RI's struggling GOP chooses newcomer Joe Powers over ex-chairman to lead party
WARWICK — With no place to go but up, Rhode Island Republicans placed their bets on a relative newcomer to lead their struggling party into the future: Joe Powers.
They elected Powers, a 52-year-old real estate agent and unsuccessful 2022 candidate for a Cranston Senate seat, over former state GOP Chairman Giovanni Cicione, who last led the party during the Carcieri era and ran on an "experience matters" platform.
With party activists on their feet chanting "Joe, Joe, Joe," the triumphant Powers headed to the stage to take the gavel from his predecessor, Sue Cienki, and reiterate his pledge to usher in a better day for today's GOP, which currently holds no congressional seats or statewide offices and holds only 14 of 113 legislative seats.
He cracked jokes about the reactions he got when he entered the two-man race for party chair — "What the hell are you thinking?" — and what he called his "personal favorite": 'If you are not a religious man, you are going to find Jesus real quick.'"
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More seriously, he said: "Our intention to move forward is to make sure people outside this room know who we are.
"We are going to identify all of the right candidates. ... We are going to make sure they are ready, that they are prepared," Powers told the 170 Republicans gathered in Warwick to elect a slate of party officers.
"In my world of business, everything is about strategy. Everything is about data and everything is about planning. ... And that's the game plan moving forward," he promised, "to show everyone who we are, that we are on the forefront of a real red wave ... that we will ride, that we will control."
Where does Joe Powers stand on key issues?
As to who he is, Powers checks off all the familiar GOP boxes on recurring State House issues.
Abortion: "pro-life." Assault weapons ban: "I believe the Constitution needs to stay intact. I don't think that we should be infringing on people's rights." School choice: "To me that would create competition, don't you think? If people start to decide to go to a certain school district and more and more money is coming in ... I think other school districts will start stepping up to the plate ... [so] I do like the idea."
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Require employers — from public school districts to hospitals — to rehire and provide back pay to employees unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID?
"100%," Powers said.
Two other new faces also elected to top posts
While Powers was elected to a post that Cienki gave up to become the party's Republican National Committeewoman, the 170 so Republicans casting secret ballots on Saturday chose two other new faces over incumbents: Jessica Drew-Day for first vice-chair, and Niyoka Powell for second vice-chair.
Put another way: The party that took a beating at the polls last year now has three new people in its top three party posts.
All three ran for office in 2022. Powers challenged Sen. Frank Lombardi, a Cranston Democat, who beat him 57.6% to 42.2%. Drew-Day ran against Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, and lost 61.1%-38.8%, and Powell ran against Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, and lost 80.9%-18.6%.
"While my opponent brings a fresh face and undeniable energy to the table, what I bring is something concrete that our candidates need: election experience, political skills and firsthand knowledge that will allow our CD-1 Candidate to rack up votes," Cicione said in an email blast to the 200 or so members of the Republican State Central Committee earlier this week.
"We have the great opportunity to fill an open seat in Congress, and, more importantly, to do so in a special election," he said of the opening being created in R.I.'s 1st Congressional District by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline's announced decision to quit in June to head the Rhode Island Foundation.
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The district leans more heavily Democratic than the 2nd Congressional District seat that former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung tried and failed to win last year. (He lost to then-state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.)
Speaking of himself as the "sacrificial lamb" the GOP ran against then-U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy in 1996, Cicione stressed the importance of having "a State GOP team that knows the race, knows the district and already has the necessary national relationships."
But he also apologized for not being able to "reach out to [everyone] personally over the last few weeks. I managed to catch COVID on the way back from my kids' February break and then had the flu tear through my house this week, so it’s been a challenge to do all of the outreach I had hoped."
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Powers sees encouraging signs amid party's disappointments
In his own email to the committee, Powers put the best face possible on election year 2022 when the GOP ended up losing a seat in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and lost what was described by some national pundits as its best shot in years of capturing a congressional seat.
The upside, in Powers' view: Election Year 2022 saw "a record number of candidates running for office under the Republican flag ... a record number of donations into the party, and we collected the most data about the R.I. voters."
"Now is the time to show that ... It Just Makes Sense to be a Republican in Rhode Island!" he wrote.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI's struggling GOP chooses newcomer over former chairman to lead party