Former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice Robert G. Flanders Jr. announced Thursday his Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate seat
held by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, attempting to draw a sharp contrast between himself and the two-term incumbent.
Although Flanders faces a GOP primary with state Representative Robert Nardolillo, his campaign announcement focused on a populist message aimed at Whitehouse.
"It's time, ladies and gentlemen, to take back our federal government and our Senate from the lifetime politicians, the entrenched dyed-in-the-wool partisans who are unfortunately now ruling the roost down there " Flanders told a group of about 100 supporters in Central Falls. "The incumbent senator is the ninth-most partisan partisan senator in .... the Senate. It's time to send Silver Spoon Sheldon home. It's time to stick a fork in all the arrogance, the prosecutorial pomposity and climate change bullying that have characterized his tenure."
In a statement, Whitehouse reacted to Flanders' announcement: "We welcome him to the race and look forward to a debate with whichever Republican emerges from the primary."
Two longtime friends who introduced Flanders described him as someone who succeeded through hard work and determination after growing up in modest means in Massapequa, Long Island. Although Flanders has since become a prosperous lawyer who favors tailored suits and drives a luxury car, his supporters insisted he's more in touch with everyday people than Whitehouse, whose affluence is linked with 19th Century railroad magnate Charles Crocker.
"I don't come from privilege and wealth," Flanders said. "I've had to come from a background where I've had to work in a lot of manual labor jobs in order to pay for my education and to get spending money for myself. All throughout high school, college and even law school, I worked in jobs that average Rhode Islanders can relate to. I was a garbage man in my hometown. I worked as a floor sweeper, a bagger in a mattress factory. I was a dishwasher."
If elected, Flanders vowed, “I’m gonna call balls and strikes on issues. I’m not just going to reflexively follow whatever the president or the Senate leadership or anyone else says. My mantra and my lodestar is going to be what’s right for middle-class working families here in Rhode Island and small businesses in the state.”
Meanwhile, a small gathering of retired Central Falls firefighters protested outside Flanders' announcement due to his role as the receiver in helping to broker cuts to that city's pension system.
During his announcement, Flanders defended the changes: "Central Falls, obviously, is a case-study in problem-solving. This city was in dire straits, it was ready to default on its obligations and we needed to find a way out of the problem of defaulting. And so I had to meet with all the diverse stakeholders, the retirees, the unions, listen to their concerns, figure out how can we somehow make the best of a very bad situation, where they were running a $6 million operating deficit every year on a very limited budget. What we did is, we put together a consensual plan, listened, were transparent, collaborated with the various folks who were going to be affected and presented a consensual plan of debt-adjustment and recovery for this city."
A graduate of Brown and Harvard Law School, Flanders, 69. served on the Barrington Town Council before getting appointed by Gov. Lincoln Almond to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. An East Greenwich resident, Flanders was known for his frequent dissents on the court, and later left the panel of his own volition. He has three children and four grandchildren.
The supporters introducing Flanders included former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld, who called Flander a statesman in a realm dominated by politicians.
The Rhode Island Democratic Party contends that either of the Republicans taking on Whitehouse would strengthen the power of President Donald Trump.
"Either Robert Flanders or Representative Bobby Nardolillo would be another vote to rubber stamp the agenda of President Trump: providing tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of working people, stripping health insurance from families, decimating the Social Security and Medicare benefits Rhode Islanders have earned over a lifetime of hard work, and rolling back civil rights," Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the RI Democrats, said in a statement. "While those two spend the next year squabbling over who would be a better advocate for the Trump agenda, Senator Whitehouse will continue working in a bipartisan way to get big things done for Rhode Islanders and standing up for hardworking people against powerful corporate interests. He has been a very effective Senator who consistently works with both Democratic and Republican colleagues to produce results that benefit our state."
Flanders estimated he will need to raise about $2 million to $3 million to run a competitive race.
Whitehouse first won election to the Senate in 2006 when he defeated then-Republican Lincoln Chafee. Whitehouse won his second term in 2012.
In his own statement, Nardolillo said there are rumors that additional Republicans may enter the race against Whitehouse.
"I entered this race last May in order to spend 2017 raising awareness and support." Nardolillo said. "I have used the time since my announcement to make tremendous strides connecting with voters from Westerly to Woonsocket. I've had great feedback and positive response. The result is a broad base of ordinary Rhode Islanders supporting the Nardolillo candidacy. Another result is a network of contacts among national political organizations. All of these longstanding players in GOP campaign funding are already on notice that they will have to take a look at my campaign as the Election Year unfolds."
Speaking with reporters after his announcement, Flanders said he thinks embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore should end his campaign. "I think the allegations against him are credible and unfortunately I think that those are disqualifying situations under the circumstances."
Flanders said he is comfortable with President Trump having sole authority to use nuclear weapons "because he has good people around him. I'm impressed with the quality of his advisors in the military and security area."
The former state Supreme Court justice said he is running for the Senate, rather than governor, because of veto-proof Democratic majorities in the General Assembly and the difficulty of making change at the Statehouse.
Flanders insisted he can make a difference in the U.S. Senate, even though most Republicans are more conservative than him.
"I think so," he said. "I think there are a lot of senators who are willing to compromise and reach across the aisle. But like anything else, you need leadership and you need people who aren't afraid to bark leadership in their respective parties, and I'm prepared to do that."
This post has been updated.