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Speaker Gordon Fox’s Former Ally Now Running Opponent’s Campaign

Thursday, October 04, 2012

 

A former paid consultant for House Speaker Gordon Fox is running the campaign of the candidate hoping to unseat him in District 4, GoLocalProv has learned.

Jeff Britt, who has played a behind-the-scenes role in State House politics (most notably as a close ally to former Governor Don Carcieri and former General Treasurer Frank Caprio) over the past decade, flew in from his new home in Florida two weeks ago to take over operations for Fox’s Independent opponent Mark Binder.

“I had never met Mark until I came back,” Britt said Wednesday. “But the 38 Studios debacle drew my attention to what was going on and having been in the State House, I knew there was only one person to blame. $75 million does not get tacked on to an [Economic Development Corporation] bill without the Speaker’s approval.”

Binder has made the failure of Curt Schilling’s video game company, which filed for bankruptcy over the summer less than two years after receiving a $75 million loan guarantee from the state, a key issue of the campaign, claiming the Speaker has too close a relationship with tax credit broker Michael Corso, who helped broker the deal to move 38 Studios to Rhode Island.

But if 38 Studios was the reason Binder, who lost a Democratic primary to former Congressman Patrick Kennedy in 2004, decided to challenge Fox, it isn’t the only area where the two do not see eye-to-eye. Binder blames Fox for not bringing same-sex marriage to the House floor for a vote (Fox says marriage equality is a top priority for 2013) and for twice killing a payday lending reform bill that was supported by many rank-and-file House lawmakers.

“My message is simple,” Binder said. “If you want the person who left his district behind, the person who brought 38 Studios, who mashed up the Board of Higher Ed and the Board of Regents, who wouldn't call for votes on payday lending and gay marriage, vote for Gordon Fox. It's time for us to move ahead. If you want a progressive who is interested in making this state a better place, vote for Mark Binder.”

Former Speaker Harwood: Fox has a Fight

If the idea of an upstart Independent candidate defeating the sitting Speaker of the House sounds farfetched, it probably is. Earlier this year, the Providence Journal reported that the last time a Speaker lost his House seat was 1906.

And while Fox has faced considerable criticism for the way the legislation that made it possible for 38 Studios to come to Rhode Island was crafted, he has also been praised for helping lead the way on last year’s pension reform bill. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who lives in District 4, keeps a Fox sign on her lawn. As does Congressman David Cicilline.

“I have lived my entire life in District 4 and I understand the issues that are most important to the residents of the Mount Hope, Summit and Blackstone neighborhoods such as good schools, fiscal responsibility, marriage equality and women’s reproductive choice,” Fox said. “As a Speaker from the Democratic Party, I will be more effective for my constituents than a freshman Independent.”

But at least one former Speaker believes the fact that Britt is running Binder’s campaign may cause headaches for Fox.

“I wouldn’t want to welcome an onslaught by Jeff Britt and his colleagues,” said John Harwood, who served as Speaker of the House from 1993 through 2002.

In 2002, Harwood nearly lost his House seat to write-in candidate Bruce Bayuk, Britt’s stepfather. Britt ran the campaign.

“They were throwing refrigerators at my head,” Harwood recalls. “They know how to fight and they will work like a dog. But I know Gordon is a very formidable candidate and it’ll certainly be a hard fought fight.”

Can Binder Win?

Still, there are distinct differences between Harwood’s race from 2002 and the Fox/Binder battle. At the time, Harwood had his name dragged through the mud thanks to sexual harassment allegations made against him by a state employee and two executive at the Lincoln Park Greyhound Track were indicted for allegedly attempting to bribe him.

Fox does not have a cloud of corruption hanging over his head, but he is the most visible person in a legislature that 43 percent of likely voters said they would like to completely remove from office in this week’s WPRI poll. “I prefer to look at the poll result which shows that 57 percent do not want to replace their General Assembly members,” he said.

Fox is also facing a 10.7 percent unemployment rate that is well above the national average and if re-elected, he’ll need to win over some of the incoming Democrats he didn’t support during last month’s primary (namely John Lombardi and Greg Costantino) as well as some of the lawmakers that won re-election despite being targets of the Speaker (Spencer Dickinson). Dickinson has already contributed $1,000 to Binder’s campaign.

“I always used to tell the young guys to make as many friends as you can because the enemies come natural,” Harwood said.

Britt, who was paid $15,000 as a consultant for Fox through two House Leadership PACs (including one payment on March 31, 2012), says he doesn’t consider the Speaker an enemy, but he does admit that he’s running Binder’s campaign because he’s upset with how Fox has handled himself in recent years.

“We were friends for many years, but my problem is I came to the conclusion that he’s not the person I thought he was and that’s the same problem people in District 4 have,” Britt said. “This is not the same Gordon Fox that Mark Binder once voted for.”

Asked how this race compares to the 2002 campaign, Britt said Fox has lost touch with his district the same way Harwood had and called Binder “the right candidate at the right time” to knock off the Speaker.

And Britt believes he’s just the guy who can help Binder pull it off.

“I’ve taken on all the king’s horses and all the king’s men before and we nearly won,” he said. “We’ll do it again.”

 

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.

 

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