Rhode Island's House majority leader was elected speaker Tuesday after the stunning political fall of one of state government's most powerful figures, who abruptly resigned after criminal investigators raided his State House office and home.
Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat from Cranston, comfortably won the vote to succeed Gordon Fox, 61-6, with six abstentions and two absent. Oversight Committee Chairman Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, had challenged Mattiello for the top House spot but conceded earlier Tuesday, saying he didn't have enough votes.
The vote came during the first meeting of the House since the dramatic series of developments that began Friday morning when state and federal authorities, including the FBI, the IRS and the state police, searched Fox's office and home and carried away boxes of material. Officials have declined to detail what the probe is about or say whether Fox is a target. Neither Fox nor his lawyer has commented on the investigation.
Mattiello, 50, is an attorney who was first elected to the General Assembly in 2006 and has served as Fox's top deputy since 2010.
"I am taking over the leadership with a very heavy heart," Mattiello said. "I was proud to have served as Speaker Fox's majority leader for more than four years, and we enacted some very important legislation."
He said Fox one of two representatives absent for the vote Tuesday had done the right thing by stepping aside.
"We support him and we know he will always support the entire House," he said. "He loves and respects this House."
Mattiello is known as a gun rights supporter, staunch Catholic and conservative Democrat though he has, at times, sided with the progressive wing of his party. Last year, Mattiello voted for legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry, even though the bill was opposed by the Catholic Church.
As majority leader, Mattiello often played the role of corralling lawmakers during legislative debate, using blunt language to denounce amendments and coax lawmakers into backing a bill.
In the race for speaker, Marcello accused Mattiello of being the "status quo" candidate, but Mattiello dismissed the charge, saying he would put his own stamp on the 75-member body, and bring his own priorities, including improving the economy.
"I have a different style," Mattiello said in his speech. "There will be a much greater emphasis on collaboration in the decision-making process among everyone in the room, Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no shortage of good ideas, whether they come from freshman or members with more than 20 years' experience."
Mattiello had said he plans a top-to-bottom review of the way the House operates, including all positions and salaries, and would likely install some new committee chairmen. "There will be changes made in the coming days," he said Tuesday.
State Rep. Helio Melo, D-East Providence, had served as chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee under Fox's tenure, but he cleaned out his office once it became clear Mattiello had the votes for speaker.
Melo had initially supported Marcello, but ended up voting for Mattiello.
"It's politics," said Melo, who added that he was unsure whether he'll be reappointed to the finance committee. "He had the votes. I'm not going to stand in the way of moving this state forward."
Marcello said that, at one point, he had 33 of the 38 votes needed, but many of his supporters defected to Mattiello "under the enormous institutional pressures that work against change and reform every day under this heavy marble dome."
"We need to make a change," he said. "We didn't. We stuck with the status quo. People are afraid to vote against the status quo."
Democrats also elected the rest of their leadership team, including Rep. John DeSimone of Providence as majority leader; Rep. John Edwards of Tiverton as majority whip; and Rep. Joseph Almeida of Providence as deputy whip.
Almeida said the changing of the guard provides lawmakers with a fresh opportunity to tackle the state's pressing issues.
"I'm ready to go," he said. "It's a new beginning. A new start. The magic word here is 'new.'"