GOP’s Robert Flanders kicks off bid to unseat US Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — Republican Robert Flanders kicked off his bid to become Rhode Island’s next U.S. senator on Thursday, pledging to be a Republican who won’t toe the party line while casting incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse as an out-of-touch elitist.

Flanders, 68, is a former R.I. Supreme Court associate justice and prominent local attorney. He launched his campaign in Central Falls, a city he steered through municipal bankruptcy after then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee appointed him as its receiver in 2011.

“The reason I’m doing this is, like many of you I’m dissatisfied with the hyper-partisanship that we see down in Washington, D.C., these days,” Flanders told a crowd of roughly 80 supporters at the event, held at a refurbished mill building in the city’s historic district. “The entrenched politicians who are there – there’s too much finger-pointing and not enough handshaking going on. We need problem-solvers.”

“Yes, I’m running as a Republican but I’m an independent-minded Republican,” he said. “I’m going to call balls and strikes on issues. I’m not just going to reflexively follow whatever the president or the Senate leadership or anybody else says. My mantra and my lodestar is going to be, what’s right for middle-class working families here in Rhode Island and small businesses here in the state.”

Mocking his opponent as “Silver-Spoon Sheldon,” Flanders contrasted Whitehouse’s elite upbringing with his more humble roots, including youthful stints as a dishwasher and a garbage collector.

“I don’t come from privilege and wealth,” Flanders said, adding: “It’s time to stick a fork in all the arrogance, the prosecutorial pomposity, and the climate-change bullying that have characterized his tenure.”

Dick MacAdams, a lawyer and lifelong Flanders friend, put the critique of Whitehouse more pithily: “Everyone I know would rather have a beer with Bob than a chardonnay with Sheldon.”

Flanders has a tough fight on his hands.

Whitehouse is seeking a third term in 2018 after receiving nearly two-thirds of the vote in his last re-election campaign in 2012. Only two Republicans have won election to the U.S. Senate in Rhode Island since 1930: Lincoln Chafee and his late father, John Chafee. And Flanders will first need to win a primary against state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, a Cranston Republican who kicked off his own Senate bid months ago.

Whitehouse has generally kept his distance from his GOP rivals so far, and he had little to say about Flanders’ announcement Thursday. “We welcome him to the race and look forward to a debate with whichever Republican emerges from the primary,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

Nardolillo, who has spent months working to raise his profile through a steady drumbeat of news releases and tweets, had much more to say, arguing in a statement that Flanders is too similar to Whitehouse to win over voters.

“Sheldon Whitehouse is a man whose energy and attention are suspect,” Nardolillo wrote. “He’s an Ivy League Lawyer who has always lived off trust funds and paychecks from the public. He moved to Rhode Island to make it easier to achieve his agenda. Since doing so, he has been distinct and apart from the people he says he represents.”

“Republicans cannot beat this candidate by running a clone against him,” he continued. “I’ll prove that in September’s Primary.”

Flanders cited two reasons for launching his campaign in Central Falls, one of the most Democratic-leaning communities in Rhode Island. First, he said his work as receiver there is a model for the kind of “collaborative, problem-solving approach” he wants to bring to Washington. Second, he said it shows he wants to compete for votes in every corner of the state.

But Flanders’ positive take on what transpired in Central Falls is already being contested. A small group of protestors outside the kickoff event said they were retired city fire and police officers, and they held signs ripping Flanders for slashing their pensions during the receivership process as well as making light of the matter when he dressed up as the Grim Reaper for a skit at the Providence Journal union’s annual fundraiser.

Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, argued Flanders and his associates made a significant amount of money for their legal work in Central Falls, and insisted the state will not want a Republican representing it in Congress.

“Either Robert Flanders or Representative Bobby Nardolillo would be another vote to rubber stamp the agenda of President Trump: providing tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of working people, stripping health insurance from families, decimating the Social Security and Medicare benefits Rhode Islanders have earned over a lifetime of hard work, and rolling back civil rights,” Olasanoye said.

Flanders begins the race at a big financial disadvantage. Whitehouse had more than $2.5 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, versus less than $300,000 for Flanders. (Nardolillo had about $36,000.) Flanders warned it would be an “expensive campaign,” and told reporters he would need $2 million to $3 million to compete.

Flanders’ team includes campaign manager Marissa Martinez, a former U.S. Chamber of Commerce staffer, and Patrick Sweeney, a veteran local Republican operative who previously worked for Barry Hinckley, the unsuccessful GOP nominee against Whitehouse in 2012.

Discussing hot topics with reporters after his speech, Flanders said he thinks Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore should drop out of the race due to “credible” allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct with underage girls.

Also speaking at the kickoff was former Hasbro Chairman and CEO Alan Hassenfeld, who said he has known Flanders for years and sees him as the type of person needed in Washington. “These truly are trying times,” Hassenfeld said. “I call it the twilight zone. We don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next. There’s a lack of certainty, a lack of execution, a lack of high moral purpose.”

Flanders grew up in New York but moved to Rhode Island to attend Brown University, where he was a star athlete on a sports scholarship, and Harvard Law School, where he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and spent a year playing pro baseball. In addition to his service on Rhode Island’s high court from 1996 to 2004, Flanders served on the Barrington Town Council in the 1980s. He also chaired the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education from 2007 to 2011.

Earlier in his career Flanders worked at two of Rhode Island’s top law firms, Edwards & Angell and later Hinckley Allen. He is now a partner at Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder & Siket LLP. He also serves on the board of Care New England, Rhode Island’s No. 2 hospital group.

Flanders’ wife of 46 years, Ann, was by his side for Thursday’s announcement. “She’s my best asset in this campaign,” he said. The couple have three children and four grandchildren. They live in East Greenwich.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook