Chafee ready for new speaker; Mattiello confident

(photo: WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Lincoln Chafee expressed confidence Monday that the Rhode Island House will be able to move on from the sudden resignation of Speaker Gordon Fox, as House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello took further steps to consolidate his support.

Chafee told reporters he couldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation that triggered Friday’s raids on Fox’s home and State House office, referring questions about it to the U.S. attorney’s office. But the governor said Rhode Island will move forward with new legislative leadership.

“I’ve been briefed and I look forward to working with the new leader,” Chafee said. “I’ve been a legislator and I’ve been a councilman and a U.S. senator, so I respect the process they are going through to select a new leader and I leave it to them. The state’s going to be in good shape.”

Mattiello, D-Cranston, said Monday afternoon he had 48 of the House’s 75 lawmakers backing him for speaker ahead of Tuesday’s vote, “and the phones are still ringing off the hook.” Mattiello’s rival for speaker, state Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, continued a last-ditch effort throughout the day Monday to peel away enough votes to defeat Mattiello.

The comments by Chafee and Mattiello came the same day Fox formally submitted his resignation in a one-sentence letter delivered Monday afternoon. Separately, Frank Anzeveno, the powerful chief of staff to Fox and his two predecessors, announced he too is stepping down in the wake of his boss’s stunning fall from grace.

The latest developments added to a whirlwind four-day drama that began Friday when law-enforcement officers raided Fox’s home and office, forcing the speaker to announce his resignation on Saturday. The raids kicked off a frantic all-weekend campaign by rival factions to lock up support for a new speaker before a planned vote on Tuesday.

Mattiello made clear he is considering making some major changes in the House’s leadership team and its committee chairmen after some of Fox’s lieutenants backed Marcello, including House Majority Whip Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston; House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo, D-East Providence; and House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edith Ajello, D-Providence.

“Gordon Fox put together a team that worked well for him,” Mattiello said. “What worked well for him may not work as well for me, so right now we’re going to look at all of the committees, the membership in all of the committees, all of the chairs, and I need them to work well for me and the House so that we can get the people’s business done.”

In a sign of the turmoil roiling the House, two committees that are chaired by Marcello backers – Judiciary and Labor – have canceled hearings they were scheduled to hold on Tuesday.

Chafee, who returned to Rhode Island on Monday from a weekend in Montana for meetings of the Democratic Governors Association, said he has not spoken with Mattiello or Marcello since the fight for the speakership began.

“I’ve worked on good relationships with every member of the House and Senate – I have for my entire tenure as governor,” Chafee, now in his final year in office, told reporters. “I really value having good relationships with everybody, Republicans included.”

It takes a simple majority of all 75 House members – 38 votes – to elect a speaker. The actual vote is expected to take place Tuesday when the House reconvenes for the first time since the raids targeting Fox plunged Rhode Island politics into uncertainty.

Three sources familiar with the matter told WPRI.com Mattiello is seriously considering Leo Skenyon, clerk of the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal, as his chief of staff. Skenyon is an old Rhode Island political hand but was criticized for his management of the traffic court in the 1990s and later filed for personal bankruptcy, according to published reports.

Mattiello’s choice to be his new majority leader is state Rep. John DeSimone, D-Providence.

Mattiello, 50, was long seen as a frontrunner in the once-quiet campaign to succeed Fox whenever the speaker eventually left office. A lawyer by profession, he was first elected to the House in 2006 and became majority leader in February 2010 when Fox became speaker, as part of a compromise brokered by then-Speaker William Murphy.

Mattiello – generally viewed as a more conservative Democrat – has emphasized that his top priority as speaker will be improving Rhode Island’s beleaguered economy.

Among those who said they would support Mattiello were Republican state Reps. Doreen Costa of North Kingstown and Joe Trillo of Warwick.

“He’s not progressive,” Costa said of Mattiello. “He’s not one of the progressive Democrats.”

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.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha’s office said Monday all records related to the search are sealed.

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

Angie Angers contributed to this report.

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