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Gordon Fox Investigation: Embattled Rhode Island Speaker Faces Steep Political Test

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GORDON FOX RHODE ISLAND
Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox holds the gavel in the House Chamber of the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Lawmakers are working to finish their annual session in R.I. The General Assembly plans to adjourn for the year late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning after voting on a flurry of bills. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI, The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — House Speaker Gordon Fox summed up his unlikely rise to become one of the most powerful figures in Rhode Island government this way: "I'm a biracial gay kid that wasn't supposed to be speaker," he said in 2012 at a candidate forum.

Having knocked down many obstacles to get where he is, the 52-year-old Democrat now faces his steepest political test yet. Authorities on Friday raided his Statehouse office and Providence home as part of a joint investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, FBI, IRS and state police. Boxes of evidence were carried off, but officials have not said whom or what they are investigating.

Fox told reporters outside his home Saturday that he would comment "when it's appropriate."

He would not say whether he plans to resign. But even before federal and state authorities finished searching his office Friday, fellow House Democrats, including his top lieutenant, were maneuvering to replace him. Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello stopped short of calling for Fox to step aside but claimed he has enough votes to become speaker.

Fox has represented Rhode Island's capital in the General Assembly for more than 20 years. He came out in 2004, in an unplanned announcement, while addressing a gay marriage rally. He became the nation's first openly gay House speaker when he assumed the post in 2010.

In 2011, after abandoning gay marriage legislation because of opposition in the Senate and pushing instead for civil unions, Fox was roundly criticized by some gay marriage supporters, who felt bitter and let down.

But Fox was instrumental in pushing the legislation through two years later as the political climate on the issue shifted nationally. He became emotional at the bill-signing ceremony on the Statehouse steps 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.

Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, recalled Fox's years as majority leader and said he was respected for his ability to cut to the heart of an issue during floor debates.

"I admire him. He's effective, thoughtful," said Ferri, a gay man and leading advocate for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island who clashed at times with Fox over how to handle the issue. "People would say, 'I didn't know where I was on an issue until he clarified it for me.'"

Fox is one of six children born to an Irish-American father and a Cape Verdean mother. His dad polished jewelry and worked odd jobs; his mom worked as a maid. In a 2011 interview with The Associated Press, he recalled the family moving into a new apartment with a view of the Statehouse and how he marveled at the dome.

His father had stressed the importance of education, but Fox was forced to drop out of Providence College when he died. "I felt defeated," he said in a 2010 commencement speech at Rhode Island College. "I was afraid that history was repeating itself."

Fox worked in a bank, scooped ice cream and sold vacuum cleaners. But he ultimately went back to school, enrolling at RIC — which he said "saved my life" — then attending Northeastern University School of Law on a full scholarship.

Fox in 2012 faced his toughest re-election campaign in years in part because of his support of a $75 million state loan guarantee for former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's video game company, 38 Studios, which later went bankrupt. Earlier this year, he reached a settlement with the state ethics commission for failing to disclose more than $40,000 in legal work for a Providence economic development agency. Fox agreed to pay a $1,500 civil fine.

In addition to gay marriage, Fox has cited as his top legislative achievements passage of the school funding formula, the pension system overhaul, and a bill extending health insurance coverage for mental illness.

Fox can speak passionately about growing up poor and how education is an equalizer. Last year, he gave a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design on the "History of Motown" at which he talked about civil rights, integration and the sequin-clad Supremes.

But Fox is also a consummate politician, known for having a sharp tongue. During a contentious debate at the end of last year's session, he ruled a fellow Democrat out of order after she criticized the process behind a bill. He told her to sit down and "eat your cake," referring to pieces of cake that had been given out in the chamber.

"I feel for Gordon because he's a great guy," his spokesman, Larry Berman, said Friday after at least a dozen law enforcement officials had left their office suite carrying boxes and other materials.

Berman added that whatever the investigation is about, he doesn't think it reflects on Fox's legislative accomplishments.

___

Associated Press writers David Klepper and Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.

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