Possible showdown looms over chairmanship of RI’s Republican Party

Gun Rights

PROVIDENCE − It’s not exactly the most sought-after job in Rhode Island politics.

But there are now two potential candidates to succeed Sue Cienki as the leader of the beleaguered Rhode Island Republican Party: Realtor Joseph Powers, a 2022 state Senate candidate in Cranston, and lawyer Giovanni Cicione, whose 2007-2011 stint as party chairman during the Carcieri era ended amid infighting over efforts to close the GOP primary.

At roughly half the age he is now, Cicione, 52, was also the “sacrifical lamb” the party ran in 1996 against then-U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy.

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“When I ran that race in 1996 … there was no question that I was a warm body and a sacrificial lamb and that was the role I was there to play,” he said Sunday.

“I’ll never forget [former state GOP Chairman] John Holmes sitting at his desk, telling me … ‘Gio, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose badly. We’re not giving you any money, but you’re going to have a great time if you go [for it].’ He was absolutely right.”

Cicione, just back from vacation, told The Journal he was in the Gulf of Mexico when the news broke last week that U.S. Rep. David Cicilline is resigning Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat on June 1 to take a $650,000 job as head of the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation.

At this point, Cicione said, he is “not ruling anything out,” including a run for state party chair or another run for Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat.

“I think it is a good time for me to be re-engaged,” he said Sunday.

But he said he believes there are “people better qualified than me” to run the congressional race. He mentioned, as one example, former state Rep. John Loughlin, who ran for the seat once before but has been non-committal since Cicilline’s announcement.

There are currently no Republicans in top state office or the congressional delegation, and Republicans occupy only 5 seats in the 38-member state Senate and 9 in the 75-member House. Statewide, Republicans make up 14% of the voter pool, with 110,438 registered voters compared with 296,047 Democrats and 324,577 unaffiliated voters.

The last time Republicans controlled the General Assembly was in 1939-40.

“My sense is that we need to work on the brand,” Cicione said, “and let people know that we’ve got a better solution for a failed education system for Rhode Island, for example.

More than a decade ago, he remembers saying: “There’s kids who are entering kindergarten today who will still be in failing schools when they leave 12th grade … And that’s happened.”

“That’s what motivates me, what makes me angry, that we failed those kids … We knew 12 years ago that we were failing that kid and that kid would graduate from school with a 2% math proficiency rate and we don’t care. We just let it happen.

“That’s disgusting, politically disgusting.”

Cicione said the calls he has gotten since he returned home this weekend are coming from both long-time allies and others who in 2010 “thought I wasn’t conservative enough. I wasn’t radical enough, whatever the issue of the day was.

“I think what’s nice to hear is that people look back to those elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010 … at the results we got in the General Assembly races and it was the best we had done in decades.”

“There’s people that look back … and say, OK, let’s figure out what we were doing back then and see if we can do it again. Our petty political differences don’t matter as much.”

Cicione is a lawyer who co-founded and does work for the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights, which has taken on cases for the Right-to-Work legal Foundation and also, a Johnston couple who believed the shutdown of their restaurant was retribution for hosting a fundraiser for a town councilman’s political opponent.

He also owns a liquor store in Barrington and investment property in Warren. 

Powers announced his intention to seek the state GOP chairmanship on Twitter.

He challenged state Sen. Frank Lombardi in Cranston last year, with Lombardi beating him 58% to 42%.

In an email exchange Sunday night, Powers said he “ventured into politics last year because I was upset with the legislation our senator was pushing and I wanted to give voters a choice at the ballot box. It is no secret that the Democratic Party has veered so far to the left.

“I am running for chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party because I firmly believe we can turn the tide and start electing Republicans up and down the ballot….As chairman, I will focus on improving our data operations, recruiting, training qualified candidates, and challenging Democrats in districts that we believe are winnable.

“We need bold, new leadership to build a strong Republican Party in Rhode Island,” said Powers, who describes himself online as a Realtor and real estate investor. As to where he stands on the political spectrum, he boasted an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association in his Twitter feed.

His campaign lit says: he believes in “the rule of law,” and that “Rhode Islanders have been taxed to the brink” because of wasteful government spending.

His Tweet: “I am excited to announce my candidacy for the Chair of the @RhodeIslandGOP at the upcoming convention in March! I look forward to speaking [to] as many of the Party’s members and work towards gaining their support! #RIGOP#RhodeIsland.”

The state GOP is expected to choose its next chair on March 25.

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