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John Perilli: How Can We Restore Confidence in the RI Government?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

 

Restoring confidence in the Speaker’s office is crucial for the civic and economic health of our state, believes John Perilli

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that this coming election you would go to the polls and vote the entire RI General Assembly out, if only you could.

This fact comes from a 2012 WPRI poll, which indicated that 44 percent of likely voters wanted to oust every legislator in the state. That same year, polling data pegged the approval rating of Representative Gordon Fox, the now-former Speaker of the House, at 19 percent. If a poll were taken today, that number would likely be much lower.

These are the disheartening numbers Rhode Island’s newest Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) faces. Lack of confidence in state government. Mistrust of our legislative leadership. Cynicism. Anger. Disillusionment. You might mark all this down as trivial, but consumer confidence is a big economic deal. The more diffident we are about the economy and its future, the worse we know our economy is doing.

However, the attitudes of pessimism and frustration we have towards our economy and our politicians are closely linked. This means that repairing the image of our government could help encourage an economic recovery. Obviously, it isn’t a panacea––in a plight as deep as ours, there is no one solution––but it is an important step nonetheless. So how can Rhode Island’s new legislative leadership reconstruct its public face, and restore Rhode Islanders’ confidence in government?

An Open Bargaining Process

One of the unfortunate truths of legislative politics is that it involves a significant degree of push and pull. Bargains, vote-bartering and the like. Our General Assembly is no exception. 75 Representatives and 38 Senators aren’t always going to agree on everything, and with eight and a half billion dollars to spend come budget time, compromises have to be made.

The problem is that most of these deals are cut outside of the public eye. The feedback process between voters and lawmakers breaks down, and things like the $125 million EDC loan guarantee that spawned the 38 Studios disaster happen. How can this be fixed?

Contrary to some suggestions, the solution is not to get rid of the legislative bargaining process entirely. If our lawmakers can’t negotiate, our lawmakers can’t govern. Have a look at our inflexible, anodyne Congress in D.C. to see how a lack of bargaining works out. The solution is to bring the bargaining into the open.

What a new Speaker could do, then, is to set a precedent by negotiating in public. If something in the budget is changed, let it be known. If a bill isn’t going to get a vote, tell the public why not. Yes, this is an optimistic proposal. It may be foolish to hope that everything the General Assembly does is publicized. But if our new Speaker comes in and sets a norm by conducting transparent, brutally honest business, that could go a long way towards changing how we look at the State House.

Rebranding the Rostrum

Say what you want about Rep. Gordon Fox’s policies, but it often seemed as if everything he did as Speaker was finely calculated to give off the impression of standoffishness and insidership. From posting hearing notices only hours in advance to pulling last-minute baits and switches with the budget, Fox never appeared to stake much on transparency.

From a trust and popularity standpoint, this is bad for the Speaker’s office. According to political science studies, gaffes actually don’t hurt lawmakers and candidates that badly––unless, that is, the gaffe fits into a preconceived idea of that person. The elitist. The back-slapper. Et cetera. The Speaker, as the consummate political insider, is thus doubly stung whenever he does something that makes him seem like even more of an insider.

What the new leadership team must do, then, is cut against the grain. Start doing things that shed the insider image, like posting committee calendars further in advance or setting an earlier curfew for budget debates. These are two relatively easy solutions. Others, such as extending the state revolving-door laws keeping legislators from becoming lobbyists too soon, are much harder sells. Some of these ideas might be painful for the Speaker in the short term, but in the long-run the state of Rhode Island will be better for them. When Rhode Island prospers, so too do its leaders.

But prosperity isn’t achieved in one marathon budget session. It is the result of years of work and patience.

Playing the Long Game

As we saw this past week, leadership at the State House can change at a moment’s notice. If the Speaker loses the support of the House, he or she is be rendered completely ineffective, and then faces pressure to resign. Thus, it is to the Speaker’s individual advantage to play small ball––after all, if he or she loses the office, there’s no long term to think about. Unfortunately, though, many of Rhode Island’s problems such as chronic unemployment and brain drain can’t be solved in an instant.

The new Speaker must be able to take short-term hits in order to achieve long-run gains. This could mean revising the House rules to keep the Speaker’s position safer, or simply, as Representative and candidate for Speaker Michael Marcello put it, letting House leadership “lose a vote every now and then.” However it is done, the House should become a driver of long-term solutions, not a self-interested repair shop where every issue is simply patched up and punted out the door. Pecking away at the margins of a problem has its uses, but with systemic issues like Rhode Island faces, it simply isn’t enough.

Speaker Mattiello and his new leadership team have a great opportunity to help Rhode Island, but they also bear a great burden. If the Speaker’s office, so vested with power and influence as it is, cannot even command the trust of the people it serves, then where does the Speaker’s mandate to govern come from? Surely we can do better than this. While our focus has rightly been on fixing the economy, we also must fix our government––the solutions are more related than we think.

 

John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats and works on Seth Magaziner's campaign for Treasurer. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPerilli.

 

Related Slideshow: The History of Gordon Fox: From Camp St. to Speaker to…

Prev Next

1992

Reform Candidate

In 1992, Gordon Fox ran for (then) House District 5 seat replacing Dr. Nick Tsiongas.

Fox, an ally of then-Councilman Josh Fenton and former College Hill State Representative Ray Rickman, won the seat easily. 

Gordon Fox (D) 2,253

Michael Mitchell (R) 525

Jay Enderle (I) 407

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1994 and

Under Harwood 

Gordon Fox gained power right out of the block. He was appointed to Finance immediately and rose quickly to be Chairman of the House Finance Committee - arguably one of the three or four most powerful positions in Rhode Island state government.
 
As Finance Committee Chair he emerged as a supporter of progressive causes.
 
In addition, Fox scored a job in then-Mayor Buddy Cianci's Law Department.
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2002

Murphy - Fox Team 2002

John Harwood was forced out as Speaker and the combo of the popular Bill Murphy from West Warwick and Gordon Fox teamed up to take control of the House. Murphy and Fox were young, both grew up in working class neighborhoods and lawyers.
 
The two of them were popular and press savvy - together they guided the team for nearly a decade.
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2003

Fox and GTech and the Ethics Commission 2003

In 2003, Majority Leader Fox faced harsh criticism and an investigation for his law firm's role and his involvement in the effort to reach an agreement with GTECH to stay in RI. Ultimately, Fox pleaded guilty and was issued one of the largest penalties in the history of the Ethics Commission.
 
Pursuant to the above Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Mitigating Factors, the Prosecution and the Respondent agree, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-13(d), to the imposition by the Commission and to payment by the Respondent of a civil penalty of Ten Thousand ($10,000) Dollars. The above terms represent the full and complete Informal Resolution and Settlement for Complaint Nos. 2003-6 and 2003-7.
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2004

Openly Gay - 2004

In 2004, Gordon Fox announced that he was openly gay. The announcement was a breakthrough for the gay community at the time.  He became the first openly gay speaker of any House of Representatives.
 
He married his long-time partner Marcus LaFond in November of 2013.
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2010

Speaker of the House

The rise of Gordon Fox was now complete. In February of 2010, Fox was elected Speaker of the House. He was the first Minority to rise to such a position of power in Rhode Island's history.
 
It was a remarkable trip from being bullied as a kid for being mixed-race in a predominately black neighborhood to the most powerful political position in the State of Rhode Island.
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2007 - 2010

Fox and 38 Studios

The genesis of 38 Studios started when Gordon Fox's close friend and fundraiser Michael Corso hosted a private meeting between Fox and 38 Studios executives. This meeting was the spark for the General Assembly passing special legislation after the legislative deadline. The result, $75 million to 38 Studios.
 
The Fox and Corso relationship included Corso being the landlord to Fox's now husband Marcus LaFond's hair salon.
 
As GoLocal reported in July of 2012:
 
House Speaker Gordon Fox on Tuesday wrote a check to the business owned by 38 Studios insider Michael Corso to cover previously undocumented expenses from a March 2007 fundraiser, according to a letter obtained by GoLocalProv.
 
The $648 payment came nearly two months after initial inquires into the event, which was hosted by Corso, Steven Nappa and Robert Britto of Nappa Building Corp. and former State Representative Ray Rickman. Fox spokesman Larry Berman said the payment will appear on Fox’s third quarter campaign finance reports.
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2013

Fox and Gay Marriage

Gordon Fox was an advocate for the passage of civil unions and then marriage equality legislation. Both bills languished for years. Then, Senator Donna Nesselbush arrived in the legislature and changed the political dynamics.
 
Nesselbush created a new political dynamic in the Senate and drove the effort to push the legislation through the Senate. Combined, Fox and Nesselbush ushered through gay marriage legislation through both Chambers.
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2010-2013

Providence Economic Development Partnership 

Speaker Fox did work for a number of applicants for the federally investigated Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP). GoLocalProv, which has written more than 50 articles on PEDP, reported in January that the RI Ethics Commission had fined Fox for a second time tied to his PEDP work:
 
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission has fined Speaker of the House Gordon Fox $1500 for violating the state's code of ethics.  
 
Fox was fined $500 for each of the three years between 2007 and 2009 he did not report income for legal work with the Providence Economic Development Partnership, the quasi-public agency under the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Providence.
 
In 2004, Fox was fined $10,000 by the Ethics Commission while House Majority leader for voting on a no-bid deal for GTECH in which his law firm was involved.  
 
Statement in Response:
 
Fox's lawyer, Albin Moser, Esq., issued the following statement following the ruling on Tuesday:
 
“Speaker Fox had stated from the beginning that if the Ethics Commission would like his Financial Disclosure report to be amended, then he would do so. That being the case, Speaker Fox has amended his reports for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
 
In keeping with past practice of the Commission, there is usually a fine involved. He will pay the fine of $500 per year for each of those three years.
 
He did not list work for PEDP in those years because he believed he was a subcontractor to Joshua Teverow’s law firm on his loan closings that were performed at Mr. Teverow’s office.
 
Beginning in 2010 and continuing in 2011 and 2012, Speaker Fox began doing the closings directly for PEDP, which he reported during those three years and the Ethics Commission has acknowledged. He has not performed any work for PEDP since 2012.” 
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2014

Raid and Resignation

On Friday, the State House office of Gordon Fox was raided by RI State Police in conjuction with FBI and IRS agents. This was the first time a State House office was ever raided by law enforcement officials.

By end of day Saturday, Fox had resigned, here is his statement:

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.”
 
 

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