John Perilli: Ghosts of Speakers Past
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
As is so often said, the Speaker of the Rhode Island House is perhaps the most powerful politician in the state. Bill Murphy stood on the speaker’s rostrum from 2003 to 2010, so one might think that after his retirement, his influence could only fade. That is not the case. If anything, retirement has allowed Murphy to reprise his role as State House kingmaker, just in a different way. He is a high-powered lobbyist for gun owners, casinos and payday lenders, each of whom pays him north of five figures per session to represent them. And recently, one of his prized proteges, Nicholas Mattiello, himself became Speaker.
So with former Speaker Murphy’s State House stock on the rise again, and his influence over our government becoming stronger, it is worth taking a look at how this man, who has not stood for election in four years, still has a hand in running our state.
The Rise to Power
Murphy was first elected to the State House in 1992 to represent the Thirty-Ninth District, a primarily blue-collar seat in West Warwick where he enjoyed a dependable base of Democratic support. A climber, he rose through the House ranks and onto the radar of then-Speaker John Harwood of Pawtucket. Then in 2002, after Harwood was hit with sexual harassment allegations from a State House staffer, the embattled core of House leadership chose Murphy as their next Speaker. The transition was made, and Murphy officially took the gavel in 2003.
However, after Harwood settled his case, he decided he wasn’t done. He wanted the Speakership back. Harwood challenged Murphy for his old post, but House leadership, now loyal to Murphy, rebuffed him. Murphy survived. Then, conveniently enough, Harwood was defeated in a 2004 primary by J. Patrick O’Neill, allowing Murphy to consolidate his power.
Murphy would serve as Speaker for seven years. Along with his majority leader, Representative Gordon Fox, he kept tight control of a broad Democratic caucus and remained surprisingly popular for a legislative insider. Around the middle of his term, though, he did something that shapes Rhode Island politics to this day: He took a tenderfoot Cranston representative named Nicholas Mattiello under his wing. They were old friends––Mattiello had even served as an usher at Murphy’s wedding in 1994. Mattiello became something of an apprentice to Murphy, and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the House hierarchy.
In 2010, Murphy decided to step down, and his Majority Leader Gordon Fox was tapped to succeed him. However, in a surprising move, Fox made Mattiello his Majority Leader, showing just how far Mattiello had risen in the esteem of House leadership. Murphy did not run for reelection in 2010, took his requisite year off from politics in accordance with state revolving door laws, and returned as a lobbyist. Then, scarcely a week ago, Mattiello became Speaker. The pieces fell right back into place for Murphy. His protege is in the high seat, lobbying clients old and new are clamoring for his service, and he looks poised to regain all his old power on Smith Hill.
Friends and Favors
This tale shows that as much as politics is about issues, it is also about relationships and loyalty. Especially in Rhode Island, where our small size knocks all of us against everyone else at some point or another, politics becomes a game of connections. Representatives and senators are not always units unto themselves. Each of them forms friendships, strategic alliances and coalitions when they pass bills into law.
This is, of course, fine when each legislator is duly elected through the democratic process. As I’ve said before, coalition-building and bargaining are essential tools of governance that allow us, day-to-day, to have a functioning representative democracy. When he was Speaker, Bill Murphy was a master of these deals, as was Gordon Fox. Mattiello also looks to have learned this trade well.
But what happens when not everyone is elected?
Undoubtedly Speaker Mattiello owes his predecessors, especially Bill Murphy, a great debt for his current position. This is not to discredit Mattiello as a person or as a politician: He showed during the recent back-room battle for the Speakership that he is one of the wiliest politicians around. The problem comes, though, when his creditors like Murphy come calling and make demands of him. Don’t pass this gun bill. Stop payday lending reform. Inevitably, the debts will be paid, and an elected leader will be influenced by an unelected one.
This is a problem for our democracy.
Take, for example, the battle over gun reform. A 2011 Public Policy Poll showed that Rhode Islanders support banning assault weapons by a 64-27 margin, wider than the margin by which we voted for Barack Obama in 2012. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy that galvanized the issue in late 2012, gun reform efforts nationwide came to a head. Connecticut and New York, two of our Democratic neighbors, passed sweeping new gun control laws almost easily. But in Rhode Island, a state with similar political composition, almost no substantive reforms passed.
How could this be? Besides the fact that Rhode Island’s top Democrats have taken thousands from the NRA, the pro-gun coalition’s top lobbyist in Rhode Island is none other than Bill Murphy. Mind you, this all happened when Gordon Fox was Speaker. With Mattiello and his A+ rating from the NRA at the helm, gun laws have an even lower chance of passing. This is in spite of the continuing support for gun laws that was evidenced last December by the failed recall in Exeter, one of Rhode Island’s most conservative towns.
Slamming the Revolving Door
I don’t mean to pass judgment on any of Murphy or Mattiello’s policies. I only mean to highlight the fact that a former elected official is using is own personal leverage over a current one to push laws against the grain of public support. Sure, you might say, politicians and lobbyists are peas in a pod, but when someone as powerful as a former Speaker like Murphy steps up to bat, there aren’t many lawmakers who can resist his influence. No one in Rhode Island has better access to our state’s political leaders, and many of them still owe him favors.
Without assigning fault, we have to put a stop to this. Every individual has incentives, and we must legislate accordingly. I suggest that we add a condition to our state’s revolving door laws that prevents a former Speaker or Senate President from lobbying for up to five years after they retire, instead of the usual one year. The power of the Speakership ought to come at a cost.
Bill Murphy might still covet his old influence, but it’s time for him to turn the page. At the state level, we are governed by five statewide officials, 75 representatives and 38 senators. And that ought to be it.
Related Slideshow: Fox Scandal: Winners and Losers
Peter F, Neronha, U.S. Attorney
The bold action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation coupled with Internal Revenue Service investigators raiding the Speaker of the House's office was a major statement by federal authorities.
The investigation tied to now-former Speaker Fox sets expectations of a far broader probe.
Neronha has also indicted developer Richard Baccari and was key to the http://www.golocalprov.com/news/9949/">Google Settlement that brought $230 million to Rhode Island.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed
Generally, the Senate President plays second fiddle to the Speaker of the House, but with a new Speaker to be voted on as early as Tuesday, Paiva Weed's influence will shoot up in the transition.
She will be more influential in the budget process.
Look for Paiva Weed to make a move on controlling the Joint Committee on Legislative Services - the proverbial legislative grab bag for jobs and grants.
Majority Leader Nick Mattiello
As GoLocal Tweeted on Friday, the Cranston Representative and Majority Leader has the edge to take control of the House.
Mattiello (as of Sunday Night) has approximately 40 votes and the momentum necessary to replace Fox.
Mattiello has strong support from former Speaker and lobbyist Bill Murphy. A Mattiello Speakership may cause a big shake up in Committee Chairs and senior staffing.
Former Speaker Bill Murphy
Murphy and Fox worked together for more than a decade and their relationship had both ups and downs. Nick Mattiello, if elected Speaker, is a close ally to former Speaker Bill Murphy.
Murphy had served as Speaker from 2003 to 2010. The former legislator has a successful criminal defense practice and is a lobbyist for notable clients (2013) for UTGR (Twin River), Advance America Cash Advance, and the Brotherhood of Correction Officers.
Murphy will emerge as an ever greater influencer with Mattiello as Speaker.
The resignation by Gordon Fox is a political hit to the General Treasurer who went big for Fox in his surprisingly tough re-election against story teller Mark Binder.
Binder hit Fox both for his role in 38 Studios and his legal work for PEDP applicants.
Raimondo decided to publicly support Fox and walk his district with the embattled Speaker.
It should be noted that Providence Mayor Angel Taveras also supported Fox, but Raimondo claims to be the reformer in this race.
Fox's Committee Chairs (if Mattiello wins)
Fox loyalists who have pledged their support to Michael Marcello will be in trouble as will their agendas if Mattiello is in fact elected Speaker on Tuesday.
Committee Chairs like Helio Mello, Edith Ajello, and Arthur "Doc" Corvese might all be replaced as they backed Marcello.
For the past decade, Providence could always count of Gordon Fox to help bail the Providence Budget out of trouble.
From Finance Committee Chair, then-Majority Leader and ultimately-Speaker, Providence Mayors knew that Fox -- the Mount Hope section of Providence Representative -- would increase aid to Providence in one way or another.
Providence always found an extra few millions from Fox. That access is likely to end in 2014 further impacting the City of Providence's budget issues.
Legalization of Marijuana
The pieces were falling together for the effort to pass legislation to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island. Speaker Fox was a social progressive. Judiciary Committee Chair Edith Ajello, who may lose her post in the power shift, was the legislation's sponsor and in command of the key committee.
In addition, Governor Lincoln Chafee has voiced support for the idea.
But, a shift to a more conservative Mattiello would throw a barrier in the way to a 2014 passage.
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