CRANSTON – House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello has conceded the election to Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung in House District 15, acknowledging that he has little chance to makeup ground in the race even as thousands of votes in Cranston are still uncounted.
The loss caps a fast rise and fall in politics for Mattiello, who was elected in 2006, rose to House majority leader four years later, and became speaker by 2014. A conservative Democrat, Mattiello won praise from the business community for improving the state’s standing in various national tax rankings, but his staff and some of his closest supporters in the House were mired in scandal throughout his tenure.
Mattiello had survived tough races in District 15 in 2016 and 2018, but Fenton-Fung, the wife of popular Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, emerged as a fresh face at a time when voters were seeking a change.
“First, a sincere thank you to the residents of District 15 who have allowed me to serve as their representative for the last 14 years,” Mattiello said in a prepared statement. “To say it was an honor would be an understatement. While I wish last night’s outcome had been different, it in no way diminishes the privilege of serving in the House for so long. It’s been a good run.”
Fenton-Fung led by more than 1,000 voters with early voting numbers still coming in, but Mattiello’s top aides privately acknowledged they weren’t going to catch up early Wednesday morning when mail-in ballot vote outcome was closer than expected. With a large lead thanks to the day-of vote, it was clear that Fenton-Fung would win the race.
Mattiello exits the House before he was able to accomplish his top goal: fully eliminating Rhode Island’s car tax. Historically, the state allowed cities and towns to set individual property tax rates for motor vehicles - known as an excise tax - but Mattiello vowed to eliminate it by 2024 as part a campaign pledge four years ago. The proposal was popular, but costly: By the time it is fully phased out, the state would send communities $234 million a year to make up for the lost revenue from the tax.
Governor Gina Raimondo and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have not signaled a change in priorities on the tax, although Raimondo has recommended slowing down the phase out.
The concession paves the way for a race for a new House speaker, although Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi, of Warwick, appears to be the heavy favorite to ascend to the top job. An official vote can’t occur until January, but Shekarchi will likely call a caucus to secure the support this week.
Shekarchi issued a statement Wednesday officially declaring his candidacy for speaker. Representative Chris Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, is running for majority leader.
“At the urging of many of my House colleagues, I am running for Speaker and humbly ask for the chamber’s support," Shekarchi said. "With the help of my fellow representatives, I am committed to bringing reform to the chamber and empowering its elected members. Together, we will tap into our colleagues' ideas, talent, and experience; work to help our economy recover in a way that it works for all Rhode Islanders and protects our most vulnerable populations; and reform the way that business is done at the State House.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Fenton-Fung met with reporters, saying she had not heard from Mattiello but that she had seen his concession statement.
“People rejected the way Speaker Mattiello was running the State House, ran his campaigns,” she said in explaining her victory. “And we literally outworked him.”
Mattiello had become embroiled in too many scandals, she said. “You can mess up once in life, and people will usually give you a redo," she said.
But Mattiello never took responsibility for a series of controversies, including the trial of Jeffrey T. Britt, a political operative charged with money laundering and making an illegal campaign contribution to aid Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign, she said. “For four years, we heard excuses,” she said.
Also, Fenton-Fung said Mattiello made a significant mistake by not bringing the General Assembly back into session to deal with issues surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. “People were like: If you don’t want to do the job anymore, time for you to go," she said.
Fenton-Fung said she has not decided who to support as the next House Speaker. She did not rule out backing Shekarchi, who she said she has never met.
“My big thing about the next Speaker is: Who is going to talk about good government reforms like the line-item veto and talk about things like term limits? What are their plans?" she said. "I’ll be interested to see what Joe Shekarchi brings.”