Gordon Fox: ‘I am resigning as speaker’

House Speaker Gordon Fox speaks to reporters (WPRI 12 photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Gordon Fox announced Saturday afternoon he will resign as speaker following Friday’s stunning law-enforcement raids on his home and State House office, plunging Rhode Island politics further into sudden turmoil.

In a statement released by veteran public-relations consultant Bill Fischer, Fox said he would resign as speaker – often called the most powerful job in Rhode Island politics – but serve out the rest of his term as the state representative from House District 4 on Providence’s East Side. But, he said, “I do not intend to seek another term in the House.”

Fox’s resignation immediately set off more speculation – already in high gear – about who will succeed him as speaker. House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, reiterated that he will seek the speaker’s office, on a ticket with Rep. John DeSimone, D-Providence, as his majority leader.

“I’ve got the support of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives for the position of speaker,” Mattiello told WPRI.com after Fox’s resignation.

Mattiello said he has not made any determinations about who will serve in other important positions, such as chairman of the House Finance Committee, although he acknowledged Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, will remain as chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee.

Within hours, however, state Rep. Michael Marcello countered by announcing he had secured enough votes to become speaker, on a ticket with current Deputy Majority Whip Christopher Blazejewski as his majority leader, plus House Majority Whip Stephen Ucci and House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo staying in their current roles.

“We have the votes,” Marcello told WPRI.com Saturday night.

Mattiello said a vote for a new speaker would take place Tuesday, the first time the House will reconvene since the raids targeting Fox. He said a decision about whether to hold a caucus of the 69 House Democrats is currently “a work in progress,” emphasizing that they will be notified personally of any meeting before the media finds out.

It’s still unknown exactly why investigators from the Rhode Island State Police, FBI and IRS executed search warrants Friday at Fox’s third-floor State House office and his home on Gorton Street on Providence’s East Side. Uniformed and non-uniformed personnel carried a significant number of boxes and other materials out of both locations.

Fox, a 52-year-old Democrat, first won election to the General Assembly in 1992. He succeeded William Murphy as speaker in February 2010, and prior to this week’s events he’d indicated he planned to seek re-election this fall and another term as speaker next year.

Faye Zuckerman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee, said the governor is “is confident that the members of the House of Representatives will continue the job they were elected to do during this session,” adding: “He looks forward to working with the new speaker.” Chafee is currently in Montana for meetings of the Democratic Governors Association.

“I wish Gordon Fox well,” Mattiello said after the resignation announcement was made public. “It’s a sad day for Rhode Island and the House of Representatives. I am glad that he took action to lift the cloud that is hanging over the state and I’m working on moving the House forward so we can do the business of the state of Rhode Island.”

Fox’s signature accomplishment as speaker is likely to be last year’s passage of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, which was particularly important to him as the state’s first gay speaker; he married his own longtime partner last fall. Fox also played a crucial role in passing the state’s 2011 pension overhaul and its new school-funding formula.

“He’s been a great speaker and an even better person, and I’m just sad,” House spokesman Larry Berman, who has worked with Fox for years, said Saturday evening.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, expressed the same sentiment as many of Fox’s colleagues. “It’s unfortunate for the state, it’s unfortunate for him,” he said. “He did the right thing in resigning, obviously, and I wish him the best of luck. He’s got to deal with his own issues.”

Here is the full text of Fox’s statement, which was released shortly after 5 p.m. on Saturday:

“The Rhode Island House of Representatives is an institution that I deeply respect and serving my constituents has been a major part of my life for the past 22 years. I will not let yesterday’s events distract my colleagues from addressing the challenges facing Rhode Island.

“Because of the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives, I am resigning as Speaker. The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner.

“I want to thank my colleagues and loyal staff for all that we were able to accomplish together. I will continue to serve out the remainder of my term and represent my neighbors and constituents in District 4. That said, I do not intend to seek another term in the House.

“My personal focus going forward will be on my family and dealing with the investigation. Because of the nature of this matter, I will not be commenting further.”

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Dan McGowan contributed to this report.

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