With Fox not running, House seat will be open

Gordon Fox (left) and Mark Binder (right) on the set of Newsmakers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The race to replace House Speaker Gordon Fox isn’t just taking place on Smith Hill. It’s also happening on the East Side.

Fox abruptly stepped down from his powerful leadership post within the Rhode Island House Saturday afternoon and announced he won’t seek re-election in District 4 later this year, a day after state and federal investigators executed two search warrants that targeted his State House office and Gorton Street home.

Fox’s sudden announcement has set off a frenzied battle for the speakership, but it also means his name won’t appear on any ballot for the first time in more than two decades. He first won a seat in the House in District 5 in 1992 and then won his current seat in 2002 after district maps were redrawn.

Mark Binder, who ran a spirited campaign as an independent against Fox in 2012, had expressed interest in rejoining the race after Friday’s raids, but said Monday he does not plan to run for office later this year. He previously declared himself a candidate for the seat last May before withdrawing from the race in July.

With Binder not running, Democratic political operatives have already begun discussing potential candidates to succeed Fox in the East Side district where 83% of voters supported President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Among the District 4 residents with recent political experience is Democrat Maryellen Butke, the former executive director of the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, an education reform advocacy group. Butke lost the Democratic primary for state Senate in District 3 to Gayle Goldin in 2012. She was unable to be reached for comment Saturday or Sunday.

Mathies Santos, a member of the R.I. Board of Education, told WPRI.com he has been interested in running for office in the past, but hasn’t decided whether he’ll throw his hat in the ring.  The 66-year-old Brown University graduate is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Rhode Island National Guard.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but it’s way too soon,” Santos said.

Sam Bell, the Rhode Island coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of America, confirmed Monday he plans to run for the open seat. A spokesman for Bell said the candidate “finalized” his move into District 4 Sunday, but indicated he has family with “deep roots” in that community.

Bell recently made national headlines for filing a complaint with the R.I. Board of Elections that ultimately forced the powerful National Rifle Association to close its Rhode Island political action committee and pay a $63,000 fine for violating state campaign finance laws.

“Our state needs a fresh Democratic voice on Smith Hill,” Bell said in a prepared statement. “As representative, I’ll fight to invest in our schools and our workforce, and I’ll be an unfailing advocate for transparency and sunlight at the State House.”

Jonathan Jacobs, a political organizer and lobbyist with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told WPRI.com he briefly considered running for the open seat, but has decided “to not proceed with a campaign due to time restraints, employment conflicts and family commitments.”

Tara Pinsky, who chairs the Providence Republican City Committee, said Monday her party will “definitely” put up a candidate for the race, but indicated she hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for the seat herself.

“It’s something I’ve thought about many times and I’m still thinking about it,” Pinsky told WPRI.com.

Although Fox won by a double-digit margin in 2012, Binder did not make things comfortable for the former speaker.

After hiring former Fox ally Jeff Britt as his campaign manager, Binder launched a relentless barrage of attacks that centered around the 38 Studios bankruptcy and Fox’s status as a political insider. He won the smallest of the district’s four precincts and kept it close in two others, but Fox’s lopsided victory at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School on Camp Street helped secure a 58% to 42% victory.

In the end, Binder spent $12,060 between June 2012 and December 2012, according to WPRI.com review of campaign filings with the R.I. Board of Elections.

Fox spent $104,115.

This report has been updated.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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