NORTH KINGSTOWN – To the casual observer, it appears that North Kingstown has a lock on leaders of the state Republican Party.
On the heels of the departure to Washington, D.C. of Ken McKay IV, a member of the town’s first family of furniture, another local GOP luminary has risen to the top. Only days before Christmas, Mark Zaccaria, 62, was elected chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party.
On many levels – raising funds, attracting young blood to the party and enticing viable candidates to run for office – the job is a huge challenge.
Zaccaria believes that’s precisely why he was chosen.
“The state committee looked around and asked ‘Who’s best to lead the party?’ I was the choice and I was thrilled. I could have ducked the challenge of the state chairmanship but it needed to be done and I was the person with the qualifications to do it.”
Among his top priorities are fundraising which, he says, will do two things: “It will help us find General Assembly candidates and also shut up the chattering class [who say] the Rhode Island GOP is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. We need to change the public discourse.”
For his part, Zaccaria has dubbed the Democrat-controlled General Assembly the “boys and girls club” and predicts, “Somebody’s going to flip a switch and the lights won’t come on [because of perceived mismanagement.] There has been needless and excessive drama.”
He brings a lot to the table, most notably two decent runs for Congress against incumbent James Langevin, the first in 2008 and the second in 2010.
“I could have beaten him last time if I’d had the money but, at the time you want to [buy] airtime, I was operating on a shoestring.”
A Boston native, Zaccaria graduated from Colby College in Maine with majors in English and film production. He was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force, becoming a stateside flight commander for five years during the Vietnam War.
He met his wife, Ruth, when they were assigned to the same military base; she was a nurse on active duty. (After they moved to North Kingstown, she ran for the state House of Representatives against Ken Carter.)
Following a succession of jobs with big corporations – positions involving a lot of world travel – Mark and his family settled in Rhode Island, ultimately moving to North Kingstown 13 years ago. The Zaccarias have three children and he owns a consulting company.
“When we move to a new place, our pattern is to join the local Methodist church and the town Republican Committee,” he says.
He is certainly no political ingénue.
Zaccaria was appointed to the town council for 2002-04, replacing Robin Porter, who left to seek statewide office. Mark won election to a full term in 2004.
A month ago he was serving as chairman of the GOP Town Committee, gearing up to support candidates for five council and three school committee seats.
“The North Kingstown Republican Committee is one of the top tier local [GOP] organizations,” he declares. “It’s a robust committee that’s been active and well-attended for years and gets new members all the time.”
When Ken McKay suddenly vacated the party’s top post, Mark drew the attention of state Republican leaders.
“I spent 10 years working with the central committee,” he notes. “I was stuffing envelopes, standing on corners holding signs; it was trenches work.”
The new chairman can be found every weekday working the phone in his office in the state GOP headquarters, in the Airport Plaza in Warwick. Other than a paid director, there is no staff to speak of except a volunteer who comes in part time.
“It’s bare bones,” he admits. “The entire budget is $165,000 with $112,000 going to candidates. It’s less than the salary of the [party] chairman or executive director of most states. We need five or 10 times that figure for our annual budget.
“It’s time to organize ourselves and actually have a financial base that can start paying a professional staff. We need to run a much tighter ship.”
Zaccaria’s marketing skills are coming in handy as he spreads the news that reports of the party’s demise are premature.
“I’m making myself available – doing radio, writing op-ed pieces, meeting with members of the Republican Black Caucus, a variety of things to make some Republican noise.”
He’s also heavily involved in candidate recruitment.
“We have an opportunity,” he insists, adding that the GOP message is “We’re here and we’re well and we’re growing.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .