Robert Flanders, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in the upcoming election, stopped by the weekly meeting of the Warwick Rotary Club on Thursday afternoon to have lunch and speak to a full gathering at the function room of Chelo’s restaurant on Post Road.
The former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice and private practice attorney went over his personal past, his career experience and what he hopes to bring to the Washington D.C.
“I'm not doing this to establish a political career at this stage in my life,” he said. “I'm doing it for one reason – because I want to give back to this state that has been so good to me.”
Born and raised in Long Island, Flanders touted himself as a “Rhode Islander by choice” who came to the state to attend Brown University for undergraduate studies. While at Brown, he was the quarterback of the football team – where he said he broke an Ivy League record at the time for the longest run from scrimmage – and was also captain on the baseball team. He would later be drafted into the Minor League system for the Detroit Tigers.
Flanders then went to Harvard for law school, opening his own private practice before eventually winding up for eight and a half years on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, where he would author over 400 opinions on cases. He said this experience, where he said he often dissented from the opinions of his fellow judges, shows how he would approach each issue as a Senator from a place of neutrality and based on the facts.
“I've got a record of being independent,” Flanders said, although he is running as a Republican. “I really want to represent everybody. Whether you're a Democrat, an independent or a Republican. I'm running as a Republican but I'm independently-minded.”
Flanders said that his background – coming from a working class family where he was the oldest of seven children to parents who worked paycheck to paycheck – would present a stark contrast to Whitehouse, whose family history includes that of Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad.
“I think it's important to be able to identify with people in RI who work and live paycheck to paycheck. It's certainly what my family did,” Flanders said. “I know what it is to struggle to make a living and to worry about whether a car accident or some medical problem will derail the whole family and send you into crushing debt.”
Additionally, in contrast to Whitehouse, Flanders said that having a Republican included in the currently all-Democratic Congressional delegation of Rhode Island would be a benefit to the people.
“We don't have anybody who has a seat at the table,” he said. “It would be good, I think, to have at least one person from the same party that now is controlling the entire executive branch – not just the presidency but all the agencies and alike that deal with the business of the country – and also both houses of congress. It would be good to have a little bit of diversity in that respect.”
Flanders alluded to Whitehouse as being a “career politician,” and said that Rhode Islanders need someone who is willing to tackle challenging problems and find areas of compromise, which is something that is not currently being done enough in Washington.
He pointed to his experience as the state-appointed receiver for Central Falls in the wake of their financial woes and damage from political corruption, which eventually led to then-mayor Charles Moreau being jailed and the city to become the first New England municipality in history to file for bankruptcy in the summer of 2011.
“They were in bad financial straits. But we were able to go in there and put together a team of experts to deal with the situation,” Flanders said, outlining how he and his colleagues, including Richard Kirby (then city solicitor for Central Falls and now a campaign manager for Flanders), tackled issues stemming from unsustainable city employee benefits and OPEB liabilities.
“The long and the short of it is we put together a plan of debt adjustment and recovery for the city that eventually obtained the agreement of all the unions and all the retirees, notwithstanding some pretty drastic cuts that had to be made in the benefits,” he said. “But we got there through transparency, the willingness to compromise and listen to the affected individuals and employee groups that were involved in this.”
Flanders said that he would bring this type of leadership and problem-solving acumen to Washington.
“I'm running because I think we need more of that,” he said. “We need less career politicians, and more people who are dedicated to solving problems. God knows we have plenty of them to deal with.”
To Flanders, who was asked what the top three issues facing the state are, the biggest issues plaguing Rhode Island currently stem from faulty immigration policies, crumbling infrastructure and the opioid epidemic.
On immigration, Flanders said he believes in enacting better policies that better secure the border but also provide protections for so-called Dreamers, who didn’t have a choice in coming to the country illegally.
“I think we need to compromise on all of this and get a better solution that has border security as part of it but also perhaps finds a way, without giving amnesty to these folks, to allow them to stay as long as they're not violating the laws and causing problems and they're paying taxes,” he said.
On infrastructure, Flanders said that Rhode Island could “disproportionately” benefit from a federal program that sought to repair roads and bridges, as it would create jobs and improve safety in the state. He said that some studies have shown Rhode Island to have the worst roads and bridges in the country.
“I can't understand how or why that wouldn't enjoy bipartisan support,” he said of enacting an infrastructure improvement plan. “It's not a political issue to me, it's something we all want and need, and that's something government can do and should do to help our country get to a better place.”
On opioids, Flanders once again took a jab at Whitehouse, criticizing him for supporting legislation that undermined the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to go after “pill mills” that manufacture and distribute inordinately high numbers of addictive pain medication, which has helped spark the opioid crisis plaguing the entire country.
“It's unacceptable to have so many young people, in particular, taking these drugs and getting hooked on them and not being able to come out of the tailspin that results when you're an addict and keep coming back,” he said. “There's legitimate uses for these, but not in the quantities that are being prescribed and not in the way these pill mills are taking advantage of it.”
Without flash or pomp normally seen in a political speech – he delivered the whole half-hour speech without so much as one charismatic hand motion or bombastic piece of rhetoric – Flanders outlined himself as a choice for the people who would work on behalf of the people. He said he was optimistic of his chances to beat Whitehouse, but that he would need people to spread his message and increase his visibility.
“Sometimes you need to take a stand,” Flanders said. “You need to go against the tide and you need to be willing to stand up and publicly say what you think is right and what you think the law is or ought to be. And that's the way I hope to conduct myself as a senator.”