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Valley Breeze publisher apologizes for unfairly influencing the Woonsocket City Council special election



Tom Ward, publisher of The Valley Breeze, printed a letter from his brother, Woonsocket City Councilmember John Ward, attacking candidate Alex Kithes on Thursday, days before the August 6 election. Kithes is running against conservative Roger Jalette, a former Woonsocket Town Councilmember and a friend of John Ward’s.

John Ward

The Valley Breeze publishes 17,100 paper copies aimed at Woonsocket residents every Thursday. The next paper edition of The Valley Breeze will come out next Thursday, August 8, two days after the election.

The Valley Breeze has a policy, made explicit by Tom Ward in a communication to all candidates during the 2018 election, that the paper “will not publish anything resembling an ‘attack’ [on] any other candidate in the final week’s papers… as there is no time for the aggrieved candidate to respond in print… Further, [we] will not run any attack ‘letters to the editor’ in the final week.”

After printing the letter, written by his brother, John Ward, publisher Tom Ward apologized for the “error” in the online edition of the paper and on Facebook:

“The letter by Councilman John Ward was printed in error and should not have appeared in the paper the week prior to Tuesday’s election. I apologize for this mistake.”

Tom Ward also gave Kithes a chance to respond to the letter. The problem, of course, is that the online edition of the paper, and the Facebook page of the paper, does not reach 17,100 potential voters. The damage that the letter may potentially do to the election has already been done.

The letter from the publisher’s brother, Woonsocket City Councilor John Ward, is full of what can only be called lies, intentionally mischaracterizing the positions and opinions of Kithes.

For instance, John Ward writes:

“During an airing of ‘The Coalition Radio Show,’ a candidate stated that CVS pays “… between one and two million dollars as a payment in lieu of taxes program.” He has also stated that he wants to re-open the agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to address their apparent low contribution to the city. What he fails to mention, or may not know, is that the agreement ends in 2027! And on top of that, it includes the State of Rhode Island as a party to the agreement. So we would have to convince both the state and CVS that they don’t pay enough and we want them to negotiate a higher payment. Can you just imagine the state agreeing to such a thing?”

Here’s what Kithes actually said during that broadcast:

“I fall on the side of wanting [CVS] to stay in Woonsocket, but I do think we need to renegotiate that program. An idea that was proposed to me and I think is a very good one is getting rid of the PILOT program or renegotiating it, effectively increasing their taxes, but allowing them to pay some of that in donations to nonprofits located within the City. I think that would be a huge step in the right direction. And I’m pretty confident that we could work something out in good faith with them, at the time when that’s being renegotiated, to better the community without incentivizing them leaving, because at the end of the day, they’re a corporation that’s beholden to their shareholders. There’s an amount of money, in increased taxes, that’s going to make them leave, and below that, they can’t justify it to their shareholders.” [emphasis mine]

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During his appearance on The Coalition Radio Show, Kithes recognized that approaching the CVS issue is fraught because his political opponents (like Woonsocket City Councilor John Ward, brother of newspaper publisher Tom Ward) regularly use the specter of CVS possibly leaving Woonsocket as a scare tactic:

“There’s a lot of scare tactics that go on, primarily used by the man who negotiated the deal at the beginning, who is now a well-known personality, he and his friends use scare tactics against anybody who suggest this, so nobody wants to suggest it, but realistically, it would be good for the City, to explore renegotiating that.”

I have long maintained that today’s journalism maintains a false objectivity. In truth, modern journalism has a centrist bias, and some news sources, such as The Valley Breeze and The Providence Journal, skew decidedly right. This impacts the way the news is covered, even if there is supposed to be some sort of firewall between the news and editorial functions of the paper.

Kithes has a very real chance of winning this election, and beginning the dismantling of a political machine in Woonsocket that has failed the ailing City for decades. The establishment feels threatened, so a letter full of lies from the city councilmember brother of the city’s newspaper publisher was delivered to 17,100 potential voters with the clear intent of influencing the election, and timed so as to blunt any impactful response.

In the face of a threat to their power, the thin veil of objectivity and firewalls was quickly torn asunder.

Here’s the entirety of Kithes’ response:

“A sitting Woonsocket city councilman took the opportunity to have his slanderous and incorrect op-ed printed in the most recent edition of The Valley Breeze, published on Thursday, so that I would have no chance to respond in print. I do have a response for the people of Woonsocket, who deserve a clear picture of my record and views ahead of the election on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

“I did not, on the radio or at any other time during this campaign, directly attack the integrity of Councilman Brien. It is absolutely a fact, as I stated on air, that he ignored my calls after offering to communicate on the topic of renewable energy development. This is an issue very important to me, and an issue which Councilman Brien claims is very important to him, so I was disappointed that he chose to put the interests of his friend, my opponent, above our desire to transform this city’s green energy economy.

“I was absolutely in the right to point out the glaring issue of governmental inaccessibility, which tends to be that much more of a problem for women, people of color, young people, poor people, seniors, and other groups that tend to be underrepresented in government. This is something that a lot of people across the city have told me they experience when I’ve talked to them as part of this campaign, and it is absolutely heartbreaking to know that underrepresented communities are all too often ignored by elected officials who are supposed to represent us all. The councilman who printed the op-ed’s claim that this attack constitutes “race-baiting” is a ridiculous farce, and a political stunt on his part.

“As for my comments on CVS, I have no intention of purposely or accidentally driving CVS out of our city. My comments were nothing more than a recognition that CVS is a part of our community. As we strive to build the Woonsocket we all dream of, it is absolutely fair to engage with CVS when their TSA comes up for renegotiation in 2027 on the presumption that as part of our community, CVS has a role to play by contributing nothing more than their fair share to our city in taxes and contributions to local nonprofits. To claim that I said anything else is a deliberate and politically-motivated distortion of my views, views which I am proud to share.

“The future that we dream of, where our city attracts young families who contribute to our tax base and the development of a compassionate culture and an innovative and environmentally sustainable economy, can be achieved. The work will be hard, but I am dedicated to seeing it through. I know we can do that if we work together, and transcend the factional division that causes so much personal hate in our city’s politics. That’s why I need your support on Tuesday, so that the work can truly begin.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.