WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — Republican John Robitaille said Tuesday he would support suspending an unemployment tax on small businesses struggling through a deep recession if he was elected governor, but he did little to explain how he was different from the unpopular incumbent who employs him.
Robitaille, 61, a senior aide to Gov. Don Carcieri, is running as a small-government conservative hoping to succeed his Republican boss, who is barred by law from running for re-election when his second term ends next year.
He faces a potentially difficult election. Robitaille's only other run for political office ended in defeat in 2006 when he lost a race to Democratic state Rep. Amy Rice by nine votes. He has little statewide name recognition and, unlike Carcieri, is not wealthy enough to fund a campaign himself.
Robitaille was undeterred by the obstacles while announcing his run Tuesday.
"This isn't California. This is Rhode Island," he said. "It's 30 miles wide by 40 miles deep. I have 10 months. I think that's long enough to get my name out there."
He said his campaign will focus heavily on troubles faced by small firms in a state suffering nearly 13 percent unemployment and what economists believe will be a slow recovery from one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.
If elected, Robitaille said, he would propose suspending a tax on small firms that supports the state's deeply strained unemployment insurance fund. Instead, the Republican candidate said he would urge Congress to redirect another round of proposed stimulus funding — particularly some federal funds that could be earmarked for sidewalks — to support unemployment insurance.
That injection of federal cash would alleviate the need to raise taxes on small business owners to replenish the unemployment benefits system.
"Why do we need to build sidewalks, spend millions of dollars on sidewalks, when he can save ... the engine of our state," Robitaille said. "The job creators in our state are the small businesses."
Robitaille said he and his wife recently closed their public relations firm because of the sour economy.
He now serves as communications director for Carcieri, whose popularity ratings have sunk as the economy tumbled. A poll conducted by Brown University in May showed 36 percent of voters approved of Carcieri's job performance. Robitaille plans to leave his job in the Carcieri administration to focus on the campaign.
He refused to speak about any disagreements he has with the policies of Carcieri, a staunch social conservative.
Like Carcieri, Robitaille said he opposes abortion. He believes marriage is between a man and a woman but said he would be willing to consider domestic partnership rights for gays, a system rejected by the state's leading gay rights groups who call it separate and unequal.
"I'm not saying it's four more years of Don Carcieri, but I wouldn't have gone to work for him, I wouldn't have worked for him for two years if I didn't believe that he was doing the right thing as governor, and I still believe that," Robitaille said.
Republicans have struggled to find a candidate willing to enter the race and try to keep a seat held by the GOP for 21 of the last 25 years. Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, who challenged then-Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in the 2006 primary, announced he would not enter the race Monday. Businessman Rory Smith dropped out of the election last month.
It's possible the next governor will not need a majority of voters to win.
Chafee is now running as an independent candidate for governor, while Attorney General Patrick Lynch and General Treasurer Frank Caprio are competing for the Democratic nomination. Leaders of the newly formed Moderate Party say may field a candidate, too.