PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Two legislators have emerged as candidates to replace Gordon Fox in arguably the most powerful position in Rhode Island government, and their viability is expected to be tested Sunday when House members meet to discuss who has the votes to assume the speakership.
The caucus comes a day after Fox relinquished the House speakership following twin raids at his Statehouse office and home as part of a criminal investigation. Officials will not say whom or what they are investigating.
House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello and Oversight Committee Chairman Michael Marcello, both Democrats, have claimed they have enough votes to become House speaker. Mattiello called for a meeting of all House members Sunday night to declare whom they intend to support ahead of a formal vote expected Tuesday.
Ahead of that meeting, Marcello met with his Democratic supporters Sunday afternoon in Johnston, along with five of the six Republican members of the 75-member chamber, who could be key in deciding the next speaker.
Mattiello, Fox's top deputy, on Sunday reiterated his claim that he has more than the 38 votes necessary to win the speakership, though he would not specify how many. He said of Marcello's camp: "They will not have a majority — not even close."
Marcello told reporters outside the Johnston meeting that he had 33 votes, five votes shy of what he needs. When asked about his comments Saturday to WPRI-TV that he had the votes he needed, he said "everything's still in play."
"We're going to take it all the way to the House floor," he said.
Rep. Joseph Trillo, the House minority whip, emerged from the meeting in Johnston to report that he was leaning toward Marcello. He said earlier in the day that the Republicans want to vote as a bloc but said later that he didn't think they were "100 percent either way."
Trillo said that both candidates are courting Republicans by saying "they are willing to do major change" and that some "very serious change agents" are on Marcello's team.
The Friday raids on Fox's office and home came amid a joint investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, FBI, IRS and state police. Boxes of evidence were carried off after agents spent hours at Fox's home and office Friday. Officials will not say whom or what they are investigating.
Fox, a 52-year-old Providence Democrat who became the nation's first openly gay House speaker in 2010, said in an emailed statement Saturday that he plans to serve the rest of his term, which runs through the end of the year. But, he said: "My personal focus going forward will be on my family and dealing with the investigation."
"Because of the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives, I am resigning as Speaker," Fox said. "The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner."
Fox did not address whether he is the target of the investigation, what authorities are probing or even whether he has hired a lawyer.
A new speaker must be elected in an open session, and Mattiello said he expects that to occur Tuesday, when the House returns. Fox's resignation as speaker was, for all practical purposes, effective immediately. A spokesman for Fox said he believed Fox had to submit a letter to the secretary of state's office as a formality, and his resignation would be read into the House record.
However, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state said Sunday that its legal staff didn't believe the law required such a letter and that the office would contact the House about the particulars Monday morning.
Fox has represented Rhode Island's capital in the General Assembly for more than 20 years and is one of the state's most powerful politicians.
While questions remain about the nature of the investigation and Fox's role in it, his enduring legislative legacy is most likely to be legalizing gay marriage. In 2011, he abandoned a legalization push because of opposition in the Senate.
Instead, he pushed civil unions and was roundly criticized by some gay marriage supporters, who felt bitter and let down.
But just two years later, Fox was instrumental in pushing gay marriage legislation through as the political climate shifted nationally. He became emotional at the bill-signing ceremony on the Statehouse steps last year as he addressed the crowd and talked about his longtime partner, Marcus LaFond, whom he called "the love of my life."
"This tells me our relationship does matter," Fox said. "It means that we mean something."
The two were married last year in Fox's Statehouse office. Fox came out in 2004, in an unplanned announcement, while addressing a gay marriage rally at the Statehouse.
Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.
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