Kithes claims victory in City Council election

Kithes claims victory in City Council election

Councilor-elect Alexander Kithes embraces supporter AJ Chamberlain after learning he won the Woonsocket special election Tuesday night. Kithes beat out former Council President Roger Jalette Sr. to claim the vacant seat on the City Council. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)
Councilor-elect puts government ‘on notice’

WOONSOCKET – A hard-fought contest for an empty seat on the Woonsocket City Council ended in narrow victory Tuesday night for progressive Alexander Kithes, the first-time candidate who beat out former Council President Roger Jalette Sr. to win the runoff election.

Kithes celebrated the victory with supporters at Chan’s, where his campaign team announced the results to an enthusiastic crowd. As of press time, unofficial results from the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers stood at 1,343 for Kithes to 1,238 for Jalette, a 4 percent margin of victory in an election that drew 9.6 percent of registered voters to the polls.

Though the board had yet to officially certify the results, the 105-vote lead was enough to have Kithes’ supporters celebrating the win as the candidate delivered his thanks Tuesday night. He told supporters that voters were ready for a new candidate with a vision for the city’s future and that their hard work helped bring people to the polls.

“The people of Woonsocket are ready for the type of change that I’m talking about, and the view that we’re stuck in the past is not true,” he said.

He reiterated his campaign priorities, including climate change, support for public education and economic growth. He also issued a warning to city office-holders that the days of running on name recognition and experience were over.

“It means that incumbency is no longer the basic strategy for politics in Woonsocket. It means that everyone in city government is on notice,” he said.

The win means council meetings will likely have plenty of fireworks going forward, as five sitting council members and the mayor were all heavily critical of Kithes in the race. He hinted to UpriseRI that every council meeting will now be must-see viewing.

In the days leading up to his win, Kithes said the “establishment is trying every dirty trick, every form of nepotism and cronyism, every use of supposedly neutral public forum and media to stop us from succeeding on Tuesday.”

He had taken particular offense at the publishing of a letter last week in The Breeze from John Ward, brother of founder Tom Ward. Tom Ward had apologized for printing the letter in error, saying it should not have run the week before the election by policy.

This race drew spectators from around the state as the two candidates shared their starkly different views in public forums over the past several weeks. For some, the contest was a test of the larger dynamic taking place in politics around the state, where younger, progressive candidates have faced off against experienced office-holders. Kithes, 27, serves as chairman of Rhode Islanders for Reform, a statewide group supporting rules reform, and made progressive issues such as government transparency and climate change cornerstones of his campaign. Jalette, 76, is a former council president who served for 16 years on the council before launching an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2016. His focus on lower taxes and the local business community earned him the support of several of the city’s prominent politicians, including five of the six sitting council members.

In comments to The Breeze, Kithes said he believed his win signaled disenfranchisement among voters in Woonsocket and disappointment in their elected officials.

“They want a government that is responsive to them, and when they see that somebody actually represents that, they’re excited to vote and actually come out for an election,” he said.

Those voters included individuals like AJ Chamberlain, a city resident who told The Breeze she joined Kithes’ campaign team as a volunteer after meeting him for the first time on primary day. Chamberlain, who currently works for a landscaping company, said her conversations with the candidate inspired her to get involved with the election and also return to graduate school to study environmental issues.

“I haven’t had somebody make me want to go out and knock on a door because I believed in him that much,” she said.

Jalette also inspired support in a large base of voters who connected with his message of lowering taxes and keeping the city’s spending within its means. Judy Beauchemin, the owner of Missy’s Family Restaurant, explained how the former councilor helped guide her through the process of opening her business in 2015 as she hosted a watch party at the restaurant on Tuesday night.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to buy this place. He’s the best,” she said.

Jalette said he was surprised at the results and didn’t expect to lose the election. Earlier, he told The Breeze he spent close to $8,000 on the race, more than any previous campaign, though the amount paled in comparison with Kithes’ spending, which amounted to nearly twice that figure.

“I gave it one of the strongest efforts that I’ve given any race. But I was outspent and out-manpowered,” he said.

Keith Jillette, campaign manager for Kithes, attributed the win to voter engagement, including a particular focus over the past month on neighborhoods where they’d seen low voter turnout or less success in the primary. Though they’d expected a close race, he said, they didn’t realize the result would come down to mail ballots, which accounted for close to 200 votes.

“What happened here was a case of really engaging the community in a way they’d never been engaged before,” he said.

Jalette said it was too early to tell if he plans to run again in the future. In November, he missed re-election to the council by 15 votes in a close finish with former Councilor Julia Brown. Brown left the council to take an out-of-state job in April, leaving the vacant seat to be decided by a special election.

Roger Jalette Sr. and supporters Pauline Demers, Linda Paul and Robert Picard listen to WNRI radio as they tally up the votes at Missy’s Family Restaurant Tuesday night.