A humble start in mount hope
Fox grew up with five siblings in the Mount Hope section of Providence, as part of a family headed by an Irish-American father and a Cape Verdean mother — a pairing, he notes, that was unusual in the Rhode Island of the 1950s. The couple formed when his father, returning to Boston from service in the Korean War, met his mother, a domestic who cleaned houses on Blackstone Boulevard, during a stop in Providence.
Fox’s father died when the future lawmaker was 18 — something, he says, that has left him with a persistent sense of loss. (The legislator’s 85-year-old mother lives with him in part of his East Side home.) Asked how he got interested in politics, Fox initially says he has “no idea, really,” before citing his longtime interest in history and government, and appreciation as a child for the majesty of the State House.
After graduating from Classical High School, Fox studied political science and history at Rhode Island College, and then worked at a Carvel ice cream shop in the University Heights plaza on North Main Street to help pay his way through law school at Northeastern University in Boston. He “didn’t have a clue” when he mounted an unsuccessful city council campaign in the mid-’80s, but gained experience while working on campaigns by former Representative Ray Rickman and Representative-turned-US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy.
As a freshman legislator, Fox — like Murphy — supported Harwood, rather than the more liberal Russell Bramley, during a 1993 battle for speaker. Fox says he backed Harwood since he represented more of a change from the past leadership, but also because of his affiliation with George Caruolo, a mentor, who served as one of Harwood’s majority leaders.
“I think what motivates him a lot is really the issues,” says Tony Marcella, a former Kennedy aide and campaign manager. “He really cares about the issues. Often you get politicians who mainly care about the politics, but he really cares about people.” And while some elected officials know a little about a lot of things, “I would say Gordon is one of the people who knows a lot about a lot of the things are facing our state.”
One longtime observer of state politics, who requested anonymity, says of Fox, “My sense is that he plays the game pretty fairly. I think he’s like a lot of people who get in [politics], in part because they’re ambitious, in part because they want to do some good things, in part because they like the game, and in part because once they’re in it, it can be very lucrative.”
In contrast, however, to the view that lawyers who serve as legislators may get more business since they are seen as influential people, Fox says he doesn’t think his public office has been beneficial to his law practice. In fact, Fox’s legal work has been a source of at least one jam, in part since, unlike Speaker Murphy, a partner in a thriving criminal-defense practice, he has had to work harder to find clients and to earn a living.
In 2004, Fox paid $10,000 to settle an ethics complaint brought against him by Operation Clean Government. The complaint focused on Fox’s participation in a vote to give GTECH an exclusive 20-year state contract (at the time, he was doing work as an independent contractor for a law firm, Ferrucci Russo, hired by the lottery maker).
In its resolution of the case, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission cited 10 mitigating factors, including how Fox “did not know that his business associates . . . had or were likely to secure a business relationship with GTECH prior to the time that legislation involving GTECH came before the House [for the vote in question] . . . although he should have known this was a significant possibility.” As a result of the controversy, Fox, who is now a sole practitioner, ended his business relationship with Ferrucci Russo.
The majority leader, who says the ethics flap taught him to pay closer attention, acknowledges, “there were moments, absolutely,” when he considered resigning — as various political opponents, including Patricia Morgan, the then-chair of the Rhode Island Republican Party, had demanded at the time.
Maureen Moakley, chair of the political science department at the University of Rhode Island, calls the attention devoted to the ethics issue excessive, and she gives Fox good marks. “I think he’s an effective leader as well as an effective representative,” Moakley says. Particularly in contrast to the socially conservative views of Governor Carcieri, Speaker Murphy, and Senate President Joseph Montalbano, “Gordon provides an effective and necessary perspective on issues that affect a large segment of Rhode Islanders.”