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    Senate President Ruggerio in a fight for his political life in a Donny V. Lenny re-run

    NORTH PROVIDENCE — Within the green-painted walls of the high-ceilinged Senate chamber, Dominick Ruggerio is The Man in Charge.

    Decisions he makes as Senate president touch hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island lives. Bills can live and die at his command. And when he walks by — with at least one staffer and his Capitol Police security detail in tow — lobbyists nod their heads respectfully.

    But four decades after Ruggerio first won a seat in the Rhode Island legislature, an aggressive challenger — who came close in 2020 and is running again — has forced the 73-year-old Ruggerio back out on the campaign trail, knocking on doors, asking for votes in 90-degree, shirt-soaking heat.

    In election summer 2022, it is once again: Donny v. Lenny, with a third Democrat —  recalled from his last elected office — running in the background.

    Leonardo Americo, aka “Lenny” Cioe Jr., is a 63-year-old registered nurse, running to Ruggerio’s left under the umbrella of the R.I. Political Cooperative.

    “Think of the shift in the government if the Senate president is taken out,” Cioe says. “If we win this, we can change the whole thing.”

    The cooperative wants to “tax the rich to fund our schools,” provide universal health care, raise the minimum wage to $19 per hour and repeal Voter ID.

    On his own website, Cioe proposes a new property tax on “large” businesses to raise new revenue to free “small” businesses from “all state taxes.” While not yet fully formed, Cioe describes the idea as a conversation-starter.

    The two men — the nurse and the retired administrator of a New England branch of the powerful Laborers International Union — are competing for votes in a largely suburban district, only a few minutes drive from the State House. 

    Ruggerio describes Cioe as “a member of the radical RI Political Co-op … aligned with the ‘Democratic Socialists’ who have advocated defunding the police and higher taxes.”

    Cioe paints Ruggerio as “a puppet of powerful lobbyists and wealthy corporations.”

    Ruggerio is convinced Cioe would never have come within 341 votes of  him two years ago — and actually beaten him in some precincts — had he,   Ruggerio, gone door-to-door in the COVID summer of 2020 when “people … didn’t want to open doors.”

    “It’s a little different this year.”

    Going door-to-door

    “Hi. My name is Dominick Ruggerio. I’m running for Senate. … I just wanted to come by and say hello.”

    This was his first stop on Oregon Avenue in a section of North Providence that is new to his redrawn district.

    During the once-a-decade redistricting, lawmakers gave Senate District 4 more territory  in North Providence, less in Providence where Cioe ran strong in 2020, leading to allegations by the Cioe camp of “gerrymandering.” 

    “Obviously, you are having dinner. I don’t want to interrupt you,” Ruggerio said as he handed over his “You Spoke. Dominick Ruggerio listened” flyer touting the tax breaks in the newly passed state budget, including the elimination of the car tax.

    And more: “We’re making housing more affordable. … Historic investments in education.”

    “I don’t even live here. I’m taking care of the dog,” said the woman who came to the door. 

    At the next stop, Ruggerio met Esther Hernandez, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood. He asked her, too, for her support in the Sept. 13 primary.

    “Absolutely. Definitely,” she said. “And if you want to put your sign up on the lawn that’s fine, too.”

    Asked afterward why she so readily made the offer, she said: “I am a Democrat so I am fully supportive of any Democrat running … especially in this day and age.”

    Her top local issues — school funding — “what they are going to do with the old [public safety] complex … and the congestion on Mineral Spring Avenue. It’s not an experience you want to have early in the morning.” 

    Ruggerio’s walking companion that day — North Providence Council President Dino Autiello — assured Hernandez that Ruggerio “brings in a lot of extra money for our school district.”

    The only question Ruggerio was asked at most doors in this enclave a few miles from the house where members of his family have lived since 1967, and he lives now:

    “Are you a Democrat?”

    But others such as Vincent D’Adamo reminisced about his years as an accordion-playing State House doorman.

    He also recalled meeting a very much younger Ruggerio at the pharmacy he ran years back at the corner of Mineral Spring Avenue and Charles Street, and at The Chalet — the restaurant run by Ruggerio’s father, Mario “Charlie” Ruggerio, which, in its day, figured as a backdrop for memorable figures in the underworld.

    Only Paul Giammarco, the former program director and operating manager at WPRO-AM during the Buddy Cianci radio era, peppered the Senate president with questions.

    “Politics is still politics, right? It’s our state sport,” said Giammarco.

    “Lately, it’s become a contact sport,” said Ruggerio, tacitly referencing the candidate-on-candidate punch that made national news at a recent abortion-rights rally.

    Giammarco: “Yeah, yeah. So, what keeps you involved? Why do you want to keep doing it?”

    Ruggerio: “I love the issues, and you know, I’ve been in North Providence my whole life. I love the people.” 

    Segueing to the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade — and Ruggerio’s role in the 2019 passage of an abortion-rights guarantee in Rhode Island that he then voted against —  Giammarco said: “You’re a Roman Catholic?”

    Ruggerio: “Yes, I am.”

    Giammarco: “So, how do you weigh that up? I don’t know if I could do that.”   

    Ruggerio: “That’s really tricky.

    “I have certain standards that I believe in personally, but it’s not necessarily what my constituents believe in. So you’ve got to … balance [what] you believe in and they believe in and try to get to the finish line.”

    But he acknowledged: “Under pressure from the church and everything like that to do the right thing … that is the toughest issue I’ve ever faced.”

    A chance for ‘new leadership in RI’

    A scorching day later, Cioe [pronounced see-oh] and several young campaign volunteers each went off in different directions, making the case at each door that Lenny’s the better choice for Democrats.

    Cioe’s pitch:

    “This year, we have the chance to change everything. This year, we can finally win new leadership in Rhode Island. Leadership that will fight for the needs of our working people, our small businesses, our elderly folks, our Black and brown communities and for our planet.”

    Moving at a fast clip, he introduces himself as a nurse-Democrat who deplores the “devastating” Raimondo-era freeze on Medicaid growth that kept reimbursement rates so low Rhode Island “can’t hold onto providers and nurses.”

    “She stopped the growth and the Senate president allowed it to go through.”

    This day, he’s bubbling over with excitement about the new contract – with 6% raises the first year, and 2% each of the next two years – he helped negotiate for the SEIU-affiliated union at the Blackstone Valley Community Health Center where he works.

    “That’s huge. When have you heard that kind of boost in pay all at once?”

    After a run of polite, noncommittal greetings, Cioe knocked on John Delgado‘s door in a portion of Centerdale that, post-redistricting, is new to Senate District 4.

    Delgado: “Who are you running against?” 

    Cioe: “Dominick Ruggerio.” 

    “Thank God. Anybody but him,” said Delgado, a seafood buyer for a local grocery chain. “You wanna put a sign here? Whatever I can do for you, let me know.”

    Asked afterward to explain, Delgado — who has voted in both Democratic and GOP primaries in the past — cited Ruggerio’s long-held position as a “union representative,” and “the old school politics … the ‘buddy system.’

    “Everybody fears that guy … And that’s not right.

    “They are there to serve us, the people that pay taxes, the people that live in the state, the people who work in the state. And he puts the fear in them. It’s just wrong.”

    “Do you know about the auto-body bill?” Cioe piped in.

    As he explained it: the accelerated elimination of the car tax this year — for which Ruggerio takes credit — is offset by the year-after-year concessions Ruggerio & Co. have made to the auto-body lobby for markups that drive up insurance rates.

    “How do the taxpayers win from that?” said Cioe, unaware as he speaks that Ruggerio has a son-in-law in the auto-body business.

    “More lies from Lenny,” said Ruggerio, when asked about Cioe’s comments.

    “My opponent is parroting the misleading talking points of huge insurance companies about these important bills that protect consumers from substandard repairs and protect local small businesses from the unscrupulous practices of a few large, out-of-state insurers.”

    Hitting back

    And that is just one of Ruggerio’s Voter Beware warnings.

    “Mr. Cioe is … aligned with the ‘Democratic Socialists’ who have advocated defunding the police and higher taxes.”

    Cioe denies ever having said: “Defund the police.”

    But the Ruggerio camp insists that there was no other interpretation when Cioe was asked whether he supports defunding the police on Pulse of Providence with WPRI’s Steph Machado in 2020.

    “His response was: ‘We need to look at how we fund the police.’ ” 

    Cioe says that meant: taking a close look at the extensive demands placed on police to see if some money should be redirected to more appropriate services.

    “I don’t believe in defunding the police,” Cioe says. “Turning my back on the police would be like turning my back on nurses, firefighters.”

    “We don’t meet people on the best day of their lives, we are dealing with people in crisis … [and] we have to really have hard conversations about what we want a police force to be … and then we have to think about how we use our money.”

    Ruggerio also points to the “business tax bill” Cioe proposes on his website.

    As Ruggerio reads it: “Any business with gross revenues over $7 million — revenues, not income — will be assessed a new state property tax of 10%. … LaSalle Bakery — a tax increase of $80,500; Jacky’s Galaxy — a tax increase of $113,260; Shore’s Market — a tax increase of $99,720.”

    Cioe says that is not his intent.

    He said his proposal is aimed at “multinational corporations” that get long-term property tax breaks for setting up shop in Rhode Island, as Amazon did in Johnston.

    “Where’s that money going to come from to make up the difference? It’s going to land on our backs as the taxpayers.” 

    When asked how a property tax gain in one place would help a small business somewhere else, Cioe basically said don’t get hung up on the details. “I brought that up to finally get the conversation going.”

    “We give all these large tax incentives to all these multinational corporations, yet we never do that for our small businesses.”

    Politically pragmatic

    In the wake of redistricting: 85% of the 29,845 registered voters in the redrawn Senate District 4 are in North Providence. Another 14.8% are over the line in Providence.

    One online blurb about neighborhoods describes North Providence as a town with “a lot of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and parks” that have made it a mecca for young professionals and retirees who “tend to be liberal.”

    “I don’t get caught up in labels like ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative,’ ” Ruggerio says. 

    :

    But as progressives made gains in the Senate, the politically pragmatic Ruggerio — with an “A” rating from the NRA and a Right-to-Life endorsement in past elections — has  shepherded more and more bills championed by his chamber’s progressives to passage.

    The most recent example — the new three-bill gun control package that included the new ban on firearm magazines containing more than 10 rounds. Explaining why he led the Senate passage of those bills, he said:

    “I’d be horrified if something ever happened to my grandchildren because of something  like that and I stood by and did nothing.”

    Cioe’s take: “He’s morphing in front of our eyes because of what I did to him last time. I only lost by 341 votes and I pushed him to the left.”

    A third Democrat – Stephen Tocco, who was recalled as a Smithfield councilor and dismissed as Capitol Police chief in 2007 after The Journal disclosed his role in a municipal bribery scheme — is also running for the seat in his new North Providence hometown.

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