The candidates for House District 43, a seat that solely encompasses Johnston, exchanged last-minute barbs as the campaign enters its final week.
Incumbent Rep. Deborah Fellela will face off with Republican opponent Nick Grasso at the polls next week, and they were critical of each other in respective interviews with the Sun Rise. Fellela said this election has featured more “criticizing [and] lies” than those in years past.
“It’s easy to criticize if you don’t have a record, so I just feel like a lot of that lying, it’s sad really, I think, the way things go with that,” Fellela said.
She continued, saying Grasso “hasn’t been a Johnston resident for that long,” and suggested he may switch parties again after registering as a Republican only six years ago.
“He doesn’t own a home in the town of Johnston,” Fellela said. “He’s saying the taxes have gone up, taxes haven’t gone up. If he owned a home he’d know that. I just feel like people know me, and they know what I stand for and I’ll do what I say. He also has tried to get money from the progressives now, I understand, when he said he’s a Republican … He said he possibly would change parties, so I’m thinking he maybe is going to do that.”
Grasso responded during his chat with the Sun Rise, saying he has never tried to obtain money from progressive groups. He accused Fellela of being “a little bit upset” that her primary opponent, progressive Democrat Melinda Lopez, has Grasso’s sign planted in her front yard.
“It’s just time for new leadership,” Grasso said. “She’s been in office for 14 years, far too long. Career politicians – as we see on the national level, right down to the local level – it gives more chance for corruption, more chance for bad things to come in place, more time for deal-making and they lose sight of why they were there. I’m here for the people. Rep. Fellela has been very, very misleading.”
When reached to confirm Grasso’s statement, Lopez said she was indeed supporting his candidacy.
“I will not vote for someone who has proven to be ineffective,” Lopez said via text. “Why not give him a chance? He is a thinker and eager to improve our community. We may not agree on everything but we do agree that she is NOT what is best for Johnston.”
Calling for new leadership is one of the tentpoles of Grasso’s campaign, leaning on Fellela’s support of the evergreen contract bill – against Mayor Joseph Polisena’s repeated wishes – and truck tolls.
“Rep. Fellela’s put our town and our taxpayers in severe peril here because she voted on the evergreen contract bill, which the mayor and most of the people on the Town Council know that’s going to put them at a huge disadvantage when it comes to bargaining with the unions,” Grasso said.
“When these legislators go back in November and it’ll be one of the first issues they take up, is how are we going to generate more money to plug the hole in the budget, and one of the first things that I’m hearing is going to be considered is turning those tolls on for the cars.”
Fellela said she’s gathered that most residents of the area are satisfied with the status quo, fielding complaints mostly about President Donald Trump. She cited the town’s stable taxes over the past four years, and she said that she has a “strong relationship” with Polisena.
“He supports me, he has been helping me right through all summer long,” Fellela said. “He has a headquarters there in town for us. He’s been walking with his son [Council Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr.]. Twice or three times a week we walk, so I feel the delegation has been strong and all together.”
While discussing the impending budget talks – which were delayed until at least after the election – Fellela said she wants “to see Johnston get their money.”
“I want to see Johnston not lose any money,” Fellela said. “That will be my first priority, that we don’t lose any money from that budget. Our schools need help, especially now in these days with the pandemic and all the problems that are occurring. I’d like to see us get more money for the landfill. I think that would be something that we should really take a look at this coming year.”
She said she’s honest with her constituents, and they know her values and what she stands for.
“I will do whatever I can to help them,” Fellela said. “I think many people have seen in the past that I’ve helped them especially during this pandemic, there’s been a lot of calls and concerns for when we had the unemployment problems … I’m part of the community.”
Both candidates have been adhering to COVID-19 social distancing protocols during their campaigns, and they haven’t relented during the final weeks. Fellela is walking the neighborhoods and knocking on doors, but she tends to ring the doorbell and stand back to see how she’ll be greeted.
“You ring that bell, you back off a little bit because you just don’t know,” Fellela said. “People would rather be safe. We’d all rather be safe so we step back and a lot of people invite you in actually, that you know, but there are other people, they’d rather you some time leave the information so you get a little bit of a mixed bag there.”
Grasso said he scaled back his door-to-door efforts, requiring his campaign to issue more mailers and exercise more volunteers along the way. Having never run in a non-pandemic year, Grasso said the obstacles presented create circumstances that are “a little bit more difficult than a normal year.”
“I think it’s a combination of a few things,” Grasso said. “We had to respect some certain COVID protocols and a few people reached out and asked to either do Zoom conferencing or telephone calls versus meeting in person … It put a greater strain on us to do more mailers as far as reaching out to people that were going to be voting via mail ballot. Of course, you know, that requires extra volunteer effort, more campaign finance effort.”