I attended Operation Clean Government’s candidate school Saturday at Rhode Island College and found, as I have in the past, a dedicated group of people looking to help those thinking of entering public service. John Hazen White of Taco Manufacturing, whose “Lookout RI” column appears in these pages, is the primary sponsor of the daylong school that addressed a series of topics from what it takes to run and win, getting out your message and marketing and media to a primer on municipal and school committee finances, fundraising and the pros and cons to negative campaigning.
Organizers include OCG president Margaret Kane and committee members Sandy Riojas, Frank Lennon, Professor Thomas Schmeling, Bill Sheridan, Dave Layman and Robert Saturri.
No, I wasn’t there as a student, but rather as a member of the panel on the importance of local media along with Sheila Mullowney, editor of the Newport Daily News, and Tom Ward, publisher of Valley Breeze publications.
Unfortunately, I arrived too late to catch former Congressman Bob Weygand, who was the luncheon speaker, but I did get to hear Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, 28, describe his first run for office and his naïveté of the process. He had little idea of what would be required to win, and from his description what he would face should he win a seat on the council, which he did. But it is apparent what he lacked in experience he more than made up for in his passion and commitment. A friend, Joshua Giraldo, who became his campaign manager and kept him on task, gave insights on how they did it on a shoestring budget.
Their stories, and those of others in attendance, struck familiar chords. There’s no substitute for door-to-door and face-to-face campaigning and stretching resources as best you can.
Al Gemma comes to mind as the ultimate recycler. Over the scores of campaigns he ran, whether as an independent or Democratic, whether for council, state representative or mayor, the same signs would appear with appropriate modification.
I didn’t see Al at the school, although he would have been a good panelist. There is none other, at least locally from my recollection, who campaign after campaign was ready to throw his hat into the ring and then bounce back no matter how humiliating the defeat. His persistence paid off. He served on both the council and the state House of Representatives.
I should have mentioned Al in my remarks, for certainly he understood how to use local media – that being the Warwick Beacon and the Providence Journal. Al followed the issues – sometimes creating them himself – and he was never lost for an opinion. He dove right in, calling the papers, letting them know where he stood, which was usually controversial by nature. Of course, that made for news and he would get the ink.
Today the outlets are so much more plentiful and immediate. Newspaper coverage and letters to the editor have a place, but so too do the online version of the story the comments they generate and what gets picked up by social media. Two of those who frequently comment on the Beacon website, Rob Cote and Mike Zarum, were in the audience and were among the five who raised their hands when I asked who was thinking of running for public office in Warwick.
In one respect, you could view the Internet traffic no differently than West Shore Road traffic, as Joe McGair did when he first ran for the state Senate years ago. Joe wanted to gain as much visibility as he could, recognizing that lawn signs only can do so much and that interacting in person is by far better. Joe and his wife Jane walked West Shore Road (he wore his McGair Senate sweatshirt so there was no mistaking who he was) early in the morning and in the evening when the commuter traffic was heaviest. Naturally, there was a lot more to his campaign message, but he got the word out and he won handily. Many voters probably had little idea what Joe stood for, but they could recognize him and they could deduct that his spouse was right behind him, which can’t be said of all the candidates.
I told a few Joe McGair campaign stories, and all three of us on the panel stressed the importance of candidates getting to know the editors and reporters of their local newspapers and provide them with their biography, photo and outline of key positions.
But I didn’t have the heart of repeating Camille Vella-Wilkinson’s experience. The Ward 3 councilwoman was talking recently with a woman who complained that local elected officials weren’t tuned into their communities. Camille asked where the woman lived, and when she provided the address Camille said she is her councilwoman. The woman was flustered. She was embarrassed. To recover, the woman praised the mayor and said she would be voting for him.
“Joe Walsh can always count on my vote,” she told Camille. Wisely, Camille left it there.
This being the season for candidates to announce and the time once again for OCG to run its candidate school, I tip my hat to those planning to take on the challenge of running for office, whether they are newcomers or incumbents. Their engagement in the issues makes for a stronger community even though, as Camille discovered, constituents may have hardly a clue as to who they are.