But it was no where near enough.  The tax on vacation property and medical insurance policies were very business unfriendly.  

"And this 38 Studios [investigation] talk of 'restorative justice," continued Bell. "Mattiello was supposed to be on board with the subpoenas, and then he tells the RIPEC crowd to move on." 

The toll proposal, which is opposed by the House Republican policy group, presents a major politial hurdle for Mattiello -- whih Monique Chartier with advocacy group RI Taxpayers said the group opposes. 

"Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has used the considerable power of his office to make some good changes," said Chartier. "Rhode Island looks to the speaker to continue to make courageous decisions.  Much more work is left to be done on Rhode Island's tax and business climate.  The governor's toll proposal, very much in the news lately, would be a huge step backwards, for the business climate, the economy and for the state's already high cost of living."

Controversial Issues

RI taxpayer advocacy group OSTPA sharply criticized Mattiello’s leadership on ethics -- and the indication from the Speaker as to where he is on the truck tax plan.

"Speaker Mattiello is in the spotlight because everyone knows that is where the buck stops.  Virtually any decision made in this state is made in that office.  That office has been in the spotlight recently because of the apparent corrupt politics that swirl around it," said Pam Gencarella with OSTPA. "The disgraced former Speaker Fox and his apparent ties to the 38 Studios deal; the at-the-time Majority Leader Mattiello who claims he knew nothing, then becomes Speaker and refuses to provide subpoena power for Oversight Committee hearings (until enough public pressure is applied) and refuses to provide for an independent counsel to investigate the deal.  More recently is his arrogant retort to the idea of basic Ethics oversight of the General Assembly, for which he refuses to allow a vote."

Of course the flip flopping back and forth on many issues doesn’t help.  The public simply has no trust in that office and Mattiello has done nothing to try and repair the damage done.  He has only shown more reasons for distrust.  His refusal to prioritize the budget and live within the state's means represents a total disregard for the public and their financial plight," continued Gencarella. "Taxpayers want their tax dollars used efficiently and effectively yet he was in favor of another potentially disastrous public/private partnership like the PawSox, that is until he wasn't.  Now he is in favor of the truck toll and its inherent billion dollar price tag and debt.  No one trusts the plan, nor do they trust that it will only skim money from trucks.  The public recognizes that this is a chance for the state to add a new revenue stream that will eventually hit all taxpayers."

WPRO’s John DePetro recently reported on the Cranston hockey program, a recipient of a legislative grant from the Speaker, having uniforms made with Mattiello's name on them. "Looks like the Speaker needs some time in the penalty box,” wrote DePetro, who on the same day posted, “Are we witnessing the “Mattiello Meltdown?”

“[The Speaker] is very calculating, shrewd, and not to be underestimated by any means,” DePetro said on Thursday. “If he has any true political weakness, he has yet to reveal it. He and [Representative] DeSimone run a very tight ship, by evidence of the short time they did the budget and received all votes to pass it, including GOP votes.”

“The speaker is very aggressive in making it clear what he expects in return for his support,” continued DePetro. “He has developed a pattern of dismissing any critics akin to someone dining and 'passing' on dessert with the wave of the hand. Mattiello understands the game, he has the power, and intends to use it. The speaker ran unopposed, and has no visible challenger as speaker. Expect plenty of controversy with him since he feels he is protected and unconcerned with public opinion.”


Related Slideshow: The 10 Most Politically Powerful at RI State House

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#10 - Sen. Da Ponte

The Senate Finance Chairman pushed hard in 2014 for corporate tax reform -- and combined reporting -- and was recently reappointed to his fourth term at the helm of the committee that vets the state's budget. With House Speaker Mattiello's talking about eliminating the state income tax on social security, a budget deficit and the prospect of diminishing gaming revenue, Da Ponte will have his work cut out for him chairing the powerful Senate committee. 

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#9 - Rep. DeSimone

One of the most powerful political players in Providence, the Majority leader wields his influence at the state house as part of Speaker Mattiello's team. Serving in the chamber since 1992, DeSimone rose to his current position with the ouster of former Speaker Gordon Fox in 2014. He will be a pivotal player at the State House for the City of Providence (and new Elorza administration), as the state grapples with a projected $200 million budget deficit, and Providence needs a strong advocate to appeal for what it can.  

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#8 - Bob Goldberg

The former Minority Leader continues his position as one of the state's top lobbyists, representing a wide range of clients that last year included Lifespan, GTech, Johnson and Wales, and CVS Health, to name a few. Year in, year out, Goldberg -- who is married to RI Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg -- parlays his State House knowledge and connections for his well-funded clients, who in the past have included Twin River when it successfully pushed for table games on the ballot in 2012.

(Goldberg pictured at right.)

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#7 - Bill Murphy

The former Speaker of the House continues to wield unparalleled influence as a lobbyist and behind-the-scenes king maker.  While he last served as the state's most powerful elected official until 2010, Murphy's ability to exert control at the State House was evidenced by backing now-Speaker Mattiello when the battle to replace Gordon Fox took place.  Murphy's lobbying clients range from the corrections officers to payday lending to Twin River.

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#6 - Sen. Paiva Weed

The Senate President, who has been at the chamber's de facto top post since 2008, faced a strong challenge this past election season from Newport's Mike Smith, who had been an outspoken opponent against a table games expansion at Newport Grand -- a decision which Paiva-Weed ultimately came to following the rejection of a host agreement by the Newport City Council.  Paiva Weed in her opening address of this year's General Assembly session promised to make jobs and the economy her top priorities, followed closely by education.  With the school construction moratorium schedule to expire in May, watch to see how Paiva-Weed works with the House and Raimondo administration to address the burgeoning infrastructure needs.

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#5 - Sen. Ruggerio

The Senate Majority leader was first elected to the chamber in 1984, after four years in the House, and was Senate majority whip from 2003 to 2010. An administrator for the New England Laborers Labor Management Co-op Trust, Ruggerio's labor ties have helped cement his position of power in the Senate. Despite two arrests, Ruggerio has emerged relatively unscathed, advancing the legislation establishing the I-195 Redevelopment Commission, and pushing for increased parking in downtown Providence by the Garrahy judicial complex

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#4 - David Cruise

Governor Raimondo's newly chosen Legislative Director should prove to be much more than that.  While Raimondo tapped former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley staffer Stephen Neuman to be her Chief of Staff, the out-of-towner might bring in a fresh perspective, but Cruise knows the lay of the land. Having a Rhode Island political resume that includes serving as a State Senator, Governor Sundlun's Chief of Staff, and top roles at the RI Resource Recovery Corporation and as a traffic court magistrate, Cruise's policy role, while his official one, will be just one in his advisory capacity for the newly elected Governor.  

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#3 - Leo Skenyon

The Speaker of the Houses's Chief of Staff is the gatekeeper -- and like his predecessor before him, Frank Anzeveno (under former Speaker Gordon Fox), Skenyon is the key to access the Speaker. Skenyon, a former top aide to Governor Bruce Sundlun and U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, had most recently been the Traffic Tribunal Clerk.  The former Chief of Staff to Senate-Majority leader Jack Revens in the 1980s, Skenyon has been at the helm before in orchestrating the chamber's top office.  Skenyon enters his first full session at the post along with Mattiello as the agent behind the state's biggest power broker.  

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#2 - Gov. Raimondo

The state's 75th governor -- and first woman at the helm -- marks the first return of a Democratic head-of-state since Governor Bruce Sundlun entered the office in the winter of 1991.  Raimondo however won with just 40.7% of the vote, which gave her the plurality, but not a mandate.   Bringing in a number of outsiders for key positions, and shaking up multiple Department directors, the Raimondo administration looks markedly unlike any in recent years.  How successful Raimondo is in pushing through her agenda in the first six months will go a long way to determining how powerful she will be in the next four years. 

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#1 - Speaker Mattiello

The Speaker of the House has always wielded the most power in Rhode Island, and Speaker Mattiello is now the de facto head of state for the second -- and first full -- year.  Mattiello emerged from the 2014 session earning plaudits from a wide range of supporters for pushing through a cut in the corporate income tax and changes to the estate tax.  Now, as a new General Assembly has just gotten underway, Mattiello is eying eliminating the state income tax on social security, before the Governor has submitted her budget proposal.  Look to see what the Speaker can -- and will -- accomplish in 2015.  


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