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Gunning for votes

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 10, 2013

The Rhode Island Republican Party wants you to know that political groups often raffle off gift baskets containing alcohol. This much was abundantly clear last Sunday, October 6, in interviews that took place at separate times and places throughout the day at the South County Rod & Gun Club in West Greenwich.

“If you go to any Democratic fundraiser, they are raffling off liquor baskets and old bottles of scotch and old bottles of whiskey,” said Republican State Representative Doreen Costa, who represents North Kingstown and Exeter (District 31) and serves as the RI GOP’s finance director.

“Political organizations raffle off liquor baskets all the time; the Democrats raffle off liquor baskets all the time,” said RI GOP spokesman Michael Napolitano.

“The question is, how many times has there been a liquor basket sold or raffled at a political fundraiser?” said RI GOP chairman Mark Smiley.

Why the seemingly rehearsed emphasis on liquor baskets and raffles?

It’s no big mystery. For the previous week — since word circulated that the RI GOP would be raffling off a Beretta .357 single action “Stampede” pistol, a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 .223 rifle, and a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 .22 LR rifle, among other prizes, at Sunday’s first-ever “2nd Amendment Celebration” — buzz about raffles had relentlessly flickered across TV screens and Twitter feeds and talk radio airwaves.

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Not only did various Democrats tell The Providence Journal the idea was “outrageous” (a spokesman for Providence Mayor Angel Taveras), “disgusting” (General Treasurer Gina Raimondo), and “a political stunt that will put a deadly weapon in the hands of an unknown person simply because they purchased a $5 ticket” (Attorney General Peter Kilmartin), but a few Republicans jumped into the fray, too. Senator Nicholas Kettle, from Coventry, called the raffle, “irresponsible,” while Senator Dawson Hodgson (East Greenwich, North & South Kingstown, Narragansett) issued a statement describing it as “ill-conceived,” “tone deaf,” and “insensitive, at best.” You could almost see Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the expected 2014 Republican gubernatorial candidate, shaking his head when he told the Journal, “This is not something that I would ever do to raise campaign funds.”

Then, on the day before the event, the buzz reached a crescendo with a New York Times editorial titled “Raffling Off Assault Rifles.” “The Republican Party of Rhode Island is attracting well-deserved scorn for its plan to raise money Sunday by raffling an AR-15-style assault rifle — the same sort of modified military weapon used last December in the Newtown school massacre in neighboring Connecticut,” it began.

And so, when The Phoenix asked for interviews on the day of the event, various RI GOP officers had no shortage of clarifications and amendments to make for the record. They reminded us that the “2nd Amendment Celebration” was just one in a series of recent fundraising events including a trip to Fenway Park, an evening featuring former US Navy Secretary and Ambassador to Holland William Middendorf at Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, and a “Dancing with the Republican Stars” night at the Quonset “O” Club in North Kingstown. (“We did not have a lot of people show up,” Smiley said about the “Dancing” event. “It was just the wrong night.”)

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