The most crowded field in Johnston is preparing for the final week of the election season.
Sen. Stephen Archambault – the four-term incumbent Democrat representing Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston in District 22 – is the only member of the local delegation who will face two challengers on Election Day. Republican Paul Santucci, a former Smithfield Town Council president and self-proclaimed political newcomer, was uncontested in his primary. Independent Stephen Tocco will also look to unseat Archambault.
All three candidates expressed optimism about the state of the race. Archambault said he is still knocking on doors equipped with his KN95 mask and observing protocols, while Santucci has walked more than 5,000 homes and has seen a strong amount of support.
“I’m going to keep up my ground game by reaching as many people as I can, and I had a mailer go out this week to people, getting out the vote and repeating my message and the things I’ve worked hard to represent the district on,” Archambault said. “I’m staying focused. I have historically walked up until the last day of every election I’ve had, this is no different. I will walk up until Nov. 2, I’ll still be out walking.”
Santucci said he believes voters are “uneasy with the status quo” and has heard plenty of concerns about taxes.
“That comes up a lot,” he said. “They’re concerned about the roads. They’re concerned about some basic things, but ultimately when I interpret that I think the common denominator is that we need growth of jobs, but good-paying jobs, and we have an opportunity to bolster our infrastructure in this community to provide those types of jobs that are 21st-century, good-paying jobs. To me, that’s what it boils down to. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity that’s before us.”
Tocco said he is continuing to tell voters, with coronavirus numbers back on the rise in Rhode Island, that the General Assembly needs to take more action to mitigate the impacts. He said the House and Senate have allowed the executive branch to “run the show.”
“We’re pounding that message home,” Tocco said. “The only way the state is eventually going to come out of this pandemic … you’ve got to get the General Assembly back in the game. They have to be a participant.”
Tocco continued to hit Archambault on his choice to hold fundraisers during the pandemic, a decision he assailed at length in a previous interview with the Sun Rise as well.
“That’s a scary thought, why this guy will do anything to stay in office, and why he will be continuously beholden to special interest groups,” Tocco said.
Archambault responded to Tocco’s concerns, saying that every one of his fundraisers provided a grab-and-go option and observed every COVID-19 social distancing protocol.
“You could come and grab some clamcakes and chowder in a bag and take it to go,” Archambault said. “The other one I had you could get a hamburger and take it to go. We followed every protocol.”
When asked about his efforts, Santucci stayed out of the fray and said he wouldn’t be “denigrating anyone who does fundraising.” He said that, outside of some RI GOP assistance on a mailer, he has largely self-funded his campaign.
“I did have a small amount of help on a mailer from the RI GOP, but I have not asked for and will not accept any fundraising under any circumstances,” Santucci said. “My wife and I have just been fortunate enough that we’ve been in a position where we could do this, and I just feel better about not having to go down that road. It’s not a knock against anyone who does fundraising at all. I have deeply rooted concerns about campaign finances at a national level, at a state level, as well as a local level.”
Archambault said the pandemic forced him to take a different approach to the campaign early on, when he would usually be getting valuable face time with constituents. Instead, he took to making more than 1,700 calls across the district to hear concerns about unemployment, health care and more.
Additionally, he wasn’t able to make his usual trips to local nursing homes and senior centers, with strict guidelines prohibiting visitors to vulnerable populations for several months. He has still tried to connect, though, sending in lemon-scented sanitizer spray bottles to nursing homes and senior centers.
“If you look back at my Facebook, you’ll see there are countless pictures of me with all sorts of folks all over the district, including our nursing homes and senior centers, and I’ve spent a lot of time there,” Archambault said. “I talk to people, I find out what their issues are and we all like human contact, we all like to talk to people. I can’t do that this time.”
Archambault said he has “used my time wisely” in the Senate, pointing to his record on everything from the opioid crisis to education bills he has helped see through.
“I’ve worked on legislation to help jobs and the economy,” Archambault said. “I had a bill for our small farms, to exempt dairy farms so that they could survive. I’ve backed every job-related bill or supplemental unemployment benefits, secured funding for Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston public schools for COVID-19 protections. I’ve done all that, and more. People can say they’re going to do things, but I’ve actually done things.”
Santucci alluded to his own record as well, hoping to lure voters with his success solving issues in Smithfield’s water district and creating a path toward better infrastructure. He has also worked to address other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, and has discussed bringing that experience to the State House in a previous interview with the Sun Rise.
“If people looked to my track record, they would see that I’ve made improvements to the Smithfield police and fire pensions, and we need to address state pension plans, and it also improves the sustainability of our post-employment benefits for town workers, teachers, police, firefighters and something needs to be done to allow the communities to fund those post-employment benefits trusts in a better fashion,” Santucci said.
Tocco said the state is “six months behind the eight ball” in responding to the economic effects of the pandemic. He’s looking to bring a fresh perspective, saying small businesses around the state require money “like a blood transfusion.”
He said that, with a potentially dark winter approaching and the coronavirus surging once more, he believes the General Assembly has gone “AWOL.”
“They are absent from the conversation from when this happened in March,” Tocco said. “Where are we going to be when the dust settles? How are these people going to recover? How are people going to have the opportunity to pay the rent, pay the mortgages, everything they are going to do? … The ripple effect is for everybody.”