Future World: House minority leader Blake Filippi discusses where the RI GOP is headed

PoliticalTugOfWarAfter a poor local showing in the recent midterms, with Rhode Islanders largely rejecting much of the national GOP platform and rhetoric from President Trump, I sat down with House Minority Leader Blake Filippi to discuss the future of Rhode Island’s Republican party.

Rhode Island politics is full of anomalies, and one of the particular oddities that often comes up when evaluating elected officials’ positions is that, on certain issues, some Rhode Island Republicans actually present a more progressive viewpoint than many establishment Democrats.

In a state whose voters are overwhelmingly unaffiliated but often socially liberal, the challenge for Republicans in building statewide appeal lies in recruiting independent and conservative-leaning Democratic voters without alienating their fundamental base of support in the “red zone”: internal areas of the northwestern portions of the state as well as occasional strength in fiscally conservative leaning towns like Barrington and East Greenwich.

In 2018, Rhode Island Republicans also faced a devastating association with President Trump, who had undoubtedly soured the Republican brand and diminished the GOP’s shot at serving as a legitimate opposition party in Rhode Island in the 2018 election cycle.

Though he saw a marginal gain in percentage of votes from his 2014 gubernatorial run, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung failed to challenge Governor Gina Raimondo in a manner that could substantially serve as a party-driver. Senate-hopeful Judge Bob Flanders, who got off to a late start to his campaign, failed to amass remotely enough name recognition to present a noteworthy challenge to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Other than a handful of municipal and general assembly shifts (including the fall of recently disgraced former house judiciary committee chairman, democrat Cale Keable), the RI GOP appeared largely out of fresh ideas and without an epicenter.

However, according to newly established House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (HD 36, Block Island, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly), local Republicans share many of the same goals as progressive and conservative Democrats, and by pivoting to a brand that is more focused on fiscal conservatism, and less, if it all, on moral issues, Rhode Island Republicans can re-establish traction.  

If a truly socially liberal brand of the GOP existed in Rhode Island, it would place much more pressure on establishment leadership and operatives than the current GOP, and could develop a sub-caucus much like the progressive wing of the Democratic party (who recently adopted the name ‘Reform Caucus’). Ideally, this would facilitate a more collaborative law-making environment, one that could better serve taxpayers of the state.

During a recent taping of The Bartholomewtown Podcast, I asked Representative Filippi where he sees his party heading, and how he fits into the Rhode Island political picture:

Bill Bartholomew: We saw an election where, other than within the “red zone,” there weren’t a lot of strides made by Republicans, and there seemed to be some division within the party, the obvious being the defection of Joe Trillo and Patricia Morgan. But beyond that, there’s sort of the pro-Trump, anti-Trump, socially liberal, fiscally conservative brands of Rhode Island Republicans. Where’s the Republican Party in Rhode Island? Where’s it going?

Rep. Blake Filippi: I think when you look at the divisions you just spoke about, the divisions are less than they actually are in the Democratic Party because the divisions you’re talking about were more personal divisions… more a personal animosity, frankly, much more from Joe Trillo toward Allan Fung. I think within the Democratic Party you see deep ideological divisions that I think are much harder to heal.  

Within the Republican Party now, I don’t think it’s divided. I think most of us align on being fiscally conservative. We definitely do differ on social issues, but it’s not something we beat each other up over. Many of us, like myself, have liberal drug views, for instance. Legalization of marijuana is something I’m all for and other people in the party don’t want that, but we don’t see each other as enemies because we have these different social views.

I think the core of Rhode Island conservatism, if you will, is we want to lower your taxes. We want to make things more business-friendly, and I think that unites us and basically overshadows any other small divisions.

I don’t see, going forward, these deep ideological divisions, or divisions, period. Hopefully the party can reunify and move forward and convince Rhode Islanders that really, if you vote Republican, your life’s really not going to change, but you’re probably going to save a bunch of money.

BB: Is that the formula you think the party needs to take with current Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell’s term expiring (in 2019)? Should that be front and center in the Republican agenda?

BF: I think so. I think there’s many things to party has to do to make a better effort in 2020. One of the concerns I have is that the party focuses many times on statewide candidates when really the party should be focusing on getting general assembly members elected. By getting more general assembly members elected, we’re going to increase our chances of winning elections three elections down the road — of electing a statewide candidate.

In terms of philosophy and ideological perspective, the Libertarian, John Chafee, “I’m fiscally conservative, socially cool” model I think is the way to go. I think it sells in Rhode Island.

I don’t think the southern Republican mindset — although there’s a place for it in the party — [I] don’t think that’s going to be winning any elections in the state of Rhode Island. I don’t think that the Trumpian model of scorched earth politics works here. I don’t think it works on either side. I think we need to be cognizant of that and reject the politics of personality as opposed to supporting people. We need to support issues.  There’s no perfect candidate. But there are sometimes perfect ideas and I think that’s what we need to focus on: a philosophy and a message, not the politics of personality. There are things that Libertarians and conservatives align right with progressives on — issues that I’m thrilled to have progressive allies with.


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