Evaluating the Speaker: Is Fox Setting the Agenda?

Monday, May 02, 2011


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House Speaker Gordon Fox lost a number of supporters last week when he announced his support for civil unions, but in doing so, he also helped the state take its first step toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

It was, according to some political scientists, precisely the type of tone Fox should be setting at a time when Rhode Island finds itself desperately in need of a leader who can offer both a vision and also provide the follow through needed to actually move Rhode Island forward.

The scenario was also a sign of changing times in the state. Gone are the days of the House Speaker as the Supreme Being in Rhode Island politics. With the public paying more attention than ever to what’s happening on Smith Hill, Fox simply can’t pull strings the way some of his predecessors might have able to.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not setting the agenda at the State House. GoLocalProv asked three political scientists from local universities to evaluate the work Fox has done in his first full session as Speaker of the House.

Speaker Taking The Right Approach On Same-Sex Marriage

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It’s not just the new era in which the media and the public are paying closer to attention to state politics; it’s also a changing time in the State House, according to Brown University Political Science Professor Wendy Schiller (at left). Schiller said having to work with an Independent governor isn’t the same as working with a Republican governor.

“I think Speaker Gordon Fox is operating in a political environment that is different from prior terms, especially working with an independent governor rather than an opposite party governor,” Schiller said. “The legislature is inherently more powerful than the governor in Rhode Island, but the risk for Fox in opposing Chafee's budget, and other matters down the line, is that the voters of Rhode Island will not just accept opposition, they want alternatives.”

Schiller said she believes Fox made the correct decision to propose civil unions because it shows a leader that is willing to offer answers as opposed to just critiques.

“I think by now most RI voters recognize that the pensions system, educational quality, and tax structure all have to be reexamined, stabilized, and improved and it will not be enough simply to say NO and walk away,” Schiller said. “That is why I think the Speaker is taking the right approach by proposing a civil unions bill at the same time he announced he could not win passage of same-sex marriage; accepting defeat but at the same time trying to remain committed to the issue.  If he can get that through relatively quickly, he will look responsive and effective.  But if the legislature ends its session this year making no improvements or inroads into addressing Rhode Island's key issues, the power pendulum will swing back into Governor Chafee's corner.”

Speaker’s Wise Strategy

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URI Political Science Professor Maureen Moakley (at right) agreed with Schiller. Despite the outrage from the marriage equality community, Fox made the right decision to push for civil unions and avoid alienating some of his on-the-fence colleagues. She said his decision will likely pay off down the line.

“It was a wise strategic decision because he didn’t have the votes in the Senate,” Moakley said. “He doesn’t want to risk exposing [House members] on a controversial decision.”

Moakley said Fox will need a lot of votes to push his agenda during the session and pushing for civil unions will make it easier for him.

What’s On The Agenda?

The question of what exactly Speaker Fox wants to do the rest of the session remains a bit of a mystery, according to one State House insider. His speaking out against Governor Lincoln Chafee’s tax proposal effectively left the budget dead on arrival, but Fox hasn’t ruled out the entire plan or raising taxes to close the budget deficit.

“Every governor’s budget is dead on arrival the first time around,” the source said. “That’s no surprise. But people aren’t sure what the Speaker wants to flex his muscles on. Everyone thought it might be gay marriage, but he came to a compromise.”

There’s No Money

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No matter what Speaker Fox wants to do with his power, at the end of the day, he’s got one problem according to Roger Williams University Political Science Professor June Speakman (at left): “There’s no money.”

Speakman, who also serves on the Barrington Town Council, said she understands how important social issues like same-sex marriage are to so many, but the majority of Americans are focusing on fiscal problems.

“In general, everybody knows there’s no money,” she said. “It’s paralysis at the federal level and that echoes down to the state level. When you’re in this kind of situation, it’s cut services or raises taxes. That’s just the truth of government.”

Which makes it awfully difficult to set any agenda at all.

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