Mayor’s challenger targets taxes, GOP voter


When Stacia Petri became disenchanted with her property taxes, she started asking questions, and she started attending City Council meetings. That was more than four years ago.

Now Petri is running for mayor as a Republican and, as Republican primaries in this city draw only a handful of voters compared to Democratic primaries, some believe she has a chance of bumping off Mayor Scott Avedisian, now seeking his eighth term in office.

Petri sees it that way.

In an hour-long interview Friday, Petri said she is “targeting” about 2,000 regular Warwick Republican voters. She says her message that Avedisian has consistently raised taxes and that continuing down the same path is unsustainable is resonating with voters. She has built a core group of six to 10 volunteers and hopes to expand on that base following a meet and greet tomorrow at the Islander Restaurant. Roy Dempsey, who has been especially vocal in the last couple of years over the operation of the Warwick Sewer Authority, is acting as her campaign manager.

“The Republicans are not happy with the mayor,” Petri said.

According to Board of Canvasser records, the city has 6,093 registered Republicans, 19,085 registered Democrats and 32,056 unaffiliated voters. In his last primary in 2010, Avedisian garnered 2,064 votes to 635 for Richard Langseth, or 76.5 percent of the vote.

Petri, 43, grew up in Smithfield and, before buying a house in Warwick in 2006, lived in Providence. She graduated from Rhode Island College, where she majored in psychology and occupational therapy. She wasn’t sure where her future was, but in her search for a job, her ease in talking with and interest in people was quickly recognized. She ended up working as a sales representative for the pharmaceutical company, Astra Zeneca, doing face-to-face sales with physicians.

She can think of no other group that can be as demanding of precise information.

She had to know the product and be prepared for a barrage of questions.

Petri now works for Summit Pharmacy. She feels it has prepared her to deal with detailed technical information.

Petri’s timing in purchasing her home in Cowesett, however, couldn’t have been worse. Home values were up and she bought at the top of the market.

She doubts that, in any time soon, the market will climb to the point where she can break even, and she believes many Warwick homeowners are in a similar situation. It is why, she said, so many people have chosen to walk away from their homes. They can’t afford the mortgage payments and they can’t pay off the mortgage by selling.

As a relatively new homeowner, Petri said she questioned why taxes kept going up. She directed her question to then city tax assessor and collector Ken Mallette.

“He said it was because [city] health care costs had gone up,” she said.

Petri said she found it tough to believe that health care costs were solely responsible for a tax increase.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to learn more about what’s going on in the city,’” she said.

She started attending council as well as budget hearings.

Petri picked up on what former councilman and school committee chairman Robert Cushman had to say on the city’s unfunded pension and employee post retirement benefit costs. It is an issue that she feels Avedisian has failed to address and will have serious consequences unless the administration can make contract changes, including cost of living adjustments for police and fire retirees being linked to the pay raises of active members. She also said retirees receiving health coverage should pay a percentage of those costs, as do active city employees. If those changes can’t be negotiated, she argues, the city should unilaterally make adjustments and let the courts decide the outcome.

“Retirees get gold coverage for health care,” she said. Maintaining the present course, she argues, “is unsustainable.”

“This is a matter of protecting our future,” she said.

Petri is also irritated by what she perceives as the mayor’s attitude.

Recalling the 2012 budget hearings, Petri said Avedisian sat facing the council the entire time even when members of the audience asked questions.

“He never turned around. He just didn’t want to hear what they had to say,” she said.

And she is confused by Avedisian’s plan to give city employees a $1,000 bonus at a cost of $800,000 to the taxpayers while at the same time dipping into city reserves and hiking the tax rate to balance the budget. Avedisian has justified the bonuses on the basis that three years of no salary increases has reduced the city’s unfunded pension liability and that they are due the gratitude.

“How can he say we have a surplus when he’s tapping into the rainy day fund?” she asks. “And how can he say we have a surplus when the taxpayers are getting squeezed?”

If elected, Petri said she would bring greater transparency to city operations. She also, as did some members of the council argued, would like to see more funding for roads, although she didn’t offer a plan for how much is needed or where the money would come from.

As for her campaign, Petri doesn’t see pumping a lot of her own funds into the effort because she doesn’t have the money.

“This is about very smart targeting,” she said.

She aims to meet as many traditional Republican primary voters as she can. She has also resolved to build her campaign around her first name – Stacia – as she will be marrying in August. She intends to take on the surname of her husband, Jay Huyler, although she will be listed Petri on the Sept. 7 GOP primary ballot.

And she favors Ken Block as the Republican candidate for governor.

“He’s an outsider, just like me,” she said.

She said she especially likes Block’s drive to uncover waste and fraud.

And as to why she wants to bring change, Petri said, “I don’t believe pulling up and moving out is an answer.”

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