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A Progressive Challenge Is Mounting Against Rhode Island’s Anti-Choice House Leader

Auditi Guha

The Rhode Island House is run by an anti-choice Democrat who has undermined a fair-pay bill and blocked sexual assault legislation. Progressive groups are fed up.

State Rep. Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), the powerful Rhode Island speaker of the house who has blocked a measure to protect abortion rights, was narrowly re-elected last week. But at the state capitol, the Democrat faces serious opposition for the first time.

A coalition of progressive groups want to oust Mattiello from house leadership because of his attitude toward women, abortion rights, and his “disregard for democracy.” Twenty-one Rhode Island representatives voted against endorsing him to remain as speaker next year at a Democratic caucus last week.

Mattiello, who said in May that abortion rights in the United States are not under attack, called his opposition—many of whom are women—“extreme progressives.”

“We cannot sit by and watch Nicholas Mattiello once again be elected the Speaker of the House without calling out his failings as a leader of the RI House of Representatives. His attacks on immigrants, women, and members of the media should disqualify him from serving as the leader of the Democratic caucus,” reads a statement from the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization of Women (RI-NOW), the Woman Project, the RI Latino PAC, and the Young Democrats of Rhode Island.

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Despite the opposition, Mattiello was endorsed for another term as speaker by House Democrats, securing 44 votes from Democratic lawmakers at last week’s caucus. He will be officially up for election by all 75 house members in January.

The anti-Mattiello coalition has expanded to include several organizations calling for reform to a legislative system that concentrates power in the hands of a single representative. Rhode Islanders For Reform will formally launch this weekend.

“It’s ideologically very diverse. We all have different issues that we prioritize but we’ve come together because … we’d really like to see legislative rules reform and changes in the rules that will ensure that every representatives’ voice is heard and their constituents’ voices,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, president of RI NOW.

As speaker of the house, Mattiello controls which bills stay in committee or move forward. Under Mattiello, legislation on reproductive health care, gun control, and sexual assault has not reached the floor for a vote despite popular support. One such bill, the Reproductive Health Care Act, would ensure people in Rhode Island maintain access to abortion if conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade—a possibility that Mattiello has described as “a concern that’s not founded in reality.”

Last month, local TV news reported on Mattiello’s role in covering up an allegation that a member of his leadership team sexually harassed a colleague. State Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Burrillville), who chaired the house judiciary committee until the sexual harassment accusations publicly emerged, lost his seat in the midterm elections.

Mattiello blocked a series of bills aimed at preventing sexual harassment in the workplace from being voted on at the end of June, despite two months of commission hearings led by Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown).

This summer the speaker watered down Rep. Susan Donovan’s (D-Bristol) Fair Pay Act, which aimed to close the wage gap for women and people of color. The bill that passed the house instead backs business interests and weakens many of the protections introduced. It reverts to a 1950s “equal work” standard instead of the “comparable work” standard introduced in the state senate’s version of the legislation.

The Woman Project’s Jordan Hevenor told Rewire.News that Mattiello is out of step with Rhode Island voters, who overwhelmingly support statewide abortion rights protections and want a more inclusive legislative leader.

Rhode Island residents, 75 percent of whom are Christian, overwhelmingly support legal abortion, according to Pew Research Center polling. Yet NARAL Pro-Choice America lists Rhode Island as having restrictive abortion laws, worse than some states with GOP-held legislatures like Alaska and Montana.

“We now gently remind all members of the Rhode Island House that Rep. Mattiello kept a sexual harasser in power, covered it up and lied about it,” Hevenor said in an email. “He said bringing the [Reproductive Health Care Act] to the floor would take up all the oxygen in the room. He said there was no real threat to Roe v. Wade, when in fact there were 14 pending court cases that could undermine Roe v. Wade.”

Despite Mattiello’s re-election, momentum is gaining against the anti-choice Democrat. A record 42 women were elected November 6 to the Rhode Island General Assembly—16 in the state senate and 26 in the house. This includes a record 44 pro-choice legislators in the state—31 in the house and 13 in the senate, according to Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island PAC (PPV!RI PAC).

“There is a clear mandate to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act,” Craig O’Connor, chair of PPV!RI PAC, said in a statement. “There are now more than enough votes in the General Assembly to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act, and we expect House and Senate leadership to hold a vote on this critical legislation in 2019.”

A day after Rep. Gregg Amore (D-East Providence) pushed for action, RI NOW on Wednesday called on the house to reconvene its sexual harassment task force and pass sexual harassment legislation. NBC reports that the Rhode Island State Senate plans to prioritize this in 2019.

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