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R.I. House Speaker faces challenge from Independent candidate

Independent candidate Mark Binder is challenging Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, in the Nov. 6 election to represent District 4. This past month, House Majority Whip Patrick O'Neil has resigned from Fox's leadership team, and Fox's former consultant Jeff Britt is now running Binder's campaign. Meanwhile, policy issues - including the 38 Studios controversy and failure to pass marriage equality legislation - have made Fox susceptible to criticism from experts.
"This may well be the first time that the speaker has had a serious challenge," said Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science. "If Binder was to win this race, it certainly would be the first time in recent history that the Speaker of the House has been defeated in an election bid, so it would be precedent-setting."
The visibility of the race - including publicized debates - has created a "highly unusual situation," said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Usually the leadership in the General Assembly does not have a lot of visibility when it comes to elections."
The most recent debate was held Oct. 11.
"(Fox) is a lawyer and a trained prosecutor, and he's been there for 20 years, and I'm the new guy on the block," Binder said. "I think I did pretty well considering."
At the core of Fox's troubles is his role in the passage of a bill that lent millions to video-game company 38 Studios, which later fell into bankruptcy and defaulted on its loans to the state government. "The bill passed, loans were made, and Curt Shilling opened the door," Binder said. "They kept hiring people, and somewhere along the line oversight was lost and the company collapsed."
But the effect of 38 Studios on the race is hard to pinpoint, Profughi said. "At the very least, it would appear to be a catalyzing agent that the people can rally around. At the very least, it's helped to magnify opposition to the speaker and his leadership," he said.
While Fox acknowledged the negative effects of 38 Studios and agreed that there is a need for increased oversight, he defended the loan program from which the scandal emerged. "From a legislative point of view, I think the program as it was designed is a viable program. I know there are a few other companies that benefited from it," he said. The problem specifically lies in how 38 Studios benefited from the program, he added. "The way this company was vetted, the way this application was designed and the loan guarantees given, leaves a lot of questions and a lot of doubts. Quite frankly, I'm angry about the way it happened."
Fox, the first openly gay House speaker in the United States, is also facing opposition due to his failure to act on marriage equality legislation. "There's disappointment in his not pushing same-sex marriage," said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science.
But Moakley said Fox was wise not to push the legislation in his past term. "I think you will see that measure passed in the next session," she said. "It was unrealistic to bring that question to a vote when the Senate was not going to hear the bill."
Though Fox has not yet passed legislation on marriage equality, he said it is his top priority. "If I'm fortunate enough to be reelected as District 4 representative and speaker of the House, my first goal is going to be to bring a vote before the house on same-sex marriage," he said.
Fox said that O'Neill's departure from his leadership team - the most high-profile of several recent resignations - has had little to no impact on his campaign. Schiller attributed the partings to Fox's failures to keep campaign matters separate from those of the speaker's office.
If Fox lost, the ramifications to the Democratic Party would not be significant, Profughi said. "But it would indicate that the so-called progressive wing of the party has considerable clout."
Despite some questionable decisions, Fox "(has) been, on balance, good for the state," Schiller said.
But Fox has become disconnected from the people of the district, noted Providence College Professor of Political Science Tony Affigne '76 PhD'92. "In recent years, he's grown somewhat distant from his constituency even as his power has grown, while the community he once knew very well has changed a great deal," he said. "There's very little residents can point to and say, 'Speaker Fox did that.'"
Fox said his position as speaker of the House is a major selling point for his campaign, because it enables him to do more for his district. Specifically, Fox touted his recent accomplishments in education reform. For the first time in decades, he and his team were able to increase support for a predictable education funding formula, benefiting such schools as Nathan Bishop Middle School, Doctor Martin Luther King School and Hope High School, Fox noted.
"That's what a state representative's greatest ability is to do, in terms of the allocation of where we put our budgeting funds," he said. "It's a reflection of our priorities, and education is my largest priority, because I think ultimately the state will succeed or fail by the equality of our public education institutions."
"I'm really most proud of education and really enhancing the quality of life for people in District 4 and the state of Rhode Island," said Fox. "I'm really about building the opportunities for people to succeed."
Fox also pointed to other legislative accomplishments, such as bills passed to protect those with mental illnesses, to prevent smoking in public places and to provide equal opportunity programs, as well as his efforts to protect a woman's freedom of choice.
Binder said that despite these accomplishments, Fox has been an ineffective leader. Though Binder himself once voted for Fox, he noted that since the speaker has left behind his district. "He didn't bring to a vote marriage equality, which is something he's been promising to do for years. He didn't pass the bill to reform payday lending. At the same time, he did pass the 38 Studios bill."
Binder said that if elected, he would pursue education reform, specifically to change the current state exam methods. He said he is also looking to effect change within the legislature. "There's a long history of the legislator being dominated by the leadership, and I would like to find a way to open it up so that the individual legislators have more say in what happens."
Fox is "theoretically vulnerable," Schiller said. A Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions poll of Rhode Island residents conducted Sept. 26 through Oct. 5 showed Fox's statewide approval rating is low at 18.3 percent.
"The odds are with the incumbent in this race, as in most races," Affigne said. "But Fox's connectio
n to the 38 Studios debacle and his limited visibility in the district are giving Binder a better chance of winning than anyone would have predicted just a few months ago."


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