PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In Rhode Island, new Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello is settling into his job. But people are still buzzing about how he got it.
The speaker took the gavel last week after predecessor Gordon Fox resigned in the face of a still-mysterious criminal investigation.
The turn of events has locals wondering why the state can never seem to escape the stain of corruption.
‘It’s A Shame’
Near the heart of Federal Hill in Providence is Costantino’s Venda Ravioli. It’s an emporium of cheese and meat and prepared foods that look very, very appetizing.
A group of old friends from the neighborhood sat in the corner. Among them: retired printer Albert Pisaturo. He said he’s deeply disappointed by what’s happened at the State House.
“It’s a shame, it’s a shame,” he said. “I’m serious. It’s just too bad that a handful of people that get voted in over and over keep doing this to the state.”
Rhode Island has had its share of political shenanigans. In the late-’90s, former Gov. Ed DiPrete pleaded guilty to bribery. And more recently, former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci spent five years in what he calls a “federally funded gated community.”
Now, he’s got a popular radio show. Cianci’s spending a lot of time these days talking about the State House shakeup.
“You know, we’re going to get into the reason for the State House raid,” he said. “The documents remain sealed.”
During a break, he noted that Rhode Island isn’t much different from its neighbors. In Massachusetts, three straight speakers have been convicted of felonies.
But he acknowledged that a state known as “Rogue’s Island” has a more enduring reputation for political corruption.
Part of it, Cianci said, is that politics is the bloodsport down here. And in such a tiny state, the stumbles of the biggest players are magnified.
“We’re smaller and everybody knows everybody’s business,” he said. “See, if you’re in Texas, there’s the Houston crowd, there’s the Dallas crowd. They don’t even hardly know each other. But in Rhode Island, it’s just the Rhode Island crowd.”
In The DNA
Patrick Crowley, a lobbyist with a large teachers union, said the state’s reputation for chicanery is enhanced by figures like Cianci, who is not just a charismatic radio host, but an author and entrepreneur.
“We have a lot of colorful characters, sometimes,” he said. “They like to write books, they like to sell spaghetti sauce.”
And some, Crowley acknowledged, take a certain twisted pride in the state’s rough-and-tumble politics.
“I like the idea of being able to tell my colleagues across the country, ‘Yeah, that’s right, we’re from Rhode Island, get used to it.’ ” Crowley said.
That attitude is fading a little, said Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio.
But MacKay, the dean of political journalists down here, argues rule breaking is in the DNA of a state founded by a religious dissident and forged by a brutal capitalism.
“This is a state where the early fortunes were made in smuggling and in the African slave trade,” he said. “And then the money went into textile mills — a lot of it child labor. The state was known as the most crooked state outside of the South way back in the Gilded Age.”
Still, even the most jaded observers were a little stunned by the sudden fall of Speaker Fox.
The sight of law enforcement raiding his State House office and carting out boxes of evidence was jarring.
Mattiello, the new speaker, acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech last week.
“I hoped some day to be speaker of this House,” he said. “I love this House. But I never expected such a stunning and rapid turn of events.”
But as the shock wears off, the dominant feeling seems to be resignation.
Many see the political dysfunction as part of a larger fabric of failure. The manufacturing sector has rusted and not much has replaced it. Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the country.
Still, in the face of it all, a sort of stubborn resilience. Even a bit of dark humor. At a coffee house on the east side of Providence, retired financial adviser Peter Barlow put it this way:
“Why graduate next-to-last? When you graduate last, you get some notoriety,” he said. “So, I think Rhode Island almost takes — not pride, but some notoriety in the fact that we tend to be the worst in a lot of things. Not next-to-last, but you know, dead last.”
Dead last. The new speaker of the House, it seems, has a lot of work ahead of him.