In 2006, Woonsocket native Rep. Jon Brien (D-Dist. 50), ran against Democrat Todd Brien (no relation) in the primary after the incumbent voted for letting daycare workers collectively bargain with the state.
The incumbent's vote is one example of what Brien calls an anti-taxpayer record, including what he said was a position against pension reform. Brien makes the point that his opponent this year, firefighter Stephen Casey, shares something in common with Todd Brien, a retired policeman: they’re both union members.
Brien stands on a record he touts as pro-taxpayer, including votes for pension reform, (which saved Woonsocket $6 million this year, he said), and against the supplemental tax bill.
“I grew up in that house right there,” Brien said, pointing from his front porch on South Main Street to the house next door, where his dad, City Councilman Albert Brien, state rep from 1974 till 1987, lives. “I grew up in the State House and House Chamber,” Brien said, “As a young man I was always in awe of that building and I still am today.”
The Dist. 50 incumbent, responding to one of his opponent’s recent statements, pointed out he’d just finished mowing his own lawn. His fathers’ lawn is also on his regular list of chores.
The Woonsocket High 1988 grad left the city at 21 to attend URI, then New York Law School in Manhattan at 24. He returned to Woonsocket after with his wife, Stella, also a lawyer, moving back home while he studied at Suffolk University in Boston for his MBA. “It was a lot of work,” he said.
“My plan was always to return to Woonsocket,” Brien said. He and Stella bought their house in 2003, a dilapidated foreclosure, and they’ve been steadily restoring it since. It was ready for them to move in by 2005, but Brien says there’s always more to do.
In 2006, GTECH, where he was corporate counsel, moved from West Greenwich to Providence, and that meant layoffs, Brien among them. “So, I know what it’s like to lose a job,” he said. “At that point, Stella and I decided to go into business together and formed Brien & Brien." The office is in the building built by his grandfather, Lodie Brien.
In 2005, Rep. Todd Brien’s votes against pension reform and for daycare worker collective bargaining cinched Jon Brien’s first run for office as a primary challenger. “I felt that those were two seemingly anti-taxpayer votes,” Brien said. That was what Brien calls the infamous Brien vs. Brien race, requiring a little creativity to make his name stand out. “You see that big Jon?” Brien said, pointing to one of his political signs, “That’s why I did it.”
Brien said it’s his votes to protect taxpayers that have inspired his opponent’s primary run. “If you’re going to run against me because I made lousy votes, I can appreciate that,” Brien said. But, he said, Casey is running against him because his votes impacted Casey’s interests as a member of the firefighter's union. “I think people can see right through that,” Brien said.
Brien said his vote against the supplemental tax wasn’t about bankruptcy. “I never once said I wanted bankruptcy,” Brien said. “I said I wanted receivership,” because that would give the city greater negotiating power with unions, he said.
Also, Brien said, he and the rest of the House delegation [Rep. Robert D. Philips (D-Dist. 51), Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Dist. 49,)] weren’t told what plan council members and the mayor had for fixing the city’s deficit in the long run. Had the rest of the General Assembly asked, he said, “Our answer would have been, ‘We don’t know,’ and that’s irresponsible," Brien said. Instead, he said, the plan seemed to be that the city would negotiate after the supplemental tax was passed.
To those who’ve criticized the delegation for not having their own plan, Brien said, “We’re supposed to sell the city’s plan at the General Assembly.”
The supplemental tax’s defeat was quickly followed by the appointment of a budget commission, which, although not as intrusive an option as receivership, has scheduled working out the school department budget and negotiation with the city’s unions ahead of a second run at a supplemental tax increase.
“Do I feel vindicated? What bargaining unit is going to give anything up once the tax is in place and the budget is balanced?” Brien said. He mentioned Budget Commission Chairman Bill Sequino’s statement that the burden of balancing the budget would have to shared by all. “It will now. This is the base of contention with these union candidates,” Brien said.
Brien dismissed Casey’s criticism of his vote to table House bill (H-7729), which, according to Rhode Islanders Tax Equity (RITE), would have increased the income tax rate from 5.99 percent to 9.99 percent on individuals making more than $250,000 per year. The tax rate would have gone down 1 percent for each 1 percent reduction in the state's unemployment, until the tax rate returned to 5.99 percent. The effect on the state budget would have been an additional $118 million in revenue, according to RITE.
Brien said he voted to table an amendment adding those changes to this year’s budget because the bill wasn’t recommended by the Finance Committee. Also, he said, the state passed new tax rates in 2010, which haven’t been in effect for very long. “You need a few fiscal years to see if it’s working,” Brien said.
According to sansiveri.com, taxable incomes of up to $55,000 are now taxed at 3.75 percent; taxable incomes between $55,000 and $125,000 are taxed at 4.75 percent; and taxable incomes greater than $125,000 are taxed at 5.99 percent. Econpost.com reported the changes will not alter the state’s revenues.
Brien branded the issue of his vote on (H-7729), as a union ploy. He said union leaders pushed the bill, “Because they knew it was never going to pass, but they wanted it to be an election issue, so union backed candidates who are members can use this in a campaign.”
An issue Brien is more enthusiastic about is his work to pass voter ID legislation, which this election season requires voters to show a voter ID before they can vote. “I’m very proud of the fact that voter ID in the state of Rhode Island is happening because I championed it over the last five years,” Brien said.
Brien couldn’t point to past examples of voter fraud that voter ID would have stopped, but he said in 2006 he began hearing from voters in the district who asked him about it. “I think it will serve as a backstop to fraud,” Brien said.
Given another term, Brien said, “I want to continue working to get Woonsocket off the distressed communities list.” He said another priority would be to make the education funding formula more viable for urban and suburban communities.
Brien took issue with Casey’s voting record, which shows he has missed six opportunities to vote in primaries, elections and special elections since 2006.
Brien, by comparison, has a voting record for primaries, elections and special elections dating back to 1995. He said a candidate for Dist. 50 should also vote in Dist. 50. “I don’t miss elections,” Brien said, “I don’t miss an opportunity to vote. It’s too precious a right.”
Brien and Casey will face off in the Democratic primary Tuesday, Sept 11. Whoever wins that contest will run unopposed for the Dist. 50 seat in November.