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Rhode Island Lawmakers Jockey to be House Speaker

by Erika Niedowski and Michelle R. Smith
Sunday Mar 23, 2014
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The criminal probe has shone a spotlight on Fox, the nation’s first openly gay House speaker
The criminal probe has shone a spotlight on Fox, the nation’s first openly gay House speaker  (Source:AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Two legislators have emerged as candidates to replace Gordon Fox in arguably the most powerful position in Rhode Island government after he relinquished the House speakership following twin raids at his Statehouse office and home as part of a criminal investigation.

House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello and Rep. Michael Marcello, both Democrats, have each claimed they have enough votes to become House speaker. It could become clearer who has the edge if Democrats decide to meet Sunday before a formal vote expected later in the week. In a close race, support from members of the small Republican caucus could be key.

Mattiello, Fox’s top deputy, told The Associated Press on Saturday that legislators will now be able to "work together to move the House of Representatives and the state forward in a positive direction."

Countering Matiello’s claim of sufficient support, Marcello told WPRI-TV late Saturday "we have the votes."

Rep. Joseph Trillo, the House minority whip, said Sunday that the six Republicans in the 75-member chamber want to vote as a bloc but haven’t yet decided whom to support. He said both potential candidates have already begun courting them for votes.

"Some of us want to go one way, and some of us want to go another way," he said. "It’s very, very fluid."

The Friday raids on Fox’s office and home came amid a joint investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office, FBI, IRS and state police. Boxes of evidence were carried off after agents spent hours at Fox’s home and office Friday. Officials will not say whom or what they are investigating.

Fox, a 52-year-old Providence Democrat who became the nation’s first openly gay House speaker in 2010, said in an emailed statement Saturday that he plans to serve the rest of his term, which runs through the end of the year. But, he said: "My personal focus going forward will be on my family and dealing with the investigation."

"Because of the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives, I am resigning as Speaker," Fox said. "The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner."

Fox did not address whether he is the target of the investigation, what authorities are probing or even whether he has hired a lawyer.

A new speaker must be elected in an open session, and Mattiello said he expects that to occur Tuesday, when the House returns. Fox’s resignation as speaker was, for all practical purposes, effective immediately, but he must submit a letter to the secretary of state’s office -- a formality that could come Monday -- and his resignation will be read into the House record.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, who is supporting Mattiello as speaker, said Democrats could caucus as soon as Sunday to hammer out the votes.

"It is a sad day for the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the state of Rhode Island," McNamara said. "Speaker Fox had many accomplishments that we should all be proud of. With that said, a transition that does not interrupt the (legislative) process is extremely important."

Fox has represented Rhode Island’s capital in the General Assembly for more than 20 years and is one of the state’s most powerful politicians.

While questions remain about the nature of the investigation and Fox’s role in it, his enduring legislative legacy is most likely to be legalizing gay marriage. In 2011, he abandoned a legalization push because of opposition in the Senate.

Instead, he pushed civil unions and was roundly criticized by some gay marriage supporters, who felt bitter and let down.

But just two years later, Fox was instrumental in pushing gay marriage legislation through as the political climate shifted nationally. He became emotional at the bill-signing ceremony on the Statehouse steps last year as he addressed the crowd and talked about his longtime partner, Marcus LaFond, whom he called "the love of my life."

"This tells me our relationship does matter," Fox said. "It means that we mean something."

The two were married last year in Fox’s Statehouse office. Fox came out in 2004, in an unplanned announcement, while addressing a gay marriage rally at the Statehouse.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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