KINGSTON, R.I. — At election time, the Rhode Island GOP can seem like the political party with two left feet. This year, it may be shooting itself in each of them.
Rhode Island Republicans hold no congressional seats and are generally confined to a small caucus in the state Legislature. Yet like its counterpart in Massachusetts, the party has had success in governors’ races in this blue state, winning seven of the past 11 elections.
This year, facing a not especially popular Democratic incumbent, Governor Gina Raimondo, Republicans should, in theory, be in strong position to compete behind nominee Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston.
But in a state known for its wacky brand of politics, where Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, the late Providence mayor, once famously conked a man with a fireplace log, theory doesn’t always translate into reality.
This year’s freewheeling six-way race for governor has turned into what locals might refer to as “a full Rhode Island” — with one candidate charged with possessing 48 pounds of pot, and another fending off revelations of a 43-year-old alleged assault with a caulking gun against a future speaker of the state House of Representatives.
The race could swing on a bitter divide in the GOP, embodied by the independent candidacy of longtime Republican state representative Joe Trillo, who threatens to split the anti-Raimondo vote, potentially putting the incumbent on a glide path to reelection.
“It’s frustrating, to say the least,” admitted Brandon Bell, the state’s Republican Party chairman. Bell let out a long, exasperated sigh, then grasped for ways to describe Trillo, an honorary chairman of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, who is polling at 5 percent in one recent poll and 17 percent in another. “I don’t know what the word is. Clown, maybe?”
Trillo, in response, said, “Brandon Bell is nothing more than a weak leader who wants to blame everybody else for what’s wrong.”
Four years ago, Fung lost the governor’s race to Raimondo, 41 percent to 36 percent. An unconventional third-party candidate, Robert Healey, earned 21 percent of the vote.
Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller predicted that, “If Joe Trillo gets above 6 percent” this November, “which was a bit more than the margin by which Raimondo beat Fung in 2014, [then Raimondo] wins.”
Trillo has made a lot of news recently for a guy running third in the polls. In another sign of the GOP split, he picked up the endorsement of Republican state Representative Patricia Morgan, who lost to Fung in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Then earlier this month news came out that Trillo was charged in 1975 with hitting a 12-year-old neighborhood kid with a caulking gun.
That kid was Nicholas Mattiello — who is now the 55-year-old sitting speaker of the House.
“Only in Rhode Island,” Trillo said of the uncanny coincidence.
Trillo said he was once neighbors with the Mattiello family in Cranston. In the summer of 1975, according to police reports, Trillo — in his 30s at the time — was outside working on windows at his house when he confronted some neighborhood kids, whom Trillo claimed were using profane language.
“There seems to be no question that Mr. Trillo did actually strike young [Mattiello] with a tube of caulking compound,” Cranston police wrote in 1975.
Trillo has claimed he struck Mattiello accidentally while trying to disperse the kids, who he said were being unruly. As an Italian-American, Trillo told the Globe, he talks with his hands when he gets excited. Trillo said he couldn’t remember how the case against him was resolved, but court documents show that Trillo was found not guilty.
Trillo then spilled another incident about himself, before his political opponents could leak it. He admitted he had “a kick up” about 10 years ago with a fellow Republican representative, Larry Ehrhardt. Trillo claimed Ehrhardt tried to poke him in the eyes “like the Three Stooges” and in response, “I slapped him a few times.”
Ehrhardt confirmed most of Trillo’s story, with one exception: He never poked Trillo’s eyes.
“When he got angry and up close to me, I could not resist the urge to reach out and tweak his nose,” he said.
The fight, Ehrhardt recalls, was over legislation regulating the inspection of boat toilets.
“It was a tempest in a toilet bowl,” he said.
Ehrhardt said there is “no question” that Trillo’s candidacy makes Raimondo more likely to be reelected. The Rhode Island GOP has shown it can win important races when it has a compelling candidate or issue, he said, “but having a third candidate on the ballot has been the kiss of death every time.”
In a debate Oct. 15 at the University of Rhode Island, Trillo tried to turn his past clashes to his advantage. Asked about his temperament, he launched into a fiery argument that the state needed a hard charger to take on special interests, cut taxes, and reduce waste.
Trillo, 75, stocky with gray and ginger hair, cut a Trumpian figure at the debate in a dark suit and red power tie, with forward-leaning aggressiveness and a bit of hyperbole. He pledged to clean up government “like it’s never been cleaned up before!”
He has denied he is a spoiler in the race and insists he has a path to victory as Fung and Raimondo beat each other up.
At the debate, Raimondo defended Trillo’s right to run, and then quickly pivoted to her record, touting her administration’s investments in roads, bridges, schools, and job training.
“Look at the facts,” she said. “We have the lowest unemployment rate that we’ve had in almost 20 years.”
The Harvard graduate and former venture capital manager is the first female governor of Rhode Island. She has also served as state treasurer.
A recent University of New Hampshire poll of likely voters placed Raimondo at 48 percent, well ahead of Fung at 34 percent. Trillo had 5 percent.
A second recent poll of registered voters, by John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, had Raimondo at 40 percent, Fung at 32, and Trillo, 17.
Even as a Democrat overseeing a recovering economy, Raimondo has not shined in Morning Consult’s quarterly Governor Approval Rankings, which list governors by popularity. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is a fixture at the top, with approval numbers around 70 percent over the past year, while Raimondo has seen ratings in the low- to mid-40s.
Maureen Moakley, a University of Rhode Island political scientist, said Raimondo’s numbers may suffer because of resentment by teachers and other retired state workers over pension reforms she championed that suspended cost-of-living increases.
Gender may be another factor, she said. “While women are doing well in congressional races . . . in the top race[s], there is still some reluctance to support a woman.”
Fung spent much of the debate attacking Raimondo’s job performance. He promised to cut taxes, fees, and red tape and make Rhode Island more business-friendly. The governor, he said, “has lost her way.”
The race also includes William H. Gilbert, of the Moderate Party; independent Luis-Daniel Munoz; and Anne Armstrong, of the Compassion Party, a procannabis candidate who was arrested earlier this month on drug charges.
Armstrong said running for governor “is a great bully pulpit” to deliver a message, and it’s easy enough to get on the ballot: just file a declaration and collect 1,000 valid signatures. She insisted that despite her arrest, she is still in the race. “Technically,” she said, “I’m out on bail.”