Election 2020-Rhode Island Speaker

FILE - In this March 12, 2019, file photo, Rhode Island Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello gavels open a late afternoon session of the legislature at the State House in Providence, R.I. Mattiello is seeking for re-election in the state's 15th legislative district in the Nov. 3, 2020, election. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

CRANSTON — Could a big political upset potentially be brewing in the littlest state?

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — one of Rhode Island’s most powerful politicians — is in a tight race as he campaigns to hang on to his legislative seat in a district that backed Donald Trump for president in 2016.

Mattiello, who has been tied to several scandals, faces a spirited challenge from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Republican activist and the wife of popular Cranston mayor and two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung.

Rhode Island is one of the bluest of America’s blue states, with an all-Democratic congressional delegation, a Democratic governor and a state assembly in firm Democratic hands.

But pockets of the state tilt decidedly conservative, including the 15th legislative district, a slice of western Cranston where voters went for Trump four years ago after backing Barack Obama in 2012. In 2018, Mattiello won reelection over Republican Steven Frias by just 329 votes.

Across the U.S., top state legislative leaders from both parties are in similarly hot races as they face a polarized and energized electorate:

Indiana’s newly minted Republican House speaker is in a tight race in suburban Indianapolis, in an area that’s transitioned from dependably red to purple. Todd Huston took over in March from longtime speaker Brian Bosma.

In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, a Democrat, is fighting to retain what’s become a battleground seat in Las Vegas. Cannizzaro, a district attorney, has seen support from law enforcement groups and police unions flip to her Republican opponent after criminal justice reforms were enacted.

In Georgia, Democratic House Minority Leader Bob Trammell survived a primary scare and now faces a tough challenge from Republican David Jenkins in his district southeast of Atlanta, which went for Trump in 2016.

Fenton-Fung, 39, has been calling attention to the scandals that have dogged Mattiello, most recently the money laundering trial of former campaign aide Jeffrey Britt. Earlier this year, 57-year-old Mattiello himself was the subject of a grand jury investigation into why he ordered an unauthorized audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority.

He was accused of using the audit as retaliation for disciplinary action against one of his campaign donors, the convention center’s director of security, who was put on leave.

Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, also a Democrat, spent more than $630,000 in campaign funds on food, beverages and meals since they moved into leadership positions, The Public’s Radio reported last winter.

Mattiello, an attorney and a conservative Democrat, has been House speaker since 2014 and has represented the district since 2007.

In a commentary for The Providence Journal, Mattiello said his top priorities are phasing out the state’s automobile tax by 2022, cutting taxes to stimulate job growth and increasing funding for education.

“As a state representative for the past 14 years, and since becoming speaker in 2014, I am in a unique position to continue to deliver on these initiatives,” he said.

Fenton-Fung has said she’s voting for Trump, though she doesn’t approve of everything the president says and does. Her focus, she said, is addressing the Rhode Island’s long run of political scandals.

Mattiello’s predecessor as speaker was Democrat Gordon Fox, who resigned after federal agents raided his office and home. Fox pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return, and served 2 1/2 years in prison.

“I can’t do much about Washington,” she told a recent roundtable organized by The Public’s Radio. “What I can do is try to change the corruption and how we operate here in Rhode Island.”

Fenton-Fung served as chairwoman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans and as executive director of the Young Republican National Federation. She has said she met her future husband at the 2012 Republican National Convention after her umbrella accidentally thumped him on his head.

Allan Fung, a popular figure who’s term-limited after serving as Cranston’s mayor since 2009 and twice challenged Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, has been going door to door with his wife as she makes her case to voters.

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