Joe Trillo says he’ll run for governor as an independent in 2018

Trump supporter and former RI Rep. Joe Trillo

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former state Rep. Joe Trillo announced Tuesday he will run for governor in 2018 as an independent, creating the possibility of a three-way November election pitting the former Trump campaign chairman against incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo and the eventual Republican nominee.

Trillo made the announcement in a midday interview on WPRO’s Matt Allen Show. “I feel that my message is more of a populist message,” he said. “I want to appeal to the average hardworking person who has been forgotten and sold out by elected officials.”

“To win with my message in Rhode Island I will need Democratic support, a lot of independent support, and Republicans,” he said.

Trillo said he has been a Republican for roughly 20 years, but determined that his best path to winning the governor’s office would be running without a party label. “I feel in many ways my Republican Party left me,” he said, arguing there are now four parties in America – progressive Democrats and “normal” Democrats, and “standard Republicans” and “Trump Republicans.”

Trillo cast his decision to run as an independent as tied to his support for Trump, despite leaving the Republican Party that the president leads. “I’ve been a Trump Republican since he announced in 2015,” he said, and the president is “turning this country around.”

Joe Trillo announces his plans on Matt Allen’s radio show. (credit: Steve Nielsen/WPRI)

Trillo has been taking steps toward a run for governor for months, forming an exploratory committee earlier this year and loaning $100,000 of his own money to his campaign account over the summer. The former Republican lawmaker had been expected to vie for the GOP nomination against Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan.

But Trillo said he wanted to make his case to the full Rhode Island electorate that casts ballots in November versus the much smaller group of voters who take part in Republican primaries. He also said he expects dissident Democrats who could not support him as a Republican will now get behind his candidacy.

“I’m for radical change in this state. This state is going down the toilet and it can’t get deeper in it fast enough,” he said. “You elect Gina Raimondo, you elect Allan Fung – you’ve got the same old, same old stuff’s going to happen, go-along politics as usual.”

The Fung and Morgan campaigns declined to comment.

T. Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, chose to ignore Trillo’s professed admiration for Trump, saying in a statement: “Joe Trillo will surely be the first of many Republicans who are abandoning President Trump and the Republican Party’s failed policies.”

“Joe Trillo is just another Trump imitator running for governor in Rhode Island,” added Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Jared Leopold. “Like his opponents, Allan Fung and Patricia Morgan, Trillo supports bringing the Trump agenda to Rhode Island. With Trillo in the race, voters can now choose between the Trump Triplets and a governor who is moving Rhode Island forward.”

Trillo declined to say whether he expects Trump or his aides to play any role in his campaign but said a Trump surrogate from the 2016 campaign, Pastor Mark Burns, is scheduled to visit Rhode Island to stump for Trillo in February.

Trillo’s decision opens up the potential for Rhode Island to elect a governor with less than majority support for the third time in a row. Then-independent Lincoln Chafee was elected in 2010 with 36% of the vote in a four-way field, and Raimondo was elected in 2014 with 41% in a three-way field.

During the radio interview, Allen noted that Republicans are likely to criticize Trillo as making it easier for Raimondo to win re-election by splitting the vote against her. “You think I didn’t think of that, being in politics?” Trillo shot back. “My answer is very simple – give me a shot in this general election and listen to my message. My message is going to be different from typical politicians that ride defense in the middle.”

Trillo, 74, represented Warwick in the General Assembly from 2001 to 2016, when he declined to seek re-election. He served for a time as House minority whip and was famous for his high-volume speeches on the House floor, often railing against progressive initiatives. He is president of an alarm company as well as a real-estate investor. He previously served as the state’s Republican national committeeman.

In the above video, political analyst Joe Fleming discusses Trillo’s announcement with Mike Montecalvo.

On policy, Trillo offered a number of proposals out of the box, saying he wanted to reduce the Rhode Island estate and income taxes, as well as cut the sales tax to 5.5% and stop taxing pensions. He also suggested instituting a sales tax holiday modeled on what Massachusetts does. More vaguely, he said he would “reduce unnecessary regulations.”

Trillo said he would look to shrink the state workforce through attrition by conducting a review of all agencies. He also wants new policies “protecting teachers from legal abuse” and to “let the police be the police.” He would eliminate state-mandated car inspections, fund municipal road repairs, and “impose stricter penalties for animal abuse.”

Trillo said he hopes to raise “a couple million dollars” for the race, but also hinted he would be willing to put a significant amount of his own money into the campaign if necessary, promising he “will have enough money to put on a credible campaign.”

The Democratic Governors Association  Communications Director Jared Leopold released a statement following Trillo’s announcement:

“Joe Trillo is just another Trump imitator running for governor in Rhode Island. Like his opponents, Allan Fung and Patricia Morgan, Trillo supports bringing the Trump agenda to Rhode Island. With Trillo in the race, voters can now choose between the Trump Triplets and a governor who is moving Rhode Island forward.”

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