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Rhode Island Progressives Cheer the Defeat of Democratic House Speaker, Hoping It May Lead to More Education Funding

By Asher Lehrer-Small | November 4, 2020

Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello lost to GOP challenger Barbara Fenton-Fung, but many Democrats are celebrating the result. (The Boston Globe / Getty Images)

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter.

A Republican political newcomer outpolled Rhode Island’s powerful Democratic House speaker, but it’s progressives in the state who are celebrating.

Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has long been an obstacle to progressive legislation in the Ocean State, including greater education funding. Because of a quirk in Rhode Island’s constitution, all bills that come to the House floor must first receive Mattiello’s stamp of approval. To the ire of many within his party, the speaker has frequently used his power to block progressive legislation from coming to a vote.

This evening, the Associated Press called the race in favor of GOP challenger Barbara Fenton-Fung, though Mattiello had yet to concede and some local outlets said it’s too early to call the race with as many as 2,632 mail ballots and 1,794 early in-person votes yet to be counted. Votes cast in person on Election Day showed Fenton-Fung with a 1,198-vote lead, carrying 65 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for Mattiello, according to the state Board of Elections.

The Providence Journal reported that it’s been more than a century since a sitting House speaker lost an election in his home district.

Democrats currently control 66 of the 75 seats in the state House of Representatives, which means the loss does not threaten the party’s hold on the chamber. It does, however, open the door to a change in House leadership. That’s why progressives in the union’s smallest state celebrated Mattiello’s defeat.

Thanks in part to Mattiello’s strict reign, the state still has a regressive tax structure. If new state House leadership brought a change to that code, it would send additional dollars to schools.

Such a change would have important ramifications for education in Rhode Island, where last year the state took over the struggling Providence public schools, its largest district.

Peder Schaefer, a Rhode Island native who worked this year as an organizer with the local Sunrise Movement chapter to elect progressives across the state, believes schools may directly benefit as a result of this contest.

“A more progressive general Assembly, which all the budget bills come out of, would lead to more funding for education,” speculates Schaefer.

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter

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