- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Nicholas Mattiello lost his longtime position as lector at his Roman Catholic church after voting in 2013 for same-sex marriage legislation following years of opposition stemming from his faith. Friends he saw nearly every weekend never spoke to him again after he backed the state’s 2011 cost-saving public-pension system overhaul.

Rhode Island’s new House speaker counts those as lessons in the personal cost of politics.

The Cranston Democrat, 51, now holds arguably the most powerful position in Rhode Island state government, the gatekeeper for all legislation that passes through the House of Representatives, whose Finance Committee writes the budget.

His ascent was nearly as swift as the downfall of his predecessor. Gordon Fox resigned his leadership post in March a day after federal and state authorities raided his Statehouse office and home as part of a criminal investigation about which little has been revealed.

Even before Fox relinquished the job, Mattiello’s ambitions boiled up and he started campaigning for it, whipping votes from the Old Canteen on Federal Hill. Within days, Mattiello, the majority leader at the time, was elected speaker in a lopsided vote over Rep. Michael Marcello, who charged that Mattiello represented the status quo. Marcello, then chairman of House Oversight, was among those who lost their posts in the changing of the guard.

When he was younger, Mattiello helped his late father at Mattiello Drilling & Blasting, but the business wasn’t his fate. He went from La Salle Academy to Boston College, where he studied accounting. He got a law degree from Suffolk University and later opened his own practice. In 2006, he won his first public office, an open House seat formerly held by a Republican. He had the support of longtime friend William Murphy, then the speaker himself.

“I hoped someday to be speaker of this House - I love this House - but I never expected such a stunning and rapid turn of events,” Mattiello said in his acceptance speech. “To say that I’m hitting the ground running is a vast understatement.”

Mattiello’s mantra in a state that was devastated by the recession and has continued to limp through a recovery is “jobs and the economy.” But while he says Rhode Island needs to be bolder on economic development, he rarely strays from the safety of his talking points.

Topping his legislative agenda is cutting the corporate tax rate from 9 percent to 7 percent. He also wants to restructure the estate tax, citing current policy as a reason wealthy people leave the state. He seems more comfortable talking about improving the perception of Rhode Island than the finer points of any legislation he thinks will do it.

“I want to let the business community know that we are listening,” he said in a recent interview. “To help the business community, you’re helping out your middle class. A good economic environment will lead to more activity, will lead to more jobs, will lead to higher pay, will lead to a better perception. Then we can take care of our most vulnerable thereafter.”

That self-described “pro-business” bent concerns more liberal Democrats, inside and outside the chamber, especially with the General Assembly facing an estimated $67 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year.

Jim Ryczek, of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, said advocates are continually working to convince lawmakers that spending on affordable housing and other social services will lower state costs in the long run.

“My concern is that he and maybe some others are not seeing that part of the benefit,” he said. “It’s not like a vacuum that is sucking up the resources. With investments, you have a return.”

Mattiello won praise in the House for allowing a floor vote on legislation to kill the single-ticket voting option on Rhode Island’s ballot - the “master lever” - after years of it dying in committee. After meeting with Wall Street rating agencies to determine the harm of a possible default on the bonds that financed the failed 38 Studios deal, he wouldn’t publicly offer his own position until he caucused with fellow Democrats.

“We haven’t had that caucus for the last 3½, 4 years,” said Rep. Spencer Dickinson, D-South Kingstown, who notes that under Mattiello, there have already been two.

In the little free time he has, Mattiello likes to ride his Harley with friends or his wife, Mary Ann, who he says hates politics. The bike is something of an escape for a man who admits he has trouble saying no.

“Can’t hear the cellphone while you’re riding,” he said.

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