The Rhode Island Republican Party chose former East Greenwich Town Council President Sue Cienki as its next chair during an election at the Marriott Omni Hotel in Providence on Saturday.
Cienki was one of four candidates running for departing chairman Brandon Bell’s post, along with Rebecca Schiff, Mike Veri and former Cranston state Rep. Robert Lancia. The election featured a knockout vote, with the lowest total vote-getter being eliminated from the next round.
The party did not choose to recommend any of the candidates prior to Saturday’s election.
With approximately 190 eligible voters in attendance, a candidate needed 96 votes to win outright, according to secretary Will Ricci. Cienki closed the first round with 81 votes, with Schiff just behind at 67. Veri tallied 28 votes, while Lancia was eliminated with 15.
Prior to the second round, Veri took the stage to encourage his voters to align themselves with Cienki in the next round. His total, combined with Cienki’s tally, would have put her well above the threshold.
Shortly before members returned to the polls, Schiff stepped to the podium to effectively withdraw from the race and present Cienki as chair. She stressed the need for party unity moving forward and thanked her supporters, among whom was two-time gubernatorial candidate and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
“There’s been a lot of all sorts of discussions going on throughout this campaign. Some of it has been positive, some of it has not been so positive,” Schiff said. “I’ve tried to keep my campaign positive and upbeat, but I think this is really a time that the Republican Party needs to come together and there needs to be unity.”
She said that rather than keep members inside on a sunny, 60-degree day with more rounds of voting, she was proud to announce Cienki to a standing ovation. Bell conducted a quick motion of affirmation before Cienki issued her first comments as chair.
“My first thought is, ‘Oh, my god, what did I get myself into?’ Brandon is a tough act to follow,” Cienki said. “He was accessible to the press. He kept the Republican Party in the news. I hope to do the same, and increase our numbers over there [in the General Assembly]. I’m going to need each and every one of you to help me.”
The show of unity on Saturday hasn’t worked quickly to sow some of the divisions in the party, though. Barbara Ann Fenton, Fung’s wife and a strong supporter of Schiff’s candidacy for party chair, announced her resignation from the Rhode Island GOP State Central Committee through a tweet on Monday morning.
Fenton shared a screenshot of a resignation message addressed to Cienki, which states, “As a niece of a 9/11 NYFD firefighter, the cousin of a firefighter named on the IAFF memorial in Colorado Springs, the granddaughter of a Fire Chief, the niece of a Deputy Fire Chief, and the cousin of another firefighter on the front lines everyday, I cannot in good conscience remain an active member given your attitude [and] comments toward these everyday heroes.”
Fenton appears to be referencing a complaint that the president of the East Greenwich Firefighters Association filed against Cienki in 2017. The complaint alleged that Cienki engaged in “verbal threats and sexual harassment” against members of the East Greenwich Fire Department during a meeting in June of that year.
Cienki could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Fung offered his full-throated endorsement of Schiff prior to Saturday’s first vote. He said that he was initially skeptical because she “waffled” in her views on President Donald Trump.
He added, though, that conversations with Schiff – during which she said Trump’s record in office has changed her mind – earned his recommendation. He also praised her record as a Second Amendment supporter and her stance against late-term abortions.
Bell said he did not endorse a candidate personally, but he would not vote for Schiff.
“I can’t see how someone who can’t define themselves can define the party, and I had a real problem with that,” Bell said during the first round of voting. “I have no ill will against her, she may never talk to me again for that. I think she knew that’s where I was standing.”
Warwick GOP Chair Rick Cascella said he was “very happy” with Cienki’s selection.
“Sue’s got a lot of energy, she’s got a lot of experience and she’s committed to serving for four years, which is important,” he said. “And I think her willingness to work with the other candidates is something that we’re proud of, and the willingness of the other candidates to work with her goes to show what a great leader she can be.”
Cienki said she enjoyed the campaign, but made an impassioned plea for “message, money and manpower” to help the party make gains at the State House. The GOP only holds nine of the 75 seats in the Rhode Island House of Representatives and only five of 38 in the state Senate.
“I know that I’ve got a committee to help me out, because this is not a one-person job,” she said. “I’m not Superwoman. Sometimes I think I am, but I think I lost my cape in the laundry. I don't know where it is. Thank you very much, and I hope I make you proud.”
Incumbents were re-elected across the board for the GOP’s other posts. Ricci defeated challenger Amanda Bombardier, and second vice chair David Talan overcame opponent Stephanie Calise. First vice chair Gina Catalano was also given another term over Russ Hyrzan. Vote counts for those positions were not announced.
Bell said he likes to think he is leaving the party in better shape than when he took over in 2015, but acknowledged there was some difficulty along the way. He took over after what he called the “fissures” that emerged during the gubernatorial primary contest between Fung and Ken Block in 2014.
He was shown a short video with some of the highlights of his tenure, including media appearances and his appearance at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, to thank him for his time helming the party.
“It was tough, it was very tough,” Bell said. “I sat there with people, tried to get them to the table to talk about how we can have a better state party. And when I realized there were still a lot of fissures, what I did was it got to the point where I just said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do a lot of this on my own.’ I was very vocal, I was very visible, like I said.”