Clay Johnson: Handicapping the Race for Chairman of the RI GOP


Perhaps chairwoman would be the more appropriate term, as two of the five announced candidates seeking to serve as the next chair of the Rhode Island’s Republican party are women. A fairly broad diversity of personal characteristics, philosophies, and histories will be presented to central committee voters at the party’s scheduled March 30 election.

While three of the candidates have won elected office in the past, unfortunately, all five candidates lost their various election races in 2018. These electoral losses weakens each of their claims to be able to lead the party to multiple future election victories.

While I am not a voting delegate myself, I have run for the General Assembly as a Republican, organized the campaign for current GOP Representative Justin Price, and am currently an elected member of the Chariho school committee.

In listening to the candidates and in talking with many party leaders and members, the race appears to be wide-open, as no single candidate has the overt support of an overwhelming majority of party officials. Add in the unpredictable nature of a ballot process, in this case expected to go through many rounds, and the most popular candidate may not be the person who emerges as the winner.

In this regard, there are rumors of alliances among many of the candidates in order to ensure that a conservative is elected. Putting such speculative possibilities aside, however, here’s how I rate each candidate’s chances.

Among the three early announced candidates:

Bob Lancia is generally considered to be a conservative, who earned notoriety for calling out the “911” fund fraud. He should also be credited for developing good relations among Latino and minority communities. However, Lancia, a former Army chaplain, is not considered (at least among party members) as a strong leader. He also represents the older, white male image that the party is seeking to shed. Lancia lost his re-election bid to the House in 2018.

Rebecca Schiff, from Jamestown, is not a full conservative; however, she is backed by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. A business professional with a political science degree, Schiff would give the party a moderate political leader who may be able to help attract female voters. However, the Log Cabin Republican is a cultural liberal, who publicly admitted that she did not vote for Donald Trump, the national party’s leader. Schiff lost her 2018 and 2016 bids for the House of Representatives.

Michael Veri, the Woonsocket Republican candidate for state Senator, presents an energetic option. The youngest of the candidates, Veri, still active in the military reserves, offers solid conservative credentials. His youthful enthusiasm, however, is seen by many as a bit too idealistic and without the requisite life experience to lead the party out of its desperate straits. To some, Veri, a lab director, is seen as potential star in the General Assembly. Veri lost his 2018 state Senate bid.

Sue Cienki was the next to announce. The former East Greenwich town council President, is seen as the most conservative across the board, the strongest voice, and most willing to take on public unions. Also offering the party a feminine image, Cienki has been a vocal opponent of unrestricted abortions. A defense lawyer by trade, Cienki’s sometimes combative nature was the subject of much criticism from the left and led to the 2018 defeat of the entire Republican town slate, after her policies rallied strong union election opposition.

Ken Mendonca was the last to announce. The former state Representative from Portsmouth was well-liked among his General Assembly colleagues and offers a softer brand of conservatism. According to some, Mendonca, an information systems manager for a defense contractor, may not have the aggressiveness they would like to see in the next party chair. However his gentle demeanor and professional disposition is seen as a plus. Mendonca lost his 2018 re-election campaign.

So how will it all play out among the expected many rounds of balloting? Assuming the rules will call for the person with the lowest vote total in each round to be eliminated, until someone receives a majority of the votes, here is one man’s best guess:

1st Round Ballot: In a rather evenly apportioned vote, Michael Veri, only because of his lack of name recognition and perceived inexperience, will be the odd man out. He will throw his support to either Cienki or Mendonca.

2nd Round Ballot: Bob Lancia, despite his high name recognition, will be eliminated. Who he throws his support to will be vital. Schiff, while not a conservative, will survive because of the strength of the Fung faction.

3rd Round Ballot: Assuming Lancia also asks his supporters to back one of the remaining two conservatives, Cienki or Mendonca, Rebecca Schiff will likely run out of steam and dropped from consideration.

4th Round Ballot: Under this scenario it will come down to Cienki, the stronger conservative … or Mendonca, the more universally well-liked. Given Rhode Island is not known for its conservatism, I believe Ken Mendonca will prevail and become the next chairman of the Rhode Island GOP.

Note: If Lancia throws his support to the Fung-backed Schiff, the outcome could be very different.

I personally believe that our RI Republican party needs as strong a voice as possible who can articulate how a conservative agenda can most benefit Rhode Islanders; especially as a counter to the radical-left progressive-Democrat movement that is sweeping through our state and nation.

While there is much discussion about focusing on winning General Assembly races in those districts where the demographics are favorable, or at least neutral, to Republicans, the party must be careful to balance this strategy. Republicans must not ignore urban voters, especially minorities, if we are ever to win statewide or federal offices again.

An enormous opportunity-gap has been created by the radical socialists in our state who have pulled the Democratic party to the extreme left. The next Republican Party chair must recognize this situation and design a messaging and election strategy what will appeal to mainstream Democrats, and independents, without alienating core Republican voters. This is eminently achievable with the proper party leadership.

Good luck to all candidates.

Clay Johnson is Chairman of The Gaspee Project

  • Joe Smith

    Anyone backed by Fung should be eliminated.

    “Cienki’s sometimes combative nature was the subject of much criticism from the left and led to the 2018 defeat of the entire Republican town slate, after her policies rallied strong union election opposition.”

    Is it conservative to be less than transparent? Is it conservative to hire an insider in violation of ethics and state meeting laws and overpay for the market to boot? Cienki didn’t just lose the town slate, she contributed to the defeat of a good state rep and dealt the death blow to a so-so state senate candidate who still should have won against an unknown progressive in a fairly (for RI) GOP friendly district.

    “I personally believe that our RI Republican party needs as strong a voice as possible who can articulate how a conservative agenda can most benefit Rhode Islanders; ”

    forget conservative or moderate. None of those matter if you don’t have the influence to get your agenda passed, let alone to the table. Who can:

    (1) Reform the by-laws
    (2) Raise money
    (3) Find and develop local candidates
    (4) Navigate the party messages in an era where the other side is moving further out of whack with reality (but not necessarily appeal) and your side has a flawed leader (to put it nicely).

    The message should simply be a place where you and your kids can afford to live, do business, and get a decent education. A place that makes your life easier (no tolls, eliminate the car tax, reduce the sales tax on cars!; make parks and beaches accessible, low-cost, and nice; nicer roads, an education formula that doesn’t kill towns with property tax problems. business taxes and regulations that encourage, not discourage, etc.

    I’d also start with a message to kill residential property valuations – your valuation is what you pay for it – put in safeguards for short sales, insider transactions, and additions (simply add the cost of the addition) – and it stays that way for at least 10 years or until it is sold.

  • Monique Chartier

    Thanks to Clay for laying this all out. Very interesting.

  • Joe Smith

    The next chairman needs to be strategic. For example, we could do a lot worse than a Dan McKee as the next Governor. Perhaps the GOP shouldn’t run a candidate and tell GOP voters in the primary to vote for McKee. Focus on the down ballot races because the GOP isn’t going to win any of the federal offices nor AG. Given you’re not going to win on the social issues anyway, why not back someone who can win with GOP support and on the economic issues has (it would seem) compatibility – especially when the GOP support could be taken away at least in the first term and probably is what he will need to put him in office.

    Spend money on chipping away at the seats in the house and senate; maybe Warwick Mayor.

    I would like to hear how a GOP chair can win seats and influence, not craft some kind of message that ends up not appealing to anyone.