by Christopher Martin

That which we call a Russo, by any other name would smell... as sweet?

Ralph aRusso in an undated photo from Images of America: Johnston 2 (1999), photo courtesy of Joseph Russo.

Back in 1964, Democrats had a strangle hold on political offices in Johnston (still do, in fact). Two insurgent Democrats, councilman Raphael (Ralph) R. Russo and town clerk Mario Russillo, decided to run for state Senate and the new position of Johnston town administrator, respectively. Trouble was, state law dictated that endorsed candidates be listed in the first column, while all other candidates were listed alphabetically in columns across the ballot.

Knowing that people were more likely to vote for one of the first names they saw listed, and that it was physically more difficult to pull the voting machine levers in the columns to the right, Russo and Russillo cooked up a scheme. Town Clerk Russillo, acting as a probate judge, signed papers that changed Russo's name to aRusso. Then Russillo's deputy, taking over the role of probate judge, did the same for her superior. The petitions were witnessed by John P. Bourcier, an insurgent leader who later went on to become a justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Although challenged in the courts and before the State Board of Elections, the name changes stuck. Results of the jump to the left side of the ballot were mixed: aRussillo won his seat as the first Administrator of the Town of Johnston, while aRusso lost his bid for state Senate. But that didn't leave aRusso jobless—aRussillo appointed him to the position of town finance director.

Four years later, it was aRusso running against his old ally for the town administrator position. This time the entrenched Democrats thought they had a strategy to keep both upstarts out of the running—they added candidates with names like Acciardo, Anderson, and Arcand to the ballot. The resulting ballot was over three feet wide, presenting the same mechanical problems as before, and the same position problems for aRussillo and aRusso.

aRussillo's response was to add another "a" to his name. Probably the resulting publicity, as much as his visibility on the ballot, helped aaRussillo keep his seat by thirty-nine votes.

aaRussillo declined to run again in 1970, and this time aRusso snagged the position of town administrator and served ably in that capacity (and after 1974, as Mayor) for twenty-four years. aaRussillo dropped the "a"s from his name in 1995, while aRusso always kept his. They both died at the age of 76, aRusso in 1999, and Russillo in 2001.

Johnston resident Christopher Martin is the curator of the website you are reading now. When he moved from Providence to Johnston in 2004, he was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the walls in the basement of his new house was made from old aRusso campaign billboards.

This article last edited December 28, 2014

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