Warwick Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson may be cheering for a Blue Wave this November, but in a race in nearby East Greenwich, she is rooting for Republican incumbent Antonio Giarrusso over his Democratic woman challenger, Justine Caldwell. Vella-Wilkinson has even written a letter of support, for Giarrusso, claiming that Caldwell engaged in “character [assassination]” in a recent campaign press release.
The problem is, Vella-Wilkinson mischaracterizes Caldwell’s press release, and defends Giarrusso against charges Caldwell never made. Giarrusso used Vella-Wilkinson’s letter in a campaign mailer.
“Dear Anthony,” begins the statement from Vella-Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick) to Giarrusso (Republican, District 30, East Greenwich) at the top of a new campaign mailer from the Giarrusso campaign. “Please express my thanks to your lovely wife or letting me know about those ridiculous and vicious statements your opponent is promoting about you. This is not about politics’ it’s about unfair and unfounded character [assassination]. I hope my statement is useful and if not, I hope it reminds you that you are appreciated by your peers!”
Vella-Wilkinson appears to be responding to a press release and Facebook post made by Giarrusso’s opponent, Democrat Justine Caldwell. Caldwell writes:
“[Rep Giarrusso is] a perfect illustration. After the reports about sexual harassment at the State House, leaders at least decided to do a training on sexual harassment. Rep Giarrusso not only skipped it, but then went on a press tour to brag about skipping it. When he got criticism for it, he managed to get himself appointed to the sexual harassment commission at the State House. Appointing someone to a sexual harassment commission who brags about skipping sexual harassment training is a failure of both parties’ leadership at the State House. The House Senior Deputy Minority Leader should know better, and so should Democratic and Republican leadership.”
In the first part of her Facebook post Caldwell was referring to the events described in a Providence Journal piece by Katherine Gregg in which members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives took a course in sexual harassment.
“Sixty of the 75 representatives attended the training. But notably, the two Republicans leaders of the House — Minority Leader Patricia Morgan and Senior Deputy Minority Leader Anthony Giarrusso — did not attend the entire session. Giarrusso did not attend at all.
“’I just felt like, I’m a month away from my 56th birthday and I think I did all right with my life,’ Giarrusso said when reached by phone Wednesday night. ‘Mostly, I felt like I’d be doing a disservice to my parents by going. They raised me to respect everyone, especially women.’”
In the second part of her Facebook post Caldwell spoke about Giarrusso’s involvement in Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown)’s Special Legislative Commission to Study Unlawful Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. Both Giarrusso and Vella-Wilkinson were members of that committee.
Tanzi’s committee ended with a package of sexual harassment legislation which Speaker Nicholas Mattiello failed to bring to the House floor for a vote.
Vella-Wilkinson writes, “I had the pleasure of serving with Anthony Giarrusso as fellow members in the Special House Commission reviewing RI State Laws on Sexual Harassment. Anthony always conducted himself as a true gentlemen and fully engaged, respectful participant.
“Anthony’s questions and comments were thoughtful and consistently moved our discussions forward. His business acumen helped ground our deliberations in a direction less burdensome to small business while retaining compassion for victims,” continues Vella-Wilkinson. “To depict his contributions or conduct as anything less is a gross misrepresentation.”
Note that Caldwell never mentions Giarrusso’s “contributions or conduct” while he was acting as a member of the special committee.
“Representative Vella-Wilkinson writes on the flyer that she got her information about this matter from Janet Giarrusso,” said Caldwell in a reply to a request for comment. “I am disappointed that Representative Vella-Wilkinson, who I know, didn’t contact me, and apparently didn’t contact anyone who we know in common — people who know very well what kind of person I am and how I’m running my campaign, and who have contacted her since her statement came to light.
“I don’t know what Mrs Giarrusso told her. Here’s what I actually said about this matter: Representative Giarrusso skipped the sexual harassment training, went on the radio to brag about it (in fact, at Monday’s candidate forum, he doubled down, called the training a “dog and pony show,” and said he would make the same choices all over again). I said that I disagreed with his decision to skip it. I also said that, given his disregard for the training, it was the wrong decision to assign him to the Sexual Harassment Commission. I don’t see how that is “vicious” or “character assignation [sic].” That’s what I said, and it’s what I believe — and I’ve talked with many, many voters in our district who agree.”
Vella-Wilkinson did not reply to a request for comment as of this writing.
RI’s Blue Wave continues to gather strength. Looking for a tsunami in November. — attending Rally with Joe Biden and Rhode Island Democrats at Rhode Island Convention Center https://t.co/9DcJd5a1eS
— Camille Wilkinson (@VellaWilkinson) September 30, 2018
Here’s the Giarrusso mailer:
Here’s Caldwell’s original press release, in full:
Justine Caldwell: Kavanaugh hearings show why we need more women in office
Caldwell: “We need more people in the room like Dr Ford, and fewer like Brett Kavanaugh”
Justine Caldwell, who is seeking the Rhode Island House seat in District 30 (East Greenwich, West Greenwich), spoke out today against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — and the male-dominated culture at the Rhode Island State House. She noted that her opponent, incumbent Rep Giarrusso, exemplifies the problem, but that the flaws in the culture on Smith Hill are pervasive.
Caldwell reacted to the testimony given by psychologist and Kavanaugh assault victim Christine Blasey Ford. “So many women know the feeling Dr Ford described today — feeling the weight of a man on top of you, who is too heavy to remove. So many women know the feeling of telling a partner about a sexual assault in their pasts, and being made to feel like it was somehow our fault. And now we’re watching a group of Republican men trying to defend a man who she says sexually assaulted her, to the point she feared for her life, by hiring a woman to ask his victim questions about her fear of flying. It’s disgusting. My heart goes out to Dr Ford, who is helping start a conversation I hope we in Rhode Island continue.”
Caldwell noted that sexual harassment were a major topic of discussion — but not action — at the State House this year, and said that Rep Giarrusso is part of the problem.
“He’s a perfect illustration. After the reports about sexual harassment at the State House, leaders at least decided to do a training on sexual harassment. Rep Giarrusso not only skipped it, but then went on a press tour to brag about skipping it. When he got criticism for it, he managed to get himself appointed to the sexual harassment commission at the State House. Appointing someone to a sexual harassment commission who brags about skipping sexual harassment training is a failure of both parties’ leadership at the State House. The House Senior Deputy Minority Leader should know better, and so should Democratic and Republican leadership.”
The sexual harassment commission ended its work without getting a single bill passed. “It’s no surprise that a flawed process, with people like Rep. Giarrusso so uninterested in this problem they didn’t even want to go to training about it, would result in so little action. Rep Teresa Tanzi, who chaired the commission, said she was ‘disgusted’ and called it a ‘dog and pony show.’ We have learned our lesson, and we won’t let that happen again.”
Caldwell has explained that she, along with many of her neighbors, doesn’t feel represented by Rep Giarrusso at the State House, and has consistently advocated for more women running for office. “This is why it matters. This is why we need more women at the State House. We need people more people in the room like Dr Ford, and fewer like Brett Kavanaugh. That’s how we’re going to get public policy to reflect the needs of victims like Dr Ford, and ensure we aren’t creating new victims — whether they’re women going to work at the State House, or Rhode Island women living their lives. We need a State House culture where the needs of women are understood as well as the needs of men. Electing more women is the most important way we can do that.”
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