The Boston Phoenix, This Just In, Published: October 20, 2010
Stepping out of his Volkswagen bus, which is painted to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, independent gubernatorial candidate Joe Lusi shares some wisdom regarding political media appearances. “Running for office is like being a stand-up comedian,” he explains. “You get up there and you tell the same old jokes.”
If we’re sticking with the stand-up analogy, Joe Lusi is more Lenny Bruce than Dane Cook — more partial to the improvised than the scripted. Witness his recent stumble through “Voice of the Candidates,” a pre-recorded WJAR-TV segment. The other candidates feed prepared statements through the teleprompter. But midway through the third and final take allowed by the network, Lusi loses his way once again. “I’m running for office because (pause) I obviously don’t believe in tele-prompters.” After the shoot, he’s pleased with how it went. “I flubbed, but I harnessed the flub!”
Running for governor is the latest in a series of adventures for Joe. Born in Providence, he has spent his 45 years traveling the country and the world, at different times working as a shoe salesman, construction worker, sharecropper, and punk rock band manager. He lived for a time in a cave community in Idaho with no running water or electricity, spent 12 weeks traveling alone through Central America and once walked the 500 miles from Georgia to New Orleans.
He returned to Rhode Island in the mid-90s and set to work restoring and renovating a series of homes in the Smith Hill section of Providence. Several of these homes are concentrated on a block he calls the “Futuristic District,” where he has built a community of friends among the people he’s sold and rented homes to.
There is a lot of “harnessing the flub” in the campaign, which can be unsettling until you realize that it’s by design. Lusi has thus far defied every piece of conventional wisdom on how to run a political campaign. He has no polished talking points. He has rejected all campaign contributions, made no effort to raise money, and spent a total of $5.37 so far, with no plans to spend more. That sum, just enough for a Subway foot-long, was used to make black and white photocopies of his “R.I. Loves Lusi” flyers, which he hands out to most strangers he encounters. Aside from these, he has no promotional materials: no brochures, no posters, no buttons.
What he lacks in campaign funds and pamphlets, however, he makes up for in ideas. Lusi spent an evening in October with his campaign manager drafting a plan to make Rhode Island the Fireworks Capital of America. “Fireworks are a symbol of our freedom,” he explains. “Why should we be importing them from China?” He also has plans to legalize marijuana and liquidate the state’s pension fund and use it buy silver, minting state coinage to pay state employees.
Lusi’s platform is largely shaped by a libertarian world view. He’s concerned about the recent federal bailout money and believes the state’s freedom is dangerously eroded by its dependence on the federal government. “We’re the smallest state,” he reasons. “If autonomy can’t work here, where can it work?” He has plans to force Providence into bankruptcy and dissolve the state’s most powerful unions. These are ideas Lusi knows aren’t popular. But he considers them the most realistic options for economic recovery in the state.
Lusi once counted himself among the disenchanted: he cast his 2008 presidential ballot for Dugout Dick, an acquaintance from his Idaho cave-dwelling days.
But two years later, he’s more engaged. He’s put his own name up for governor — and he doesn’t consider himself a fringe candidate. “We are not trying to send a message,” he states firmly. “The design of the campaign is to win.” He calls the roughly one-third of Rhode Island voters who still hadn’t picked a gubernatorial candidate deep into the campaign “my guys” and gets excited at every climb in the polls, no matter how nominal. When he received news that he recently polled at .7%, he responded by saying, “Last time it was .1%! At this rate, I’m gonna win the thing!”
On a chilly October evening, Joe grills ribeye steaks on the open fire stove in his living room. With his shirt off and a glass of wine in his hand, he discusses a recent troubling interview with a reporter who accused him of being too “far out.” Turning the steaks with his bare hands, he tells a friend what he told the interviewer. “You might say I’m far out. Well, the only solution is far out.”