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R.I. political status quo upended as House Speaker trails at the polls

With early vote totals still to come, Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung seizes a large lead in House District 15

Rhode Island Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello puts on his "I Voted" sticker as he prepares to leave the Hope Highlands Middle School polling site in Cranston on Tuesday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CRANSTON, R.I. — Voters in a slice of Cranston upended the status quo in Rhode Island politics on Tuesday, giving Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung a large lead over Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.

With all four precincts reporting in the House District 15 race, Fenton-Fung had 65 percent of the in-person Election Day votes, while Mattiello trailed with just 35 percent.

At 1 a.m. Wednesday, the state Board of Elections posted mail ballots results that narrowed the lead. But Fenton-Fung remained ahead with 58.6 percent of the vote, while Mattiello had 41 percent.

Those totals do not include early-voting results, but they sent a seismic shock through a State House political system that has the conservative Democratic Mattiello at its pinnacle.


“That is a game changer,” Providence College political science Professor Adam Myers said. “We are in a new era of Rhode Island state government.”

While progressives have been making inroads in recent elections, the House and Senate have been led by Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, both Democrats with “A” ratings from the NRA who voted against abortion rights legislation last year.

“It’s most likely going to lead to an increase in progressive social legislation coming out of the State House,” Myers aid. “And I think, increasingly, the House will start to resemble a legislative chamber like we see in a lot of blue states.”

Amid the pandemic, the state is facing enormous budget deficits, hoping for further federal aid while bracing for potential spending cuts, job reductions, or tax increases.

So a loss by Mattiello would have major implications for looming state budget and taxation decisions, Myers said. “Something has to give with the budget,” he said.

Chances would also increase for raising the top income tax rate to pay for government services, he said, and the chances decrease for deeper spending and job cuts.


And a “contentious race for the speakership” is likely on the horizon, Myers said.

Representative Liana Cassar, a Barrington Democratic, has already announced that she plans to ask her colleagues to make her House Speaker regardless of whether Mattiello prevails in Tuesday’s election.

But Cassar, still in her first term, is bound to have competition.

With a $1.1-million campaign account, House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi is well positioned to step in if Mattiello loses his seat. And he would be expected to form a leadership team with Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, as majority leader.

Another possible leadership team would include Representatives Gregg Amore, an East Providence Democrat, and Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat.

During the hard-fought District 15 race, Mattiello emphasized his ability to use the enormous power of the speaker’s office to deliver state funding and tax cuts for his constituents in House District 15. He vowed to continue phasing out the automobile excise tax.

But Fenton-Fung, a Republican activist and physical therapist, hammered away at scandals and controversies involving Mattiello and his campaign and leadership teams, branding him as “Tricky Nicky” and accusing him of playing “twisted games.”

Republican House District 15 candidate Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, right, heads inside to vote at the Hope Highlands Middle School polling site with her husband, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Fenton-Fung benefited from the popularity of her husband, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, and the high-profile trial of Jeffrey T. Britt, the political operative accused of money laundering to bolster Mattiello’s 2016 campaign.

Also, Mattiello faced a opposition from some labor unions, including SEIU District 1199 over legislation to establish minimum staffing levels for nursing homes.


Mattiello and Fenton-Fung live about a mile away from each other, and they voted minutes apart at the Hope Highlands Middle School polling site on Tuesday morning.

Fenton-Fung said that if she won, it would be because she outworked Mattiello on the campaign trial.

“You know what, while he was on the beach in Narragansett this summer, we were going door to door every night,” she said. She said she’d get home from work at 3 p.m., her husband would get home at 4:30 p.m., and they’d knock on doors until 8 p.m.

Also, Fenton-Fung said voters were seeking “cleaner government,” and were upset about scandals swirling around Mattiello. She noted that during the Britt trial, a political operative testified that he had done surveillance on Steven Frias, Mattiello’s opponent in the 2016 election.

Mattiello testified that he knew nothing about those activities or the campaign mailer at the heart of the Britt trial. But Fenton-Fung said, “When people get a glimpse of how the sausage is made up at the State House, they want some changes.”

After he voted, Mattiello said that he has been “the most pro-business Speaker in at least 50 or 75 years.” And if he wins, he said, “We are going to stay in the same direction that the Rhode Island manufacturers, the CPAs, the chambers of commerce, all of the business groups are supporting... creating the environment that is conducive to job growth.”


But if he loses, he said, the state may become "less business friendly.”

“The speakership would go into turmoil, and you don’t know who comes out the other end,” he said. “That would make a tremendous difference in the direction of the state.”

Georgia Hollister Isman, New England director for the Working Families Party, said a Mattiello loss would provide Rhode Island progressives with an opportunity to organize around issues that have proved popular in this election cycle, such as climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and taxing the wealthy to pay for essential government services.

“That state budget is going to include important decisions – important moral and political decisions,” Hollister Isman said.

“No matter what, we are in for a very different way of running the House," she said. “And that provides some very interesting possibilities.”

Early votes provides Mattiello’s last hope of changing the narrative after Election Day.

After midnight, the Board of Elections announced that early voting results in Cranston would not be available until later Wednesday.

Cranston registrar Nick Lima explained that a memory card in an early voting machine reached its limit on Thursday, and the Board of Elections was having trouble downloading those results. So the city sent all paper ballots to the Board of Elections, with a police escort, in case elections officials need to feed ballots through machine again.

“It’s the Board of Elections' hands,” Lima said. “They have all the flash drives and paper ballots.”


The bottom line was that with Rhode Island riveted on the outcome, the early voting and mail ballot results for the race had not been posted by midnight on Election Day.

Mattiello’s campaign canceled a planned Zoom call with reporters, and Mayor Fung said Fenton-Fung was not declaring victory. "Right now, we are cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.