By DANIEL KITTREDGE Perhaps the most closely watched and consequential contest in Rhode Island this November will be decided by just a fraction of Cranston's voters. For the third consecutive election cycle, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is
Perhaps the most closely watched and consequential contest in Rhode Island this November will be decided by just a fraction of Cranston’s voters.
For the third consecutive election cycle, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is facing a formidable challenge as he seeks reelection to his District 15 seat – this time from Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the wife of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
In the weeks since the Sept. 8 primary election, the race has heated up significantly. Hanging over the contest is the upcoming trial of Jeff Britt, a former Mattiello campaign aide. Those proceedings, scheduled to begin Oct. 5, are focused on a controversial mailer sent to voters during the closing days of the 2016 campaign.
Through attention-grabbing mailers and online ads, Fenton-Fung has zeroed in on the Britt situation and a number of controversies that have surrounded Mattiello’s tenure as the top official in the House.
One mailer, for example, is titled “The Notorious Mattiello Outlaws,” using a “wanted poster” theme to highlight various legal and ethics matters involving legislative leaders and aides during the speaker’s tenure. She has also employed a board game theme with a similar focus – and, in one video, plays a “Mattiello version” of “Guess Who?” with Steve Frias, who nearly unseated the speaker in 2016 and 2018.
The speaker, for his part, had until recently largely focused on pitching his own record and accomplishments – although last week, through a mailer of his own, he struck back at Fenton-Fung as a Cranston “outsider” who would have “no influence to support Cranston.”
On one side, that mailer outlines five reasons voters should support Mattiello, including his “clean, positive campaign,” his influence as speaker and his status as the “only elected official in Rhode Island who can ensure the full elimination of the car tax.” On the other, it gives five reasons to “think twice before supporting her,” accusing Fenton-Fung of running a campaign “full of misinformation, distortions, and flat out lies.”
Additionally, the speaker recently received a boost from Gov. Gina Raimondo, with whom he has at times been at odds in recent years. One of Mattiello’s latest mailers includes a quote from the governor in which she says the speaker was “instrumental in ensuring Rhode Island was a leader in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Last week also brought the first face-to-face debate between the two as part of WJAR’s “10 News Conference” program, which is hosted by Gene Valicenti. During a spirited exchange, the candidates reprised familiar campaign themes while trading barbs over the state’s budget outlook and other issues.
Mattiello, an attorney by trade, said he is “known as the jobs and economy speaker.” During his time leading the House, he said, he has “concentrated on reducing taxes, removing regulatory burdens, making our economy one that is conducive to job growth.”
He guaranteed that if reelected, he would see through the six-year car tax phase-out – “You can bet on that” – and defended the decision of state leadership to wait until November to act on a state budget.
“We’re waiting for clarity from the federal government. That’s wisdom, that’s leadership, that’s appropriate,” he said.
In terms of the various controversies, Mattiello acknowledged he has been subpoenaed to testify in the Britt trial and will do so if called, but he asserted that the matter has been “fully investigated” and “has nothing to do with me.” He also defended his controversial – and since rescinded – call for an audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center, saying: “Every time the taxpayers lost $20 million, it needs and deserves a look.”
More broadly, the speaker said: “These distractions are just distractions.”
Fenton-Fung, a physical therapist who contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, said she has spent 15 years “in the trenches and on the front lines of health care and education, whether during the pandemic or starting out my career teaching children with disabilities how to walk.” She suggested Mattiello has “punted” action on the state budget until after the election because he knows the car tax phase-out will be disrupted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
“COVID is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” she said, “and the speaker has been absent since almost the beginning of the crisis.”
Regarding the controversies surrounding the speaker, she said: “People expect, demand and deserve honesty, and that’s not what they’re getting from the speaker … The 2020 version of Nick Mattiello is not the 2013 and 2014 version of Mattiello. You’ve been embroiled in scandal.”
Fenton-Fung framed her candidacy as being focused on “bold leadership,” and she pointed to education as a key area of focus. She cited support for the $147 million school facilities bond that will go before Cranston votes in November and said other such investments will be needed in the years ahead.
“That’s how we’re going to lift Rhode Island up,” she said.
She later added: “I’m not in this to make friends up on Smith Hill, but I am in it to make a difference.”
Results from the past two elections suggest the race between Mattiello and Fenton-Fung is likely to come down to the wire.
In 2016, Mattiello defeated Frias by less than 100 votes, 3,611 (49.1 percent) to 3,526 (48 percent). An independent candidate, Patrick Vallier, won 202 votes that year.
In his 2018 rematch with Frias, Mattiello was reelected by a slightly more comfortable margin. In the two-way contest, the speaker received 3,464 votes, or 52.3 percent of those cast, to Frias’s 3,135 votes, or 47.3 percent.
Neither Mattiello nor Fenton-Fung faced a challenger in the September primary this year. Mattiello received 819 votes, while Fenton-Fung received 1,087.
Mattiello Fenton-Fung To hear recent Radio Beacon conversations with Mattiello and Fenton-Fung, visit anchor.fm/radio-beacon