Johnston is seen as a Democratic stronghold in Rhode Island – a go-to municipality for left-leaning candidates looking for support and boots on the ground. And Democratic Town Committee Chairman Richard DelFino doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“The reality is that because of the plurality of Democrats and the success of Democrats in the town of Johnston, people who are seeking state and federal office look to Johnston for support,” he said. “Johnston can be a very significant factor in the electing of Democratic candidates.”
The committee met earlier this month to elect its leadership board and set the tone for the coming year.
Joining DelFino on the leadership committee is 1st Vice Chair Jennifer Russo, 2nd Vice Chair Anthony Pilozzi, 3rd Vice Chair Vilma Zanni, Secretary Linda Folcarelli, Recording Secretary Christen Ciarlo, Corresponding Secretary Lois Mazzulla Marandola, Treasurer Richard Civetti, Assistant Treasurer Peter Susi and Sergeant of Arms Carlo Jacavone.
The Town Committee as a whole includes 54 members, with one space vacant in District 4 that needs to be filled. That is a reduction from the original 75 members. The committee approved the change in bylaws in January of 2012, at which time they also made it so that committee members can only endorse Town Council and School Committee candidates in their district of residence. Attendance requirements are being strictly enforced to ensure members do not participate in endorsements and then disappear.
“The number has been reduced, which has been a great asset. We’ve gotten to a point now where we’ve got a lot of nice people. Everybody tries to help,” Pilozzi said. “The group we have now is really solid.”
For some members, the committee experience is still relatively new. Folcarelli is serving only her second term but she is already hooked. She has long loved politics, going back to her childhood, when her uncle served as lieutenant governor, and as a young woman when she volunteered on the campaign of Senator Claiborne Pell.
“Always, since I was a kid, my uncle would have these big Democratic parties,” she recalled. “I love being in an executive position on the Town Committee. I’ve loved politics since I was a kid.”
Ciarlo and Jacavone have served eight years each, outlasted by 20-year veteran Marandola and Pilozzi, who has served on the committee for a 22-year stretch.
Then, and now, Marandola says getting involved was an easy decision to make.
“I felt very strongly about being a Democrat and I was very involved in the community,” she said. “I enjoy being involved.”
Being involved wasn’t always harmonious, though, according to Marandola and Pilozzi. They remember a time when there was much infighting among the committee members. After endorsements, they said some people would put up political signs for unendorsed candidates – a no-no for members.
“We had a lot of different factions. It could get very touchy at times,” Marandola said.
That is no longer the case, she said, with the current committee. Changing the bylaws puts less power in the hands of the chairperson, and also limits members from stifling the efforts of candidates for personal reasons if they do not live in that district. The committee does not endorse for state office, only local offices, but only constituents can support a candidate.
“Who knows better than the people on the grassroots level in your district?” Pilozzi asked.
Members have each come to the committee from different backgrounds. Some, like DelFino and Russo, have found themselves in the thick of it at one time or another. DelFino served on the Johnston School Committee, and Russo was a state representative. Endorsed candidates going forward can tap into their experience.
Others, like Ciarlo, come from behind the scenes. She used to work for the town’s Board of Canvassers, and her knowledge of elections and the campaign process also comes in handy.
Aside from endorsing candidates, the committee aims to get out the vote on election days. They register voters when possible and invigorate the base when it comes time to cast ballots. Over the past election year, the Town Committee’s headquarters was open nightly for volunteers to make phone calls, pick up signs or coordinate walking lit-drops with candidates. Close to the election, the committee was meeting nearly every week as a whole.
“The organization of how it was run made a big difference in the outcome,” Marandola said.
In future elections, they hope to do more fundraising. Even when an election is not immediately on the horizon, the committee keeps busy. They meet monthly and often have elected officials speak at meetings – a precursor to campaigning and a chance to educate constituents about various programs.
The strength of the current group, and the party locally, has carved out a reputation for the town.
Edwin Pacheco, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, agrees that, while every community is important, the town is an integral piece of the party’s puzzle.
“People don’t have to go too much farther than to Johnston than to see where some of the highest volume of activity can be found,” he said. “If I need to make a call to make sure that we have volunteers and supporters, all I have to do is pick up the phone and call my friends in Johnston.”
Aside from the sheer number of Democrats in the town, Pacheco says party members here are “excited and engaged” in the debate, as evidenced by voter turnout, involvement in political events and the number of signs that go up very early in the election season.
“Any time you want to get energized and see the best in politics, all you have to do is drive through Johnston,” he said.
DelFino believes that reputation puts town officials in a strong position to attract state and especially federal support. He says the town has a “very good relationship” with Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation.
Again, he doesn’t see that changing.
“I think we’re going to be stronger than ever,” he said.