EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The recent trial of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s former campaign aide Jeff Britt led to a feisty opening to a debate between Mattiello and Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung in WPRI 12’s studios Friday, with Fenton-Fung accusing the Democratic speaker’s team of corruption while Mattiello defended his work as leader of the House chamber.
Even as Mattiello seeks re-election in 2020, his 2016 campaign has remained front and center thanks to the trial of Britt, which wrapped earlier this month, over a $2,000 pro-Mattiello mailer that Republican Shawna Lawton sent to voters four years ago. A judge is still deliberating over the fate of Britt, who is accused of laundering money to pay for the mailer in order to hide the true source of the funds.
“The one thing that’s clear is I didn’t know anything about it,” Mattiello said in Friday’s debate, moderated by Tim White and Ted Nesi.
White questioned Mattiello about his response to a question about the mailer from a previous Newsmakers debate in 2016, when Mattiello insisted neither he nor his staff knew about the mailer before it was sent out.
Yet at trial, Mattiello testified under oath that when the piece of campaign literature hit mailboxes, he called his chief of staff Leo Skenyon and “yelled at him for a while.”
“Why would you be angry at one of your staffers if you didn’t think anyone from your campaign had anything to do with it?” White asked Friday.
“That was very accurate as I said it then, nobody came forward and knew anything about it,” Mattiello said. “Leo Skenyon’s my sounding board. If something goes good I call him up, if something’s negative I call him up.”
Fenton-Fung, the first lady of Cranston, accused Mattiello of using taxpayer-funded staffers to do political work for him.
“During the trial it came out … that he is the de facto campaign manager for you,” she said, referring to Skenyon. “He is the taxpayer-funded campaign manager.”
She alleged the speaker’s team has a “record of corruption,” pointing to the free tuition scandal of Joint Committee on Legislative Services chief Frank Montanaro, Jr. and alluding to the perjury conviction of former Rep. John Carnevale, who was a member of Mattiello’s leadership team.
Mattiello said his State House staffers “can do whatever they want on their free time,” and said he and his staff had implemented reforms such as putting the General Assembly back under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission, strengthening lobbying laws and making financial disclosure forms available online.
Fenton-Fung also claimed a State House clerk had requested her voter record from the Cranston Board of Canvassers “in the middle of the work day.” (Mattiello’s campaign spokesperson, Patti Doyle, said in an email after the debate, “Any campaign activity would occur on lunch hour, personal time or vacation time so there is no basis to her claim.”)
The half-hour debate also tackled the issues of guns, abortion, the coronavirus pandemic, police reform and President Trump among others.
Asked to square her critique of Mattiello with her support for President Trump — who has had a series of associates and administration officials charged or convicted of crimes — Fenton-Fung acknowledged the president is a “deeply flawed candidate.”
“President Trump has said things that make my toes curl,” she said.
But she said she would vote for him because she believes he’s more likely to revive the economy than former Vice President Joe Biden.
Mattiello — who describes himself as pro-life — defended his choice to allow a pro-choice bill codifying the right to an abortion to get a House floor vote last year, despite his usual tendency to block votes on bills he does not support.
“Nobody wants the speaker of the House to be a dictator on any issue,” Mattiello said. “When an issue has strong, strong, deep support … it’s just going to get a vote.”
Fenton-Fung, also pro-life, said Mattiello “betrayed the pro-life community, who went balls to the wall for him in the last election.” (The advocacy group Rhode Island Right to Life, which previously backed Mattiello, has switched its endorsement to Fenton-Fung this year.)
Mattiello seemed to back off his support for Rep. Anastasia Williams’ bill to reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which he co-sponsored, saying it needed further hearings and review.
“I’m not sure I support it as it’s written there,” Mattiello said. “It’s designed to start a discussion and we will take a look at it.”
Both candidates said they support body-worn cameras for police and both said they support Question 1 on the Rhode Island ballot this year, which would remove the words “and Providence Plantations” from the official state name.
Fenton-Fung said she was “open” to legalizing recreational marijuana, while Mattiello said “maybe” when asked about the issue in a rapid-fire section of the debate.
They both gave Gov. Gina Raimondo positive grades for her overall handling of coronavirus, with Mattiello giving her an A and Fenton-Fung grading her job a B. (Fenton-Fung followed up that she thought the General Assembly deserves an F for not meeting much during the pandemic.)
Voting is already well underway in the conservative-leaning western Cranston district, which has nearly 11,000 voters, half of whom are not registered with a party. State records show 31% are registered Democrats and 19% are registered Republicans.
According to data from the secretary of state’s office, nearly 2,000 voters have already cast ballots in the district, either by mail or in the current early voting period at Cranston City Hall.
Mattiello has focused his campaign on promising the continued phaseout of the car tax and additional funding for Cranston, pointing out that if Fenton-Fung wins she’ll be in the minority party, and will have significantly less influence over decisions made on Smith Hill than a House speaker.
“We’re creating an environment that’s conducive to job growth,” Mattiello said in his closing statement.
But Fenton-Fung pointed to other taxes that have increased or expanded under Mattiello’s leadership, such as the sales tax, and said it’s time for a change.
“New blood is good,” she said in her closing statement. “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.”