Following his formal reelection bid announcement on Sept. 27, Mayor Joseph Polisena hosted JohnstonPatch for an interview at Johnston Town Hall covering his accomplishments as mayor, the work he feels is still ahead, and his opponent in the race, Peter Filippi.
We've transcribed excerpts from the coversation below.
Making the announcement, campaign message:
We had over 150 people show up, which was great — volunteers and supporters — and we had Sen. Whitehouse and Sen. Reed and several other state dignitaries.
We're moving forward — I think the town has come around since I took office in 2007, our economic development has exceeded my expectations, we're looking at $550 million in new business. I know people say "you keep saying that about Stuart's," but Stuart's is happening, there's no doubt about it. There's going to be a supermarket there, there's going to be a bank and some other businesses that I can't say at this point in time. We've got Sims metals recycling coming in, they're going to be spending about $60 million [and creating] 100 jobs, Johnston residents will have preference.
I just spoke with a company that's looking to locate in town. It's called NeoEnergy; they're going to employ 10 people and spend $25 million, and what they do is they get the expired food and food scraps and they turn it into energy.
You just look around the town, and we've got cranes and construction going on, and everybody else has basically got vacant buildings.
On Republican opponent Peter Filippi:
I think my record speaks for itself; I'm a person who gets things done — I've had my political enemies come up to me an and say: 'I don't like you personally, but you're doing a damn good job with the town,' and that makes you feel good.
As far as me running, when you have an opponent who has a criminal record, like Mr. Filippi who's been arrested several times — he's a naysayer on everything. I know he attacked us on the dog park, the man just hates everybody and everything, and I think he should just take a look at himself — he has a criminal record, not only in Rhode Island, but Massachusetts, he experiences deviant behavior and dangerous behavior being drunk all the time.
He's got the right to run, but I think people see when they look at my record and they look at his criminal record, they're going to see what I've done as mayor, and basically what he's trying to push, his 'Johnston Taxpayers' group that he can't get members for.
When I see the arrest reports, and I see this foul, vulgar language and disrespect to the police and that he's got a criminal record — and it's Massachusetts, it's not just local — the guy's got some issues he needs to deal with, and frankly, I think he's an embarassment to the town and to his family.
If I had a criminal record, I wouldn't be running for public office.
[Read more — Filippi's blog post on prior arrests, Aug 25, 2012.]
He's made a lot of enemies, he's attacked municipal workers, he's attacked the teachers, he's attacked the gay and lesbian community, he's just a venomous person, but he really needs to look at his own life. Quite frankly, he goes to strip clubs, I think he's a sexual deviant, myself. You're not supposed to go in and handle the dancers, but that's why he was arrested.
I think people know that we do the job, and I've still got the will to ensure everybody gets represented. When I get elected, I don't just represent the people who voted for me — I represent everybody, and if you're a taxpayer and you come to me, even if you're not a supporter, I'm going to help you because that's what I'm here for. The purpose of the mayor here is to run the town but also to fix peoples' problems.
As we move forward, the herculean task we have ahead of us is pension reform, we have to fix the pensions, and I'll be honest with you — if the union's don't come to the table, there will be no pensions. That I can guarantee. There's going to be no government bailout, at least with the Johnston taxpayers, to fund pensions. It's unsustainable and unfixable, and the only way it can be sustained and fixed is if the unions come back to the table, and you look at the benefits that are being doled out at this point in time.
That's going to take time — I know there are people out there who think you can just take things away, [but] there are laws, whether you look at fortunately or unfortunately, there are laws in this state that you can't just take things away, you have to go through the process — this is a strong labor state, there's no doubt about it, the rules, obviously, are not made for the cities and towns, so you have to negotiate.
Financially, the town's in good shape, but we have a $96 million — we thought it was $90 million, but it's a $96 million unfunded pension liability.
We fixed our OPEB [Other Post-Employment Benefits], which is healthcare after retirement, by switching about 177 retirees from Blue Cross to Medicare, we saved about $750,000 to $800,000, and we knocked our OPEB number from about $229 million to below $100 million, just in one swoop of the pen.
Moody's downgraded us by a number, not a letter, and I know that an 'A' is still better than a 'B' — and that's because of the pensions.
I have to make decisions that are financially correct, not politically correct. I'm willing to do that, and we'll see. I'm hoping that the unions come to the table and that they come with meaningful negotiations. We can't put a Band-Aid on an amputation, as I've always said.
How being mayor has drawn on his past experiene:
It all kind of folds together. I think the experience I got in the General Assembly as a Deputy Majority Leader, it gave me a lot of insight not only on how to run government, but how to stay close with the department heads.
We had an issue a couple of minutes ago with DOT — I called the right person, and it's resolved.
It's taught me how to navigate through bureaucracy, and one thing I hate in this job is bureaucracy — I want to get things done yesterday. If someone comes in and says 'I need this to get done, can you get back to me in a week,' I say 'no,' and I'll make the phone call right then, because I want to get things done now, so that's off the plate and I can move onto the next challenge.
It's also given me patience to deal with people — and you have to have patience; people have problems, and they want you, as mayor, to correct them. Some things you can't correct, but if you can fix it a little bit for them, I think they feel a little bit better.
I meet with other mayors, managers and town administrators, and there is nobody that I speak with — whether it's North Providence, Cumberland, or Cranston, Providence, where you can just walk in and seeing the mayor, and that's an open-door policy that I've had since the day I was elected.
Supporting term limits for Mayor:
As mayor, people think I'm crazy, but I'm supporting term limits for the mayor's seat. There will be two four-year terms, then out.
I out in term limits when I was a senator, and it got crushed. If you have an agenda when you're running for office, and you can't get your agenda completed in eight years, then you've got more than an agenda.
You don't need someone here for 20 or 30 years. That's not good government — people get stale, they run out of ideas, some people get tainted.
On a personal note, I think the biggest thing I've ever done is bring a former First Lady and Presidential candiate to town, and that was Hillary Clinton. That was one of the proudest days of my life. She came to Johnston, she respected Johnston, and the community came out in force — I don't think that I've ever seen more people out in the streets, inside the restaurant, outside the restaurant waiting for her — the town was in the spotlight.
Bringing a former First Lady and Presidential candidate was just pehnomenal, it's just unfortunate she didn't win, but that's okay.
On 'moving away from the past':
I think when I'm gone [from the mayor's office], some day, I can look people in the face and say that I was never a thief, that I did the right thing, that I did things that were morally correct instead of politically correct, and I can hold my head up high.
People say 'You're going a good job,' and I say I have good council members, good school committee members, and I've got some good department heads.