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John Perilli: Ghosts of Speakers Past

Wednesday, April 02, 2014


Allowing former Speakers of the House to become lobbyists so soon after they retire threatens our democracy, believes John Perilli

Former Rhode Island House Speaker William J. “Bill” Murphy has not held elected office since 2010, but he still casts a long shadow over Smith Hill.

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.

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.


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