CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A major upset on Election Night in Rhode Island moved closer to being official Wednesday morning as Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello released a statement acknowledging defeat to GOP challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fun in Cranston House District 15.
“First, a sincere thank you to the residents of District 15 who have allowed me to serve as their representative for the last 14 years.
“To say it was an honor would be an understatement. While I wish last night’s outcome had been different, it in no way diminishes the privilege of serving in the House for so long. It’s been a good run.
“Second, thank you to all of the volunteers who poured their heart and soul into this race. We can all be immensely proud of the fact that we ran a positive, issues-oriented campaign right up until the very end.
“To my family, close friends, associates and colleagues, thank you for your tireless efforts on my behalf, and for believing not only just in my candidacy, but in the work we have undertaken collaboratively day in and day out to advance the quality of life for the people of Cranston, and beyond.
“We have achieved much – I wish we could do even more. But I leave this race – and this position – with a heart full of gratitude.”
However, Fenton-Fung told 12 News that as of 10 a.m., Mattiello hadn’t called her to concede. She released the following statement in response to the speaker’s note:
“Every warrior who enters the arena is to be commended. It is not for the faint of heart, and this battle was certainly bruising on both sides. I’d like to thank Nick Mattiello for being in that arena all these years.
“I’m obviously thrilled to wake up this morning and hit the ground running to help reform this state. To win this election we formed a fantastic coalition here in District 15, and I’ll continue to bring that bipartisan nature up to the State House to knock heads together and get things done.
“My husband’s legacy in Cranston lives on. Fung times are here to stay.”
Mattiello’s statement came in shortly before the R.I. Board of Elections voted to refeed Cranston’s roughly 9,000 early in-person ballots through a tabulating machine following an equipment issue on Election Night.
While the Associated Press was quick to call the race in favor of Fenton-Fung, she chose not to declare victory until more votes were counted. Mattiello likewise told 12 News at 9 p.m. Tuesday it was too early to concede.
Fenton-Fung, who works at Rhode Island Hospital, is a first-time candidate for office but has been heavily involved in the political life of her husband Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, including his two runs for governor.
Mattiello has represented the conservative-leaning Western Cranston district in the House since 2006, and has been speaker since 2014, when he succeeded Gordon Fox.
Election officials reported Wednesday evening that Fenton-Fung received 58% of the vote while Mattiello received 40%.
Fenton-Fung focused her campaign on various controversies that have surrounded Mattiello, including the trial of Jeff Britt, a former adviser who is now awaiting a verdict on charges of money laundering related to his work on Mattiello’s 2016 campaign.
But Mattiello — who denied knowledge of Britt’s alleged actions — told voters he was the candidate who could continue to cut their car taxes and fight for funding for Cranston schools, since his role as house speaker holds much more power than Fenton-Fung would have as a freshman representative in the minority party.
The Associated Press made the projection in favor of Fenton-Fung before any early ballots were counted. But votes cast in person on Election Day showed Fenton-Fung with a commanding 1,198 vote lead, carrying 65% of the vote compared to 34% for Mattiello, according to the R.I. Board of Elections.
Election officials on Nov. 2 reported 2,503 mail ballots and 1,794 early ballots had been cast in the four Cranston precinct included in District 15.
A Mattiello loss would signal a major shift in Rhode Island politics. House speaker is arguably the most powerful political job in the state because of the outsized influence the officeholder has over the state budget-making process.
House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat and Mattiello’s No. 2 in the House, is a favorite to take over as House speaker if Mattiello loses. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Despite various controversies that have surrounded Mattiello over his tenure in office, the Cranston Democrat repeatedly fended off competitive challenges over the years. In 2016, narrowly beat GOP challenger Steve Frias by 85 votes thanks largely to mail ballots.
Mattiello’s campaign message this year focused largely on a promise that he would continue to use his leadership position to deliver for District 15 residents, whereas his GOP opponent would enter the House as a first-year lawmaker in a lackluster minority party.
But Fenton-Fung was successful in hammering Mattiello on the many controversies that have sprung up around him over the years. She highlighted the various events in several mailers and online videos sent to voters in recent months. The strategy appeared to work, as the two politicians don’t disagree too much on actually issues of policy.
A 12 News debate last month showed how both candidates are pro-life, support body-worn cameras for police and are unsure about the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana.
Both support eliminating the car tax, a hallmark of Mattiello’s political agenda in recent years, and want to support schools and businesses. Despite the similarities, however, Fenton-Fung was successful in convincing voters she could offer something new to voters.
“New blood is good,” she said during the debate. “The insiders who make their livings on Smith Hill are doing just fine. But so many of you watching in living rooms today are not.”