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John Perilli: Battle Heats Up to Succeed Fox in House District 4

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


With Gordon Fox not running for reelection, the winner of the House District 4 race stands to gain a powerful seat on Smith Hill, believes John Perilli

In what will certainly be one of the most closely-watched General Assembly races this coming summer, three candidates are vying to replace a legislative titan. Rep. Gordon Fox, who resigned his position as Speaker of the House after raids on his State House office and home, will be leaving his seat on the Upper East Side of Providence vacant for the first time since 1992.

It’s a wide-open contest––par for the course in politically-crowded Providence. As far as districts go, the Fourth is diverse both ethnically and economically, with all brackets represented up to and including the opulent strip along Blackstone Boulevard. Considering all the attention focused on the race, the winner could very well enjoy an accelerated climb into a position of power at the State House. In the coming months, three Democrats––and possibly others––will fight to settle who that will be.

Aaron Regunberg

Democrat Aaron Regunberg is a Brown University alumnus and an organizer with the Providence Student Union. Right out of the gate, this gives him an advantage: He will have a blazing ground game. In a district of only around 15,000 constituents, door-knocking and field work could swing a decisive couple hundred votes. Additionally, Regunberg knows the district well: He previously worked as the East Side Field Director for Mayor Angel Taveras in 2010 and as the campaign manager for Sen. Gayle Goldin in 2012, whose district overlaps with the Fourth.

“I have experience running grassroots campaigns,” Regunberg said, “I’m going to knock on every door, and talk to every voter myself.”

Like many East Side candidates, Regunberg takes a progressive stance on the major issues, but it is his public school activism that could differentiate him from his opponents, who are sympathetic to independent schools and the education reform movement. This is why Regunberg fell in behind Sen. Goldin, a public school advocate herself, and why he might do well to run on the issue: Goldin won all the precincts in the Fourth House District by a combined 56-44 in 2012. Regunberg also has the support of two East Side political fixtures: Rep. Edith Ajello and former Rep. Nick Tsiongas, who held the District 4 seat before Fox.

“I'm in this race because I know the difference it makes when the voices of our community are actually brought to the table and involved in policy-making,” said Regunberg. “That's why in 2010 I co-founded the Providence Student Union and have worked with young people to build it into a strong, youth-led organization that has made real changes in our schools.”

If Regunberg can prove his worth as a candidate despite his young age, he will be a force to be accounted for come the September 9 primary. And he’ll have plenty of resources to do the convincing with––he’s already sitting on $25,000 in campaign cash.

Heather Tow-Yick

She’s also a Brown alum and a Providence native who runs the Rhode Island chapter of Teach for America (TFA), an organization that trains college students to teach in underserved schools for two years after graduation. This immediately sets her up as a foil to Regunberg: the leaders of Teach for America are widely viewed as pennant-bearers for the education reform movement. While participating in TFA doesn’t necessarily align an enterprising college graduate with the cause, Tow-Yick’s continued involvement more than indicates her allegiance.

She may be in luck: Education reform groups give generously, and if the campaign becomes a contest over the education issue, expect outside groups to jump in. However, Tow-Yick seems to be downplaying her affiliation with Teach for America, instead emphasizing her long-term residency in the district and her business credit. She holds an MBA from the highly-regarded Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Will Tow-Yick be able to run with her deep roots in the district to beat Regunberg’s organizing skill? And can she overcome the business credentials and campaign experience of the third Democrat in the race?

Miriam Ross

An experienced corporate attorney and former in-house counsel at Textron and GTech, Miriam Ross enters the race with support from the business community and deep fundraising potential.

“My background is grounded in economic development and working with small businesses,” said Ross. “I think what distinguishes me is the depth of experience I have working with businesses in the legislative process.”

In a state desperate for any comfort on the economic front, Ross’s commerce-centered message could find a wide appeal. She’s got the credit to back it up: She is the only female chair of the Rhode Island Small Business Economic Summit, put on annually by the Rhode Island Small Business Association.

She is also the only candidate in the race to have run for elected office before: In 2010, Ross unsuccessfully challenged Democratic incumbent Sen. Rhoda Perry as an Independent. Now, she’s running as a Democrat and hoping for a more successful second try at elected office.

“It’s not easy to put yourself out there and go door to door,” said Ross. “It was a valuable learning experience for me.”

Will this year’s statewide primary give Ross a chance to turn her fortunes around? Or will another powerful candidate come in and steal her thunder?

The X Factor: Maryellen Butke

One of the loudest silences so far in the District 4 race is the absence of Maryellen Butke, the former Senate candidate whom Gayle Goldin beat in the aforementioned 2012 primary. She is widely considered a strong contender for the open seat, but has remained mum about her intentions to run.

Butke, like Tow-Yick, comes from an education reform background. She was the Executive Director of RI-CAN, an education advocacy group which supports charter schools and school choice. The education issue proved to the pivotal wedge in her battle with Goldin in 2012, but she ultimately lost out. If she were to run for District 4, she could split votes with Tow-Yick, allowing Regunberg or Ross to sweep up. Will she stay out so the Education Reformers can have a united front?

The race is still fluid, and more candidates could drop in or out before the filing deadline on June 25. But have no doubt: This is a powerful seat at the State House. The race will be expensive and close. Mud and money will fly in equal measures, and the winner will have a first-class ticket punched for Smith Hill. Stay tuned.

John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats and works for Magaziner for Treasurer. The opinions presented in this article do not represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPerilli.


Related Slideshow: The History of Gordon Fox: From Camp St. to Speaker to…

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Reform Candidate

In 1992, Gordon Fox ran for (then) House District 5 seat replacing Dr. Nick Tsiongas.

Fox, an ally of then-Councilman Josh Fenton and former College Hill State Representative Ray Rickman, won the seat easily. 

Gordon Fox (D) 2,253

Michael Mitchell (R) 525

Jay Enderle (I) 407

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Under Harwood 

Gordon Fox gained power right out of the block. He was appointed to Finance immediately and rose quickly to be Chairman of the House Finance Committee - arguably one of the three or four most powerful positions in Rhode Island state government.
As Finance Committee Chair he emerged as a supporter of progressive causes.
In addition, Fox scored a job in then-Mayor Buddy Cianci's Law Department.
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Murphy - Fox Team 2002

John Harwood was forced out as Speaker and the combo of the popular Bill Murphy from West Warwick and Gordon Fox teamed up to take control of the House. Murphy and Fox were young, both grew up in working class neighborhoods and lawyers.
The two of them were popular and press savvy - together they guided the team for nearly a decade.
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Fox and GTech and the Ethics Commission 2003

In 2003, Majority Leader Fox faced harsh criticism and an investigation for his law firm's role and his involvement in the effort to reach an agreement with GTECH to stay in RI. Ultimately, Fox pleaded guilty and was issued one of the largest penalties in the history of the Ethics Commission.
Pursuant to the above Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Mitigating Factors, the Prosecution and the Respondent agree, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-13(d), to the imposition by the Commission and to payment by the Respondent of a civil penalty of Ten Thousand ($10,000) Dollars. The above terms represent the full and complete Informal Resolution and Settlement for Complaint Nos. 2003-6 and 2003-7.
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Openly Gay - 2004

In 2004, Gordon Fox announced that he was openly gay. The announcement was a breakthrough for the gay community at the time.  He became the first openly gay speaker of any House of Representatives.
He married his long-time partner Marcus LaFond in November of 2013.
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Speaker of the House

The rise of Gordon Fox was now complete. In February of 2010, Fox was elected Speaker of the House. He was the first Minority to rise to such a position of power in Rhode Island's history.
It was a remarkable trip from being bullied as a kid for being mixed-race in a predominately black neighborhood to the most powerful political position in the State of Rhode Island.
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2007 - 2010

Fox and 38 Studios

The genesis of 38 Studios started when Gordon Fox's close friend and fundraiser Michael Corso hosted a private meeting between Fox and 38 Studios executives. This meeting was the spark for the General Assembly passing special legislation after the legislative deadline. The result, $75 million to 38 Studios.
The Fox and Corso relationship included Corso being the landlord to Fox's now husband Marcus LaFond's hair salon.
As GoLocal reported in July of 2012:
House Speaker Gordon Fox on Tuesday wrote a check to the business owned by 38 Studios insider Michael Corso to cover previously undocumented expenses from a March 2007 fundraiser, according to a letter obtained by GoLocalProv.
The $648 payment came nearly two months after initial inquires into the event, which was hosted by Corso, Steven Nappa and Robert Britto of Nappa Building Corp. and former State Representative Ray Rickman. Fox spokesman Larry Berman said the payment will appear on Fox’s third quarter campaign finance reports.
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Fox and Gay Marriage

Gordon Fox was an advocate for the passage of civil unions and then marriage equality legislation. Both bills languished for years. Then, Senator Donna Nesselbush arrived in the legislature and changed the political dynamics.
Nesselbush created a new political dynamic in the Senate and drove the effort to push the legislation through the Senate. Combined, Fox and Nesselbush ushered through gay marriage legislation through both Chambers.
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Providence Economic Development Partnership 

Speaker Fox did work for a number of applicants for the federally investigated Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP). GoLocalProv, which has written more than 50 articles on PEDP, reported in January that the RI Ethics Commission had fined Fox for a second time tied to his PEDP work:
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission has fined Speaker of the House Gordon Fox $1500 for violating the state's code of ethics.  
Fox was fined $500 for each of the three years between 2007 and 2009 he did not report income for legal work with the Providence Economic Development Partnership, the quasi-public agency under the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Providence.
In 2004, Fox was fined $10,000 by the Ethics Commission while House Majority leader for voting on a no-bid deal for GTECH in which his law firm was involved.  
Statement in Response:
Fox's lawyer, Albin Moser, Esq., issued the following statement following the ruling on Tuesday:
“Speaker Fox had stated from the beginning that if the Ethics Commission would like his Financial Disclosure report to be amended, then he would do so. That being the case, Speaker Fox has amended his reports for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
In keeping with past practice of the Commission, there is usually a fine involved. He will pay the fine of $500 per year for each of those three years.
He did not list work for PEDP in those years because he believed he was a subcontractor to Joshua Teverow’s law firm on his loan closings that were performed at Mr. Teverow’s office.
Beginning in 2010 and continuing in 2011 and 2012, Speaker Fox began doing the closings directly for PEDP, which he reported during those three years and the Ethics Commission has acknowledged. He has not performed any work for PEDP since 2012.” 
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Raid and Resignation

On Friday, the State House office of Gordon Fox was raided by RI State Police in conjuction with FBI and IRS agents. This was the first time a State House office was ever raided by law enforcement officials.

By end of day Saturday, Fox had resigned, here is his statement:

The Rhode Island House of Representatives is an institution that I deeply respect and serving my constituents has been a major part of my life for the past 22 years. I will not let yesterday’s events distract my colleagues from addressing the challenges facing Rhode Island.”
“Because of the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives, I am resigning as Speaker. The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner.”
“I want to thank my colleagues and loyal staff for all that we were able to accomplish together. I will continue to serve out the remainder of my term and represent my neighbors and constituents in District 4. That said, I do not intend to seek another term in the House.”
“My personal focus going forward will be on my family and dealing with the investigation. Because of the nature of this matter, I will not be commenting further.”
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Fox Pleads to three charges of bribery, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return on March 3, 2015.  

The charges stem from former Speaker Fox’s theft of $108,000 donated by campaign supporters to pay for personal expenses; his acceptance of a $52,000 bribe to advocate and move for issuance of a liquor license for an East Side restaurant while serving as Vice-Chairman of the City of Providence Board of Licenses in 2008; and his failure to account for these illegal sources of income on his tax returns.


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