Politics

Fox's House

The East Side Speaker prepares for the new session

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

Gordon Fox is running late as he races to the interview from the State House on his way to a PPAC Board meeting. He apologizes, explaining that he likes to be on time but there are so many pressing issues he can’t help it. Placing his iPhone on the table, it immediately buzzes as Treasurer Gina Raimondo texts in to discuss a situation. His phone buzzes across the table during the interview as several other prominent players are looking for the Speaker. Just another day in the life of the Speaker.

Gordon Fox became Speaker of the House in February of 2010 and has not stopped dealing with controversial issues since day one while still trying to create his legacy by enacting social and economic legislation that will affect the state for generations The Speaker is often perceived as the most powerful person in government but the job requires a level of patience and diplomacy that requires managing incredibly complex relationships with the Governor and the Senate President while trying to appease and mollify the 75 members of the House. And, oh, by the way, it’s a “part-time” position.

Fox is no stranger to struggles and challenges. As one of six kids, he grew up in a mixed race family (His mother was Cape Verdean; his father was Irish) in Mt. Hope within view of the State House. He had to drop out of Providence College when his father died and then worked his way through RIC and Northeastern School of Law while holding a job, among other places, at Carvel Ice Cream at University Heights. He has a general law practice, but seems to be spending the majority of his time working at his “part-time” job as Speaker of the House.

After over two decades in the House, Fox is quite clear about what he can, and cannot, accomplish and the delicate timing that is involved. But one thing that is eminently clear is that Fox is in his element. Not to mention the fact that he also loves what he’s doing.

As he sits at his desk working on his legislative agenda for the new session which begins this month, marriage equality is at the top of his list. It’s an issue that Fox truly believes in (Fox came out in 2004 and has been in a long-term relationship) and one that became a thorn in his side after Senate President Theresa Paiva-Weed made it clear that it was dead on arrival during the last session. Rather than continue an unwinnable battle, Fox compromised and chose other areas important to him– pension reform for example– to pursue legislatively. “I took a lot of heat from all sides on this issue but all of the cards in terms of the marriage equality issue were face up, and there was no way it could pass. Even using a lot of my political capital wasn’t going to get it passed. But this year it will pass and I will try to make that happen in January so it won’t be a distraction. We need the primary focus of this session to be the economy.”

Many political leaders thought that their legacy would be 38 Studios. It could have been Fox’s legacy, too. Now it’s his nightmare. “It was a game-changer that didn’t have the proper government oversight and failed,” Fox explains. But the bigger question for many is whether the state should have even been in this situation at all.

Fox acknowledges some responsibility for the lack of oversight but explains that “the program that was created that funded 38 Studios was passed twice by the legislature and everyone had the expectation that the EDC would do the proper due diligence on any deal. It was assumed that they had clear oversight responsibilities and would be carefully monitoring the situation.”

While many people claim that the legislation that created the funding was an “earmark” for one company, Fox disagrees. He maintains that the EDC had requested the additional money because they needed it to stimulate the kinds of jobs that RI desperately needs. And, at 38 Studios, a lot of good, high-paying jobs were in fact created. Until, of course, the company crashed and burned. “People think that the Speaker is omniscient, but unfortunately I’m not,” he adds. “The legislature does not approve who gets funded or receives tax credits; the responsible state agencies do.”

Confidants describe Fox as being incredibly frustrated by the 38 Studios situation. He can hold hearings, as everyone would like, but Fox suggests they probably would be a complete waste of time. Because of the current involvement of a state grand jury, he maintains that everyone who was involved is already “lawyered up.”

So what should become of the EDC? “We have to revamp it so that it focuses on economic development that provides job opportunities across the board. I like many of the ideas in the RIPEC Report, especially the suggestions regarding commerce and establishing a Council of Economic Advisors. I also like some of the ideas from the recent RI Foundation sponsored Make it Happen RI Summit, but we need a real action plan that works with businesses to create jobs right now,” Fox explains.

Fox went on to mention that “we need to ramp up the Oversight Committee in a major way so it can look at many of the key issues facing our state... which include, in addition to the EDC, things like tax policies, voting problems, etc. Specifically this means we need to look at the state’s tax policies to see how competitive we are with neighboring states and an examination of our ‘tax break programs’ to make sure that they are effective. We have to make RI more attractive for businesses to locate here and provide more assistance for RI companies already here.”

Fox has been a big proponent of the knowledge community and sees vast potential in the newly created I-95 property. Brown, Johnson & Wales and the hospitals are key components of this sector. But, he insists, “we must attract private investment to really achieve success.”

Fox survived a spirited challenge in the general election for the House District 4 seat from Mark Binder, a solid candidate whose campaign was piloted by Fox nemesis Jeffrey Britt who had a bigger vision, setting his sights on taking away the Speakership from Fox. The Providence Journal’s Political Scene described how “Jeffery” Britt was spotted breaking bread at the Old Canteen with Republican rep Joe Trillo, and conservative Democratic reps John DeSimone, Peter Palumbo and John Carnevale ,who believed that they would be able to take over the Speakership if Fox was out. Fox’s home area of Mt. Hope delivered the decisive election margin he needed after the three other East Side polling places produced almost even voting numbers between the Speaker and his challenger.

In the final days, many of the state’s big guns came out to endorse Fox’s reelection bid. The Providence Journal endorsed Fox, praising his leadership role in enacting “the 2011 legislation to reform Rhode Island’s out-of-control pensions.” Major Democratic leaders like Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, May- or Angel Taveras and Councilmen Kevin Jackson and Sam Zurier, as well as a who’s who of East Side progressives jumped in to help walk the district with Fox. Just days after the election, Fox was easily reelected Speaker in caucus with close to unanimous support.

As he looks forward to the new session, Fox is very concerned about the state’s fiscal health. “While a surplus is projected, we’re already starting to hear about overspending in various administrative departments and we’re looking at a $100 million deficit for next year.”

Unfortunately Fox foresees several other problems on the horizon that could derail progress. Providence, de- spite Mayor Angel Taveras’ transparency and heroic efforts, is still a mess. The capital city– despite Fox’s delivery of the school funding formula, increased local aid and the pension overhaul– remains under stress and likely in need of more state aid. Failing and underfunded schools, high property taxes, a budget that has a deficit in excess of $60 million, increased crime (especially property crime), fewer police, an infrastructure that is in tremendous disrepair and neglected jewels like Roger Williams Park are all on Fox’s mind. “We can’t solve everything at once, but being in a constant triage mode doesn’t create progress,” Fox adds. And there are other problems on the horizon, like cities and towns that are avoiding bankruptcy by a whisker and could fall in a heartbeat.

If there is anything that is near and dear to the Speaker, it’s education. Though even here Fox has taken a hit for the “eleventh hour” merger of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education with the Board of Governors of Higher Education to create one State Board of Education. Some observers believe that this was the General Assembly leadership’s way of paying back the Board of Governors for bypassing the legislature and allowing qualified children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition. Fox vehemently denies that this was the case but it remains a bone of contention in education circles.

Also on this year’s agenda is a revisiting of the Historic Tax credits, a program that Fox originally sponsored. “This was an extremely successful economic development tool that unfortunately was suspended to meet severe budget constraints. I want to see the program rein- stated on a limited basis and then test it using data from the program to make sure that we are getting a good return on our investment.”

Fox’s leadership team will change, some by their choice, some by voter’s choice and one by the US Attorney’s choice. House Majority Whip Patrick O’Neill had no opponent in the general election but timed his resignation for the middle of the general election campaign citing “philosophical’” differences with Fox over the internal workings of the House and his dismay over the lack of information available to lawmakers before they were asked to vote on the legislation that led to the $75 million state-backed loan to 38 Studios. Senior Deputy Majority Leader Peter Petrarca was defeated in the Democratic primary and Deputy House Speaker John J. McCauley, Jr. pleaded guilty to two felony charges for failing to pay $500,000 in federal taxes.

Fox’s new team has veteran Nicholas A. Mattiello of Cranston as Majority Leader, Stephen R. Ucci a conservative of Johnston as Majority Whip and Christopher R. Blazejewski, a liberal (or progressive as he would prefer to be called) from Fox Point as Deputy Whip. Ucci and Blazejewski are new members of the leadership team and are both considered bright young shining stars in the House.

One of the biggest problems that Fox faces is that the overwhelming Democratic majority (69-6) actually increased and there are only so many Committee Chairs (11 committees) and too many people competing for key commit- tee assignments. One veteran lobbyist wryly suggested that “if you want a key committee assignment, you should definitely become a Republican.”

Fox has a good working relationship with both Governor Chafee and the other state officers as well as Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, but each watches the other very, very carefully. Fox can actually be very diplomatic and steers clear of all questions regarding conflict. “Everyone knows each others positions on key issues and we all know where “lines in the sand are drawn,” but we can all also work together on key issues regarding the state and the residents.”

Reflecting on the recent election, Fox observes that “it’s always good to spend a lot of time with constituents. I got a lot of comments from people on Nathan Bishop and what we’ve built there and pension reform, and I also got some surprises. The key issues for people in the District were voter ID, marriage equality, economic development, especially the EDC and 38 Studios and education in that order.”

Fox offers some perspective as we conclude. “State revenues and expenses, social services and the state’s tax system are often intractable conflicts. You can’t just look at these issues and say, ‘we’ve solved them.’ because many of these issues can never be completely solved. All we can do is keep working at them and with them to create solutions that work in today’s economic climate.”

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