A chaotic campaign helped save Rhode Island’s House speaker in 2016. Now it threatens to end his political career

“I used to joke with people, ‘Are you sure you want to be seen with me? Because the speaker could be watching.’” Frias recalled in an interview last week.

Turns out, even that was true.

Last week’s criminal trial of former Mattiello campaign consultant Jeffrey T. Britt was meant to determine whether Britt laundered $1,000 to help pay for a postcard mailer designed to boost Mattiello during that 2016 campaign. But it also offered a rare glimpse into the win-at-all-costs culture of politics, as witness after witness detailed the strategies employed to help defeat Frias.

Those tactics included surveillance conducted on Frias by a semi-retired private investigator who was seeking a state job, a mail-ballot operation run by a veteran operative who had previous tours of political duty with some of the state’s most corrupt politicians, and the mailer that Britt orchestrated to try to convince a handful of Republicans to back the Democrat in the race.

In the end, Mattiello won the race by 85 votes, a razor-thin margin where almost any maneuver could have tipped the scales in the speaker’s favor.

Now, with early voting scheduled to begin Wednesday, Mattiello’s back is against the wall again as he faces a serious challenge from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the Republican wife of Cranston’s popular mayor, who is eager to capitalize on the seedy details that came out during last week’s trial.

But Mattiello, who was never charged, testified that he knew nothing about the controversial mailer until it hit mailboxes in his district, and a key campaign aide described the mailer as “Jeff Britt’s project.”

The judge has said he won’t issue a ruling for five to seven weeks. So that means voters will render their decision first, in the Nov. 3 general election.

“I think it clearly crossed a line,” Providence College political science professor Adam Myers said of Mattiello’s campaign operation in 2016. “But the question is whether the public’s opinion of Rhode Island politics is already so jaded that coverage of the trial won’t change any minds.”

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If it’s possible for the most powerful politician in the state to be an underdog in his own backyard, hindsight suggests that’s where Mattiello – the man whose rock-solid support within the Rhode Island House of Representatives gives him almost dictatorial power over any piece of legislation – was sitting four years ago.

House District 15 includes fewer than 11,000 registered voters, the majority of whom are unaffiliated but are considered far more conservative than residents of the rest of Cranston and almost every other city in the state. Mattiello frequently draws criticism from more liberal members of his party, but his political values – pro-business, pro-life, pro-National Rifle Association – are largely in line with the voters who have sent him back to the State House every two years since 2007.

But in 2016, simply being a conservative Democrat wasn’t going to be enough to guarantee Mattiello a victory. Cranston’s Republican Mayor, Allan W. Fung,

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