"Promises made. Promises kept." That slogan has appeared on Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello's campaign mailers and materials in recent weeks as he seeks reelection to the District 15 seat he's held since 2007. Mattiello faces
“Promises made. Promises kept.”
That slogan has appeared on Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello’s campaign mailers and materials in recent weeks as he seeks reelection to the District 15 seat he’s held since 2007.
Mattiello faces a challenge from Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung in what is certain to be one of Rhode Island’s most closely watched contests.
And while his previous GOP opponent, Steve Frias, twice came very close to victory, the speaker said he feels assured of voters’ support as he focuses on a “positive campaign.”
“If you’ll remember in my prior elections, everyone said, ‘Oh, everyone hates the speaker. He’s the most loathed guy in the universe.’ Well, I won!” Mattiello said during his appearance on the Radio Beacon podcast, a production of Beacon Communications and its weekly publications, including the Cranston Herald.
He added: “I am getting more positive feedback in this election cycle than I have probably since my first election cycle, so I feel extremely confident with my relationship with my neighbors and constituents.”
Mattiello addressed a wide range of topics during his roughly hour-long appearance on Radio Beacon, including the state budget picture, the car tax phase-out, educational aid for Cranston, the COVID-19 crisis and controversies that have involved his speakership.
Push to ‘see through’ the car tax phase-out
Asked about why he is seeking reelection, Mattiello – a 57-year-old attorney – said he is particularly focused on seeing perhaps his signature legislative accomplishment through to full fruition.
“Several years ago, I decided that my constituents, and actually the state, really wanted and deserved the car tax phase-out,” he said.
Identifying that priority led, in 2017, to the adoption of a six-year phase-out plan, allowing the state to gradually reimburse municipalities for the funding lost with the elimination of the car tax. The process is now in what is its fourth scheduled year, although a state budget for fiscal year 2020-21 has yet to be finalized.
On the current schedule, the sixth year of the phase-out plan – which will require $234 million to offset the full level of local revenue reductions – would coincide with what would be the second year of Mattiello’s next term if he wins reelection.
“I’m not suggesting my retirement thereafter, but I want to see that through,” he said.
Mattiello said Cranston has one of the highest car tax rates in a state that is among a minority to have such a levy in place nationally.
“When I go to conferences and I talk to other speakers about the car tax, they scratch their head,” he said. “‘You mean you actually have to pay money for your car after you pay your sales tax?’ They don’t understand it.”
Mattiello said the phase-out plan was “complex” and “hard to do,” but it has been “fully funded” and provided Rhode Islanders with “considerable relief.” He said he fears that if he does not retain his position in the House prior to the conclusion of the phase-out plan, it would quickly become vulnerable.
“I’ve had to fight real hard to keep that on track, and I’m pretty convinced that if I’m not there to fight hard from the speaker’s position to keep it on track that it’s probably going to be derailed, and if it’s derailed before it’s fully implemented, eventually it’s going to get pulled back, back, back, back,” he said.
He also said: “When you give people back their own money, you get push back, because everybody wants to spend it in different ways.”
Record on education funding
Mattiello said before his first run for the General Assembly, he viewed Cranston’s schools as being “short changed” under the state’s educational funding formula.
The speaker recalled a meeting shortly after he took office, held in Cranston City Hall with then-Mayor Michael Napolitano and other state lawmakers. Mattiello said the former mayor, whom he described as “pretty astute financially,” provided a fiscal analysis of school funding that confirmed his skeptical view of the state formula.
“That was my very first policy meeting … Never forgot that,” he said.
Mattiello said he was part of work to update the formula, a process that took “several years.” Then, when he became majority leader in the House in 2010, he was able to help facilitate a successful push for a change that was “particularly good to Cranston and cities like Cranston.”
The years since the formula update, Mattiello touts in campaign materials, have seen Cranston Public Schools receive millions of dollars in additional state funding. His campaign materials, including mailers sent to constituents, point to an even wider window, touting “increases in school aid totaling more than $130 million” in the years since he was first elected. The campaign materials also highlight the roughly $2.7 million in additional state aid the district received for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
“That was one of my first campaign promises to make sure that Cranston residents get treated more fairly,” he said, adding: “What I say, I mean … I think politicians too often say things that sound good with no real expectation of being able to deliver on it. I don’t do that.”
Mattiello also said the additional state support for Cranston’s schools has allowed the city to direct resources elsewhere while limiting tax increases.
“The city of Cranston actually has had the benefit, luxury, of not investing as much. We’ve been sending so much money additional every year, Cranston’s been spending their money elsewhere … That’s all state-driven,” he said.
As with virtually all facets of the economy and government operations, however, the Cranston schools district’s financial standing for the fiscal year that began July 1 is in flux.
Based on initial figures included in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan for the current fiscal year, Cranston’s schools were poised to receive an additional $4.1 million in state aid.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, however, the City Council voted to effectively remove that funding from the city’s nearly $300 million budget plan based on concerns that Cranston would become responsible for an untenable sum if the state aid were not to ultimately materialize.
The city budget approved by the council and mayor also provides a local contribution increase of roughly $470,000 for Cranston Public Schools, well short of the additional $1.7 million the district requested. Meanwhile, the district is grappling with plans to reopen its buildings on Aug. 31.
Mattiello defended the General Assembly’s approach to the budget situation and, without mentioning names, pushed back against critics who he said “apportion responsibility and blame” for the situation.
“I find that issue extraordinarily interesting and quite frankly extraordinarily disingenuous. The entire country is under a veil of uncertainty. I agree, the city of Cranston school department has a level of uncertainty, the state has a level of uncertainty, the U.S. government has a level of uncertainty,” he said. “Why does that responsibility somehow fall on the state? If anybody, it’s the U.S. government. But why the state? Why doesn’t it fall on the city of Cranston to figure out how they’re going to deal with the COVID challenges? We’re all having the same difficulties … Let’s recognize that we all have challenges, and we all do, every state in the nation, every municipality in the nation.”
He added, with regard to the state aid picture for the current fiscal year: “Do I know exactly what’s going to happen? No. Have we suggested that education is in any way going to be cut? Absolutely not. We have our limitations, and the state has been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. But I am hopeful that we will fully fund education and that we [will] address our community’s needs one way or another. And I don’t know how that’s going to be yet, but we have not sent any negative signals.”
Budget and COVID
More broadly on the budget front, Mattiello said he is “still hopeful” of additional federal stimulus that helps Rhode Island bridge its budget gap, although he acknowledged he has become “more skeptical” that the funding will materialize.
Talks resumed in the nation’s capital Monday regarding the next round of COVID-19 relief, although consensus has yet to emerge regarding what will be included in the new stimulus.
Rhode Island, meanwhile, faces a yawning projected budget gap for the current year. Lawmakers last month approved a supplemental budget to patch a $250 million deficit for the year that ended June 30.
“I’m mindful of what our long-term needs need to be and how we bridge from here to there, and how we do that while we have to coexist with the coronavirus. It’s going to be very difficult,” the speaker said.
Mattiello expressed support for Raimondo’s approach thus far to the $1.25 billion in funding Rhode Island received through the federal CARES Act – keeping as much of that money available in the event that leaders in Washington, D.C., ultimately opt to provide states with added flexibility on how to use it rather than provide a new round of stimulus.
Formulating the current year’s budget, he said, will require “addressing a lot of state needs” while avoiding tax increases and “draconian” social services cuts.
“That means if we are going to have to rely on the COVID money we’ve already gotten from the federal government, we’d better preserve some of it,” he said.
He added: “Let’s just see what the full picture is. Let’s know what we’re dealing with before we start spending money, because you’ve got one shot to spend the same dollar.”
Raimondo recently announced plans to utilize some of the CARES Act funding for small business relief, including through a grant program that will provide awards of up to $15,000 to assist with COVID-related costs and expenses such as rent and utilities.
Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has been critical of the tempered approach and has called on the governor to make federal funding more readily available to support small businesses.
Mattiello pushed back against McKee’s criticism, citing the “political reality” that the governor and legislative leaders face. The only way to secure and stabilize Rhode Island’s economic climate, he said, is “for the state to be healthy.”
“The lieutenant governor does not have to balance the next budget … The governor, myself, the Senate president and our all of our colleagues have the responsibility of balancing the next budget,” he said.
He added: “If [McKee] had the responsibility of balancing the budget, I think his perspective would be different … I like him, I respect him, and I respect his pro-business position. But his perspective is much more narrow that the governor’s or myself or the Senate president’s.”
Mattiello said he is supportive of the business aid programs Raimondo announced last week, but that he does not want to see money spent if it limits the state’s flexibility going forward.
“If you make some decisions too early, you limit some of your decisions later … I’m concerned about our economic health going forward for all of our businesses,” he said.
While saying Raimondo has “done an excellent job protecting the citizens of the state of Rhode Island” during the crisis, the speaker also addressed his previous calls for a more accelerated reopening of the state’s economy, which drew criticism from some observers.
“I want to open up faster because of the enormous economic impact on the state of Rhode Island and it’s citizens … I believe that we have to learn to coexist with the COVID virus and be as careful as we can but open up our economy as fast as we can to increase our revenues and mitigate some of the difficulties,” he said.
Response to controversies
Fenton-Fung, during a recent television interview with WJAR’s Gene Valicenti, reprised criticisms Frias frequently made during his District 15 runs – that Mattiello’s speakership has been marred by several controversies “swirling around him,” and that constituents have had enough.
“I think the team he surrounds himself with has a history of being corrupt,” she told Valicenti.
During his Radio Beacon interview, Mattiello responded to several of the controversies specifically.
Regarding Jeff Britt, a former campaign aide who has been indicted in connection with a 2016 campaign mailer and is heading to trial: “[He’s] an independent contractor that made a mistake. Nothing to do with me. Fully looked at, fully investigated, and that’s the conclusion.”
Regarding the speaker’s since-rescinded order to audit the Rhode Island Convention Center while one of his friends was involved in a personnel issue at the facility: “That was the right decision on behalf of the taxpayers. That has to be looked at … My decisions were spot-on relative to that, whether or not some interests didn’t like it.”
Regarding Victor Pedro, a Cranston chiropractor who received state funding for a controversial treatment known as cortical integrated therapy with the speaker’s support: “I stand by that therapy. We were looking to create an industry in Rhode Island … [It was a] minimal investment for a great outcome, turned political.”
Mattiello also defended the advisers and aides with whom he has surrounded himself during his tenure.
“I stand by the people that I have around me,” he said. “I have a great team that has produced very well for the citizens. Interestingly enough, during the year, you don’t hear too much. At election time, you always hear the same rhetoric from the same people. And they’re people that just have self interest and want a position for political gain. There’s no interest like self interest.”
Mattiello additionally pointed to his “unique position as the first and only speaker in the history of Cranston,” which “creates an opportunity to benefit the citizens of Cranston.”
“Interestingly enough, some of the elected officials would like to squander that opportunity that will probably never come again in any of our lifetimes … I believe my constituents understand the value of that, and it enables me to keep the promises I make,” he said.
In the face of criticism, Mattiello said he is “concentrating on a positive campaign.”
“I’m going to have a conversation with my constituents about the promises we’ve made, the promises we’ve kept, what we’ve done for our state economy, for Cranston’s economy, for our Cranston citizens, and they’ll make the decision on whether or not they’re supportive of that,” he said.
Elsewhere during the interview:
* Mattiello said he does not favor continuation of the additional $600 weekly unemployment benefit funded through the federal government, although he does believe some action should be taken to supplement the regular benefit received by those out of work.
“I wouldn’t give a blanket $600 extra per week on top of what they would get from unemployment because I do believe, talking to business, there’s a disincentive for people going back to work,” he said, adding: “I’ve talked to [employers] that said, ‘I don’t have the heart to call my people back’ … So even employers are reluctant to call people back.”
Mattiello suggested providing 100 percent of lost wages through unemployment, rather than the 40-50 percent people typically receive, could be a “decent compromise.”
“Look, everybody wants to make as much money as they can with as little effort. So if you can stay home and make more than you can working, who would want to go to work? I mean, that’s just human nature. It’s not laziness, it’s not bad intention. It’s just what people are going to do, I believe,” he said. “So I think we should help people as much as we possibly can. We have to find ways to stabilize our economy … but we also have to encourage them to go to work.”
* Mattiello said he believes more answers are needed regarding the state’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 crisis. A large majority of Rhode Island’s deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in such facilities.
“There’s a real question as to whether or not we could have done a better job in protecting our most vulnerable citizens … so we will have to assess that over time,” he said.
Noting that “learning occurred as we were going,” however, he added: “I think they dealt with it as well as they could under the circumstances.”
The speaker also said he is skeptical of calls for the state to mandate 4.1 hours of direct care per patient per day in long-term care facilities.
* Mattiello addressed the issue of mail-ballot voting. A House bill would provide for mail-ballot applications to be mailed to every Rhode Island voter – as was done for the June presidential primary – for both the Sept. 8 statewide primary and the Nov. 3 general election. Ruggerio, however, is opposed to that approach.
“[Ruggerio and I have] been talking about the issue for a while. We’re talking, so we’ll see where that goes,” the speaker said.
He added: “I would like to make [mail voting] easier because I’m concerned that if we do have a COVID spike, that people will become nervous and not want to go to the polls at the last minute … We want everybody who wants to participate to participate in the election.”
* Asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Mattiello said: “I think the Black lives movement is a very valuable one that we could learn a lot from and benefit from … We have to work hard at creating that environment where everybody’s the same. Thirty years ago, I thought we were really moving in that direction. And now, everybody seems to be in different corners and some of the barriers are heightened. And maybe that’s because they were always there and just never talked about. So I think it’s a good time to have a national conversation about some of these issues, because until we address them, we’ll never be as good as we should be and can be.”
The speaker drew criticism from some observers recently when, during a WPRO radio interview with Valicenti, he said was unsure whether slavery had occurred in Rhode Island.
During his Radio Beacon appearance, he said the state has “a lot of sin relative to slave trade” but that he is still “not convinced” of the degree to which the actual holding of slaves occurred in Rhode Island.
“[I] constantly try to become more educated and more sensitive to the needs of different minority groups,” he said. “And I think that’s what I was actually criticized about. I said I didn’t know something … I tell people there’s no dumb questions. If you don’t know something, you know, go out and try to figure out how to learn. It makes you a better human being … I want to learn a lot more about what our actual history was.”
* Mattiello’s district voted for Republican President Donald Trump by a significant margin in 2016. Despite Trump’s sagging poll numbers, the speaker – who did not vote for Trump – said the presidential race is not a frequent topic of conversation with constituents.
“I don’t hear a lot. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the president,” he said, adding that he expects Trump remains popular in the district.
Reflecting on the national political climate, he added: “I just think there’s been so much division in the country that we need to start healing. It doesn’t matter who the president is, because if you get a Democratic president, then the other side is just going to do the same thing. We have to start working a little better. Political divides should create competition of ideas. They shouldn’t lead to government paralysis and such division that you can’t get anything done.”
* Mattiello recently became a subject of sparring within the Cranston Republican mayoral primary to succeed Mayor Allan Fung. Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, who has been endorsed by Fung, criticized City Council President Michael Farina, the GOP’s endorsed candidate, for receiving Mattiello’s signature on his nomination papers.
The speaker said the controversy ““got more attention than it deserved.”
“You know, politics can be crazy sometimes … I would have signed virtually anybody’s papers, unless I thought they were a terrible candidate that I didn’t personally like,” Mattiello said.
He added: “Mike Farina’s a friend. I’m not going to disavow a friend just because he’s a candidate for an office.”
Mattiello said he has a “great relationship” with Farina, Hopkins and Democratic mayoral candidate Maria Bucci. “I have a decent relationship with [Democratic mayoral candidate and Citywide Councilman] Steve Stycos,” he said, “but you know, I’m not as familiar with him as the other three.”
Asked whether he will support the Democratic mayoral nominee, Mattiello said: “Oh, absolutely. We’ll see who wins. Let’s see who wins the democratic process, and we’ll go from there.”
* Mattiello said this year’s campaign will be a “different cycle with a different thought process” due to the ongoing pandemic.
“I’ve always known exactly how to approach conversing with people, and this time, out of respect for them, you have to really give it a lot of thought, and how best to do it and what you should do and what you shouldn’t do,” he said.
Despite the challenge in meeting people face to face, Mattiello said he was quickly able to collect the signatures he needed to secure his place on the fall ballot with the help of friends.
“It was the easiest cycle I ever got signatures in,” he said.