Frias concedes defeat in race against Mattiello

Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.
Republican Steven Frias, left, and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers on Nov. 4, 2016.

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Republican Steven Frias has conceded defeat after nearly becoming the first challenger to beat a sitting Rhode Island House speaker in more than a century.

In a statement Tuesday, Frias said he has accepted the victory of Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in Cranston’s District 15. His announcement came less than a week after the Rhode Island State Police found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing following an investigation into allegations that the Mattiello campaign misused mail ballots.

A recount last week showed Mattiello defeating Frias by just 85 votes, winning 49% to 48%. House Democrats unanimously re-elected him speaker at a caucus two days after the Nov. 8 election, in which the party only lost one seat and maintained its supermajority.

No sitting House speaker has lost re-election in records dating back to 1904, according to the state library. Frias came close in Republican-leaning District 15, however, by hammering Mattiello over various State House scandals and Rhode Island’s economic climate. But the speaker was able to pull off a win, relying in part on his huge financial advantage and a late-stage promise to eliminate the car tax.

Frias, who also serves as Republican National Committeeman for Rhode Island, released the following statement announcing his concession:

I accept the State Police’s recent decision to close its investigation into the incident involving Mr. Winkler’s mail ballot. I would like to thank Mr. Winkler for having the courage to come forward to tell me, a reporter and the State Police what occurred to him. I know Mr. Winkler had no reason to deceive anyone as to what occurred regarding his mail ballot unlike the Mattiello campaign operatives involved [in] the incident. Also, although the Board of Elections has yet to provide access to all of the mail ballot envelopes in this race so that some type of review into the possible false notarization or witnessing of mail ballots could occur, I will not attempt to seek a delay the certification of the results in this race. After five months of being focused on this race, it is time for me to concede the election.

I am proud of the honest campaign I conducted. I am grateful for all the support I received and continue to receive from people I see every day. My only regret is that I fell just short of ending the status quo at the State House. Still, the voters of District 15 sent a powerful message on election night. Despite the enormous resources at Speaker Mattiello’s disposal, he could not gain the support of a majority of the voters in his own district. When I decided to run against Speaker Mattiello, I hoped to defeat him and bring dramatic change to the State House or to come close enough so as to impact State House policies. Although I may have lost by one percent, I believe I have already succeeded in making impact as shown by Mattiello’s campaign promise to phase out the car tax after he opposed efforts to do so in the past. I hope in the next two years, Speaker Mattiello recognizes that the people want change, and that he pushes to enact significant tax relief and clean government reforms. If Mattiello refuses to bring change, I expect the voters will eventually make a change as to whom they want representing them at the State House.

Mattiello issued a statement last week after the state police closed their investigation describing the mail-ballot allegations as “politically motivated” and saying, “It is time to move on from this negative campaign and as such, I will focus on the needs and concerns of District 15 and the state of Rhode Island.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.