Political scientists hoping to study the current divisions of the American electorate should look no further than Johnston.
While Rhode Island Democrats on the local, state and federal level clearly scored big wins during Tuesday’s election, some of the state’s top officials did so without the full support of Johnston’s voters.
As election results started to trickle into the Johnston Democratic Town Committee’s headquarters shortly after the polls closed, the mood quickly became one of excitement and celebration. It was evident from the first results that their local candidates were going to win their respective races.
Graniteville School’s polling station was the first in town to report, which showed that longtime Mayor Joseph Polisena garnered 893 votes compared to his opponent, Independent Brenda Lynn Leone, who collected 336. Every district that then followed showed Polisena winning by large margins. The mayor secured 7,530 votes to Leone’s 2,895, awarding Polisena with his sixth term in office.
The last bit of tension in the room broke when the results from Simmons Village and Pell Manor’s polling stations came in, representing the District 1 Town Council seat currently occupied by Richard DelFino III, who did not seek reelection. That race, between Democrat Linda Folcarelli and Independent Deb Tirocchi Spaur, was the only council seat with more than one candidate running. Folcarelli won the district with a tally of 1,145 to 636.
“All the malcontents in town can crawl back into their holes. It’s over,” shouted Mayor Polisena to the crowd of approximately 100 that had gathered.
While local leaders celebrated their wins, the race for governor and U.S. senator, however, did not go as well for the top Democrats when it came to Johnston. In the contest between Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and Cranston Republican Mayor Alan Fung, Johnston residents chose Fung by a wide margin. He won the town with 5,541 votes, compared to Raimondo’s 4,170, a difference of almost 13 percent. Raimondo went on to win the state by more than 57,000 votes.
In the race for U.S. Senate, Johnston residents favored Republican Robert Flanders over Incumbent Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Flanders narrowly won the town with 5,390 votes to Whitehouse’s 5,308. Whitehouse, however, handily secured another term, beating Flanders statewide by more than 85,000 votes.
Mayor Polisena has served four two-year terms and one four-year term. Following term limit changes he initiated in 2012, which now allows a mayor to serve for two four-year terms, this will be his sixth and last stint in the town’s top office.
“I’m very happy that the people put their faith and trust in me. I knew we’d have a resounding victory,” said the mayor. “I think Johnston is a very well-respected community now. I’m looking forward to my final four years. It’s bittersweet, but I put in term limits because I believe in term limits.”
Polisena added that there may be animosity between himself and his opponent, Leone, from when he beat her cousin, Gregory Acciardo, in the 1992 Rhode Island Senate race.
“She wasn’t very truthful when her interview came out in the Sun Rise; she wasn’t truthful with the public. She lied, she lied in your article, she lied in the Providence Journal article, she had no solutions,” said Polisena. “We felt very comfortable with what we did to get here.”
Citing a $25 million cumulative budget surplus, no tax increases for three years, commercial development, and the resounding support he’s received from leadership throughout the state, Polisena felt his record and message was a winning one. He’s now looking ahead to develop the town further.
“We’re going to continue to work hard and we’re going to continue to work on developing Hartford Avenue; that’s important to me,” said Polisena. “I’m going to continue to ensure that Johnston continues to be a better place to live, work and play.”
Polisena said that in the 12 years since he’s taken office, he’s taken the town’s bond rating from bad to investment grade. He touted his $1.3 billion worth of commercial investment during his tenure, along with infrastructure improvements throughout the town. The mayor also highlighted new rescue apparatus the town has acquired, the remodeling of town facilities, and school improvements, saying, “We’ve done everything we could possibly do, but there’s still more to do.”
“The big thing now is the landfill. We really kind of got stuck with that deal; it was an awful deal,” said Polisena. “I want to make sure I get a good deal for the town not only for the next 15 years, but we need to make sure we’re all set after because that land is all going to be dead up there.”
The mayor added that he wants the town to be compensated so that future generations, who would no longer receive funds through a landfill host agreement, will be covered.
“Hopefully, I can secure Johnston’s future by working on the agreement with the landfill, we’re working on that diligently,” he said.
Polisena said he’s not in office to make friends and understands there are constituents that don’t like him or his approach, but he does what he thinks is best for Johnston residents.
At Brenda Lynn Leone’s campaign headquarters, which was shared with council candidate Deb Spaur and is located across the street from Mancini’s gas station, the mood following the election was somber. However, Leone said she was proud of her efforts and thanked her supporters.
“Everybody said they wanted a change, we gave them a choice, but I guess they didn’t want it. The voters spoke,” said Leone. “It’s what they wanted. I’m going to take time and relax with my family.”
New council ready to work
When the Town Council convenes next year following the inauguration, there will be three new members and a new council president.
Linda Folcarelli thanked the mayor, the Democratic Town Committee, and her supporters for helping her on her “long journey.”
“I’m excited to be able to work with the new Town Council and all elected officials. I promise to work hard to serve the people of District 1,” said Folcarelli.
Her opponent, Spaur, said that although she lost she and her supporters were still celebrating a good campaign and the efforts they put forth.
“The machine did its thing again, and so be it. Until next time,” she said. “Sure, I’ll throw my hat in again. Why not?
David Santilli Jr., who ran unopposed, was happy that the election was over and looked forward to getting things done.
“It’s great to have the support of the constituents of District 2, the support of the mayor, the support of the current council, and we’ll progress as much as we can,” he said. “My biggest goal is to continue to make progress, try to bring business into the town, and make sure the infrastructure of my district is up to par.”
Also running unopposed was Joseph Polisena Jr., son of Mayor Polisena, who said that it “feels great” to be able to serve the town residents of District 3.
“I’m thankful for the volunteers that helped. This can’t be done without their help,” said Polisena.
Some residents have voiced concerns about Polisena Jr. serving while his father is mayor, but both said that their family relationship would not interfere in their work.
“I don’t feel it’s going to be an issue. I’ll monitor the situation closely, and if there are situations in which I need to recuse myself I will,” said Polisena Jr. “But the main thing I’ve been stressing is that this is an elected position, not an appointed position, so if people are dissatisfied by the job that I’m doing, they’ll speak during the next election.”
Mayor Polisena echoed his son’s statements.
“He’s my son, but obviously he has his own mind and we differ on a lot of issues. He’s 28 years old, he’s highly educated, and he’s there for his constituents. It’s an elected position and it’s his constitutional right to run,” said Polisena, who said he encouraged his son to give back to his community. “I don’t see it as an issue. I think he’s going to do an excellent job for the people of District 3.”
Long-serving Councilman Robert Russo remains the senior official on the council. He’s happy to continue in his role of serving the residents of District 4.
“It always feels good, and when you don’t have an opponent it feels better. We can go back in and continue or work of making Johnston a great town for development,” said Russo. “There’s a consensus out there that people are happy with what’s going on locally.”
Russo previously served as president of the council and would consider doing so again.
“I’m going to see. I’m going to check with my colleagues and see what the lay of the land is. But it’s nice sitting as a regular member again and it’s a different perspective,” said Russo. “There’s some young members on there, so maybe my seniority may be helpful in a leadership role, but we’ll have a discussion.”
Also returning for a second term is District 5 Councilman Robert Civetti and wants to continue initiatives started during his last term.
“I think we have a great team and I’m looking forward to having new council members to work with. Hopefully, we can continue to move the town forward, which was my goal in running for office,” he said. “I really think we need to move forward in seeing what we can do for the school department and see about an elementary school campus. It’s not something that we can probably get done within the next two years, but we need to get a good jump on it. Maybe we can be breaking ground within the next two years.”
Having fended off a challenge from Republican Frank Ricci in a reelection bid for his District 25 Senate seat, Senator Frank Lombardo III said he was “humbled and honored” that the residents in town trusted him to serve again and thanked his supporters. Lombardo said the biggest issues he’ll face during the next term would be healthcare and legalization of marijuana.
“Taxing and regulating marijuana will certainly be on the forefront this year up there,” said Lombardo. “I’m in favor of its use for medical purposes, but I’m not sure about its recreational use. I’d like to listen to more testimony on that.”
He said the well-being of the community and it’s people are paramount in making a determination of legalization.
State and federal result reactions
While Fung and Flanders won the town, and Congressman Jim Langevin lost areas of the town such as the Brown Avenue polling station, representatives like Sen. Lombardo recognized that Johnston’s demographics are changing, and the town may be more purple than Democrat blue or Republican red. Others felt the same way.
“Here’s the problem: there’s a lot of working men and women in this town, a lot of union people in this town – schoolteachers, municipal workers, firefighters and police officers – and they’re upset with Governor Raimondo because of the pension issue,” said Polisena. “We still support her 1,000 percent. I like what she’s doing, and I think she’s doing a great job as our governor. She’s had to make some tough decisions.”
Richard DelFino Jr., chairman of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, agreed.
“I think we have to realize that Johnston is a very Italian and Catholic town and has some very conservative values. It’s not as easy of a sell to just say we’re going to accept the Democratic agenda and we’re going to deliver all these Democrats,” he said. “We’re more moderate Democrats, and I think that makes it a little more difficult for us to bring Democrats over the line in terms of a statewide and national Democratic Party agenda.”