The eight Rhode Island politicians with the biggest campaign war chests are people you’d probably expect: Gina Raimondo, Patrick Lynch, Angel Taveras, Lincoln Chafee, Gordon Fox, Michael McCaffrey, Allan Fung and Joseph Polisena.
But the ninth-biggest war chest belongs to a man who hasn’t held elected office since Lincoln Almond was governor: George Caruolo, the former House majority leader who now chairs the R.I. Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.
Caruolo, an East Providence Democrat, had $125,678 on hand as of June 30, according to his latest campaign finance filing with the R.I. Board of Elections. That’s more than Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed ($84,748) and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian ($69,471), among others, and it’s not much less than the $137,290 he reported having 10 years ago.
How does a man who hasn’t appeared on a ballot since 1996 still have so much money in his campaign account? “Because I don’t spend it,” Caruolo told WPRI.com Thursday in a rare interview. “And that includes never running a fundraiser in my last year in office,” he added. “I could have left with even more money.”
Caruolo, 59, acknowledged he hasn’t ruled out another bid for office, though he declined to speculate on specific positions. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility I’m going to run again,” he said. “I’m not closing the door.”
“I suppose, as I age, at some point I will decide that that’s not a possibility, and I’ll donate [the money] or do whatever the law calls for to rid myself of it,” he said.
Caruolo is frequently mentioned as an influential behind-the-scenes adviser to a number of the state’s officeholders, including Chafee, Taveras, House Speaker Gordon Fox, House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dan Da Ponte, the latter two of whom are fellow East Providence Democrats. But he downplayed it.
“I don’t know that I have influence,” Caruolo said. “I will admit that people come and ask me my opinion often.”
“I’ve been out of office since 1998 and I’ve been advising people since then, very quietly,” he said. “Not everyone under the sun, but people show up at my doorstep and want to take advantage of my experience and whatever success I have, in terms of what I think of things they’re concerned with – and again, if I’m supportive of them I sit and talk to them.”
Caruolo wouldn’t take the bait when asked to single out the active politicians who impress him the most. But he offered general praise for those at the top, suggesting citizens may have lost sight of just how difficult it is to govern under the present circumstances.
“This is a time of great anxiety and in some quarters anger, and it also is a time that poses significant challenges in every direction you look, and I would say that the people who are entrusted with the higher offices in Rhode Island are doing a far better job than they’re getting credit for,” he said.