WESTERLY — Disenchanted with its national leaders, from the White House down, and convinced that partisan politics contributes nothing positive on the local level, Town Council member Jean Gagnier has cut his ties with the Republican party and is now an unaffiliated voter.
“Party politics is just ripping us apart, and I found myself increasingly at odds within my own party and with people in the opposition party,” Gagnier said during a recent interview.
Until October, when he changed his voter registration, Gagnier had served on the council since 2014 as a Republican. But in 2016 he found he could vote for neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton. Instead he selected Bernie Sanders.
In the months after the election, Gagnier contemplated the state of the GOP and found it lacked the type of leaders who had attracted him to the party and politics in the first place. Men like John Chafee, a fellow Marine, who served as a Republican governor in Rhode Island from 1962 to 1969, and as a U.S. senator from 1976 to 1999. He also admired the career of a Democrat — Claiborne Pell, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1961 to 1997 and was in the U.S. Coast Guard for four years.
“These are guys who served to serve their country and serve their state. It’s gotten to a point where I just don’t feel that any more,” Gagnier said.
When it comes to local politicians, Gagnier praised Philip Overton and Christopher Duhamel, the Republicans he has run and served with in the past, as “honorable guys.”
While the local Republican Town Committee provided a bit of campaign support and input once he was elected, Gagnier said he remained independent and was never told how to vote. Democrats, on the other hand, he said, have a well-organized and disciplined town committee that has proved adept at raising funds for campaigns.
“It’s a good strategy, but most people look for a return on their investment,” Gagnier said of the Democrats’ fundraising efforts.
The current council, Gagnier said, has struggled because of partisan politics, which he blamed on Democrats Edward Morrone, William Aiello and Jack Carson. The three set their sights on taking over the council’s elected leadership positions from the start, he said.
“I believe my colleagues came in with a plan, and they’ve been single-minded and very disciplined. I think that hurt the town and the council,” Gagnier said.
In December, the council conducted an election for officers that resulted in Morrone becoming president and Aiello vice president. Councilor Mario Celico, an unaffiliated voter who campaigned with Gagnier, had served as presiding officer since June, when former Council President James Silvestri resigned.
Gagnier pointed out that Morrone asked to be president immediately after the 2016 election, even though Silvestri had served as president for most of the previous term and despite the custom of the councilor with the greatest number of votes serving as president. In that election, it was Silvestri. Morrone has confirmed having conversations during which he expressed interest in serving as council president following the 2016 election.
Morrone, in a recent interview, rejected Gagnier’s accusations and questioned his claims.
“Maybe he’s been in the wrong party. Is this the same Jean Gagnier who held up signs and banners for Trump during the campaign?” Morrone said.
Rather than abandon the party because of “Trump’s edicts,” Morrone questioned why Gagnier did not remain in the party and work for change.
“But I respect Jean’s choice because he has a right to make such a choice. Thank God it is a choice we can make in this country without fear of sanction or retribution,” he said.
As he has in the past, Morrone assailed Gagnier’s take on the composition of the council’s leadership and how it came about. He noted that he and the other Democrats on the council voiced a willingness to vote for Duhamel to fill the vacancy left by Silvestri’s resignation. The Republicans and Celico, however, wanted Louis Sposato.
“We voted for Chris Duhamel, but his own party did not. Chris Duhamel served honorably in the past and was a good candidate. That’s not partisan politics, that’s good government,” Morrone said.
The vacancy was eventually filled by Karen Cioffi, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter.
Morrone agreed with Gagnier on one point, that “Trump is a disgrace in the White House.”
Robert Ritacco, chairman of the Westerly Democratic Town Committee, also questioned Gagnier’s interpretation of events and the political atmosphere.
“I think local party politics is a little different because on a local level it’s been my experience that we all, in either party, have tended to come together and work together for the betterment of the town.”
The current council appears unable to work together, Ritacco said, but for reasons other than party affiliation. He called the current local political climate “very unique for Westerly. There’s been a lot of chaos. Hopefully in November, I’m assuming we’re going to get new members, so hopefully people can regroup and start to work together again.
“The last couple of years the council members have demonstrated they can’t work together, but I think that is due to individuals’ personalities, not party affiliation,” Ritacco said.
Ritacco also pushed back on Gagnier’s theory regarding the council leadership positions.
“I completely disagree that Ed Morrone and the other two Democrat council members were focused on how can we become president and vice president on the council due to simple mathematics. The Democrats didn’t have a majority,” Ritacco said.
When Morrone and Aiello were nominated, their ability to win their seats depended on Cioffi’s votes, Ritacco said.
“The Democrats still don’t have a majority, and even if there were four or five Democrats, that doesn’t mean they vote together,” he said.
Nancy Richmond, chairwoman of the Westerly Republican Town Committee, said she was disappointed when Gagnier informed her of his decision.
“Basically he called me and said he was going back to being an independent, which he was in the beginning, but we have always encouraged independence in our party, anyway, and he of course knows that,” Richmond said.
The town committee tries to refrain from imposing ideology on its members, Richmond said, adding that Gagnier’s step away from the party will only have so much effect.
“He’s still a very good friend,” she said.