Johnston Town Council President Robert Russo told the Sun Rise this week that, in order to affect change, legislators and leaders need time.
Russo, who has served District 4 for 25 years, is the only member of the council with a primary challenger this September. Kevin Millonzi is opposing Russo for his seat, arguing that the incumbent has been on the council for too long.
Russo responded to that notion when talking with the Sun Rise, saying that if Millonzi is critical of his time in office, he would have to extend that to other long-serving leaders such as Mayor Joseph Polisena, School Committee Chairman Bob LaFazia and outgoing Police Chief Richard Tamburini.
“All have done good for the town, so I think just using that issue of length in office, it means you have no record, it means you have nothing to speak on,” Russo said. “It’s a number. I think it’s got no bearing on anything, really. I’m not a negative guy. He went negative, I don’t do negative stuff. I run a classy campaign and I have a strong record from all the time I’ve been in office. I haven’t been sitting in my office doing nothing.”
Russo said that the branches of government in town working together has yielded significant results, specifically pointing out the successful luring of FM Global’s world headquarters.
It wasn’t the last major development from his tenure that he touched on, highlighting 55 miles of road repaved over the past decade, the new Marian J. Mohr Library, the Senior Center, Recreation Center and more.
“I love Johnston. I love my town,” Russo said. “I like my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. The town has a great potential. We’re centrally located, and I want to see this town build like it’s been building over the years. I want to see good companies coming in, [like] Market Basket. The whole community, one theme all election cycle this summer, is Market Basket. People are so excited for the Market Basket to come in.”
He added that, when he was younger, Johnston was looked down on by other communities as a “second-class citizen,” but now he believes that impression has changed.
“People say, ‘Oh, this town’s got its act together. All the oars are rowing in the right direction,’” Russo said. “Boards fighting, turning down people for no valid reasons, and these companies aren’t going to want to come near the town not knowing they’re going to invest millions of dollars and then just because someone’s in a bad mood some day, they’re not going to get the release they need. We changed all that, and it takes years. That’s one thing my opponent misses. He just thinks, ‘Oh, you get in office you’re going to change the world overnight.’”
It’s resulted in a paradigm shift for businesses looking to come to Johnston, too. Russo said the “confidence of companies willing to come in” has altered the landscape. Polisena and the council have reiterated numerous times how Johnston is extremely business-friendly, and it shows.
The town is set to welcome Encompass Health, a 50-bed inpatient rehab facility, as the project this week received approval from Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. Russo pointed to the Citizens Bank campus as well, and teased another “major company” that’s “within our grasp.”
“I could go on all day about what’s gone on, but the common denominator is it takes time,” Russo said. “Anyone who says, ‘I’m going to come in and fix things,’ and my opponent’s basically talking about stuff that’s already been done. You can’t take credit for stuff that’s already been done or in the final stages right now.”
When asked what makes District 4 unique among the other areas of Johnston, Russo instead decided to reflect on what makes the town itself stand out. He said that, more so than in other parts of the state, folks usually settle in the same neighborhood for life and create a “longevity in the communities.”
Russo still lives in the same part of town as he has since high school, and so do most of his closest friends.
“People you know, you grew up with, you can trust, you feel safe,” Russo said. “That’s very unique about Johnston. It’s a very humble community, and I’ve seen through thick and thin, it’s a community that bonds, that gets together when things are down, and they support people if other citizens become ill or sick, they watch out for each other security-wise. And they’re very resilient. We have a very resilient population and they recognize what’s being done and I think they're very happy for it.”
Russo said if he wins another term, he would like to look into business opportunities for the western corridor of Hartford Avenue – where that aforementioned worldwide company could end up.
He said he wants to continue helping seniors by maintaining exemptions and committed to keeping the police and fire departments stocked with the best equipment possible. He also said, regarding future work with colleagues on other boards, he looks forward to the possibility of a new elementary school in town.
“This country is having a lot of growing pains right now,” Russo said. “[There are] a lot of concerns out there with people worried about defunding the police. Well, on my watch I’ll never defund the police. I’ll fund them for whatever they need to protect the community, 100 percent. We have officers on 24 hours a day, we’ve never reduced anybody. We’re going to assure the people that we’re going to keep this community safe.”
He said his goal was to make Johnston a “premier community,” and he believes the town is there.
“I just want to make it even better,” Russo said. “I look at the real estate sales and the houses sell here quick. I think if we get this unified school system going, school systems really attract higher house sales and people that come in pay higher taxes, higher revenues. Those are some of the things that we want to do. There’s a lot going on. I’ve been on long enough to know that anyone who promises they’re going to fix things in one term, two terms, three terms.”