PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Robert G. Flanders, a former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice, respected Providence trial lawyer and onetime Brown University football star, has taken the first step toward a potential GOP run for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democratic incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse.
Flanders, 67, of East Greenwich on Tuesday announced plans to create an “exploratory committee” to determine whether he will be able to muster the money and support he would need for a potential GOP primary fight and, ultimately, a 2018 run against Whitehouse.
A Flanders candidacy could ultimately pit Flanders, a moderate Republican, against state Rep. Robert “Bobby” Nardolillo, a more right-leaning 37-year-old funeral director championing legislation to require more active state cooperation with the Trump administration’s undocumented-immigrant crackdown.
Republican Nardolillo has scheduled the formal announcement of his candidacy for May 15 at a VFW hall in his hometown of Coventry, but former state GOP chairman — and past congressional candidate Mark Zaccaria — has already posted YouTube videos of Nardolillo talking about why he is “running to be your next U.S. Senator.”
In a statement announcing his own potential entry into the race, Flanders said: “I will be forming a committee to explore the option of running for the United States Senate as a Republican in 2018.
“With the unease and hyper-partisan political environment in Washington,” Flanders said, Rhode Island needs a U.S. senator who “will work across the aisle to unlock innovation and job growth, provide a system of high quality and affordable health care, reform unfair and anti-competitive tax policies, lift regulatory burdens off the backs of small business, promote better education and enhance our security by restoring global confidence in America.”
“In short, we need a climate change in Washington,” he said in a play-on-words on Whitehouse’s signature issue.
Calling the seat winnable for the GOP, the state Republican chairman, Brandon Bell, said: “The fact that a person of Judge Flanders’ character, ability and integrity is considering running for a statewide office as a Republican shows the party is alive and well and that we can attract strong and qualified candidates.”
Nardolillo said in a statement on Tuesday that he would welcome Flanders’ entry in the race.
“Our current status quo leadership does not reflect the needs of the people, and it’s because of their complete disconnect of their day to day struggles. We need someone in the US Senate who is grounded and understands and listens to needs of Rhode Island families. I welcome Judge Flanders’ considerations for running for public office.”
Meaghan McCabe, a spokeswoman for Whitehouse, said, “We look forward to a vigorous debate with whichever Republican challenger emerges.”
Flanders grew up on Long Island, New York, the oldest of seven children. His father was a salesman for a food distributor. His mother worked in fast food restaurants. “Growing up, I knew firsthand about the struggles that middle-class families experience to make ends meet.”
He was recruited to play football at Brown, where he majored in English, liked to read poetry, made Phi Beta Kappa and won a prize for an essay he wrote on the classicism of Henry Fielding in “Tom Jones.”
A halfback and quarterback, Flanders set an Ivy League record for the longest run from scrimmage, in a game against Yale, according to a 2011 Journal profile. He also pitched and played outfield in the Detroit Tigers farm system.
Past roles for the Harvard Law School graduate include: Barrington town councilman, Glocester town solicitor, Supreme Court justice, and chairman of the R.I. Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education. He is currently a name on the masthead of the Providence law firm Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder and Siket.
Flanders’ most controversial role was as the state-appointed receiver who decided that bankruptcy was the only way for the 1.3-square-mile city of Central Falls to get out from under its crushing debts. The Aug. 1 headline: “Central Falls files for bankruptcy; contracts voided.”
Flanders has been associated in the past with some of the same government-reform efforts as Whitehouse, including a campaign for separation of powers.
While still on the bench, Flanders wrote a stinging dissent when the four other Supreme Court justices categorically rejected separation of powers, declaring that the state’s government was a “quintessential system of parliamentary supremacy.”
Years later, H. Philip West, the former executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, surmised that Whitehouse’s own aggressive support of the separation of powers constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2004 to remove lawmakers from state boards and commissions was a stick in the eye to Democratic Assembly leaders that probably cost him the Democratic endorsement when he ran for governor two years earlier.
When Flanders stepped down from the state’s highest court in 2004, he acknowledged the frustration of being a frequent dissenter. “If I’m disagreeing with the court on really important legal issues and I’m not in sync with my colleagues about that, that’s a source of frustration,” he said.
In private practice, he handled a variety of high-profile cases, including the defense of former Roger Williams Medical Center president Robert A. Urciuoli who ultimately went to prison. At one point, he wrote a letter urging leniency for a former client he also described as a friend and once-trusted adviser: Joseph A. Caramadre, the architect of an investment scheme that exploited terminally ill people while profiting his clients.
A decade ago, Flanders was recommended by then-Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee to a seat on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
An irony: both of the state’s Democratic senators, Jack Reed and Whitehouse, who defeated Chafee in November 2006 — flipping the Senate to Democratic control — supported Flanders.
“He’s a very capable guy,” Whitehouse said at the time.
However, post-election, President Bush tapped a different candidate for the appeals court.