BY MEREDITH MCKEE
One-L Brian Blais won a city council seat in his hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, November 6, when he placed third out of 14 candidates.
“It was a complete shock,” Blais said. “I thought I’d scrape onto the Council with the sixth or seventh seat, if at all.”
The race for Woonsocket City Council is not segregated by district but is an “open” election where the top seven vote-getters win council seats.
As the sixth-largest city in Rhode Island, Woonsocket is home to approximately 40,000 people. The city is home to many third- and fourth-generation French-Canadian immigrants as well as a substantial population of new immigrant families.
Blais characterizes his campaign as “grassroots,” lasting six weeks, only two of which were very active. He bought radio ads, issued press releases, posted yard signs and gave speeches at high-rises, where many Woonsocket senior citizens live.
Before Blais began the campaign, he said, he was unsure how voters would respond to his candidacy.
“I had no idea what the reception would be,” he said. “It’s hard to beat the incumbency.”
Much of Blais’ campaign strategy was based on what he saw as the City Council’s biggest challenge: Over the years, Blais says, the Council had become very politically divided along who supported the mayor and who didn’t.
“I campaigned on the idea that we needed to end this blind division around the mayor and decide issues solely on their merits,” Blais said.
That emphasis helped Blais do well across most polling stations in the city, he said.
His less-impressive showing in the city’s high-rises might indicate some voters’ discomfort with his age, Blais said.
“I think there may have been a youth-backlash there,” he said. “But I did well enough on the whole to make up for those buildings.”
Blais’ mayor-neutral stance may now put him in an interesting position. According to Woonsocket’s newspaper, The Call, he shares the council with six others, three of whom support the mayor and three of whom have declared themselves “independent.”
As The Call observed recently: “The apparent three-to-three split gives Blais the potential to wield the tie-breaking swing vote on divisive issues.”
Blais may be utilizing his advantage already. The Call reports that he recently invited members interested in being Council president to “interview” with him so that he can decide who to back.
“In keeping with my campaign theme of independence, I want to give everyone a chance to be heard,” Blais told The Call.
After growing up in Woonsocket, Blais received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1997. He then worked as an investment banker in New York City for four years.
While he was campaigning, Blais said, he only told two or three of his classmates that he was running for office. He said he didn’t want the race to interfere with meeting people and making friends during his first semester of law school.
“I didn’t want to be ‘that slimy politician guy,’ so I kind of kept it under wraps,” Blais said.
Still, Blais said he has been interested in politics since he was about 10 or 12 years old.
“One, I’m interested in politics for being able to help people, implementing policies to help people,” he said. “Second, the rough-and-tumble of politics is fun in itself.”
Blais said the fact that he does not live in Woonsocket while attending HLS was not a big issue in his campaign.
“I’m there enough, especially on the weekends, and people can always get in touch with me,” he said.
Still, many of his classmates have asked how he will manage his political and law school responsibilities.
“From a time-management standpoint, it’s been OK,” Blais said. “I’m caught up in my classes. I just try to be really diligent.
“Part of it may also be because, when I was working as a banker, I was working 80 to 90 hours a week,” he continued. “So this isn’t so bad.”
In the coming year, Blais expects he will be learning a lot about setting property taxes, issuing commercial licenses and reducing odor problems at the local waste-water treatment plant.
“It’s the things you don’t normally think about that are the province of local government,” he said. “On an intellectual level, I think it’ll be interesting.”