Providence, R.I. – John Robitaille has emerged as an early front runner in the race for the Republican nomination for governor. But he faces significant obstacles. The former senior advisor to Governor Donald Carcieri has never held elected office, and he is struggling to separate himself from a lame duck governor, who leaves the state in the grips of a deep economic slide.
At 61, Robitaille has a doughy face and a friendly demeanor. The one-time communications guru to Governor Carcieri arrived at a recent rally for veterans in khaki pants and a blue and white checked shirt.
Robitaille served as an army officer for five years, including a stint in Germany during the cold war. He tells the gathering that as governor, he'd push to exempt veterans' pensions and the first $50,000 of seniors' retirement income from state income taxes.
"Because right now our seniors are being forced out of their homes, they can't afford their property taxes," he said. "And other states do it. I mean that's why many of our seniors stop working and move to Florida or New Hampshire. So I want to keep our seniors here."
Robitaille is a native of Central Falls. He studied business management at Providence College and spent summers hauling asphalt for a paving company. After 10 years as a labor negotiator for companies like Frito Lay, he started his own corporate communications business, an experience he often touts when discussing the challenges small business owners face in Rhode Island. He calls entrepreneurs the new working class.
"Its people who are taking the risks, risking everything they have to start a business and run a business and create jobs and these are the people who we have to help," said Robitaille. "They are the true working class today."
Though he worked behind the scenes in the Carcieri administration for the last two years, Robitaille is hardly a household name. If he is known at all, it may be for the outspoken role he played as a plaintiff in a landmark sexual abuse case against the Catholic Church in the early 90's. Robitaille is now married with two daughters and a step daughter. He says he's made peace with his childhood trauma but it's obviously left an indelible mark.
"I consider myself very lucky in that I went on to have a successful career and a family. But it's a haunting that never leaves you," Robitaille said. "I'm still called occasionally by people asking me if I would speak with someone - a family member, a friend who is dealing with it. It does bring back you know a lot of that, but its cathartic in a way to be able to help other people."
For the most part, Robitaille keeps his personal life in the background, focusing instead on issues like lean government and tax cuts that he says will spur the economy. He's also proposed capping property tax increases at 2.5 percent, a move he says will make the state more attractive to businesses. In general, Robitaille embraces many of the typical Republican campaign themes.
At a recent appearance on a local TV talk show, Robitaille was asked how he would address the state's ballooning budget deficit. He said a place to start would be to trim social welfare programs.
"I have a friend who has two single moms working for her," he recounted. "She went to both of them, offered them a $50 a week raise, they both turned her down and said, Oh no, if I make too much money I'm gonna lose cash assistance, my daycare support, food stamps.' That is a disincentive. That is a program that has been built to make people feel good. We're helping others, and what we're doing is we're trapping them into a system of government dependency."
That message may not resonate with some Rhode Island voters, many of whom have been laid off and are struggling through the deepest recession since the 1930s. But Robitaille has a Republican primary to win.
"He's got to win the republican primary by appealing to the republican base and as small as that may be, it's a terribly unpredictable thing," said Mike Kehew, a Republican party activist and long-time observer of Rhode Island politics.
He says he believes a conservative like Robitaille has a good shot at the governor's chair -- an office that has been held by Republicans in Rhode Island for most of the last 25 years.
"Forget the social side of the equation," Kehew said. "It's almost like this state has that inherent sense of they vote the general assembly and they know that's 80 percent democrat and by voting for a republican governor, whether they're doing it consciously or not, they're voting for that check and balance."
But Kehew says this year is already proving to be unusual. Democrat and current state Treasurer Frank Caprio has raised significantly more money than Robitaille and faces no opponent in his party's primary. There's also the question of how a well-known Independent, former U-S Senator Lincoln Chaffee, will affect the race.
"I'm not a gambling woman, but I do not bet that John Robitaille would win," said State Representative Amy Rice, who nearly lost her seat to Robitaille in 2006.
After several recounts Rice won by only a handful of votes. But she says Robitaille worked hard enough to win. He hit the campaign trial hard and early in a district with a large number of conservative voters.
"District 72 is not a blue district," Rice said. "It's purple at best, and has been for at least three decades. Rhode Island in general is blue, so I do not bet that John Robitaille would win the gubernatorial race. But if he does, at least I can say that I beat the Governor.
Robitaille's wife Linda Adams, who helped run that first campaign, says if nothing else, that very close loss taught the aspiring politician that every vote counts. It's a lesson that may turn out to be truer this year than ever.