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Mattiello takes a sudden path to power as R.I. House speaker

Nicholas Mattiello.

Associated Press

Nicholas Mattiello

PROVIDENCE — Nicholas Mattiello lost his longtime position as lector at his Roman Catholic church after voting in 2013 for same-sex marriage legislation following years of opposition stemming from his faith. Friends he saw nearly every weekend never spoke to him again after he backed the state’s 2011 cost-saving public-pension system overhaul.

Rhode Island’s new House speaker counts those as lessons in the personal cost of politics.

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The Cranston Democrat, 51, now holds arguably the most powerful position in Rhode Island government, the gatekeeper for all legislation that passes through the House of Representatives, whose Finance Committee writes the budget.

His ascent was nearly as swift as the downfall of his predecessor. Gordon Fox resigned his leadership post in March a day after federal and state authorities raided his State House office and home as part of a criminal investigation about which little has been revealed.

Even before Fox relinquished the job, Mattiello’s ambitions boiled up and he started campaigning for it, whipping votes from the Old Canteen on Federal Hill. Within days, Mattiello, the majority leader at the time, was elected speaker in a lopsided vote over Representative Michael Marcello, who charged that Mattiello represented the status quo. Marcello, then chairman of House Oversight, was among those who lost their posts in the changing of the guard.

When he was younger, Mattiello helped his late father at Mattiello Drilling & Blasting, but the business was not his fate. He went from La Salle Academy to Boston College, where he studied accounting. He got a law degree from Suffolk University and later opened his own practice. In 2006, he won his first public office, an open House seat formerly held by a Republican.

‘‘I hoped someday to be speaker of this House — I love this House — but I never expected such a stunning and rapid turn of events,’’ Mattiello said in his acceptance speech. ‘‘To say that I’m hitting the ground running is a vast understatement.’’

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Mattiello’s mantra in a state that was devastated by the recession and has continued to limp through a recovery is ‘‘jobs and the economy.’’ But while he says Rhode Island needs to be bolder on economic development, he rarely strays from the safety of his talking points.

Topping his legislative agenda is cutting the corporate tax rate from 9 percent to 7 percent. He also wants to restructure the estate tax, citing current policy as a reason wealthy people leave the state. He seems more comfortable talking about improving the perception of Rhode Island than the finer points of any legislation.

In the little free time he has, Mattiello likes to ride his Harley with friends or his wife, Mary Ann, who he says hates politics. The bike is something of an escape for a man who admits he has trouble saying no.

‘‘Can’t hear the cellphone while you’re riding,’’ he said.

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