14 Sep 2014
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The Comeback Candidate

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille of Portsmouth discusses his life, setbacks and why he should be Rhode Island's next governor.

The Comeback Candidate The Comeback Candidate

John Robitaille quit his six-figure state job back in January. Ever since, he's been criss-crossing Rhode Island getting to know thousands of prospective employers.

The 61-year-old Portsmouth resident is applying for a very important position - Rhode Island's next governor.

The Republican, who faces a challenge from former State Rep. Victor Moffitt in the Sept. 14 GOP primary, insists that although he has never held political office before, he's the most highly qualified candidate for the state's top job.

From 2006 until his resignation in January, Robitaille served as Gov. Donald Carcieri's communications director. He says that the position gave him tremendous insight into the job that he would take on if he prevails in the primary and general elections.

Robitaille also says that his years of experience as a corporate negotiator and arbitrator, 20 years running his own small business, and his five years of distinguished military service after college, have all prepared him well to be Rhode Island's next CEO.

As local voters may recall, it's not Robitaille's first run for office. In 2006, he challenged State Rep. Amy Rice for the District 72 House seat, representing Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport. He lost in a squeaker – by just four votes after the court-ordered recounts were complete. It was a heartbreaker for the local businessman, for sure. But Robitaille says that overcoming obstacles in life is nothing new.

Campaign is a team effort for couple

Robitaille and his wife of nearly 20 years, Lynda, have lived in a small, two-bedroom ranch for the past 16 years. Robitaille recalls that it was his dream to live by the water and the couple had "looked everywhere, basically covered all 400 miles" of coastline in Rhode Island searching for the right place, before they settled on the house on Annette Drive in Portsmouth. "The price was right," he says.

Up until last April, the couple had run a small communications firm in Middletown together for 20 years. When the economic downturn hit and corporations cut back on their marketing and public relations budgets, the business took a hit, and they decided it was the right time to pay their vendors and employees and close "the right way."

Late last year, the Robitailles were considering a move to South Carolina, where the cost of living is much lower. Instead, he says, "We decided not to move, but stay and fight." The Robitailles had "a couple weeks of very heavy, thoughtful discussions. On New Year's Day, we both decided we were all in."

Robitaille announced his intentions to run and decided to quit his job in the governor's office to campaign full-time. "I knew I could not work for (Carcieri) and campaign for his job," Robitaille says, while taking the opportunity to criticize General Treasurer Frank Caprio, the Democrat running for governor. "He spends as much time campaigning as I am and on taxpayer time. I didn't feel that was appropriate."

Robitaille, a self-described "early riser" begins his morning around 5 a.m., gets on the computer, has morning meetings, and courts supporters and potential campaign contributors. By noon, it's time for a lunch meeting at campaign headquarters in Cranston. The afternoons and evenings usually involve stops across the state at various political events and meetings.

Lynda Robitaille accompanies her husband to nearly all the "minute-to-minute" evening events he attends across the state, including meet-the-candidate events, debates, fundraisers for his own campaign and other Republican candidates, and Tea Party meetings.

The couple has taken a significant financial hit, living off of their 401(k) retirement income alone, Robitaille says. It's a sacrifice they're both willing to make. Robitaille is also willing to put in up to the $102,000 personal investment allowed a campaign accepting public-matching funds. So far, he's contributed about half of that.

Robitaille believes that his "hard knocks" background helps him connect with voters and the trials they face better than many of the other candidates. "I'm not a wealthy person," he says. "I'm a kid from Central Falls." Taking a jab at the top-runners in the race, he quips, "I was not born with a silver spoon and think it's a wooden spoon."

Overcoming personal setbacks

Robitaille has been candid with voters along the campaign trail, sharing deeply personal anecdotes of his life's trials and tribulations as he visits all 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island. "My life has been an open book," he says.

The Robitailles were both previously married. They have three daughters (he has two daughters and she has one, from previous marriages) and five grandchildren. Just this week, at a forum on mental health, Robitaille revealed that he lost his 23-year-old daughter, Kim, to suicide 14 years ago. "She was bipolar," he says.

The loss deeply impacted him, and both John and Lynda Robitaille volunteered for years with suicide prevention and mental health organizations, and served on the board of the Bradley Children's Hospital Board of Governors. He says the experience has given him "in-depth insight" into mental health issues. 

It was one of many personal setbacks that Robitaille has overcome. As a boy in North Attleboro, he was abused by his Catholic priest, Father James Porter, who admitted to abusing 100 children in various parishes in Massachusetts since the 1960s. "I have spoken publically about my childhood experiences being a victim of a pedophile," he says. "That's one of the most telling issues that I've had to deal with. We took on a DA and a religious institution to bring a pedophile to justice."

Robitaille's pro-life views were solidified by his experience losing his prematurely-born twin daughters at birth. "When I was 21 years old, my wife gave birth to twin daughters, and the problem was that she was only five-months pregnant, and I stood in the emergency room and the nursery for hours watching my two daughters struggle for life," he told the Rhode Island Republican Assembly's Nominating Convention in June."No one will ever tell me that life does not begin at conception."

After losing the 2006 House race by a few votes, Robitaille was considering a rematch in 2008. But, in 2007, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "It threw me off and I had to deal with decisions on getting well," he says. "So I opted not to run and took care of myself and had surgery, and, knock on wood, I'm cancer free."

"Things happen for a reason," he says. "Shortly after, Gov. Carcieri's chief of staff asked me if I would consider joining their team as communications director."

Robitaille believes that his ability to overcome these challenges have prepared him to fight through a tough campaign and serve as governor. "It's your trials in life rather than your successes that build character," he says. "I worked my way through high school and college. Most everything I have, I worked hard for. I've been tested … I'm just a person that's had some hard knocks."

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