Gone Before He Got There: Newly Elected Rhode Island Lawmaker Won't Take Seat After Campaign Cover-Up

by | December 6, 2018

By Patrick Anderson

A rising young star in Rhode Island Democratic politics came crashing to earth Wednesday as state Representative-elect Laufton Ascencao said he would not take his seat in the General Assembly under mounting pressure from fellow progressives for fabricating a story and documents about his help for local candidates.

"Viewing the inability to get a political mailer sent in time as a personal failing is a pretty silly way to see the world. Trying to cover it up was a mistake so unnecessary that it's clear to me that my judgment has become skewed," Ascencao, of Bristol, said in a statement announcing that he would not take office in the new term.

"I've spoken to lots of the people I hoped to represent and it is clear that, given my mistakes, I cannot represent our shared values at the State House as well as I would want to and as they deserve."

State law requires a special election in no more than 90 days to replace him.

Ascencao, 25, was part of liberal political wave sweeping the state's East Bay in recent elections. He canvassed and organized for progressive candidates and causes (such as paid sick leave) before launching his own political career. Elected to House District 68 in Bristol and Warren, he was set to become the youngest member of the General Assembly when new lawmakers are sworn in in January.

But promises of help to fellow East Bay candidates he couldn't keep got him in hot water. Last Friday the Warren Democratic Town Committee reported Ascencao to state elections officials for lying to four local town council candidates about a mysterious six-page brochure he claimed to have made for them.

He faked a check and printing invoice to keep up the fiction and asked the candidates to falsely report the imaginary mailer as an in-kind campaign contribution on their financial filings, according to a complaint filed by the Warren Democratic Town Committee.

On Tuesday he admitted lying, but his public apology couldn't rebuild trust with progressive groups and colleagues who had backed him.

After the Warren Democrats called for Ascencao to step down Tuesday, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence followed suit Wednesday.

"Many of our members gave up precious time with their families to knock on doors for Laufton because we trusted him," the Coalition Against Gun violence said in a news release. "His actions are at minimum a betrayal of that trust, and we no longer believe that he can effectively advocate for the many causes he has championed, including the need to reduce gun violence in Rhode Island."

By the time the Reform Caucus of Democrats opposed to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello shunned him early Wednesday evening, the writing was on the wall.

"The Reform Caucus will no longer count Mr. Ascencao as a member," the group, known as the Gang of 21 when it included Ascencao, said in a statement. "We firmly believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard. Ethics matter in public service. Our constituents expect and deserve honesty, integrity, and transparency from their government leaders."

Ascencao's loss is a huge blow for the dissident group, robbing them of a vote, a charismatic voice and good strategist. But his deception threatened to jeopardize the message of cleaning up State House culture they've campaigned on for months.

That was reflected by the unusual speed of Ascencao's downfall, which stands in contrast to other Rhode Island lawmakers embroiled in scandal who have hung on to their seats for weeks, months or indefinitely without being denounced by their colleagues.

Ascencao was set to take the seat now held by Rep. Ken Marshall, D-Bristol, who decided not to run for re-election this summer before admitting to taking thousands of dollars in unreported campaign donations.

A political consultant and organizer with the colorful life story of an underdog who had risen out of poverty, Ascencao had made a name for himself as a talented campaigner with a resume that included work for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

In Rhode Island he's lobbied and worked for the Working Families Party and helped several progressive candidates endorsed by the group score wins over conservative incumbents.

Ascencao beat town council member Andrew Tyska, who was supported by Mattiello, in September's Democratic primary before defeating Libertarian William Hunt in the general election.

On Wednesday Tyska said he is interested in running in the special election to replace Ascencao.

Hunt said, "Absolutely I plan on running again."

On Tuesday Ascencao resisted calls to give up his seat, saying it would deprive constituents who voted for him of a representative who supports their causes, but on Wednesday he explained his change of heart.

"Values to me are not just catch phrases used on a campaign; they are the only good reason to get involved in politics," Ascencao wrote in his statement giving up the seat. "When an elected official doesn't live up to those standards, it's important that the community be able to hold them accountable. I messed up and I need to own that."

(c)2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)