While Rhode Island Republicans have difficulty recruiting candidates to run for public office – with many seats left uncontested – a contest has shaped up for the chair of the state party with five candidates vying for the slot.
All five turned out Thursday night at the Pilgrim Senior Center to make their pitch to members of the Warwick Republican City Committee. There were seats to spare in the room, but no lack of ideas regarding what the party needs to do in order to play a role in the future of the state.
There was consensus that the party needs restructuring, that it needs money, that it needs to get out a message, that it needs to draw young people to its ranks and recruit candidates for local offices. Where the candidates differ is on what should come first and, to an extent, how it should be done.
“The focus needs to be on getting General Assembly members elected. We need to have a bigger voice,” said Kenneth Mendonça.
A former state representative from Portsmouth who lost in the “blue wave” of the 2018 election, Mendonça said the state party needs a unified message and restructuring.
“Structurally, what we have hasn’t worked. We’re tired of being beat up, and I want to change that,” he said.
Mendonça was thin on specifics, although he cautioned he would be calling on people to work.
“If you want a social club, I’m not the one you want,” he said.
Sue Cienki punched out at the Democrats. The former East Greenwich Town Council president, who also said she was caught in the “progressive blue wave,” pointed to state legislative efforts to take away guns and to give retired teachers cost of living adjustments even though under pension reform they were provided 401(k) accounts.
“There’s less and less money in your wallet with the Democrats in control for the last 80 years,” she said. “The Democrats believe in socialism, we believe in capitalism.”
Cienki would initiate monthly phone calls to party delegates.
“We should get out there and know each other,” she said. She said the party needs to unify and the “infighting has got to stop.”
Like others running for party chair, Cienki said she would work with whoever wins the position at the state convention on March 30.
“Rhode Island is gorgeous, but when you look at the economy it’s a different story,” said candidate Rebecca Schiff. She said she wants the economy to match the state’s natural beauty.
Like former Cranston representative Robert Lancia, Schiff targeted the governor’s $10 billion “tax-and-spend budget” as a symptom of the ills of the state. But to make change, she said, means coming up against a “multi-million-dollar Democratic machine.”
She said raising funds is a primary party function, and as a small business owner she said she has the leadership and professional abilities to do it.
“We need to professionalize this party…we barely have the infrastructure in our party,” she said.
Schiff also said the state party should serve as the liaison from the level of council candidates on up to the national party.
Lancia spoke of the state budget, breaking it down to a per capita cost of $9,042 that he compared to the similarly sized states of Montana, with a budget cost of $6,212 per capita; Maine at $6,181; New Hampshire at $4,368; and Delaware at $4,221.
Lancia sees the key to change as winning legislative seats.
“Unless we get the numbers up, we’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Essential in doing that, he maintains, is getting out the message that there is a contest between socialism and capitalism.
“If you want to reform, we need to inform,” he said.
The youngest of the candidates at 34, Michael Veri – who unsuccessfully ran for Senate District 20 in Woonsocket and Cumberland last year – spoke of his concern for his children and how they couldn’t afford to live in the state when they leave home.
Veri sees the battleground as the local General Assembly races, not the statewide races. He noted that in the last election Republicans fielded 35 candidates for the 113 state seats on the ballot and poured more than $1 million into Alan Fung’s race for governor. He would put the priority on the local races where the party could bring change. He would also make changes in the party structure, reducing the field of 320 delegates and holding committee chairs accountable.
Richard Cascella, chair of the Warwick GOP, opened the meeting by saying the city party would not make an endorsement and Warwick delegates were free to vote as they wished.