Baldelli-Hunt, Brien prepare to face off for mayor in November

Baldelli-Hunt, Brien prepare to face off for mayor in November

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, left, and challenger City Council Vice President Jon Brien.

WOONSOCKET – With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, the race for mayor of Woonsocket has continued to heat up as candidates make their cases to voters.

In separate interviews with The Valley Breeze last week, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and her challenger, City Council Vice President Jon Brien, laid out vastly different perspectives on Woonsocket’s recent economic development along with visions for its future. The conversation ranged from the city’s financial prospects to candidates’ personal lives, as both individuals tried to position themselves as the best person to run the city.

Baldelli-Hunt, who is seeking her fourth term, has campaigned largely on improvements in city infrastructure and finances since she was first elected in 2013. In a recent campaign mailer, she highlighted accomplishments in paving roads, demolishing blighted properties, improving the city’s bond rating and revitalizing city parks as examples of her leadership. All of these, she added, were completed without taking on new debt or raising taxes over the past five years despite predictions by the Budget Commission the city would have to raise taxes.

“We came into office knowing that we were facing deficits from years past, debt that was nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, the fact that the fleet within the Public Works Department, it was all depleted,” she said. “We knew that we had a huge task in front of us.”

Brien, on the other hand, has accused his opponent of trying to get residents to settle for the bare minimum, saying those accomplishments are nothing more than the basic services taxpayers expect. Despite the improvements, he said, people outside Woonsocket still see the city negatively, viewing it as the “city of the dollar store” rather than a destination.

“You don’t come to Woonsocket unless you live here, you work here or you know someone here. And that’s the problem. You can’t change the stigma unless you attract people to the city,” he said.

In recent weeks, he’s laid out a plan to court the state’s burgeoning craft brewery industry as an economic driver that could find a home in the city’s old mills. He pointed to Pawtucket as a community that has successfully recruited independent breweries and distilleries to remake its image as a depressed former mill town.

“That brings about 150,000 people into Pawtucket every year,” he said.

Brien also took aim at the tense relationship between Baldelli-Hunt and a majority of city councilors, accusing her of using her position to put up roadblocks to ideas that don’t originate within her office. In 2018, Brien and four allies gained a veto-proof majority on the City Council. That dynamic allowed them to have final say on the city budget and other legislative matters, but the five councilors and Baldelli-Hunt have continued to compete for control on everything from solar energy proposals to the reopening of City Hall.

Baldelli-Hunt painted a different picture of the relationship, saying it’s the councilors who have failed to work with her administration and not the other way around. She said she’s been able to develop strong relationships on the state and federal level and pointed to the state’s decision to locate a new higher education center on Main Street and the recent relocation of RESH Inc., a manufacturing company, to Park East Drive as examples of those relationships.

“My door is open, my administration is open,” she said. “This is all orchestrated because they were preparing for Jon to run.”

Baldelli-Hunt also responded to the accusation that her improvements were little more than basic services, pointing to cost-saving measures in the Public Works Department initiated under her leadership.

Both candidates have deep political roots in the city and follow in the footsteps of family members with their own aspirations to Woonsocket’s top office. For Baldelli-Hunt, it was her uncle, Charles Baldelli, who served as mayor from 1985 to 1989. For Brien, it was his father, Albert Brien, who challenged Baldelli-Hunt unsuccessfully for the position in 2018 at the age of 77.

Though the two families were once allies in the city’s political scene – the older Brien backed Baldelli-Hunt for mayor when she ran in 2013 – in recent years, they’ve found themselves on opposite sides of contentious divide. As the relationship has dissolved, the criticisms have grown more targeted, often straying from policy into the personal lives of candidates.

Baldelli-Hunt, citing her opponent’s 2014 bankruptcy, questioned last week whether Brien had the financial prowess to run the city, an attack she also levied against his father in 2018.

“Jon Brien cannot even balance his personal budget. How are we expecting that we’re going to put $152 million in his hands and have faith that he will be able to handle a checkbook of that size?” she said.

Brien, in response, acknowledged his 2014 bankruptcy and said it was the result of a difficult divorce and had nothing to do with his time in public office.

“Who hasn’t had a difficult divorce, or struggled financially, or lost a job, or lost a home?” he said. “That just makes me one of the people who struggled in this city and came back all the more.”

Both candidates acknowledged the city has a hard road ahead recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19 but expressed confidence they can continue with their goals. Baldelli-Hunt said she’s already proven she could stabilize a city “that was on the brink of bankruptcy,” while Brien presented it as an opportunity to be on “equal footing” with other cities and towns.

Baldelli-Hunt also criticized Brien’s approach to campaigning during the pandemic. While both candidates have been out knocking on doors, the mayor said she’s received complaints from residents whose homes Brien approached without wearing a face mask. Brien, in response, said he always maintains six feet of distance and keeps a mask on his person but takes his cue from the resident in whether he should put it on.

The two have also clashed over the location of a debate WNRI has proposed for Oct. 21. As of last week, both candidates had agreed to participate but had not yet reached a consensus on the place. Brien supported holding the debate in Harris Hall, the location favored by WNRI, while Baldelli-Hunt said she preferred a restaurant location where members of the public could attend.