Republican activist Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung couldn’t have picked a better time to challenge the state’s most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, political observers say.
She filed paperwork Monday to run against Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who is not only mired in controversy, but also represents a district that solidly backed Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.
Mattiello is a conservative Democrat who eked out an 85-vote victory over a Republican in 2016, but the national trend is for presidential politics to drive state and local election results, according to Providence College political science Professor Joseph Cammarano.
“She picked a perfect year to run against him,” Cammarano said. “That district voted very strongly for Trump in 2016, and it’s likely to do that again. People split their ballots far less than they did 30 years ago. He should be quaking in his boots.”
In House District 15, Democrats do outnumber Republicans -- 25 percent to 16 percent. But 59 percent of the voters in this slice of western Cranston are unaffiliated, according to the secretary of state’s office.
And while Rhode Island is a blue state, House District 15 had a distinctly red hue in the last presidential race.
In 2016, 55 percent of District 15 voted for Trump, compared to 40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton. And some parts of the district were even more pro-Trump: 62 percent of the precinct that votes at the Cranston Christian Fellowship Church supported Trump.
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said research shows people overwhelmingly vote for state legislators who are in the same party as the person they choose for president.
“In general, people don’t follow state politics all that closely -- most don’t even know who their state representative or senator is,” he said. “They need some kind of shortcut for voting, and that shortcut is party.”
Cammarano said it’s also a good time to challenge Mattiello because he finds himself at the center of multiple controversies.
“Regardless of whether he has done anything wrong, it’s like Chinese water torture where the accusations and revelations add up and have a cumulative effect that over time can definitely hurt a party leader like him,” he said.
What are those controversies? Well, one involves a grand jury that’s investigating whether Mattiello ordered an audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority as retribution: A friend of his had been suspended from his job heading Convention Center security. House Republican Leader Blake A. Filippi has filed a lawsuit, claiming Mattiello violated the law by ordering the audit without the approval of the full five-member Joint Committee on Legislative Services. Mattiello has denied it was meant as retaliation, but he has since called off the audit.
Meanwhile, Mattiello might have to testify in a money-laundering case brought against political strategist Jeffrey T. Britt in connection with Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.
Fenton-Fung, who is married to Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, referenced those controversies in announcing that she had filed paperwork with the state Board of Elections to run for the House District 15 seat.
“In response to a near tsunami of support in Cranston to end what has become the Mattiello horror show, this allows us to legally take the logical next steps to start fundraising and putting a winning team in place prior to formally launching a campaign,” Fenton-Fung said. “We are extremely excited about what 2020 has in store, including ridding District 15 of the never-ending scandals that surround its state representative.”
Fenton-Fung, 39, works as a physical therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. She served as chairwoman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans and as executive director of the Young Republican National Federation. She said the late state senator June Gibbs encouraged her interest in politics, and she met her future husband at the 2012 Republican National Convention “when her wayward umbrella smacked him in the head.”
Mattiello, who has represented House District 15 since 2007, issued a statement Monday, saying, “I look forward to the continued honor of representing the citizens of House District 15 and intend to run on my strong record of accomplishment and leadership for the district and the City of Cranston.”
He noted he has pushed to phase out the automobile excise tax and the income tax for many Social Security recipients. He cited increased education aid, economic development initiatives, and school safety measures. And he said he’ll fight the governor’s attempt to reduce municipal funding.
“It's a privilege to serve as an advocate for the city of Cranston in this fight,” Mattiello said, “and unquestionably, my focus always has been and will continue to be on how I can best represent my constituents.”
Frias, the Republican National Committeeman for Rhode Island who lost to Mattiello in the 2016 and 2018, issued a statement saying he plans to support Fenton-Fung.
“I was a reluctant candidate in both my races against the Speaker, in particular the second time I ran,” Frias said. “I have been aware for some time of Mrs. Fung’s interest in running for the District 15 seat, and I have not discouraged her. Assuming the Speaker even runs again, despite the swirl of scandal and possibility he may be indicted, I expect to be supporting Mrs. Fung over the Speaker in November."
In an interview, Frias said House District 15 is one of the parts of the country that swung from President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. “In a district that went for Trump by that margin in 2016, a Republican should be able to run a credible race against an incumbent Democrat,” he said.
The House District 15 race is different than most because of “the amount of resources Mattiello has and the amount of favors he does,” Frias said. But, he said, “what’s occurring more and more is that federal races are affecting state and local races.” And that could bode well for the latest Republican to challenge the Speaker.