CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A majority of newly elected Rhode Island House Democrats backed Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to lead them for another two years, after a closed-door caucus meeting where a vocal minority of lawmakers, mostly women, expressed concerns about his leadership.
The vote was 44-21 in favor of Mattiello after the caucus, which lasted about two hours at the Chapel Grille restaurant in Cranston. The election isn’t official until the start of the legislative session in January, where all 75 representatives will vote for the speaker.
The caucus vote was a major change from two years ago, when Mattiello received unanimous support.
Fifteen of the 21 representatives who voted against Mattiello were women, amounting to almost two-thirds of the chamber’s female Democrats, and most of them emerged from the restaurant to explain their opposition to reporters.
Here are some of the Democratic representatives who opposed @RISpeaker at the closed-door caucus tonight. Hear their concerns and Speaker Mattiello’s response tonight on @wpri12 at 11. pic.twitter.com/kXxq0Ax1Gl— Steph Machado (@StephMachado) November 9, 2018
“Every member returning to this chamber knows about the vindictive culture that exists there, and the practice of retribution against those who dissent,” Rep. Kathleen Fogarty, D-South Kingstown, said. “By supporting the speaker despite this knowledge, makes you complicit in the silencing of your fellow legislators for choosing to be our constituents’ voices.”
The sentiment was repeated over and over by those who voted against Mattiello, who won a tough victory against Republican Steve Frias on Tuesday.
“Whenever you disagree with the speaker, he takes it very, very, deeply personally and he will come after you,” said Rep. Moira Walsh, D-Providence, who frequently sparred with Mattiello during her first term in the House. “There’s no place in the rules where it says in between committee meetings and floor meetings that you have to go and kiss the speaker’s ring to get your bill from here to there.”
“We can’t be ruled by the people of Cranston,” said Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett. “We all represent a diverse group throughout the state and we have to have a say in all of this.”
Rep. Susan Donovan, D-Bristol, said she didn’t even get to see a rewrite of her own equal pay bill last year before it was brought to the floor for a vote. (The bill passed the House that day, but the Senate declined to take up the altered version.)
“There has not been fundamental fairness for many years in that room,” said Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence.
Mattiello denied that he punishes members who disagree with him, telling reporters that sometimes bills don’t get a vote because they aren’t ready, rather than out of retaliation.
“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he said of the accusations. He did say he plans to listen to those colleagues who opposed him, and would consider proposed rules changes.
“It’s always important to listen to everybody when you’re in a leadership position, so that’s certainly what we plan on doing,” Mattiello said. He pointed out that despite the vocal opposition, two-thirds of his colleagues supported him.
“The overwhelming majority of the representatives solidly support me,” Mattiello said, as his newly re-elected leadership team stood behind him. “Everybody’s entitled to vote the way they want. It seems as though the progressive world right now is not necessarily as supportive of me as I would like.”
Indeed, a few dozen progressive protesters showed up outside Chapel Grille to picket the caucus, holding signs that said “Democrats against Mattiello,” and calling for new leadership. Cranston police told the protesters to leave Chapel View, which they said was done at the request of the property owners.
Here’s a video of the protestors chanting against @RISpeaker before they got kicked out. (They are out on the public sidewalk now outside chapel view) pic.twitter.com/p76vKPopvR— Steph Machado (@StephMachado) November 8, 2018
Reporters were not allowed to attend the House Democrats’ caucus, in contrast with the caucus of Senate Democrats held an hour earlier that was open to the news media.
In her remarks, Fogarty also mentioned a video from Eyewitness News of Speaker Mattiello talking to reporter Kim Kalunian at his election night victory party, declining a live interview because of a Target 12 report last week about sexual harassment allegations against former Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable. Keable lost his re-election bid.
“I’m going to have a new policy going forward,” Mattiello told Kalunian. “News media outlets that treat me fairly and are objective I’m going to converse more with.”
“I will refer you to Kim Kalunian’s WPRI video,” Fogarty said Thursday. “He only wants fair and objective comments that go his way, as long as they meet his definition of ‘fair and objective.’ We’re not OK with that.”
Rep Fogarty evokes video of @RISpeaker speaking to @KimKalunian on election night in her comments about why she opposed him for speaker. (You can watch that video here: https://t.co/VGLwWBouu0) pic.twitter.com/QGamlwbYdR— Steph Machado (@StephMachado) November 9, 2018
Rep. Katherine Kazarian, who made the allegations against Keable, acknowledged she spoke at the closed-door caucus but did not want to share her comments publicly yet.
In addition to Fogarty, Hagan McEntee, Walsh and Lombardi, the other representatives and representatives-elect who voted against Mattiello were Rep. Edie Ajello, Rep. Joseph Almeida, Rep.-elect Laufton Ascencao, Rep.-elect Justine Caldwell, Rep. Lauren Carson, Rep.-elect Liana Cassar, Rep.-elect Terri Cortvriend, Rep. Susan Donovan, Rep. Arthur Handy, Rep. Raymond Hull, Rep. Katherine Kazarian, Rep.-elect Rebecca Kislak, Rep. Jason Knight, Rep. Mary Messier, Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Rep. Deb Ruggiero, and Rep. Teresa Tanzi.
The remaining members of the caucus voted to support Mattiello, with the exception of Rep.-elect Mario Mendez, a Providence Democrat who was not in attendance. Mendez signed a pledge to oppose Mattiello when he was campaigning, according to the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats.
The caucus also elected Rep. Joseph Shekarchi as majority leader, Rep. John Edwards as majority whip, Rep. Chris Blazejewski as deputy majority whip, Rep. Charlene Lima as deputy speaker, Rep. Brian Kennedy as speaker pro tempore, and Rep. Grace Diaz as Democratic caucus chairwoman.
One of the lawmakers who backed Mattiello, Rep. Bill O’Brien of North Providence, tweeted that he was “proud of my vote tonight.” He cited five measures passed under the speaker’s leadership, including the elimination of the Social Security tax for most seniors and the phaseout of the car tax.
I’m Proud of my Vote tonight!! Bills passed to benefit the middle class in Rhode Island in passed 4 years!!
1. Dual educational!
2. Teacher evaluation Bill!
3. Animal rights Bills!
4. End to Social Security tax in RI for most seniors!
5. End of Car tax for all!— Rep. William O’Brien (@OBrien2018forNP) November 9, 2018