Speaker Mattiello shares his current thinking on sexual harassment and respect for women

Nicholas Mattiello

In the last days of the 2018 Rhode Island General Assembly session, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello used his position to prevent a series of bills aimed at preventing sexual harassment in the workplace from coming to the floor for a vote. The bills were the product of a more than two-months worth of commission hearings, led led by Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, Distrist 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett). The bills were submitted on June 4 and the House let them sit, unvoted on, until the session ended in early July.

Mattiello also used his power as Speaker to destroy Representative Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol)’s Fair Pay Act. The intent of the act was to close the gap between what women and minorities make in the workplace when compared to their white male coworkers. The House of Representatives passed their own version of the Fair Pay Act that differed substantially from the version passed unanimously in the Senate. Mattiello’s bill would not not have improved the ability of women and minorities to be paid equally to their white male counterparts, it would have actually made things worse. Mattiello’s legislation was hastily cobbled together to appease business interests and passed without understanding how the new legislation would interact with or conflict with current law and no feedback from the court system or attorneys.

Just before the general election WPRI/Channel 12 broke the news of a sexual harassment scandal at the State House that Mattiello and many House members were aware of. The Speaker came under criticism for his handling of the issue.

Mattiello narrowly won re-election in Cranston District 15 in November and then immediately moved to consolidate his Speakership at a caucus meeting where nearly one-third of his fellow Democrats refused to support him.

At his election night celebration party, Mattiello told WPRI/Channel 12 reporter Kim Kalunian, “I’m going to have a new policy going forward: news media outlets that treat me fairly and are objective, I’m going to converse more with.” Note that the subject of media coverage is probably not in the best position to judge what “fair” and “objective” means.

The Speaker made good on his promise, granting a half hour interview to Ed Achorn, the Providence Journal editorial pages editor, on Achorn’s podcast, appropriately called The Insiders. The Providence Journal gave Mattiello a glowing pre-election endorsement, and was granted an interview, as a good media deserves under Mattiello’s definition of “objective.”

Circling back to the topic of sexual harassment and the Speaker’s treatment of women, here’s the conversation between Mattiello and his media accomplice, Ed Achorn, on that issue:

Achorn: Do you feel a need to repair your image with women in Rhode Island in any way?

Mattiello: Well, I certainly don’t like people saying that I’m in any way not sensitive to the needs of women, to put it kindly. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. I’m the first Speaker that hired a chief legal counsel that’s a female, in the history of the State of Rhode Island. I have more female directors than male directors in the House and in our operation. We’ve had a lot of women chairpeople. I put women in very prominent roles.

You know, the House of Representatives is essentially the House of Ambition. Everybody wants to rise up and unfortunately, sometimes we use things that divide us in an inappropriate way and I think it’s wrong. People will say that if a woman doesn’t get a bill that she wanted that somehow I’m anti-woman. Furthest thing from the truth. What I am is analytical, and what I am is thoughtful, and I take my responsibility very seriously so we’re going to make sure [legislation]’s ready to go, before it goes, if it should go and should be passed.

Doesn’t make me anti-woman. For instance, the sexual harassment bills.

Achorn: Right.

Mattiello: A bunch of bills came in at the last minute, and I had a representative that wanted them passed. I don’t know the impact [these bills will have] on the business community, it could be significant. I don’t know how they would interact with or conflict with current law, even being an attorney I’m not sure because that’s not an area I practice in. So I need feedback from the court system. And I would reach out to attorneys and have a longer process before we pass bills like that.

During my election campaign I was painted as being anti-woman because I didn’t pass those bills that were introduced at the last minute. I’ve oftentimes been criticized for passing things that were introduced at the last minute. You just can’t have it every way and people will make whatever judgement and decision they want based on what their interests in the bills were

As honestly as I can say, I absolutely respect women. I probably treat women better than most people and I certainly respect their intelligence and what they bring to the table and that’s how I run my operation. Most people around me, that are in positions of authority, are women. And they do a great job for me. I try not to create lines and I try to respect every demographic and I color blind, gender blind, and just blind to differences. I treat people like people. What’s important to me is the quality of the person. The character of the person. The work ethic of the person. That wins the day or loses the day, but any other demographics are irrelevant.

Achorn: Is there any issue with relationships or sexual relationships t the State House causing strains that you have to deal with?

Mattiello: Good question, Ed. That’s extraordinarily frustrating. What I’m going to do is put in some type of process and I’m pulling my office entirely out of it. Because the entire issue is being politicized.

Achorn: Yup.

Mattiello: We’re a bunch of people coming together from across the State of Rhode Island in both the House and the Senate. After a good, long day’s work, people sometimes go out, they have a few drinks together – sometimes in groups sometimes in, you know, pairs of two – and, I’ve said this, and I was criticized falsely in my campaign – What people do when they leave the building when no one else is around, when they’re consuming alcohol, when they’re sharing personal things with one another – and I’m not suggesting anything inappropriate but when you become friends and share details of your life with someone else, especially when alcohol is concerned, there is no way that anybody in the State House is responsible for that or can control that.

If I tried they would call me some kind of thug that was trying to act too powerful and interfere in personal lives and that would be accurate. Everybody has a personal life, everybody has a private life. It’s not my place or anyone else’s place to tell someone else how to act like an adult. But they do go out, they do socialize together, they do consume alcohol while they they’re doing that, and sometimes, when you put all those elements together it’s just not good.

We do the best we can, but I certainly can’t control that. It’s beyond me.

Achorn: So you’re going to look outside for a procedure?

Mattiello: We’re going to put forth some type of specific procedure that takes my office right out of it and puts a professional in charge of it and wherever that goes it goes. I don’t want to be part of the process. I want to take politics completely out of it and have a professional in charge of it.

We do have a human resource office that people are supposed to go [to] and file complaints at and nobody utilizes it, but come a week before an election, people are more encouraged to point out things.

Achorn: [laughter]


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