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R.I. Speaker of House receives student criticism

Elected by slim margin in November elections, Nicholas Mattiello draws fire from progressives

Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s close win in the November election this month could reflect a larger divide within the Democratic party between progressive and moderate party members.

A Democrat from Cranston, Mattiello has often been criticized for being too conservative. Mattiello — who has an A+ rating with the National Rifle Association — has described himself as a “firewall” against “ultra left-wing groups” in an interview with WPRO-radio.

As current Speaker of the R.I. House of Representatives, some have said Mattiello’s power rivals the governor’s. His powers include setting the calendar and agenda for legislative sessions and appointing all standing committees and their chairs within the House.

Larry Berman, Mattiello’s spokesperson, explained that the government of Rhode Island gives “a strong voice to those elected officials who are closest to the people of the state, which is our Representatives.”

Earlier this month, Mattiello narrowly defeated Republican candidate Steven Frias ’94 by less than 400 votes. This was a wider margin of victory than his 2016 win over Frias, which was less than 100 votes, according to the Rhode Island Board of  Elections.

In addition to facing a Republican opponent at the ballot box, Mattiello faced opposition within his own party. Berman wrote that “the ultra-left wing formed coalitions to oppose (Mattiello’s) re-election in November.”

Brown students have constituted part of this opposition. Before the elections, members of the campus organization Thoughts Prayers Action and the nonpartisan student group Brown Progressive Action Committee canvassed against Mattiello in Cranston.

Gabe Mernoff ’22, a Rhode Island local and member of TPA, was one of the students that canvassed against the speaker. Calling Mattiello a Democrat in name only, or “DINO,” Mernoff said that “looking at party lines in Rhode Island is misleading.”

Mernoff believes that Mattiello uses the powers he has as Speaker to prevent a vote on gun legislation.

Bump stock bans, ‘red flag’ legislation that enabled courts to take guns from individuals deemed “dangerous” and a bill that removed guns from convicted domestic abusers had all been passed during Mattiello’s term, according to Berman. When elected to a third term as Speaker, Mattiello will ensure that “all gun-related bills that are introduced in the next session will receive full and fair public hearings by the House Judiciary Committee, and then it will be up to the members of that committee to weigh the testimony,” Berman wrote.

Mattiello received a majority in a Democratic Caucus vote for speaker held Nov. 8. Though the vote will not be made official until Jan. 1, when the House enters its new term, many predict that he will continue in the position.

Despite Mattiello’s more conservative leanings, Mernoff said he would not be surprised if Mattiello were reelected as speaker again because there are other conservative Democrats in his corner.

Mernoff explained that in general the R.I.Democratic party’s platform “does not line up with the Democratic Party on the national level” because the state platform is much more conservative.

Technically, Brown College Democrats is also under the state Democratic party as a part of the College Democrats of Rhode Island. Rose Lang-Maso ’20, president of the Brown Democrats, said the group has to be careful not to undermine its state-level partner. As a result, the Dems are limited in what they can say about Mattiello, she said.   

“We generally have a policy of supporting Democrats who embody our shared democratic values,” Lang-Maso said. For instance, the Dems espouse  abortion rights, accessible health care and stricter gun safety legislation.

“Because he’s in the more conservative wing of the party, we don’t feel he’s met these commitments,” Lang-Maso said. “But we’re hopeful that he will.”

“As Democrats and voters, we really do have to hold the Speaker accountable,” she added.

In a statement to The Herald, Brown Progressive Action Committee Chair Julia Kirschenbaum ’19 wrote, “Mattiello might be a ‘Democrat,’ but he exemplifies the conservatism that persists within the Rhode Island Democratic Party as an institution.” She added that the group“ will continue to demand legislative oversight that places checks on the power of the House Speaker in Rhode Island.”

Regarding gun legislation, TPA said that they will work toward stricter gun laws by writing letters to representatives, including Mattiello, and testifying at the State House. “We believe if (stricter gun legislation) reached the floor it would pass,” TPA media co-chair Kevin Boyce ’21 said, explaining that they are laws that most Rhode Islanders agree with.

In the coming term, “the Speaker will remain focused on passing legislation and enacting a budget that focuses on improving the job climate and economic opportunities,” Berman wrote.

Mattiello’s close win in the November elections will not necessarily impact his policy positions, Berman wrote.“The time for politics is over and it is now time to focus on governing and enacting policies and legislation to move the state forward.”


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