By JOHN HOWELL When Frank Picozzi started his drive during the pandemic shutdown to bring a bit of good cheer to Warwick residents, he never imagined his journey could lead him to the corner office in Warwick City Hall. On Tuesday, Picozzi captured
When Frank Picozzi started his drive during the pandemic shutdown to bring a bit of good cheer to Warwick residents, he never imagined his journey could lead him to the corner office in Warwick City Hall.
On Tuesday, Picozzi captured almost 60 percent of the vote to become the city’s second independent candidate for mayor to win election. The first was Joe Mills, who after winning as a Democrat ran for reelection as an independent in the 1960s. Incumbent Mayor Joseph J. Solomon, looking to win a second term, garnered 17,524 votes, or 40 percent, in what was the heaviest voter turnout in recent times.
The highly contentious race for president and efforts to ensure residents weren’t denied their right to vote and remained safe from the coronavirus appears to have fueled the unusually high voter turnout.
As of Monday, 10,703 Warwick voters had cast early ballots, with an additional 14,029 casting mail ballots for a total of 24,732, or nearly 50 percent of the city’s registered voters.
Even with such a turnout, long lines extended outside most Warwick polls when they opened at 7 a.m.
“They were stretched out across the parking lot,” reported Sen. Michael McCaffrey, who was among the early birds at the William Shields Post in Conimicut. McCaffrey, who handily won in a contest with Republican Jean Trafford with 65.2 percent of the vote, said the line moved quickly once the door was open.
Picozzi was among those early voters.
Picozzi, who has widespread recognition and a Facebook following of more than 6,000 on his digital Christmas light show page, wasn’t thinking of running for mayor early this spring. With the shutdown, Picozzi’s Facebook friends suggested he put on his Christmas display to brighten the dark times.
Picozzi figured that could draw a crowd, which was contrary to what the governor was trying to do, so he took his show to the people. An independent contractor, he built a show on his truck and set out to drive every street in the city, all 2,000 of them. It took him 34 days, but as he did it, “Frank for Mayor” signs started appearing and he was getting calls to run for the office.
At first Picozzi dismissed the idea, but events and what he viewed as widespread discontent changed his thinking. As a former member of the School Committee and its chairman, he was especially struck by the condition of Warwick schools and how the system’s reputation has suffered. He also has close ties to municipal workers as his brothers David, who was chief of staff for Mayor Scott Avedisian and director of the Department of Public Works, and Ken, who worked for the DPW, both worked for the city. Picozzi knew of faltering morale among city workers, especially following Mayor Solomon’s budget cuts that eliminated 40 municipal jobs.
As he made clear when he announced, Picozzi was running as an independent and would not seek or accept union, party or organization endorsements.
Picozzi’s campaign has been largely built around bringing transparency to the office, listening to constituents and pulling together teams to address the issues.
Solomon offered voters the tried and tested path. Apart from a visionary and questionably achievable plan to transform the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex into a state-of-the-art sports facility, Solomon stuck to his record of no tax increases and how the city has been capable of providing services during this pandemic. He positioned himself as the best candidate to cope with the financial challenges the city will face and the one with the seasoned experience to do the job.
Early in October, the candidates appeared in an hour-long live streamed debate sponsored by the Warwick Beacon and hosted by the Warwick Library. The candidates also made appearances on Channel 12 and Channel 10. The Beacon debate alone garnered 9,200 views and more than 1,000 comments.
The pandemic ruled out traditional fundraising events built on gatherings where the candidates could fire up supporters and rake in contributions. Door-to-door campaigning also became impractical, but the signs were immune to the virus. Picozzi and Solomon signs sprouted throughout the city, a signal that this was going to be a contest.
Solomon spent $365,364.88 as of his Oct. 26 report. Picozzi spent $26,579 as of the same date. Of the total, Picozzi spent about $11,000 on signs. Solomon’s major single expenditure was $31,105 to Blue Wave Consulting LLC. His campaign report shows him spending $5,600 on lawn signs.
Solomon leaned heavily on direct mailers, whereas Picozzi did a single mailer to registered voters. Picozzi worked social media through his campaign Facebook page and the sharing of posts from the Positive Warwick page and other outlets.
Analyzing the returns on Wednesday, Picozzi observed that Solomon outpolled him on mail ballots. He concluded that many of these voters are older and weren’t following him on social media, which is a medium he plans on using once in office. In an effort to enhance transparency and answer constituent questions, he said Wednesday he plans to conduct live FaceTime sessions.
“They would be weekly state of the city addresses,” he said.
Reflecting on the campaign, Picozzi observed he didn’t have the money to send out multiple fliers, as did Solomon. His one mailing was in mid-October before early voting started but after mail ballot applications were sent out.
“I had one bullet,” he said.
Picozzi discovered soon enough what it is like to have been the underdog and a winner.
News crews showed up at his headquarters within two hours of the polls closing election night and were texting him for interviews by 5:30 the following morning. With barely two hours of sleep, Picozzi set out Wednesday morning to complete his digital Christmas show display for its customary opening on Black Friday.
He said people are looking forward to the show and no matter what he wasn’t going to let them down.
He didn’t get far before the news crews had tracked him down again. His telephone was exploring with congratulatory messages and his Facebook was deluged with comments that he plans to answer.
Picozzi said he is in the process to putting together a transition team, but was not prepared to release any names at this point. He also said he has talked with several City Council members and made it clear he would not be using the power of the mayor’s office to reward members with work they are looking to have done for their constituents.
“Let’s work together,” he said. He said the politics of handing out jobs is gone and he will be judging those working for the city on the basis of their performance.
Top on his agenda is “getting rid of that damned old annex [behind City Hall]” as well as long closed school buildings that he would like to see sold and used for new purposes.