WARWICK, RI — After being appointed to the position in 2018 and winning his first term a few months later, Mayor Joseph Solomon could not overcome the popularity of Independent Frank Picozzi, who secured a 59-to-40 percent victory on Nov. 3.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, the Rhode Island Board of Elections reported that Picozzi collected 25,809 votes to Solomon’s 17,524, with 124 write-in votes.
An undetermined number of mail-in ballots remained to be counted by the state board of elections as of Nov. 4, though it was unlikely that Solomon could secure enough to overturn the Election Day results.
Solomon admitted as much when he conceded the race on Wednesday.
Coincidentally, Solomon won by a nearly identical 60-percent-to-39-percent margin over Sue Stenhouse in 2018, meaning that Solomon lost significant support over the last two years instead of maintaining it — and there was no more obvious proof than the Warwick Beacon’s decision to endorse Picozzi over him.
Losing the paper’s endorsement also indicated that more voters have learned that Solomon did not accurately depict the city’s fiscal state when he first took office, and that they doubted whether he has been honestly portraying Warwick’s financial situation since then — with good reason. | Read: Auditing Solomon’s Claims about the New Warwick Audit
For his part, Picozzi offered a message about improving how the city is run without flinging too many pointed barbs at Solomon, and capitalized on the positive reputation he’s earned for his annual Christmas light displays and support of children’s causes.
Here are the five factors that decided the 2020 Warwick mayor’s election:
1. Picozzi’s online campaign overcame cash disadvantage
Among the factors that explain Picozzi’s strong showing were his use of social media to promote his candidacy and raise money, since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented large in-person gatherings.
Picozzi actually outpaced Solomon in fundraising, $24,000 to $13,000, in September and October, though Solomon still held a major cash advantage through the final month of the campaign, raising another $42,000 to Picozzi’s $6,000.
That money allowed Solomon to spend a reported $81,000 on campaign expenses in the waning weeks of the campaign, including polling by Fleming & Associates ($7,000) and unspecified work by KCM Consulting of North Scituate ($4,200), Blue Wave Solutions, a Jamestown-based firm ($65,000), and Regan Communications Group of Providence ($2,500), according to campaign finance reports filed on Oct. 27.
By comparison, Picozzi paid nearly $8,000 to All the Answers of Warwick, $1,200 to Balloons over Rhode Island of Warwick, and $625 for Facebook advertising, as reported in his 7 Days Before the Election campaign finance report.
2. Record 2020 turnout fueled “change” election
Picozzi also benefited from the historically high turnout for this year’s election, fueled by typical factors like the Presidential election and unique circumstances like expanded early voting because of COVID-19.
This year’s 65.4 percent turnout — according to unofficial Rhode Island Board of Elections results, 43,457 of Warwick’s 66,451 eligible voters cast ballots for mayor — surpassed each of the last two Presidential elections, which saw a 62.7 percent turnout in 2016 and 61 percent in 2012.
Picozzi’s tally nearly matched former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s 26,281 votes in 2016, and was the third-highest vote for the winning candidate since 2010.
In the board of election’s breakdown of the 2020 mayor’s race results, Picozzi gathered 13,620 in-person votes to Solomon’s 5,818, and though Solomon held a 7,500-to-6,000 advantage in mail-in ballots, Picozzi took the majority of emergency ballots, 6,185 to 4,215.
3. Incumbency counted against Solomon
Solomon’s position as sitting mayor should have afforded him a significant advantage in fundraising and electoral support, particularly after his generally good response to the COVID-19 pandemic — but Tuesday’s results prove that he squandered the opportunity to secure a second term.
If there’s been one defining characteristic of Solomon’s tenure — particularly when it comes to situations where the city’s money is at stake — it’s that he seemed intent on creating traps for others to fall into, presumably to show his skill at political strategy.
But those traps seldom caught their intended prey, and instead backfired on Solomon.
Consider how quickly he rushed to declare victory after an arbitrator ruled that the school committee could use already-paid union pension contributions to balance its budget — only to have that plan disintegrate in the face of actual IRS law.
Or look at how he tried to bully the school committee into accepting his poorly-conceived budget offers — only for the city council to pull money from the city paving budget to give more to the schools.
Going even further back, remember how Solomon so vocally claimed that the city was on the verge of financial ruin when he entered the mayor’s office two years ago — only for a city audit to show the opposite to be true.
In these cases, Solomon apparently thought that his fool-proof plans would allow him to get his way on budgetary matters — rather than managing the city’s money in the objectively most responsible manner — and then watched those plans evaporate as the facts were brought to light.
4. Solomon ran a backward-looking campaign
Amid all of the news coverage about this year’s election, particularly the early voting trends that indicated a growing desire for change among voters, Solomon ultimately could not escape his reputation as a Warwick political insider.
That’s not to say that Solomon didn’t try to spin his tenure in the mayor’s office and his prior 20 years on the city council as a positive — indeed, he telegraphed early on that this election was essentially a referendum on his record.
But as we’ve reported here at length, that record includes:
- two massive tax increases followed by a budget that required 50 layoffs of front-line workers to avoid a third consecutive tax hike
- public embarrassments like announcing a tentative deal with the fire union that the union later rejected
- repeated misrepresentations of city finances and an historically long delay in releasing a city audit that undercut his claims
- recklessly rushing to get a flawed fire contract approved by the council, then falsely claiming that it would save the city money
- continued attacks on his predecessor, who not only correctly reported the city’s surplus in 2018 but also remained widely popular in the city
- attempted what former Council President Steve Merolla called a “dictatorship” style move of appointing a city solicitor without council approval
In every one of those cases, Solomon spent more time looking backward than forward, trying to blame Avedisian for the city’s fiscal condition while relieving himself of responsibility, even though he’d also been in city government for two decades.
Tuesday’s results proved that those tactics failed.
5. Voters chose positivity over the status quo
Ultimately, Picozzi offered a more positive message to Warwick voters than did Solomon, and in the current moment, that was clearly the successful campaign strategy.
With COVID-19 still a real and ongoing threat, an 11.6-percent unemployment rate in Warwick as of September amid millions of jobs lost nationally, and continued tensions between the city and school department, anxious and exhausted voters sought some kind of comfort.
And Picozzi offered it — in his response to WarwickPost‘s mayoral questionnaire, Picozzi underscored his intent to work together with the city council and school committee, and to provide transparency about city operations.
By comparison, Solomon kept trying to push misleading talking points, like claiming credit on his campaign website for the last two years of “AA” bond ratings while neglecting to mention that the city first secured that designation in 2017. [Solomon did not provide answers to the Post‘s mayoral survey.]
Against this backdrop, Picozzi offered a clear and positive alternative to the status quo that Solomon represents — and voters overwhelmingly showed that they are ready for a change.
Conclusion: The 2020 mayoral race was Solomon’s to lose, given his incumbency and campaign cash advantage — but he didn’t adjust to the headwinds of change that he faced, and as a result failed to overcome the biggest obstacle that stood in his path to a second term: Himself.