Opinion: Political Decorum Is Relevant in EG

by | Oct 23, 2022

Submissions are welcome – send to [email protected]. The last day to submit an opinion column (or letters to the editor) about the Nov. 8 election is Tuesday, Oct. 25, two weeks before election day (11/8).

By James Gorham

At the recent candidate forum for the race to represent District 30, we witnessed a sad departure from the relatively peaceful and respectful tone that had characterized previous events.  On multiple occasions, moderator Elizabeth McNamara had to stop the forum to admonish an audience packed with supporters of the Amanda Blau campaign.  These Blau supporters could seemingly not contain themselves, as they hollered, interrupted the conversation, and directed jeers at our current State Representative Justine Caldwell.   

The audience appeared to be particularly emboldened by a personal attack made by Blau against Rep. Caldwell, in which Blau accused Caldwell of being disrespectful to fellow lawmakers as well as to the general public in her public interactions.   In response to this personal attack, Rep. Caldwell suggested that Blau’s interest in decorum was disingenuous, especially in light of her recently campaigning with former EG Town Council President and current RI GOP Chair Sue Cienki, who infamously made the news in 2017 for threatening to castrate a town employee and subsequently feed his genitals to a dog.  Ironically, Cienki was in attendance as a Blau supporter at the forum, and took offense at hearing her own words quoted back at her. This led her to shout that Caldwell’s use of her quote was inappropriate and “classless.” Blau’s rebuttal to Caldwell was to call her reference to this 5-year-old news story “irrelevant.”

To be clear at the outset, I would like to commend Amanda Blau on running a campaign that has thus far refrained from engaging in some of the ugly vitriol that has characterized rhetoric employed by endorsed candidates of the EG GOP in recent years—as well as some of their most vocal supporters. Prior to the forum, Blau had run a largely positive and issues-oriented campaign, one that has embodied the “integrity” she used to describe it. That said, I would refute her claim that incidents like the one involving Cienki are “irrelevant,” just because they took place several years ago.  In fact, these departures from decorum remain very, very relevant, and they should be on the minds of voters as they make their decisions at the polls in November.

We are wise to remember that a large factor contributing to the Republican failure to win any town office or representation in the State House in the past 4 years has been precisely their abject failure to maintain decorum appropriate to the positions they have sought. The Cienki era saw our town plunge into controversy on numerous occasions, much of it around language and behaviors adopted by sitting Republican office holders as well as Republican candidates for office, at a time when President Trump had drastically lowered the bar for what could pass for appropriate political discourse. Rather than rejecting a Trump-like approach to communication in the public arena, these GOP-endorsed candidates wholeheartedly embraced it.  

We might remember, for example, Town Council member Sean Todd’s misogynistic comments on Twitter that led to a packed house at Swift Gym speaking out in protest, an event that made widespread news. We might remember hateful and insulting language used by Town Council candidate Charles Callanan on his social media accounts, as well as statewide news stories that revealed misogynistic images and words used on the Facebook account associated with Callanan’s notorious “Broken Ankle Bar.”  When combined with a steady barrage of news stories that painted the EG GOP in a poor light, such as the violations of the Open Meetings Act by Cienki’s Town Council, nepotism in hiring with regards to Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and her friend Linda Dykeman, and Corrigan’s persistently and demonstrably false narratives about our town’s finances, the overall picture created was truly unsavory. All of this reflected unfavorably on the ethics of the EG GOP who endorsed and promoted these candidates. Yet, despite all this bad press, 2020 General Assembly candidates such as Mr. Callanan and Mr. Giarrusso steadfastly supported the town GOP leadership through all of the controversies, and vice versa. Again, I would suggest that it was precisely this mutual support that resulted in their resounding rejection by voters at the polls.    

The EG electorate simply has no appetite for depravity in words and behavior coming from our elected town officials and our representatives on Smith Hill.  We are all fatigued from the constant stream of vitriol and hyperbole that has been so prevalent in our local politics in recent years.  And the sad reality is that the words and behaviors that characterized the “bad old days” did not stop when the EG GOP was decisively swept out of office in 2018.  In fact, they continue to this day. Not only is Sue Cienki actively campaigning to support our local candidates, but in fact she sets the tone for the entire RI GOP, as its sitting chair. A glance at her official Twitter account shows her associating a photo of clowns marching in the 2022 Gaspee Day parade with the text, “Glad to see Democratic leadership at the Gaspee Day parade today.” This is but one example that demonstrates that her sense of what comprises an appropriate tone or decorum has not changed whatsoever since her unceremonious departure from elected town office in 2018.  Moreover, in 2020, Cienki’s RI GOP heartily endorsed local State Senate candidate Charles Callanan. The most cursory review of Callanan’s  Twitter account reveals that he continues to this day to harass, insult, and threaten perceived political opponents such as Rep. Caldwell, and he continues to demonstrate an inappropriate tone unbecoming of one seeking public office.  

By contrast, our current local town officeholders have quietly done the job of being competent stewards, listening to residents respectfully, and staying focused on making improvements on issues affecting citizens, all without landing our town in the news for all the wrong reasons.  Meanwhile, at the State House, Rep. Caldwell has demonstrated herself as a proven and respected leader in her work on adopting common sense gun laws, codifying reproductive healthcare rights, preventing MedRecycler from locating in East Greenwich, and more. Thankfully, unflattering news stories on East Greenwich politicians have become a thing of the past, and our focus has returned to the issues, where it should be. To this voter, and to many others I suspect, this has been a very welcome change, a change that undoubtedly played a significant role in the reelection of incumbents in 2020.   

In recent years, we have seen candidates for local office who have promoted balance and civility, only to later demonstrate that they cared little for either. For example, in 2018, independent candidate Sean O’Leary ran on a platform of diminishing the rancor that had recently characterized our political discourse. Unfortunately, this rhetoric revealed itself to be hollow when he then openly endorsed and campaigned with Republican candidates like Andy Deutsch, Charles Callanan, or Sue Cienki, who demonstrably brought anything but civility or balance to the conversation. So far in this election cycle, this new crop of Republican candidates have conducted themselves in a civil and respectful manner, and once again, “balance” has been a primary selling point in their messaging. Remembering the lesson taught to us by the O’Leary example, we need to ensure that these candidates are being honest and upfront about their so-called “balanced” approach, and we need to know how they differ specifically from the candidates who came before them. We don’t need candidates who talk a good game about civility and decorum,  but who then, once elected, fail to back that up in their words and actions.

It is my hope that Amanda Blau would learn from the lessons of our recent history and not only distance herself from representatives of the “bad old days” of EG politics, but also to make it abundantly clear that she does not condone the type of language or behaviors used by these candidates. If she wishes to use ad hominem attack against Rep. Caldwell and throw mud at her for being “disrespectful,” she had better be sure to separate herself from those Cienki-era GOP candidates who have preceded her, who time and again have shown profound disrespect for political decorum. She needs to stand up to those in her own party who would continue to applaud these former candidates, and she needs to show us that she would adopt a very different tone at the State House than the tone we saw coming from her supporters at the forum, many of whom were the very same people who supported Cienki in the past (including Cienki herself). The pandemic may have made our memories fuzzy about things that happened before 2020, but there is one thing I can guarantee: EG voters have not forgotten the ethical failures of the EG GOP in past years, and they will not forget when they go to the polls this year.   

James Gorham lives in East Greenwich.

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Ann Flanders
Ann Flanders
October 25, 2022 6:22 pm

James, stop living in the past. This is 2022 and this was a forum for our State Representative. Amanda Blau had nothing to do with the previous town council. I watched this debate online and thought Ms. Blau did a masterful job. There were a couple of rowdy spectators but I thought Ms. McNamara kept good control. Ms. Blau was referring to seeing Ms. Caldwell in action at a hearing at the State House wherein she was annoyed with some of her fellow reps and treated them disrespectfully. I watched that meeting and came to the same conclusion. Unfortunately, Ms. Caldwell felt the need to bring up the words of a town council member of several years ago (not in a public forum) which had nothing to do with Ms. Blau. I thought it was shameful and childish. East and West Greenwich would be very lucky to have Amanda Blau as our Representative and she has my full support.

James GORHam
James GORHam
October 25, 2022 11:16 pm
Reply to  Ann Flanders

Amanda attacked Justine for being “disrespectful” without any evidence in which to base her attack. Justine responded appropriately by pointing out that Amanda had campaigned with Sue, who was in the audience. Justine rightfully pointed out that Sue had showed profound lack of disrespect for others in the past, in her official role as Town Council President. The association between Sue and Amanda brings Amanda’s value of decorum into question. Rather than standing up to the crowd who was actively hollering and jeering at Justine, she stood by and allowed it, rather than being the bigger person and telling her own supporters to show respect. It was left to Elizabeth to admonish them when Amanda failed to lead them to preserve decorum. To me, this is a red flag. I don’t want leaders to stand by while followers bully and harass their opponent. I want them to stand up for what’s right. Clearly you don’t think this is the case.

October 25, 2022 8:08 pm

James, I challenge you to go back and watch the March 19th hearing that Ms.Blau referenced during the debate. Watch the hearings in their entirety and you’ll see mortified looks on the faces of committee members in Justine Caldwell’s own party in addition to hearing Chairman Craven admonishing Caldwell for her behavior. Trying to connect Ms. Blau to past TC members, Trump or anyone else you feel would help your cause is nonsense.

James Gorham
James Gorham
October 25, 2022 11:23 pm
Reply to  Andrew

As for the March 19th hearing, I saw nothing inappropriate or disrespectful in anything Justine said. Amanda’s attack is 100% baseless as far as I’m concerned.

ann flanders
ann flanders
October 26, 2022 1:17 pm
Reply to  James Gorham

James, you and I definitely see things differently. I did watch the March 19th hearing and was ashamed that Ms. Caldwell was my Rep. due to her behavior. That is why I voted for Ms. Blau. I believe she is the better candidate, was the better debater, and is someone I can be proud of to represent me.

James Gorham
James Gorham
October 26, 2022 10:31 pm
Reply to  ann flanders

We can agree to disagree on that. I find it remarkable that you can excuse the inappropriate behavior of audience members at the forum, and you stand by while others in your circle of leaders of EG GOP and RI GOP say and write the most outrageously appalling things while either representing their constituents or seeking office to do so. This is precisely what I’m getting at in my letter. Criticize the behavior of others if you must, but apply the same standards regardless of party affiliation. Where were you critiquing Sue when she said such outrageous things while acting as sitting Town Council President? Where have you been when other former candidates from the EG GOP have written and said utterly inappropriate, insulting, and disrespectful things?

So far Amanda has done a stellar job of keeping the campaign relatively clean when compared to her predecessors, and she carries herself well when articulating her views. That said, her attack on Justine as “disrespectful” and her recent (false) claim that Justine lied about endorsements, is a bad sign. Moreover, the fact that she did not stand up to disruptive audience members of her own party makes me wonder if she would turn a blind eye to those in her party who behave badly. On her Facebook campaign page, I am starting to see lots of the typical nasty posts from supporters spreading misinformation and insulting Democrats. All of this is allowed to remain on her page. Yet a single comment from me asking the simple question of whether or not she is currently endorsed by the EG GOP was deleted. Twice. It’s concerning to me that hateful rhetoric is allowable if it comes from Republicans but the slightest whiff of so-called disrespectful language from a Democrat is considered the gaffe of the century. I’m just begging Republicans, please, to be consistent and honest.

Elisa Jackson
Elisa Jackson
October 27, 2022 2:21 am

It is notable that many faces of GOP leadership sat and did nothing while one candidate was jeered and boo’d so vigorously that she could not continue talking.
Contrast this with Ms. Blau raising a hand to quiet her supporters when they interrupted her with applause.
It was like magic.
Watch the video.
It does not seem like the Republican candidates for SC and TC were bothered by this spectacle at all. They did nothing to address the disruption or quiet the crowd.
It was bad. It was a bad, shameful scene and it seemed to reveal a bit more about the true nature of the EGGOP. But the company that they let speak (or yell, or boo) while they are silent (has any GOP candidate addressed this directly?) – well … that says a lot.

October 27, 2022 10:44 am

James, I think you hit the nail on the head with a few of your comments.

I am a registered independent. I have voted for republicans as well as democrats in local races. I feel we need a left and a right to move forward and there are ideologies I agree with on both sides.

That being said, if a republican candidate were to appeal to me, it would be a grueling vote for me to cast simply because it would be an endorsement of the vitriol that has become so prevalent in their party. I urge you to look at the Twitter accounts of some of the more prominent republicans and see for yourself. None of it is hidden, it’s all out there for anyone to see if they choose to.

I think Blau is a formidable candidate, however, it is difficult to see her campaigning with people who think that the election was stolen and that half of the country are enemies of America. I understand it is not easy to distance yourself from the RIGOP when you run as one, but the old adage rings true – you are judged by the company you keep.

October 27, 2022 12:09 pm

James, you lost me at decorum. I have seen your decorum in a specific Facebook group and you cannot ask for the same things you yourself cannot deliver – “I don’t want leaders to stand by while followers bully and harass their opponent.“

James gorham
James gorham
October 27, 2022 6:04 pm
Reply to  Lindsay

1) I do not hold public office nor have I sought public office. Nor am I the top officer of a major state political party. We are guaranteed freedom of speech but one would hope that we could hold our elected public officials and those who seek elected office to a higher standard than everyday citizens.

2). I have no clue what you are talking about. I have been forced to block some people on social media because bullying and harassment, including one individual who thought it was appropriate to text me at 4 AM, swear at me and insult me for expressing political opinions on social media.

ann flanders
ann flanders
October 27, 2022 2:01 pm

James, where did you ever get the idea that I was a member of the GOP? I have always been unaffiliated. I do not align myself with one party and never have. I make it a point to vote for the person who I believe is the best for the particular position. I hate the vitriol that has consumed my beloved East Greenwich for the past 5+ years. I think there has been bad behavior all around and I want it to stop. I firmly believe that the people who volunteer their time in elective office in EG have only our best interests at heart. I refuse to think otherwise. I salute them all.

James Gorham
James Gorham
October 27, 2022 6:10 pm
Reply to  ann flanders

I didn’t say anything of the kind. I said people in your circle are among the leaders of the EG and RI GOP. Your husband ran for US Senate and worked with Sue Cienki to get Gayle Corrigan hired as Town Manager. You have consistently supported GOP candidates in your many exchanges with me over the years, and your family has contributed to their campaigns financially. Whether or not you are actually registered as a Republican is moot. You have been unwavering in your support of the candidates the EG GOP has endorsed over these past years that we have interacted online.

matt renninger
matt renninger
October 28, 2022 9:47 am

Well said.

ann flanders
ann flanders
October 28, 2022 12:54 pm

“People in my circle”??? Uh, how on earth do you know “people in my circle” besides my husband? I did support him. But, otherwise, I have always joked that I cancel out most of his votes when I vote. So, James, you know nothing about me or my circle. I’m not proud to say that I never really knew who was on the TC or the SC in EG. After my husband’s firm was hired for some legal work, I became aware of a lot of people behaving badly a few years ago. Do you remember all the hooting and hollering at the TC meetings? I was horrified at much of the behavior and tone of these meetings. I know you like to get in the last word, but DO NOT PIGEONHOLE ME!!! I am my own person. I admire anyone who runs and/or holds elective office, even if I don’t agree with their tenets and ideas. As for the Caldwell/Blau race, I happen to know Ms. Blau personally and am delighted that she is running for elective office. RI would be lucky to have more people like her working for this State. Have a nice weekend.


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