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On the O'Neill Resignation

Yesterday, I taped an episode of Rhode Island PBS's public affairs show "A Lively Experiment" with a sparkling panel that included University of Rhode Island political science professor Maureen Moakley and Rhode Island Public Radio's Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay (particularly good discussion, I think: watch it tonight at 8:30 or on replay this weekend).

One of our topics: the recent resignation of Representative J. Patrick O'Neill (D-Pawtucket) from Speaker of the House Gordon Fox's leadership team. I wasn't able to slip in a comment - too much good stuff from my fellow panelists. But here's what I would have said, in expanded form.

Assuming Fox wins re-election next month, most observers expect him to retire from the House and relinquish the speaker's gavel within a year or two. That makes a major challenge to Fox, no matter how weakened he might be by the 38 Studios debacle, unlikely this winter. The ambitious will probably bide their time.

O'Neill is an ambitious guy. And I think the best read on his decision might be this: resigning now gives him a chance to distance himself from the Fox team, for a couple of years, before taking a run at the speakership (or something close to it).

With his newfound room he could, among others, cultivate the party's left wing.

I'm told that when Fox took the speaker's office, some progressive legislators pushed him to install O'Neill, rather than Representative Nick Mattiello, as majority leader (the number 2 post in the chamber).

Since then, O'Neill has been in the awkward position of standing with a speaker who has pushed back against some of the left's priorities, like Representative Maria Cimini's attempt earlier this year to roll back tax cuts for those making over $250,000. If O'Neill becomes a vocal advocate for that kind of legislation, it could boost his profile with progressives.

But even if he is able to win over the left, it will be a steep climb to the upper echelons of power. Speakers tend to come from the inner circles of power, not from the outside; Fox was majority leader before he ascended to the top. Indeed, most observers expect Majority Leader Mattiello or House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo to succeed Fox when he leaves.

If winning the speakership is a leap, there were other reasons to break with Fox. O'Neill faced an uncomfortably tough primary challenge last month. And as he suggested in his letter of resignation, he got an earful from voters about 38 Studios and other issues - steep cuts for the developmentally disabled and the last-minute merger of the state's K-12 and higher education boards. It's hard to parry those concerns when you're in leadership.

Survival is its own powerful motivator.

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