PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rep. Gordon Fox on Thursday became the first openly gay lawmaker elected to lead the Rhode Island House of Representatives, arguably the state's most powerful political post.
The former House majority leader received 51 out of 75 votes, enabling him to succeed House Speaker William Murphy of West Warwick. Murphy gave up his leadership post but says he will continue to represent his district until the General Assembly formally ends its session early next year.
Fox, 48, an attorney, faces a dismal economy that has pushed unemployment to nearly 13 percent and opened massive state budget deficits. So far, lawmakers have done little to address any of those problems.
"It is imperative that we take all the necessary steps to come out of this national recession in a stronger position than which we entered," Fox said. "That must include a very aggressive job creation agenda that emphasizes a better-trained, better-educated and more-qualified work force."
Besides being the first openly gay lawmaker to preside at the speaker's rostrum, members of the House minority caucus say Fox, one of six children born to an Irish-American father and a mother of Cape Verdean descent, is also the first minority lawmaker to hold the top post.
He faced token opposition from Rep. Robert Watson, the Republican minority leader, and a more serious challenge from Democrat Rep. Gregory Schadone. Schadone's supporters accused Fox and Murphy of ignoring the state's financial crisis and calling a two-day special session in October where lawmakers faced hundreds of votes.
Murphy, who originally planned to leave in January, stepped down as soon as Fox secured the necessary votes.
"The speakership is not about those in change anointing successors to preserve the status quo," said Democratic Rep. Robert Jacquard, who urged his colleagues to vote for Schadone.
Given his background, Fox could have been a stranger to power. Early on, he realized his multiracial background made him different.
"There were moments ... (when kids were asking), 'What are you, white or black?'" he said in a past interview.
In 2004, he surprised colleagues when, caught up in the excitement of a cheering crowd, Fox unexpectedly revealed he was gay during a rally supporting gay marriage. His partner, Marcus Lafond, attended his swearing-in Thursday.
Rhode Island is the only New England state besides Maine that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Every gay marriage bill has died without getting a vote since the first was introduced in 1997.
The political climate may be shifting. Three of the four candidates for governor -- -- Attorney General Patrick Lynch and General Treasurer Frank Caprio, both Democrats, and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, an independent -- say they would sign a gay marriage bill if elected. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed opposes gay marriage but has said she would consider civil unions.
Fox never used his leadership position to force a vote on the issue while serving under Murphy, who opposes gay marriage.
"It's very exciting to see an openly gay person get into such a powerful and high-up position in the state," said Susan Heroux, a founding member of Queer Action Rhode Island, which lobbies for gay rights.
Fox will preside over a veto-proof Democratic majority and has wide sway over which bills get votes and which die. Given their dominance, House Democrats can effectively rewrite budget plans submitted by Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.
He called for creating a formula to determine how much state aid local school districts will get and examining tax credits for small businesses that hire workers.
Fox was first elected to the House in 1992 to represent a liberal district in Providence. A supporter of former House Speaker John Harwood, Fox was appointed as a freshman to the House Finance Committee, giving him a crash course on the legislative power of the purse.
"He understood very early on the politics of being on the right side," said former Rep. Antonio Pires, who chaired the committee when Fox joined. "I remember saying to myself, 'This young man is going places.'"
He was elected House majority leader in 2003, a post he held until Thursday.
His record is not without blemish. In 2004, Fox settled an ethics complaint by agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine for voting on a no-bid, $770 million deal for GTECH Holding Corp., which was a client of his law firm. Fox said he did not realize his firm represented GTECH at the time.
During his speech, Fox called on the General Assembly to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that held lawmakers can't be prosecuted by the Ethics Commission for their votes or other legislative acts.