NARRAGANSETT — Matthew Mannix, Narragansett Town Council President, is not seeking re-election to the body in 2020, instead entering the race for Rhode Island Senate District 36 (Narragansett, North Kingstown) as an Independent. Despite the controversy that has plagued the town council in the past term, Mannix said his decision had less to do with the current political climate in town and was instead based on what he thought he could improve at the state level.
"During the pandemic, I saw that the general assembly has been sidelined, and I think it needs to act to reopen the economy," he said. "The second thing, as the town council president, for a stretch from Saint Patrick's Day to mid May, I've been on calls with the Governor's Office and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and I really wanted to keep my ear to the ground. As I was talking to constituents, as I was going on the calls, I realized during coronavirus how over-regulated we are."
"I see how many businesses are trying to do different things to reopen, and I hope we don't lose that creativity that some of them have had," Mannix continued. "In my lifetime, I think this is the most the country and the state seems to be not embracing our capitalistic roots and our free market. We don't have that free enterprise that has really characterized our nation's history, so I think it's really important to essentially restore a spirit of free enterprise in Rhode Island. I've never seen such an acceptance of regulations and not embracing an entrepreneurial spirit."
First elected to the council in 2012, Mannix ran on a platform of keeping taxes low and preserving Narragansett's small-town culture. In the 2014 election, he was the top vote-getter of all council candidates, a finish which essentially led to the town council presidency. Finishing in second place in 2016, Mannix served as president pro tem of the council until 2018, when he finished in third place and was subsequently still voted to lead the council by a majority of his colleagues, a move that drew criticism from the public.
However, by and large, Mannix's most controversial move has been his stance on a $5.8 million project for a new town library which the electorate approved by a wide margin in 2016. The current town council president maintained that the project was too costly for taxpayers and that the path pursued by the previous council to complete the project was ill-conceived. Instead, Mannix favored renovating the current library, which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and local fire code. Accordingly, Mannix, along with the same council majority which elected him president in 2018, have halted the project, resulting in protests at council meetings from library project supporters and multiple lawsuits being filed against the town. The town council, under Mannix's presidency, has also been found in violation of the Open Meetings Act by the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office on matters unrelated to the library.
"That's a fair question," said Mannix when asked if the local debate over the library project had taken away any of his spirit for town governance. "I think what happened with me was in the last three months of coronavirus, as I described, I was seeing things at the state level that were concerning me more and more. My eyes were being opened to those problems."
"I thought actually on the library issue, people would sit down and reflect," he added. "I kind of did. I put forward what I thought was a decent compromise during this budget season but it was greeted with the same vitriol and venom that we get from the angry library mob. I hope a new council can find a new way to compromise on that issue."
When asked if he thought the town had changed since he was first elected, the town council president gave a lengthy reply speaking to the currently shifting political climate and what he believed was still at the core of Narragansett.
"Narragansett is always going to change," he said. "One of the reasons I first ran was that I wanted to protect our small-town values, our neighborliness, that was when I first ran and that's always been my guiding light in terms of the town. I think that core is still there, and I think that's important. We have so many different neighborhoods. The way someone who lives in Galilee enjoys the town is very different from the way someone who lives on the Narrow River enjoys it versus somebody who lives where I grew up [in Bonnet Shores]."
"I think the way its changed politically in the last two years is actually unconscionable, where people can't seem to have a conversation with one another," he continued. "Very few of the library supporters have reached out to me as people did in my first three terms to really get at what is my thought process and what my concerns are. People have disagreed with me on past issues and they sat down with me. They explained their position, I explained mine, and we didn't go to this vitriol and venom, accusations that we were not acting in the best interest of the town because we disagreed. There's arguments for and against many of these issues and you should be able to sit down with somebody on the other side of the fence."
District 36, currently occupied by Democrat James Sheehan, encompasses the north end of Narragansett and parts of North Kingstown. Also running in the race are Democrats Alana DiMario, Ellen S. Waxman and Robert E. Craven, Jr., along with Republican Doreen M. Costa.
Some have theorized that Mannix's entering of the District 36 race allows him to bow out of a town council race he cannot win, given the support the library project has in town. When asked if he had a response to this train of thought, Mannix said running at the state level was something he'd considered for a long time.
"I always say I don't respond to rumors," Mannix laughed. "Sometimes the rumor mill is dead on and sometimes the rumor mill is so far off. [Running for state senate] was something I've been thinking about for some time. People can be political pundits all they want, let them enjoy the rumor mill."
In closing, Mannix acknowledged his constituents.
"I want to thank the voters of Narragansett for having the trust in me to elect me," he said. "I know that support is there and has kind of buoyed me over the years and for that I am very grateful. I'm very happy to serve on the town council."
"I'm going to miss it," he concluded. "This was a hard decision."