PROVIDENCE -- He raised eyebrows by saying he’d support either Democratic US Representative Tulsi Gabbard or Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.
He received applause after making a “school choice” proposal, calling access to quality education “the civil rights issue of our time.”
And he received criticism for using the word “globalist” -- a term Jewish leaders note has long been used as an anti-Semitic slur.
House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi turned heads during last week’s Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce legislative luncheon, winning both praise and criticism as he rapidly emerges as the new face of the Rhode Island Republican Party.
In the space of one power lunch, hundreds of the state’s movers and shakers saw that the Block Island Republican can both defy traditional political expectations and tick off people across the political spectrum. Supporters call him refreshing. Critics call him disappointing, or worse.
At age 39, Filippi is an attorney and organic cattle farmer whose father owned Providence’s first integrated nightclub and ran Ballard’s Inn on Block Island. He has been leading the nine-member House Republican caucus for just over a year. But this year he has emerged with attention-grabbing moves, and he is starting to be mentioned as a potential 2022 candidate for governor.
Filippi’s most high-profile move came on Jan. 23 when he filed a lawsuit claiming House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello abused his power by ordering an audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority without approval from other legislative leaders, including Filippi. Mattiello ended up calling off the audit, but he blasted Filippi’s lawsuit as a “political stunt.”
Mattiello, a conservative Democrat from Cranston, has coexisted peacefully with many House Republicans. Filippi said, “I have had a good relationship with the speaker for a long time.” But he said he felt he had to file the lawsuit “regardless of our relationship.”
Filippi rejected the accusation of a political stunt, repeating an old law school proverb: “When you have the law on your side, you argue the law. When you have the facts on your side, you argue the facts. When you have neither, you attack your opponent.”
While Mattiello called off the audit, Filippi is pressing ahead with the lawsuit, saying, “The underlying legal question of the chairman’s authority versus the board is front and center."
Mattiello has noted that House Republicans have been calling for a Convention Center audit for years. Filippi said he’d support a JCLS vote for an audit if he was convinced it wasn’t meant as retribution. “We are not obstructionists," he said. “We just want to follow the law.”
A grand jury is investigating whether Mattiello ordered the audit as retaliation because his friend, James Demers, had been suspended from his job overseeing Convention Center security. Mattiello has said the audit and suspension were unrelated.
In any case, that controversy provided the context for Wednesday’s legislative luncheon, which took place in the place at the center of the whole controversy -- the Convention Center.
The event began with Filippi taking a seat on the Convention Center stage, two chairs away from Mattiello.
During the luncheon, he outlined a House Republican proposal that would allow families in “failing schools” to send their children to higher-performing schools in their region of the state. He said families in troubled Providence schools, for example, can’t wait five or 10 years for a state takeover to produce results. The state contains some 19,000 vacant school seats, so students from Providence and elsewhere should be able to move to those schools, he said.
“As Frederick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,’” Filippi said. “Right now, we are letting a generation down, and it’s the civil rights issue of our time.”
The luncheon concluded with Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White asking the legislative leaders who they’re supporting for president in 2020. Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere, a Westerly Republican, gave the expected answer: Trump.
But Trump was not the first candidate that Filippi mentioned. Rather, he said, “Tulsi Gabbard because of her perspective on war and peace. And if not her, Donald Trump, because he is not a globalist.”
“He’s not a what?” White asked.
“A globalist,” Filippi said. “He believes in strong nation-states.”
That response did not sit well with people at both ends of the political spectrum.
Filippi’s predecessor as House minority leader, former Representative Patricia L. Morgan, said, “It’s troubling to me -- very troubling. He is a Republican leader, and that choice tells me he is not really conservative.” She noted Gabbard endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election.
Morgan gave Filippi credit for bringing good ideas to the table. “He is smart. Obviously, he is good looking,” she said. “So I think he has a future. I just hope it’s a conservative future.” She noted Filippi first won his House seat in 2014 while running as an independent.
“He is a Republican leader -- not an independent leader,” Morgan said. “The Independent Man is on top of the State House, and he turned to stone a long time ago.”
In an interview, Filippi said, “I obviously do support Trump.” But he said Gabbard is the only candidate talking about the president’s primary role in matters of war and peace. “When you look at her foreign policies, she mimics those of our founders, and that was peace and trade with all, entangling alliances with none,” he said.
As for running as an independent, Filippi said he was in the GOP until 2012 when he went to the Republican National Convention as part of the Ron Paul delegation. “They treated Ron Paul and the youth in the delegation so awfully that I said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with that,’” he recalled. “So I withdrew from the party and ran as an independent.”
He’s once again a Republican. He describes himself as “libertarian leaning.” And he noted the House Republican caucus unanimously chose him to be the GOP leader.
Morgan and Filippi also clashed over the “Order of Merit” award that Morgan and others received for “undying commitment, patriotic loyalty and dedication of service to President Donald J. Trump, the Republican Party and the United States of America.”
Filippi called the awards “disturbing,” saying, “In this country we don’t pledge our ‘undying commitment’ to individuals or political parties. We pledge it to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
He said the rule of law motivated him both to file the lawsuit over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services and to question the “Order of Merit” award.
Filippi’s comments at last week’s luncheon also drew criticism for Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat.
“Globalist” is a term embraced by the “alt-right to spread hate of Jews,” she tweeted. "We can disagree on policy (after all, that’s why we are elected), but I will not turn a blind eye to dog whistle antisemitism by R.I. GOP leaders.”
Filippi called Goldin’s comments “outrageous,” saying, “She would do well to remember that false accusations of racism can be just as evil as racism itself. If Senator Goldin has a better word for the philosophy of sovereign nations not giving up sovereignty to international organizations through trade agreements, etc., I’m all ears.”
Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, said the the term “globalist” has a long history as an anti-Semitic slur suggesting that Jewish people have dual loyalties between Israel and America, for example. He said he trusts Filippi was not using the term with that intention, but he said it’s important to educate people about the history of such terms.
Despite the controversies, Filippi appears to have the support of the small band of House Republicans.
House Minority Whip Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, dismissed Morgan’s criticism, noting Filippi served as GOP whip when she led the caucus. He called Filippi’s leadership “refreshing” because it involves action and not just talk.
“I think that Representative Filippi’s voting record and the legislation he has put in firmly plant him as a conservative -- with a libertarian bent but a conservative nonetheless,” Chippendale said. “Rather than listening to political has-beens, we should look at people’s record to determine where people’s political philosophies lie.”
Former House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, said Filippi has not tried to pick partisan fights. “Neither of us is a bomb thrower,” he said. “Being a bomb thrower doesn’t accomplish much in politics.” But House Republicans felt they had no choice but to file the lawsuit against over the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, he said.
“He’s a very smart, very politically principled guy,” Newberry said. “He has a bright political future if he wants one.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org