It’s often thought cynical to say that moments of crisis create opportunity.
For the Ocean State, the broadly positive reaction to Cranston Democrat Nicholas Mattiello’s ascension to the office of Speaker of the House Representatives offers hope that real change and real progress on our most pressing challenges is possible despite the unfortunate nature of recent developments.
Elected by an overwhelming majority of his colleagues on Tuesday after the resignation of Gordon Fox from the chamber’s top post, Mattiello spoke of an inclusive and bipartisan approach, of an open door and a strong emphasis on economic issues.
“There is no shortage of good ideas,” he said, “whether they come from freshmen or members with more than 20 years’ experience.”
Rhode Island certainly needs good ideas and a fresh approach. Still mired in a sluggish recovery from the economic collapse of 2008 – and, indeed, still forging a new 21st century identity after decades of growing problems – our state carries the unfortunate distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Mattiello rightly deemed that unacceptable, and pledged to devote his energies toward building consensus on productive action.
The new speaker’s almost singular focus on economic issues is appropriate, and his conciliatory, unifying tone is to be applauded. It drew praise from his peers, many of who spoke of their new sense of hope.
Mattiello, whose rise drew favorable reaction from businesses and unions, and whose support for the leadership post included five of the House’s six Republicans, seems uniquely equipped to make good on the promise of positive change. He is no stranger to the establishment, having previously served as majority leader, but by almost all accounts carries credibility as a man of pragmatism and integrity.
Those qualities will be essential in moving forward while a cloud of suspicion surrounds Fox, whose home and office were the target of law enforcement raids late last week as part of a still mysterious investigation. They will also be vital in generating results while juggling numerous pressing priorities.
The state’s budget process will unfold quickly over the next several weeks, and there is the looming specter of the proposed pension reform settlement.
As a widely criticized voting process on the part of eligible workers and retirees nears its early-April deadline, the pension issue will remain in the forefront. And while multiple other steps remain in the approval process, the General Assembly will ultimately need to back the agreement – difficult at any point, let alone in an election year.
Mattiello, in addressing fellow lawmakers after being sworn in, acknowledged he had harbored ambition of becoming Speaker but never anticipated such a “stunning and rapid turn of events.”
“To say that I am hitting the ground running,” he said, “is a vast understatement.”
Crises, like it or not, create opportunity. Now is the time for the new Speaker and his colleagues to seize theirs.