Friday, February 12, 2010

Fox is House speaker

By Katherine Gregg and Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE –– Gordon D. Fox became the state’s first black and openly gay House speaker after West Warwick Democrat William J. Murphy relinquished the helm on Thursday.

A lawyer, former nightclub owner and state lawmaker since 1993, Fox, 48, trounced his more conservative opponent Gregory Schadone, D-North Providence, on a 51-to-14 vote with another 5 votes going to the token candidacy of House Minority Leader Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich.

In his first speech as House speaker, Fox said “Change is absolutely necessary. We cannot continue [to conduct] business as usual. We must think anew and act anew.”

With the state facing a massive deficit and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, he promised his highest priorities would be to “get Rhode Islanders back to work,” by exploring tax credits for small businesses that create jobs. He pledged action on a “fair and equitable” education-funding formula this year.

“Bolstering our economy, creating jobs … and enacting a responsible and balanced budget will be our priorities for this session,” he said. But “we must be mindful that it is important to restore the public trust in this institution, and indeed, the public trust in their elected officials,” said Fox, urging quick action on legislation he introduced in recent days to “allow the voters to restore the authority and power of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission this November.”

As majority leader since 2003, Fox, D-Providence, was Murphy’s top deputy and chosen successor, and his election marked a victory over at least two competing Democrats in the House aligned with the party’s more-conservative flank.

Fox brushed aside criticism that he is too liberal, a charge leveled at him by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, in a letter explaining his reasons for resigning as chairman of the House Labor Committee.

“A Fox speakership will invariably include, but not be limited to, an increase in the state income tax, a lack of constitutionally sound state limitations on illegal immigration, an economic development policy overly influenced by environmental extremists, and of course ... gay marriage,” wrote Corvese, who has been replaced by Rep. Anastasia Williams, an unpaid member of the AFL-CIO board of directors. “I believe your philosophical stance on major issues is too far to the left for the good of the citizens of the State of Rhode Island.”

Fox refused to rule out tax increases. And he has been a passionate advocate for same-sex marriage, but said on Thursday: “It’s always a priority, but I wouldn’t call it a priority this year. I think this year’s going to be jobs and economic development.”

Fox’s partner of 12 years, Marcus LaFond, was at his side Thursday night at the State House, holding the Bible on which Fox placed his hand to take the oath of office. “When I get married, I would like to do it in my home state,” he once said.

Only the timing of Murphy’s resignation and Fox’s ascension was in doubt. Murphy served notice in late September that he might step aside as speaker before the year was out.

Unlike his own predecessor, John B. Harwood, Murphy leaves the top job untainted by scandal, insisting he never intended to remain as House speaker for more than eight years, has no new job lined up, and just wants to practice law and spend more time with his family.

But Murphy, who intends to remain in the House through this year’s session as a rank-and-file lawmaker, had the misfortune to preside during a time of huge upheaval that exacerbated the state’s growing budget crisis, and left him at the vortex of growing public anger at the state of Rhode Island’s economy, with one of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the country.

In his last moments as speaker, Murphy rattled off a list of accomplishments, led by the fact that the legislature hasn’t raised broad-based sales or income taxes over the last eight years. “In this day and age, when we are getting criticized because of the national financial problem, which is also the state financial problem, I think all of you have something to go home and be proud of.”

Fox has been guarded about where he stands on some of the more volatile issues the 2010 legislature is likely to face, including a proposed referendum to turn the Twin River and Newport Grand slot parlors into full-scale casinos.

Though, at one point, he had to pay the state Ethics Commission a $10,000 fine stemming from his then-law firm’s work for GTECH, he won kudos from citizens-advocacy groups in recent weeks by introducing a bill to give voters a chance to place the legislature back under the jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission after a late-June decision by the Supreme Court left the commission’s powers in question.

Fox becomes the 222nd House speaker since Rhode Island became a colony more than three centuries ago.

The last major changing of the guard at the State House — including the ascension of the Murphy-Fox team in 2002 — played out first in open caucuses of House and Senate Democrats.

Thursday’s vote for a new speaker was preceded by a closed-door caucus of House Democrats from which the media were barred. “It shouldn’t be like electing a pope where we wait to see the smoke coming out and what color it is,” said John Marion, executive director of the citizens-advocacy group Common Cause.

Fox is the son of an Irish father and a Cape Verdean mother, who grew up in the Mount Hope area that forms part of his East Side district. “I’m the first person of color to hold the office, first openly gay person to hold the office,” Fox said in an interview after he addressed the chamber. “I hope that somebody watching out there, listening to this, seeing me, can draw energy and strength from that. Some young person can say, you know what, that’s not now something I can’t aspire to, because someone else like me is there and has done it.”

Chimed Rep. Joseph Almeida, a former chairman of the Black and Latino Caucus said: “It’s great to know that Gordon will be taking over as speaker, not because he’s black, because he’s a qualified black man. It’ll be good for this state to finally move forward in the 21st century regarding leadership of color.”

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