Cranston Republican Steve Frias -- who almost scored a remarkable upset in 2016, coming within 85 votes of defeating House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello -- announced Monday that he's taking another shot at ousting one of Rhode Island's most powerful politicians.
"The race presents a choice between Speaker Mattiello, Rhode Island’s most powerful State House politician, and Frias, an articulate advocate for the taxpayers and for reform in Rhode Island’s government," Frias said in a statement.
Mattiello ascended to the speakership in 2014, after predecessor Gordon Fox stepped down in the face of a state-federal investigation that ultimately landed Fox in prison on corruption charges.
Mattiello touts himself as a business-oriented pragmatist who has helped move Rhode Island's economy in the right direction.
In 2016, Mattiello edged Frias by 85 votes to retain his state rep seat in Cranston, thanks to a well-organized mail ballot effort. Mattiello also enjoyed a lopsided financial advantage over Frias. (An obscure independent candidate, Patrick Vallier, received 202 votes, more than twice the speaker's ultimate margin of victory.) It remains to be seen if a large field of candidates for the District 15 seat will help divide the vote this year.
Frias charged that Mattiello has not done enough to serve the public interest since he won re-election.
“After Mattiello barely escaped defeat in 2016, I thought he would begin to listen to the voters. Unfortunately, he hasn’t. He refuses to give the public a chance to vote on a line-item veto constitutional amendment. Instead, he pushed through a costly new taxpayer funded PawSox stadium deal, which the voters do not want. Rather than putting together an honest budget, his budgets rely on gimmicks. Meanwhile, Rhode Island still ranks in the bottom ten when it comes to its business-tax climate. To make matters worse, in recent months, we have learned that the speaker’s reelection effort in 2016 was marred by illegal activity. His PAC illegally spent $72,000 while his top campaign aides engaged in illegal coordination and refused to obey subpoenas. This is unacceptable.”
In a statement released by campaign spokeswoman Patti Doyle, Mattiello said:
“I am seeking re-election in District 15 in Cranston to continue my pro-business and pro-economy agenda that is moving our state forward with a very balanced approach. I am tremendously proud the budget we just enacted contained the second year of the car tax phase-out, and I’ve received numerous calls from folks thanking me for the reduction in their tax bills. I am committed to seeing this through in order for the car tax to be eliminated within four years. Under another speaker, I am convinced the phase-out will be repealed."
Mattiello continued, “A change in leadership would lead to a speaker who is far less business-friendly, which would impact every citizen of the state who relies on a strong economy, the jobs it produces, and the quality of life that has been significantly improved. Under my leadership, we have gone from a very lackluster economy to one that is strong and vibrant, while reducing burdens on the taxpayers.”
In a response to Mattiello's comment, Frias said, “Speaker Mattiello is trying to scare the voters because he’s scared he won’t get re-elected. He says that 'under another speaker,' the car tax 'phase-out will be repealed' and a 'change' would 'lead to a Speaker who is far less business-friendly'. Is Speaker Mattiello suggesting that Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, who is next in line to be speaker, would end the car tax phase out or be less business friendly? If [he] is speaking of a Democrat like Rep. Chris Blazejewski, did he forget that in 2016, Rep. Shekarchi easily defeated Blazejewski in the race for Majority Leader? Most importantly, Rhode Island’s business-tax climate is already ranked in the bottom ten nationwide. Rhode Island is currently not business-friendly, and those in power now like Speaker Mattiello are responsible for this situation.”
The speaker is often called the most powerful political post in Rhode Island. The speaker is elected through a majority of the 75 members of the Rhode Island House, although that person must first win election as a state rep -- and Mattiello's conservative leaning district posed a challenge for the Democrat in 2016.
In the face of Frias' challenge two years ago, Mattiello embraced an initiative to gradually phase out Rhode Island's unpopular car tax. The speaker also moved cautiously this year on efforts to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island, eventually supporting a plan, he said, that shields taxpayers from risk. At this point, it remains unclear if the PawSox will support the plan or leave for Worcester.
Frias said Rhode Island needs to aim higher.
“We can do better than this," he said. "We need to lower our taxes below those of our neighboring states. We need honest gimmick-free budgets where 911 fees are used only for the original purpose. When the taxpayers are asked to pay millions of dollars in bonds to help a private business, such as a new stadium for the PawSox, the voters should get the final say at the ballot box. Finally, the public should be given the opportunity to vote on a line-item veto.”
Frias, a lawyer with the Boston law firm Keegan Werlin, serves as Rhode Island's national committeeman.
With Allan Fung, the Republican mayor of Cranston, running for governor, there has been speculation about possible efforts to keep Frias from running against Mattiello. Frias made a vague reference to that in his statement.
“I won’t be bullied, I can’t be bought, and if I am elected, I will answer to nobody but you, the voter," he said. "It’s time we clean house at the State House!”
In an interview, Frias said his remark referred to his view that he would stand up for himself at the Statehouse. He said he does not have any first-hand knowledge of efforts by Mattiello to discourage him from running.
While there are only 11 Republicans now in the 75-member RI House, Frias said he'll have a broader impact if he wins election in November.
"Number one, it will send a message to the other state reps that nobody is invulnerable and that even the most powerful politician in the Statehouse can be beaten if he’s not listening to his constituents," he said. "Number two, I think I’ll be a strong voice and a strong advocate for things that voters want, government reform, things to look out for the taxpayers, tax relief."
This report has been updated.