CRANSTON, R.I. — If it were any other legislative race in Nicholas Mattiello’s leafy Rhode Island suburb, the battle between the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives and his Republican challenger Steven Frias might have fallen along partisan lines.
But Mattiello is Rhode Island’s most powerful state lawmaker. The unusual allegiances rooting for and against him in the weeks before the Nov. 8 election reflect how much is at stake.
Among those hoping the Democrat retains power are some prominent Republicans, while some liberal activists are working to defeat him.
Mattiello has had warm relations with the tiny House Republican caucus since he secured their support for his rise to the speakership in 2014. He describes himself as pro-business and said he strives to be “inclusive of all people and fair-minded,” avoiding the polarization that has led to inaction in the U.S. Congress. He’s worked to cut taxes and promises to do more next year. But he’s also become a prime target of the state Republican Party because of his governing style and a series of ethical problems involving his hand-picked leadership team.
“The defeat of Speaker Mattiello would send a shock wave to the state and show the Democrats running the State House for generations that the arrogance they’ve shown — implementing the policies they have — has caused their most powerful politician to lose,” said Frias, an energy industry attorney and national GOP committeeman.
Not all Republicans are sure it would work that way.
Republican state Rep. Joseph Trillo said defeating Mattiello would be a feather in the GOP’s cap, but could also be a “blow to the state for conservative values” if the Democratic power vacuum causes the speakership to go to someone with more liberal views on immigration, gun control and other issues that Mattiello has pushed back on.
“If the state ends up with a liberal at the helm, I think it could be a disaster,” Trillo said. “And if Frias were to beat him that could happen.”
The same theory has led some members of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats to volunteer for the Frias campaign, though the group remains neutral.
Retired family physician and liberal Democrat Tim Empkie has spent 30 hours campaigning for the Republican candidate, taking a bus from his Providence home to Frias’ campaign office.
The election in Cranston’s western neighborhoods “affects my life” because Mattiello holds so much power in affecting what laws get passed, Empkie said. He said the speaker is too autocratic and prone to backroom decision-making, and that he is backing Frias because he seems open and honest.
Among the clearest differences between the two candidates is whether to eliminate legislative grants, which Mattiello and most other lawmakers direct to local youth sports leagues and other groups in their districts and Frias said is “less about helping community organizations and more about helping a politician get elected.”
Mattiello, 53, grew up in Cranston and moved to his current home when he got married in the mid-1980s. An attorney, he was first elected to the House in 2006. Frias, 44, moved to the city a decade ago. A native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, he ran unsuccessfully for the Rhode Island state Senate in his early 20s while a student at Brown University.
The moderately conservative views of both candidates reflect their district. President Barack Obama beat GOP challenger Mitt Romney here in 2012, but with a narrower margin than elsewhere in Rhode Island. It’s not uncommon to see lawn signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, but hard to find any for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Mattiello’s supporters don’t blame him for the persistent ethical lapses in the General Assembly, including a former House finance chairman who resigned amid a criminal investigation and a vice finance chairman forced out of office over a residency dispute.
“He has no control over where people are living or what they do in their spare time,” said Joe Montanaro, a retired steelworker union leader who has a Mattiello sign on his lawn. Montanaro refers to the House speaker as Nick, and said the politician always takes his calls about neighborhood concerns.
But having a local resident as the House speaker isn’t enough to impress Gina Aroyan, a resident of Cranston’s Meshanticut neighborhood and registered Republican, who said she is sick of government waste.
“I know he’s a neighborhood guy and he goes to Tommy’s Pizza,” said Aroyan, naming Mattiello’s favorite restaurant. “I just don’t like what he stands for.”