By DANIEL KITTREDGE The closely watched contest between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung was again in the spotlight late last week. The two hopefuls appeared for an Oct. 23 debate on WPRI's
The closely watched contest between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung was again in the spotlight late last week.
The two hopefuls appeared for an Oct. 23 debate on WPRI’s “Newsmakers” program, trading barbs and making their closing arguments to House District 15 voters in a race that will have outsized influence on Rhode Island’s political scene.
Moderators Tim White and Ted Nesi began with questions related to the recent trial of Jeff Britt, a former Mattiello campaign aide accused of laundering money to pay for a late-season mailer during the speaker’s narrow victory over Steve Frias in 2016.
A verdict in the trial – in which Mattiello was called as a witness by the defense – is not expected until after Nov. 3.
Mattiello defended his prior statements that he had no knowledge of the controversial mailer, despite his acknowledgement during his testimony that he had chastised another top aide, Leo Skenyon, once he learned of it.
“I saw the mailer and I didn’t like it … It was four years ago. I can’t tell you exactly what I was thinking then,” he said.
Fenton-Fung, who has made the controversies surrounding the speaker a central focus of her campaign, countered: “I don’t know how many times you practiced that line in front of the mirror, but, you might be able to convince yourself of that, after thinking of it too long, but guess what? You’re not fooling anybody in District 15.”
Fenton-Fung also accused Mattiello of relying on aides whose work is funded by taxpayers to conduct campaign business.
“Stop using taxpayer-funded positions for your campaign,” she said.
Mattiello responded: “My record is of reform. She goes too far in her accusations … This is just politics.”
The candidates addressed a range of other issues during the half-hour “Newsmakers” appearance.
Fenton-Fung was asked to explain her support for President Donald Trump in light of her criticisms of the speaker.
“Mother Teresa is not on the ballot this year … I think President Trump can bring our economy back, and that lifts everybody,” she said.
The two also sparred over whether Mattiello, as he has previously argued, truly represents a “firewall” against a growing progressive movement within the state’s Democratic Party.
Fenton-Fung said Mattiello “betrayed” a pro-life community that went “balls to the wall” and “won him that last election against Steve Frias.”
Mattiello countered: “I’m a pro-life voter, but nobody wants the speaker of the House to be a dictator, on any issue.” He said his decision to allow legislation codifying the protections of the landmark Roe v. Wade case in Rhode Island state law reflected the popular support for that course of action.
“When that strong a majority in a democratic system wants it, it’s going to happen,” he said. “There comes a breaking point that you can’t hold it back.”
Mattiello also reprised a central argument – that his position as speaker yields significant benefits for Cranston. He predicted “turmoil” in House leadership if he loses.
“If I win the election, things become much more predictable …Why would Cranston ever want to lose that influence?” he said.
He added: “The only way the car tax relief happens is if I’m elected.”
Fenton-Fung framed herself as well positioned to help effect reform at the State House.
“Taking on the establishment has always been in my blood … and the fight has never been more important than right now,” she said.
During a rapid-fire response portion of the event, both candidates said they opposed the Costco-anchored Cranston Crossing development and support the use of body cameras by police.
Fenton-Fung gave Gov. Gina Raimondo a B for her handling of the pandemic, while grading the Assembly’s response as an F. Mattiello gave the governor an A for her handling of the crisis.
Both candidates said they support removing “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name.
Regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana, Fenton-Fung said: “I’m open to it.” Mattiello’s response: “Maybe.”
Full video of the debate can be found on wpri.com. Audio can be found by subscribing to the “Newsmakers” podcast.