As House freshmen, Murphy and Fox backed Harwood for speaker, and his victory was followed by major cuts in social programs — a circumstance that legislators will have to at least consider this session because of yet another state revenue shortage.

Unlike the seemingly unchanging nature of the state’s budget problems, though, Murphy has been a different kind of speaker than Harwood: more accessible and less autocratic, with more of a professional life beyond the State House, and without the kind of controversies that brought unflattering publicity to his predecessor.

Reform school
Like apparitions, the portraits of former legislative leaders — many who have fallen prey, sometimes in sensational form, to their own hubris — line the walls of the State House.

Yet Murphy, who speaks haltingly during an interview, suggests he will be able to avoid the self-inflicted pratfalls that have ensnared some of his predecessors. “I’m not the type of person who has a huge ego,” he says, describing the size of his ego as nonetheless “healthy.” “I’m not looking at this position as one in which I’m trying to enhance my power.”

Such disclaimers notwithstanding, Murphy has suggested a self-imposed eight-year term limit for his tenure as speaker. He cites the importance, as with professional athletes, of knowing when to move on.

Unlike Harwood, Murphy has accepted separation of powers, a long-in-coming reform that diminishes the patronage power of legislative leaders since the governor, rather than the speaker and Senate president, will have the authority to choose the makeup of numerous boards and commissions.

The change in leadership also explains why the question for a Harrah’s-Narragansett casino, which would have been built in Murphy’s home community of West Warwick, was placed on the statewide ballot — where it was overwhelmingly rejected — this past November. Harwood, whose law partner represented Lincoln Park, was seen as a staunch casino opponent.

Although some perceived Harwood as the force behind Murphy’s rise to the speakership in January 2003, relations between the two men soured, and Murphy won the post on his own terms when he beat back Representative John DeSimone (D-Providence)’s challenge, on a 45-to-30 vote, in 2005.

In the time since, wayward Democrats have steadily returned to the speaker’s tent, basically recognizing the handwriting on the wall, and Murphy’s power has never been stronger. Of the 72 representatives in attendance for the opening House session, only Rene Menard (D-Lincoln) — who was known as the brains behind DeSimone’s attempt to topple Murphy — cast a “no” vote for Mr. Speaker.

“I think he did a good job at courting them back,” says one longtime Democratic observer. “It was just pure politics — that they realized they weren’t going to win and could be in political Siberia for another two years. It was time to mend fences and come into the fold. It’s really reality — you’re either on the team or not on the team. Being on the team is a lot better, and I think the realize that.”

During the opening day of the House session, Representative Carol Mumford (R-Scituate) offered a poetic ode to Rhode Island politics, saying, “Sometimes it’s a contact sport, sometimes it’s a blood sport, but it’s our sport — and we love it.” But when she then nominated House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich) for speaker, Watson promptly withdrew his name.

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