Meet the candidates: Why Joe Powers is running to lead the RI GOP

A lot went wrong for the Rhode Island Republican Party last year, and Joe Powers, one of two candidates running to turn things around as state GOP chairman, wants to focus on solutions instead of dwelling on past disappointments.

But he's got an uphill fight.

When Rhode Island Republicans meet March 25, Powers will compete with former state GOP chair Giovanni Cicione to replace current chairwoman Sue Cienki, who is running for Rhode Island Republican national committeewoman.

And Cicione won the first round.

On Sunday, the state GOP's nominating committee voted to recommend Cicione over Powers, according to the current chair, Sue Cienki. She would not disclose the vote but confirmed: it was not unanimous.

The decision now moves from the nominating committee, which saw about nine people voting on Sunday, to the GOP's state central committee - made up of close to 200 people. Cienki told The Journal: the contest is very definitely still on.

One problem Powers identified in a year when Democrats swept statewide and federal offices while maintaining overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly was a failure to use every tool available for GOP candidates to get their voters to the ballot box.

Whether Republicans like the current system of early voting and mail-in ballots or not, leaving those options exclusively to Democrats does not seem to be working, he said in a recent interview about where he would take the party if elected chairman.

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Joe Powers, a candidate for chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party.
Joe Powers, a candidate for chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party.

"We can't change the process. Whether you want to try to demonize mail ballots or early voting or not, it is what the process is right now, and either you embrace that process and work with it or you just get run over with it," Powers said. "And I genuinely think the Democrats have put together a juggernaut machine capitalizing on that. And it is something we need to embrace. You are not going to be able to make change by coming in second all the time."

Powers sees evidence of this in the low turnout of unaffiliated voters, who made up 45% of the registered electorate but only 36% of those who cast a ballot. And he thinks that a lot of those unaffiliated Rhode Islanders are aligned more with Republicans than Democrats if they do cast a ballot.

"I just think it was a lack of getting people out to vote," he said. "I definitely think there is a lot more support in there moving forward."

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Who is Joe Powers?

A Cranston resident, Powers, 52, worked at AutoTrader magazine before the rise of online classifieds spelled doom for that publication and caused him to leave advertising for real estate, general contracting and flipping houses. He's now a real estate agent with Residential Properties.

He said he supported Donald Trump in the crowded 2016 GOP presidential primary.

Powers ran for elected office for the first time last year, challenging Democratic state Sen. Frank Lombardi, but Lombardi won, 58% to 42%.

The Rhode Island Republican meeting is March 25, and Powers faces former state GOP chair Cicione to replace current chairwoman Sue Cienki, who is running for Rhode Island Republican national committeewoman.

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Asked whether the 2022 results show the Rhode Island GOP needs to change its messaging next time out, Powers said "absolutely," but added that it is too soon to know in exactly what ways.

"Obviously, the results are what they are, which means the message we had didn't work," he said. "More focus on the constituents in Rhode Island is what the Republican party is all about. There has been a role reversal where we are the party of the working-class candidates."

Where does he stand on education issues and closed primaries?

Education has become a top issue for many Republicans, and Powers said if it were up to him the party would focus more on the academic side of school issues than the cultural fights over things like critical race theory.

Over the years, state Republican Party conventions have featured fights over whether GOP primaries should be closed, meaning that only registered Republicans would be able to vote in them. Currently, Rhode Island Republican primaries are open to unaffiliated voters as well as registered Republicans.

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Powers isn't looking to change that now.

"There are around 325,000 unaffiliated voters, and I think if we put ourselves in a position where we close it, you are going to put people in a position where they are forced to go one way or another," he said. "I am not about force. I think where we are semi-closed works for now, but things may change."

Why does Powers think GOP Central Committee members should make him party chairman instead of Cicione?

"I think my focus is on the future of the Republican Party," he said. "Although people say you learn from the past, I think you only learn what not to do. The future of the party needs to be on the messaging and the constituents. I know what happened in the past, but I feel we need to focus more on future and not past. There is no going back to yesteryear."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Why Joe Powers is running to lead Rhode Island's Republican Party