By Edward Achorn
For more than 20 years, I was an editorial-pages editor at The Providence Journal. I worked hard to maintain the newspaper’s great tradition of service to the public, which dated back to 1829, as a responsible voice advocating for the people of Rhode Island.
That voice has been eliminated as part of the newspaper industry’s reaction to dire financial problems. As former longtime publisher Howard Sutton noted, Rhode Island has suffered a painful blow in losing the Journal’s ability to speak out boldly and offer informed perspective on issues confronting the state. Separated from news coverage, we weighed in on sustaining good government, combating political corruption, promoting the welfare of the people, and defending the First Amendment and other constitutional rights.
The Journal for well over a century also made important endorsements. Over the last two elections, it urged the re-election of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat from Cranston.
A classic Democrat
Mr. Mattiello (above, in a campaign video) is a Democrat in the classic sense — patriotic, supportive of working people, and dedicated to maintaining a social safety net that serves the neediest among us.
A career in old-fashioned journalism (as opposed to today’s political advocacy) has made me permanently skeptical of all politicians. But voters must inevitably decide which of the imperfect candidates would best represent their interests.
The voters in Mr. Mattiello’s district would surely do better for themselves by returning him to the House than by electing a freshman Republican devoid of power.
In doing so, they would do a favor for all of Rhode Island.
A voice of sanity
Mr. Mattiello has established himself as a voice of sanity and reason in a sometimes-crazed legislature buffeted by powerful special interests. He has defended the state’s economy from half-baked ideas of ideologues on the left and the right. He has supported the Bill of Rights and the rule of law.
He has notably — and courageously — stood up against an immensely powerful Laborers Union that backs (if not dictates to) such politicians as Governor Gina Raimondo and leaders in the state Senate. Without Mr. Mattiello as speaker, the union would have far greater leeway to immensely enrich itself. A vital check would be removed.
The power of that union became clear to me earlier this year when it mounted a sustained attack on the speaker for requesting an audit of the Convention Center. As critics have noted for years, the Convention Center is a patronage factory for the Laborers. It shamefully hides its operations from the public, which pays an enormous amount each year to keep it running.
Not content with smearing him, the Laborers have campaigned against Mr. Mattiello in his district.
Sustained attacks go with the job, of course. Successful speakers must be strong. They must twist arms at times. They must say no. That creates enemies.
Mr. Mattiello may have earned the enmity of Attorney General Peter Neronha, for example, by nixing a budget request that would have expanded the AG’s power. Let’s hope not. That office should never be abused for rank political purposes.
A moderate speaker has it particularly tough.
The increasingly powerful so-called progressive clique is out to get the speaker because he backs the private sector and resists schemes that would destroy what is left of the state’s economy. Mr. Mattiello understands Rhode Island cannot function if its businesses are unable to survive and compete. Rhode Island businesses create jobs, opportunities, and the tax revenues that fund a compassionate government. But the hard left seems unwilling to consider that reality.
On the other side, Republicans — who seem equally impervious to pragmatism — have sought to topple Mr. Mattiello in the last three elections. They do not care about the damage they would do to the economy if the state lost this speaker. They only want a political pelt.
Championing a tax cut
In a state where many politicians seem to never tire of preying on the public, Mr. Mattiello has championed car tax cuts that let the people keep more of their money. Middle-class working people have been hit particularly hard by that brutally regressive tax. Mr. Mattiello kept his word to the voters, a rarity in politics.
Longtime readers know I have been a noted critic of Mr. Mattiello at times. I thought he dropped the ball when he blocked an outstanding deal to keep Triple-A baseball in Rhode Island. The speaker, scrapping to win re-election, sided with the voters in his own district at the expense of the state.
I did not appreciate his efforts to block a line item veto, including clownishly stacked hearings that were an insult to the voters’ intelligence and reflected poorly on his character. Same with his defense of legislative grants, which function as a slush fund at the discretion of House leaders.
He once denounced my editorials and my newspaper on the House floor.
The big picture
But I also believe it is important to look at the big picture. Rhode Island needs an economy. It needs a leader who asks tough questions, risks criticism, and refuses to take the easiest route with such powerful special interests as the Laborers Union and with powerful Rhode Island officials who can make his life miserable.
As someone who came to Rhode Island and fell in love with the state, I wish it well in the crucial years ahead. This is particularly important as it digs out from the COVID-19 disaster.
That is why I sincerely hope Cranston voters return Mr. Mattiello to the House on November 3.
Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.