The Woonsocket Democrat, who had made some overtures to Fox during the annual budget fight in June, was ready to join the fold. And the Speaker, it seemed, was eager to consolidate his power.
Brien, who had championed voter ID since joining the House, insists there was no deal struck on the measure that night. "It wasn't your traditional inside baseball type meeting," he said. "It was two friends having dinner together."
But it did lay the groundwork for Brien's return to political relevance. And later, when he was firmly ensconced with the Fox team, Brien made it clear that the bill was a top priority — maybe even the price of his loyalty.
It wasn't a hard sell, necessarily; Fox had spoken in favor of the bill in 2009, when it passed the House only to die in the Senate. And some voter ID supporters say the Speaker might have ushered the measure through the House last year even if Brien had remained on the outs.
But for Brien, the law of Smith Hill was pretty clear. "If I hadn't made peace with Gordon," he says, "there would be no voter ID bill in Rhode Island. It's that simple."
Perhaps. But the steak dinner alliance would face a sharp test in the closing days of the session.
And the uneasy truce between Speaker and advocate was not enough to ensure passage. Far from it.
'I'M SUPER PARANOID'
It was 2006 and A. Ralph Mollis, a Democrat who'd come out of the hurly burly of North Providence politics, was running for secretary of state.
During a campaign stop at gaming company GTECH's West Greenwich campus he came upon Brien, then an employee of the firm, and the pair quickly bonded over voter ID.
After both men won election that fall, Mollis named Brien to an electoral reform commission that toured the state and identified voter ID as a top priority.
Groundwork laid, the secretary of state tapped the politically connected law firm of Adler Pollock & Sheehan to draft legislation. In January 2009, Brien introduced it in the House.
The measure was relatively liberal compared to the bills that would later pass in a series of GOP-controlled states. It phased in the identification requirements over two years. And it allowed anyone without an ID to cast a provisional ballot; if the local elections board determined that the signature on the ballot matched the signature on the voter's registration card, it would count.
By the time the bill was filed, the US Supreme Court had upheld an Indiana voter ID law still considered among the strictest in the nation. Mollis, through his work with the National Association of Secretaries of State, had become friendly with his Indiana counterpart, Republican Todd Rokita. And that spring, he asked the Hoosier to testify in the General Assembly.
Rokita, a commercial-grade pilot, agreed — flying into TF Green, where he was picked up by Deputy Secretary of State for Policy and Planning Paul Caranci and brought before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill passed the House in May. But it went nowhere in the upper chamber, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed seemed cool to the measure; a former House member who ran into her after the legislative session says she voiced dismay at House passage of the bill.