PROVIDENCE — While attention has focused on the burgeoning field of Democratic candidates for governor, the Rhode Island Republican Party might also have a gubernatorial primary next year.
David A. Darlington — a North Kingstown Republican who was chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and who served in former Governor Lincoln C. Almond’s administration — said he plans to run for governor in 2022.
“I haven’t formed the committee and filed the paperwork with the state,” he said this week. “But that is imminent.”
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said he is weighing whether to jump into the governor’s race.
“Me and my team are talking about it and looking at the race and figuring out if it’s the right time,” he said this week.
Darlington and Filippi agree that a Republican primary might actually be a good thing.
“I don’t fear a primary,” Darlington said. “A lot of folks on the Republican side don’t want a primary, but my experience is a primary can help in launching someone to better name recognition and making them better prepared for the media spotlight, as opposed to having a free ride.”
Rhode Island has a particularly short period between the primary and general elections, he noted, so a primary can help a candidate prepare for that crucial period.
“I don’t necessarily think primaries are bad,” Filippi said. “If you have a lot of earned media in a news cycle, it can sharpen your skills during a primary, and it can get your base energized.”
On the other hand, if a primary “goes South” and gets really negative, “that doesn’t help anybody,” he said.
Sue Cienki, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Republican Party, said she has “mixed feelings” about the possibility of a Republican primary. While Rhode Island’s primary schedule leaves little time to pivot to the general election, she said, “Sometimes a primary can help candidates with name recognition and fundraising and developing their campaigns.”
In 2022, many unaffiliated voters are likely to cast ballots in the hotly contested Democratic primary for governor, Cienki said. The Democratic field is expected to include Governor Daniel J. McKee, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz.
As a result, a Republican gubernatorial primary could end up being largely limited to the party’s base — to “dedicated hard-core Republicans,” Cienki said. “It will be very different than previous Republican primaries,” she said.
In the past, Cienki noted, candidates such as former Governor Donald L. Carcieri have won Republican primaries although they weren’t the endorsed by the state GOP central committee (which backed James Bennett in the 2002 GOP primary). But if there is a GOP primary in 2022, the endorsed candidate “might have a leg up this time,” she said.
Cienki said that as party chairwoman, she must remain neutral.
But she spoke highly of Filippi, saying, “I think he would be a very attractive, Kennedy-esque candidate. He’s articulate, passionate, and doing it for the right reason. He is not doing it for himself. He has a long history of public service. He has been a fighter for Rhode Island up at the State House.”
Filippi, 41, has been in the House since 2015, representing District 36, which includes all of Block Island and Charlestown, plus parts of Westerly and South Kingstown. He became minority leader in 2018. He is an attorney and organic cattle farmer who graduated from the University of Arizona and received a law degree from Rutgers University.
Cienki said Darlington does not have high name recognition. “He wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “People might remember him if they are long-time residents, as the head of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.”
But, she said, “He certainly has political knowledge, he is a successful businessman, and he indicated he has the ability to self-fund, so he has some attractive qualities.”
Darlington, 59, is the managing partner at Fletcher Granite, a company based in Westford, Mass., that supplies cut granite for skyscrapers, bridges, curbs, and homes. He was chairman of the Turnpike and Bridge Authority board, which he served on from 2001 to 2013. He worked for Almond, who was governor from 1995 to 2003, in roles such as director of constituent affairs and a special assistant. He was born in Cumberland and graduated from Marquette University.
Darlington stepped down from the Turnpike and Bridge Authority in 2014 after having a heart attack while on the air with then-WPRO radio show host Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the former Providence mayor.
“Buddy used to go on and say he tried to kill me on the air,” he recalled with a laugh.
With seven years in the Almond administration, Darlington said has more experience in the governor’s office than any of the current candidates for governor, and he has 40 years of business experience. “So I think it’s a unique set of experiences that will help me navigate the politics and the budget,” he said.
Darlington said he can fund much of his campaign himself. When it comes to campaign cash, “I will not be left behind by anybody, perhaps with the exception of Foulkes,” he said. “But money is only a part of it.”
Darlington distanced himself from former President Donald Trump. “I am not a MAGA candidate,” he said. “Some of the former president’s policies regarding business and taxes are worth looking at and supporting.” But, “when the president is talking about grabbing women by their private parts, there’s not any room for that,” he said, “and I’m not a believer in stolen elections.”
Filippi said he plans to decide on whether to enter the race “ideally in a matter of weeks” and “certainly before the end of the year.”
Filippi said he would be able to run on his record and compete financially in a governor’s race.
“My public record is fighting tooth and nail every day for the people of this state,” he said. “The state has incredible promise, and we have to make the right decisions to realize it. We have to have the vision and the guts to make it happen.”
Filippi recently spoke out against the proposed merger between Lifespan Corporation and Care New England, criticizing McKee for staying relatively quiet on the blockbuster deal.
But while he’s considering running for governor, Filippi said he enjoys his current role as House minority leader. “I think we have a done a great job advancing libertarian principles in the state,” he said.
And a statewide campaign for governor could be “brutal” and “difficult,” Filippi said. “I’m a happy person, a relaxed person. I hike every day. I go out in nature every day. I’m a zenful person.”
In a statewide campaign, attention could focus on the extensive litigation that has pitted Filippi against his mother and one of his brothers over property and businesses on Block Island. When asked about that possibility, he said, “All families are complicated. Mine is no different. My public record speaks for itself.”
The public should stop looking at politicians as “icons of morality to be venerated,” Filippi said. “I’m the first one to admit I’m flawed and imperfect, but no one can question my commitment to the people of this state. And what this state needs is a fighter.”
Filippi maintained that “traditional political labels don’t fly in Rhode Island,” saying, “I’m a Rhode Islander long before I’m a Republican.”
Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, said she is not planning to run for governor in 2022.
“Some people have encouraged me to run for higher office, but I have been very focused on ending the state of emergency for COVID-19 and getting Rhode Island back on track,” she said. “Right now, I am working on being the best senator I can be for my district and for those who feel their senators or representatives are not listening to them.”
De la Cruz spoke at an Oct. 1 State House rally in support of health care workers who refuse to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. While she is “pro-vaccine,” she said at the time, “I am against coercion. Some people have medical reasons or religious reasons. You should have the right to decide for yourself.”
In 2022, the primary election is scheduled for Sept. 13 and the general election is Nov. 8. The declaration period for candidates is June 27-29.