The Mayor Vs. The Governor

Can Johnston residents possibly win?

Posted 10/12/23

When the mayor fights the governor, who wins? Probably not Johnston’s taxpayers.

Hostilities have been building between the Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., who has been in office …

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The Mayor Vs. The Governor

Can Johnston residents possibly win?



When the mayor fights the governor, who wins? Probably not Johnston’s taxpayers.

Hostilities have been building between Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., who has been in office for fewer than 10 months, and Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee.

When Polisena’s father was mayor, McKee made frequent trips to Johnston for ribbon cuttings and major announcements. Joseph M. Polisena Sr. sat next to McKee in the Johnston High auditorium as the plans for the giant Amazon on the hill were first revealed to the public.

They were buddies for years since McKee himself was a small-town mayor.

But suddenly, the relationship crumbled in public, around the same time Polisena Jr., an attorney, left his job at the State House (inside sources tell different, competing tales of the new mayor’s severance from the job; Polisena Jr. says on the record that he left the post to focus on his private law practice, and eventual run for mayor to succeed his father). The Johnston Sun Rise has requested documentation on the mayor's State House exit but has not received a response from the governor's office.

Last month, Polisena Jr. refused to sign on to McKee’s Learn365 plan, arguing that the government spending program could lock the town into unforeseen expenses down the road. According to the governor’s office, Johnston tops a short list of just four Ocean State municipalities — which also includes Exeter, West Greenwich and Tiverton — who have not signed the pledge.

Critics of the move argue Polisena Jr. left millions on the table that could have served Johnston’s students. The Johnston Republican Town Committee wrote a letter of support for the Democratic mayor’s decision. (Both Polisena and McKee are Democrats.)

And then, on Columbus Day, the young mayor fired a shot across McKee’s bow, alleging the governor attempted to orchestrate protests at the unveiling of War Memorial Park’s new Christopher Columbus statue (Providence’s old statue that was removed in 2020 and eventually moved to a new home in Johnston).

The mayor claims McKee urged “at least one group” to crash the event and protest. He hasn’t named a source.

“I’ve spoken with people, even from outside of Johnston, who oppose the statue,” Polisena wrote via email Tuesday night, the day after the town’s Columbus celebration. “Throughout this process I’ve actually cultivated a good relationship with some of that opposition. At various times the dialogue shifted away from the disagreement we have on the statue to other things where we can find common ground on.”

Polisena Jr. contends that the statue opponents revealed nefarious plans by McKee, who the mayor also alleges did not respond to an invitation to the Columbus statue unveiling.

“During these talks, it came to my attention the Governor’s office called at least one group about going to protest the statue,” Polisena explained. “I expressed maybe that’s the reason there were no state or federal officials at the unveiling to show their support for not just Johnston, but Italian-Americans in general. The only person who came that has a statewide presence is Helena Foulkes and she’s not even an elected official.”

The list of dignitaries at the unveiling included emcee Gene Valicenti, NBC 10 news anchor and radio personality; former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino (who bought the Columbus statue for $50,000 after it was removed, stored it, and offered it to Johnston); North Providence state Rep. Arthur J. Corvese (on behalf of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and the R.I. House of Representatives), Dr. Patrick Conley, President of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame and Historian Laureate of Rhode Island; and George Lazzareschi, President of the Italo-American Club of Rhode Island.

Polisena Jr. spoke to podcaster and journalist Bill Bartholomew in the park and the interview was posted to social media.

“As you can see there are no state officials here,” Polisena Jr. told Bartholomew. “What I am saying is I don’t hold those state officials accountable, because they care about Johnston, they care about the Italian-American community. I think that they may have been worried that there was going to be a mad protest here. As you saw, there were just a couple of people with signs.”

“So it’s a rumor?” Bartholomew asked.

“That’s what I was told,” Replied Polisena Jr. “What I was told, by this individual …”

“Who’s the individual?” Bartholomew interrupted with a question. Polisena Jr. refused to answer.

“I’m not going to burn his confidence.”

“Why not?” Bartholomew asked.

“Because,” Polisena Jr. said. “He and I do not see eye to eye on a lot of things. And I’m not going to ruin the good relationship that he and I cultivated. Because it speaks to that. We don’t’ agree. Live and let live.”

“Would you be prepared to release your day book, or text messages or emails, or anything else that documents this?” Bartholomew followed up.

“Ok,” interrupted Polisena Jr.’s assistant chief-of-staff Dominique Turner, a former ABC6 news reporter. “We’re going to wrap this up now.”

Turner shut down the interview, but Bartholomew and Polisena Jr. kept talking for a moment.

“Submit any ARPA (Access Public Records Act) request you like,” answered the mayor.

“Thank you guys,” Turner said, over the questioning, attempting to stop the interview. “Thank you for coming.”

The strained relationship has been clearly visible since the mayor’s inauguration in January, when McKee’s primary opponent, Foulkes, attended the ceremony and was seated on the stage. McKee did not attend.

McKee narrowly defeated Foulkes in last year’s Democratic Primary for the governor’s race. Polisena also added Foulkes, who is not a Johnston resident, to the Johnston School Building Committee (while running for governor she listed Narragansett as her permanent residence).

“The relationship seems so strained because I speak my mind and he’s incredibly thin-skinned,” Polisena Jr. wrote to the Sun Rise on Tuesday evening. “This is the same guy whose first words to his opponent when she called to concede was ‘hang up on them.’”

On Primary Election night, McKee brashly refused to take a phone call from Foulkes who was conceding the race. Many saw the move as, at worst, misogynistic, and at best, rude.

“He’s the same guy whose office moved Attorney General Neronha’s elderly parents out of the front row of an inauguration, presumably because the Attorney General is publicly critical of him as well,” Polisena continued. “He’s the same guy who fired his opponent’s father from the RI Convention Center board after he’d been there for over 20 years, which means through multiple administrations, both Republican and Democratic. All examples that don’t even have to do with me or Johnston that show a pattern of really sad behavior that’s unbecoming of a governor.”

Each example has been previously reported on by various Rhode Island media outlets. Foulkes’ father, then-R.I. Convention Center Authority Chairman Bernard “Bernie” Buonanno Jr. told WPRI 12 that he “retired after the governor asked for his departure through an intermediary.”

Polisena has also had his share of political retribution scandals. He was accused of removing a long-serving judge in Johnston because her father held a sign on election day for McKee (the candidate endorsed by the Johnston Democratic Town Committee). He cleared house across most departments in town as he prepared to take office (firing department heads like the Fire Chief and the Johnston Senior Center director prior to his inauguration).  And in retribution for what he perceived as negative news coverage, Polisena pulled legal advertising from the Johnston Sun Rise after he unsuccessfully pushed the paper's publisher to fire the local weekly paper's editor. 

The Sun Rise asked Polisena if he worries his feud with McKee could adversely affect the constituents of both men — the taxpayers of Johnston.

“I don’t anticipate it affecting Johnston residents because at the end of the day, he’s just one man and the checks and balances we have in government prevent that,” Polisena Jr. argues. “I maintain a good relationship with other state and federal leaders as well as the General Assembly.”

Recently, the state has been the boogeyman in several important Johnston stories. Flooding on Atwood Avenue — Polisena argues the state has failed to act. The closed Greystone Bridge between Johnston and North Providence— Polisena blames the state Department of Transportation.

“Sure, if there’s ever something Johnston needs that he is in sole decision of, I’ll anticipate we’ll be at the back of the line due to his pettiness, but we’ll still thrive,” Polisena Jr. threw a jab. “We have great local elected officials here in Johnston from the town council to school committee and in the General Assembly as well. And at the end of the day, the majority of Johnston voted for Ashley Kalus (the Republican nominee for governor).”

While Polisena Jr. won nearly three-quarters of the vote when he was elected mayor last year, a slight majority of voters went for Republicans in local and statewide races. While historically Democratic, Johnston leans right on most issues, from Columbus to abortion.

“I would be in conflict with the people I represent if I started engaging in these progressive policies you see the Governor championing like legal use drug facilities, also referred to as safe injection sites, which the council banned here in Johnston with a unanimous resolution,” the mayor contends. “I think it’s safe to say you won’t see him here in Johnston until he comes around asking for votes in three years. And even then he may say to hell with Johnston anyway, just like he is now.”

The Johnston Sun Rise provided Polisena Jr.’s full statements to McKee’s communications team.

McKee’s Press Secretary Olivia DaRocha responded late Tuesday night.

“The mayor is using false statements to get media attention,” DaRocha said in a written statement. “It’s clear he is still trying to litigate the campaigns of those who ran against the Governor and lost. This is pure politics. Our focus remains on doing the work for the people of Johnston and the State of Rhode Island. We’re not going to spend any more time responding to a bizarre political tirade. There’s more important work to do.”

The mayor was then provided with the governor's office response. He offered no additional response. 

Following news of the latest row between Polisena Jr. and Mckee, WPRI 12 Politics/Business Editor and Investigative Reporter Ted Nesi, posted the following online, in response to Bartholomew’s video.

“The rift between the Poisenas and McKee is really something,” Nesi wrote.


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