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OPINION

A woman in the Rhode Island House

Barbara Anne Fenton-Fung knows the shady history of the leadership of the Rhode Island House of Representatives she’s about to enter. This is not a woman easily taken advantage of or ignored.

Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, won the 15th legislative district seat held by Rhode Island's Democrat House speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, won the 15th legislative district seat held by Rhode Island's Democrat House speaker Nicholas Mattiello.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Rhode Island’s former speakers of the House often depart under colorful circumstances. Months before the November election, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was a major media topic not because of any legislative accomplishments, but because of charges brought against campaign consultant Jeffrey Britt who was on trial for money-laundering related to Mattiello’s 2016 campaign. The judge in the case is expected to issue a decision in the coming weeks. The dark spill of such a scandal became a significant challenge for the speaker who said he knew nothing about the alleged activities.

Mattiello has been the state representative for House District 15, which includes Western Cranston, a Trump stronghold, since 2006 and speaker since 2014. But now Mattiello is out as speaker having lost his reelection bid for representative to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton‐Fung.

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Fenton-Fung brought an impressive resume to the race — a physical therapist, she did graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and was a lecturer at Northeastern University in addition to her work at RI Hospital. Her husband is the hugely popular Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, now in his last term only because Cranston’s term limits require he step down.

As a Cranston resident, I have been surprised and pleased at how the capable Cranston City Hall employees make themselves available to taxpayers whenever there is a question to be answered. The fabulously popular Garden City Center mall, rescued in part by Mayor Fung from near failure, reinforces daily that Fenton‐Fung’s husband and devoted campaign partner added credibility and hope to her campaign.

But Fenton-Fung is a worthy candidate on her own. Impressive and articulate, she is a quick and dignified-though-tough politician — exactly the kind of candidate to take Mattiello down after his six years as a powerful speaker. It will not surprise many Rhode Islanders, however, if there’s an eventual state appointment for the former speaker, an attorney.

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Mattiello’s loss at the hands of Fenton-Fung is nowhere near as dramatic as the departure of former Speaker John Harwood, who served a record nine years in that role until his departure in 2002. Harwood left after sexual harassment allegations from a staff researcher, which Harwood denied, resulted in a $75,000 settlement.

Fenton-Fung knows the shady history of the leadership of the House she is about to enter. Her resume tells us this is not a woman easily taken advantage of or ignored.

The other good news is that with Governor Gina Raimondo capably leading her state through the COVID crisis and the demographic and economic challenges in its wake — and with the ever-growing group of women legislators from both parties — Fenton-Fung will find her niche to both receive and reinforce support for whatever issues she chooses.

Both Mattiello and Fenton-Fung — he in his concession remarks and she in her victory interview — displayed a kind of dignity that supporters on both sides can admire.

Voters hope that behind all that dignity, the oft-expressed commitment to work hard for struggling Rhode Islanders remains a priority for all politicians — wherever they may do the people’s work.

Mary Ann Sorrentino is a freelance columnist. She can be reached at thatmaryann@yahoo.com.