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Murphy’s moment
House Speaker William J. Murphy could be poised for smooth sailing — if he can fend off a leadership challenge

A PAIR OF signed boxing gloves dangle from the handles of an elegant wooden armoire in the third-floor State House office of Speaker William P. Murphy. Although the pugilistic tools — a gift from Vinny Pazienza after the Rhode Island legend notched his fiftieth career victory during his final fight in March — are just one element of the sports memorabilia in the speaker’s inner sanctum, they suggest the path facing Murphy. As he says, recalling the more pacific days when he received the souvenir earlier this year, "We didn’t know at the time that we would need the boxing gloves."

The intrigue started to develop when former speaker John B. Harwood, who ruled the House for almost a decade before yielding the job after a series of controversies in 2002, announced in July that he wanted his old position back. Then in August, there was a defection from Murphy’s leadership when his majority whip, Rene Menard (D-Lincoln), allied himself with Representative John J. DeSimone (D-Providence), who unveiled his own bid for the speakership. Following the challenges, Murphy ordered Harwood and Menard to empty their House offices.

Lingering in the foreground had been Murphy’s assertion (denied by DeSimone) that Harwood, who is nothing if not a very astute political player, was pulling the strings in an attempt to undermine his support. Harwood, however, was dealt a dramatic defeat in primary voting on Tuesday, September 14, knocked out of his longtime Pawtucket House seat by first-time candidate J. Patrick O’Neill, in a favorable development for Murphy.

Meanwhile, Governor Donald L. Carcieri, a popular figure with a flair for political communication, is leading Rhode Island Republicans’ most aggressive drive in a generation to gain legislative seats (see "Mission possible: the GOP targets Smith Hill," News, January 30). Although the GOP is usually relegated to being a bit player in the General Assembly, it could potentially make life more complicated for Murphy. At worst, the perennial minority party could prove a force in the selection of next speaker, as was the case when Harwood came to power in 1993.

With the respective primary losses of three Murphy and DeSimone supporters in the House, Tuesday’s results seem like a wash for the incumbent speaker, likely strengthening his hold on power. After an 18-month tenure, Murphy, 41, can point to some genuine accomplishments as speaker, including making his office more open and accessible, and most notably, following through on a pledge to pass separation of powers legislation — which Harwood had steadily opposed. Even if advocates offer overly optimistic predictions for the impact of implementing separation of powers (which still must be approved by voters in November), the notion of legislators yielding their traditional authority to execute laws through a network of agencies would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.

THE LAST LEGISLATIVE session was nonetheless restive enough to offer an opening to dissidents like DeSimone, 43, who kept a generally low profile during 10 years in the House before mulling a run for speaker in 2002. Among other things, he cites the unconstitutional nature of the casino question prepared by the General Assembly and the sometimes chaotic atmosphere during budget season — at one point, Murphy’s deputy, House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, used strident language in claiming that Democratic rebels were conspiring with Carcieri and House Republicans — in criticizing Murphy’s leadership. DeSimone also faults Murphy for backing a non-competitive casino deal with Harrah’s Entertainment and not communicating enough with rank-and-file legislators.

Murphy, a lawyer from West Warwick who gained election to the House in 1992, dismisses DeSimone’s challenge as typical of what sometimes happens in "the House of Ambition." Of the casino issue, he says, "We did everything under our power to make the best deal possible. Representative DeSimone did not say ‘boo’ about the casino proposal for two years, so again, he’s Johnny Come Lately, and it’s political rhetoric." Citing other accomplishments, including passage of a tougher drunken driving law, and a forthcoming ban on workplace smoking, Murphy acknowledges the floor has at times been "a bit chaotic . . . but much of that chaos has been generated by my Republican brothers on the floor."

In the time before the primary, both Murphy and DeSimone were trying to link each other with Harwood. The former speaker, who became a liability for representatives seeking reelection in 2002, particularly because of unproven allegations that he had sexually harassed legislative worker Wendy Collins (who received a $75,000 state settlement and a freshly created $28,000 job at Rhode Island College in 2002, supposedly for wrongful termination), clearly remained a political hot potato. Murphy called DeSimone "the front for the Harwood minority," adding, "The Democratic caucus voiced its opinion about a month ago — we don’t want to go back to the dark days of John Harwood. This new leadership has been open, we’ve been accessible, and we’re trying to advance in the right direction." DeSimone, who denied that Harwood had influence over his campaign, claims — perhaps with some exaggeration — that Murphy owes his job to Harwood, and he notes that Murphy employs two of the former speaker’s top aides, chief of staff Frank Anzeveno, and legal counsel Dick Kearns.

For his part, Harwood didn’t return a call seeking comment for this story. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to think that the former speaker, who came into office as a reformer and subsequently proceeded to rule the House with autocratic impunity, was seeking vindication. After stepping down from his leadership post in 2003, the Pawtucket Democrat faced more mortal concerns earlier this year when infections following gallbladder surgery forced him to miss the waning months of the legislative session. In June, Harwood told the Providence Journal he suspects the sexual harassment charges were orchestrated by his enemies at the State House, and that he thinks Collins’s claims were discredited when she pleaded no contest to falsely reporting a charge of domestic assault to the police earlier this year.

The ensuing three-way leadership battle made for some strange political bedfellows as the fighting went on for what is commonly called the most powerful job in state government. In addition to DeSimone, Representative David Caprio (D-Narragansett), another early supporter of separation of powers, had been publicly mentioned as a possible ally of Harwood. (In another subtext, Murphy has emerged as a strong supporter for a Narragansett Indian casino in his home community of West Warwick, while Harwood, whose law firm represents the Lincoln Grand dog track, has long been perceived as a casino opponent.)

With the primary over and the November election still ahead, most observers expect Murphy to retain his post as speaker. Beyond lining up the necessary plurality of 38 votes in the 75-member House, the fight to maintain the position also looms as something of a defining moment for Murphy.

Speaking before the primary, H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, recalled being at the State House, pressing for support of legislation to restructure boards and commissions, on the day in July when Harwood unveiled his leadership challenge during an interview on Dan Yorke’s WPRO-AM talk show.

Whether right or wrong, Murphy, when he ascended to the speakership, was widely perceived as Harwood’s choice. Coming out of the speaker’s office, West told Murphy, "This battle is where you come out from under his shadow." Referring to the boxing gloves given to the speaker by Pazienza, West adds, "He’s got to punch his way out of this, and my guess is that he will succeed, but this is a slugfest. If he prevails, I think he will be out from under Harwood’s shadow for good."

Of course, this will be much easier now that Harwood isn’t even in the running.

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Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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