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Speaker Murphy revels in his moment

As the votes mounted Tuesday, January 4 for House Speaker William P. Murphy, a supporter at the back of the House chamber used his cell phone to signal Murphy’s wife that it was time to arrive. A few minutes later, with a decisive 45-30 victory over Representative John DeSimone (D-Providence) in hand, a cinematic scene unfolded. With Murphy’s backers erupting in a sustained standing ovation, he joined his family at the back of the hall, kissing his wife, Stacey, and slapping five with their two young sons. As a string of photographers’ flashbulbs popped, Murphy marched back to the rostrum where he has led the House for the last two years, no doubt savoring a victory that could seal his tenure well into the future.

Although Murphy was perceived since last fall as the favorite in the speaker’s race, DeSimone rallied a not insignificant amount of support from House Republicans and dissident Democrats. By triumphing, Murphy has maintained the speakership on his own terms, eclipsing the view of some that his ascent in 2003 was mostly due to the backing of his powerful predecessor, John B. Harwood.

Last summer, Harwood expressed his interest in regaining the speaker’s post. By the time when DeSimone unveiled his challenge a few months later, Murphy put forth the view — denied by DeSimone — that Harwood was behind it. The influence of Harwood, who gained the leadership post as a reformer in the early ’90s and proceeded to subsequently rule as an autocrat, was abruptly undermined when newcomer J. Patrick O’Neill of Pawtucket defeated him in last September’s Democratic primary. (O’Neill and Grace Diaz of Providence, a Dominican native who is said to have come to the US with $40 and two dresses 14 years ago, were among the 13 House freshman receiving a warm welcome on Tuesday.)

Amid the timeless ceremonies and institutional chumminess of the House’s opening session, Murphy pledged to extend an olive branch to all representatives, "the 44 who voted for me, and those who did not." He said the time for bickering was over, and described the need to do the people’s business, including the creation of a more equitable funding formula for schools in Rhode Island.

Observers could only wonder, of course, about what possible form of retribution there might be for the speaker’s political opponents, including Governor Donald L. Carcieri, who backed DeSimone’s challenge. (Interestingly, the Providence Journal, often a fierce institutional critic of the General Assembly, supported Murphy, not just with a ringing endorsement on Sunday, January 2 — after editorial columnist Ed Achorn previously tabbed DeSimone as the lesser of two "skunks" — but an earlier profile that raised questions about DeSimone’s claim to the mantle of reform.)

As with any fresh legislative session, the General Assembly promises to offer its own signature mix of intrigue and unexpected news. Yet after previously climbing to what many consider the pinnacle of political power in Rhode Island, Murphy will likely long remember the day he officially solidified his grasp on the speakership.

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