Editor’s note: 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 Oct. 25, two weeks before election day (11/8).
By Brian Turner
As I prepared for the Oct. 3rd candidate forum [find a link to the forum HERE], I reflected on comments I’ve heard from constituents, issues brought up at recent Town Council meetings, and the numerous public documents like our most recent budget and long-term strategic plans. As a political outsider, I waded through the enormity of this information searching for what I thought could be the emphasis of the discussion and the hot topic to differentiate my candidacy to East Greenwich voters. Much to my surprise, it was not my background, translatable leadership skills, new ideas, answers to questions about active shooters or proactively improving engagement with portions of the community. Instead, two simple facts touched a nerve with our incumbent Town Councilors and proved to strike at the heart of what it now seems this local election may be about. The first fact was: 33 percent of voters in East Greenwich are registered Democrats. The second: 100 percent of East Greenwich elected officials are Democrats.
While this information was shared to illustrate the imbalance of representation of our community’s political diversity, it triggered a range of responses and emotions from the incumbent candidates. Councilor Mark Schwager fired the first volley by claiming he was “disturbed” by our attempt to bring partisan politics into East Greenwich town government. His claim suggesting diversified constituent representation is partisan while in a forum for political office was quite ironic. However, I understand the effort when needing to manage the inconvenient facts that influence voter considerations in a race he wants to win. If I hadn’t witnessed his reaction and heard the serious tone, I would have thought it sarcasm as it was tantamount to saying, “Don’t bring politics into politics!”
Councilor Mike Donegan followed up with an attempt to align the mention of these facts with national political rhetoric and emphatically claimed that none of the politics or behavior seen on Facebook or Twitter are present in this council. Unfortunately, Councilor Schwager then had to admit he banned a constituent from his Facebook page* and there was not ample opportunity in the format for discussion on Councilor Englehart’s 2021 Twitter rhetoric (some of which has been deleted), that previously generalized conservative constituents with certain opinions as extreme and fear mongering. I would ask the community to consider if Councilor Donegan’s altruistic non-partisan behavioral characterization of the current Town Council is factually accurate and if those constituents feel represented by all their councilors.
Later in the forum, Councilor Corenthal took “offense” to the fact that constituents would feel unheard or unrepresented. Unfortunately, her feelings and emphatic declaration do not alter the facts and are a common debate tactic of being offended and escalating the emotion of the discussion to distract from the reality of the topic.
However, the true cherry on top for this issue occurred in remarks from Councilor Zarrella who demonstrated true partisan rhetoric when he suggested that replacing Councilors Corenthal and Englehart (not sure why he is assuming they would lose the race, but that’s beside the point) with Republican candidates would make East Greenwich run by, “five white guys!” He is implying to you, the voters, that inherent traits like race and gender are a more valid measure of diversity than the diversity of thought and ideas. A truly partisan and progressive position that apparently permeates our Town Hall.
After all this effort to insist there is no partisanship in East Greenwich politics and diminish the reality of two simple facts, Councilor Zarrella closed his evening asking for you, the voters, to elect him and his fellow Democrats in November. To be clear, he didn’t ask you to elect the most qualified, the people with the best ideas, or the people you feel most align with your values. He asked you to vote Democrat. It is likely that every other incumbent candidate you heard that night in the Town Council and School Committee believed the same thing but just didn’t say it out loud. Take notice that there is only one party running a full slate of candidates to control every position in our town government. It challenges voters to ask, if our Town Councilors are truly non-partisan in their beliefs, values, and perspectives, why are they not running as Independents?
After all the spirited, yet civil, rhetoric of the forum, the fact that 100 percent of East Greenwich’s elected officials are Democrat is true. Constituents on a full spectrum of political persuasion must decide if they believe that represents their values and perspectives and will result in decisions at the school, town, and state level of which they are likely to be accepting. To dig a bit deeper, I’d like to offer some detail that three one-minute responses in the forum wouldn’t allow a candidate to articulate.
To begin, we must understand the definition of terms. While I can’t be certain how our incumbent councilors meant their choice of words to be heard, they seemed to be using represent and serve interchangeably. In support of them, it was never suggested that they don’t faithfully serve all constituents of East Greenwich. That is their ethical responsibility as it will be mine if elected. I thank them for that service and offer no contention to it. On the point of representation, every candidate brings their views, biases, values, and beliefs to the position in which they serve. They will listen, respond, and ultimately vote on issues through that lens. While input from the community does and should influence them, rarely does a politician completely abandon their values. Frankly, I wouldn’t want them to, and when they do, history suggests they do not get re-elected because they failed to deliver expectations for the people who thought they represented them. The problem with the rhetoric during the forum was your incumbent councilors were telling you they control who is represented when in fact only an individual voter can say who represents them or if they feel an official is doing a good job of it.
Since none of our elected officials have run as Independents, it is fair to assume and apparent in some of their statements and voting records that their values and beliefs range from leaning liberal to extremely progressive. When issues in our school and town arise, we can count on that bias influencing their view of the viable solution options. What that means is that the ensuing debate will occur in that range of ideology and the natural tension and final decision will likely land far left of center (which is exactly what they want). While that clearly does not matter in how we plow the streets as Councilor Donegan suggested, it can have significant influence on more serious matters such as taxation strategies, cannabis business management, affordable housing plans, parental rights in schools, and education curriculum.
With these realities, does a far-left ideology represent the majority of East Greenwich residents? The voter affiliation data clearly suggests, no. With 48 percent of our registered voters identified as unaffiliated, it is a reasonable hypothesis that this community desires to be moderate in its ideology and ultimate management. For that to occur, balance must be restored in our town’s elected officials so that the natural tension returns to the middle with representation of ideas and values from progressive to conservative. As there are no Independent candidates on the Town Council and School Committee ballots, the only option to return the historical centrist ideals to our community and represent a larger portion of our population is to elect some new perspective to these governing bodies.
I hope the moderates in our town will discern the truth of what I’ve presented and make the decision to bring balance back to East Greenwich this November. Please be sure to vote November 8th. Don’t vote based upon Republican or Democrat, man or woman, or other categorical demographics. Vote for the individuals you believe will allow your elected government to run effectively and deliver ultimate solutions that you believe will most closely represent your values and interests as they faithfully serve the community.
Brian Turner is a candidate for East Greenwich Town Council.
*Editor’s note: At the forum, Mark Schwager said he unblocked the constituent after speaking with him.