State Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-15, ascended to the office of speaker in 2014 under trying circumstances.
His predecessor had stepped down amid scandal, while lawmakers were gearing up for that November’s election. Meanwhile, a budget needed to be approved for the coming fiscal year. Also looming were then-unsettled legal challenges to the state’s landmark 2010 pension reform legislation.
It was a turbulent time, but the initial reaction to Mattiello – who garnered nearly unanimous support from his colleagues, including members of the House Republican caucus – brought reason for hope. The new speaker addressed his fellow lawmakers, and all Rhode Islanders, in inclusive terms. He seemed to grasp the significance of the moment, to understand what would be required to succeed and move our state forward.
“There is no shortage of good ideas,” he said at the time, “whether they come from freshmen or members with more than 20 years’ experience.”
That initial glow proved short-lived, and controversies – some regarding policy, some surrounding the conduct of other legislators – have dominated much of Mattiello’s tenure in what is widely regarded as the most powerful office in the state.
While most of those issues have not directly involved the speaker, or have been beyond his control, his handling of the debate over the controversial community service and legislative grant programs left much to be desired. His public feud with the Providence Journal – including a highly unusual address to the House in which he said he was “embarrassed” for the storied institution after its critical coverage – was unwarranted.
While we applaud reforms subsequently made to the community service grants, the legislative grants remain a clearly political tool for incumbent lawmakers, despite the speaker’s protestations otherwise and regardless of the good causes to which they are awarded.
We would also be remiss not to recall Mattiello’s initial enthusiasm for the ill-conceived plans to build a new, taxpayer-subsidized Pawtucket Red Sox stadium in Providence. Reasonable people can disagree, but using public money to aid in the construction of such facilities has been shown time and again to be a poor investment. In this case especially, the move never made sense, and we are thankful an agreement ultimately did not materialize.
Also troubling have been the recent revelations surrounding former GOP candidate Shawna Lawton’s endorsement of Mattiello for re-election.
In a Google chat including other members of the group Rhode Island Alliance for Vaccine Choice, Lawton – who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in District 15 this year – appears to indicate she agreed to support the speaker and in turn received a pledge from one of Mattiello’s top aides of legislative support for the group’s efforts.
Lawton and Mattiello’s campaign have since strongly denied any quid pro quo. Rhode Island GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, meanwhile, has pledged to pursue a complaint with the state Board of Elections and perhaps to push prosecutors to look at the matter.
This situation gave us pause ahead of the publishing of this piece, and required us to re-evaluate our specific language and overall stance. We are not so naïve as to believe such arrangements as the one alleged between Lawton and Mattiello are unusual. That makes it no less distasteful if true. The real shame is that the story, and its timing, will likely only deepen the cynicism many Rhode Islanders have regarding their government.
Ultimately, we found ourselves reaching largely the same conclusion Lawton appears to draw in the online chat – that Mattiello remains the best positioned to make meaningful progress on important issues.
Through the distractions and frenzy of the last two-plus years, and despite the occasion missteps, Mattiello has kept true to perhaps the most central pledge he made upon assuming the role of speaker – to hone his focus on taking steps to improve the state’s economy and competitive standing.
His watch has seen a reduction in the corporate tax rate, and tax relief for retirees. His stance on the governor’s RhodeWorks plan led to passage of an improved version of the legislation, helping to put in place a real blueprint for addressing our ailing infrastructure – an issue that tops the list of impediments to 21st-century economy revitalization in our state.
Mattiello has also moved, albeit slowly at times, to address the negative perception many Rhode Islanders have of state government. He gave his support to eliminating the so-called “master lever” in voting booths, and is also backing Question 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot to restore Ethics Commission oversight for lawmakers.
In 2014, we wrote: “[Mattiello] is no stranger to the establishment, having previously served as majority leader, but by almost all accounts carries credibility as a man of pragmatism and integrity.”
That assessment remains largely true today. We appreciate the unique challenges Mattiello faces in leading a part-time legislature and the difficult circumstances under which he assumed the speakership. While we have not always agreed with his decisions and stances on key issues, we do believe he generally has the best interest of his District 15 constituents, and all Rhode Islanders, at heart. We also view his pragmatism, and willingness to adapt to the needs of the moment, as in the end being more a virtue than a vice.
Steven Frias, Mattiello’s Republican challenger, also has our respect. As with the Journal, he has in the past been a distinguished contributor to this publication’s pages. His fluency with issues and passion for our state are indisputable. We hope his voice remains a part of our shared discourse.
We do, however, urge the voters of District 15 to re-elect Mattiello.