PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ashley Kalus, a newcomer to Rhode Island with a background in business and politics, announced Tuesday morning she will seek the Republican nomination for governor.
Kalus — pronounced “KAY-liss” — introduced herself to voters in a campaign launch video posted on social media that emphasized her personal story and vision for the state. The 39-year-old filed as a candidate with the R.I. Board of Elections last month, but has kept out of the limelight until now.
In a statement sent to reporters, Kalus promised she will “run a campaign of substance and vision,” and said, “This is the time to write the greatest chapter in Rhode Island’s history.”
“We need leaders with solutions to make Rhode Island a more affordable to place live, work, and raise a family,” she said. “We need parental involvement in our kids’ education. And we need to fund the police and keep our neighborhoods safe. Rhode Island, I want to fight for you.”
Citing the Louis Brandeis quote about states being “laboratories of democracy,” Kalus suggested Rhode Island should look to other states on key issues: Massachusetts on education and technology; Tennessee and Georgia on the cost of living; Florida on taxes and treatment of retirees; Virginia and North Carolina on business friendliness; Ohio and Pennsylvania on housing; and Illinois on infrastructure.
“We need a leader with gigantic aspirations, with an agenda so bold, we will tap into every Rhode Islander’s hopes and dreams,” she said.
In her launch video, Kalus criticized state leaders for listening to “insiders and lobbyists” who wanted “mom-and-pop stores” to close while big box stores stayed open early in the pandemic. She also said parents who have a child “trapped in a failing school” would be able “to pick a school of your choice” under her administration. She called for lower health care costs and tackling opioid abuse, as well.
In a follow-up interview with 12 News, Kalus said she credited a dual enrollment program that allowed her to take college classes as a high school student with turning around her academic career. She also said she would like to see parents have the ability to send a child in a failing school to any other public school in the state, though she said she expected most would stay in the same district.
“I want to be the education governor,” she said.
Kalus’s entry into the gubernatorial race, less than six months before the September primary, gives the GOP a potential standard-bearer who is a fresh face but also untested in state politics. Two other Republicans who considered running — House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and former turnpike authority chief David Darlington — both opted against it.
Republicans held the Rhode Island governor’s office for all but four years between 1985 and 2010, but since then the party has struggled as Democrats have increased their dominance in statewide and federal races. The last Republican to win such a race was then-Gov. Don Carcieri in 2006.
Incumbent Gov. Dan McKee, who took office a year ago when Gina Raimondo departed for Washington, is currently facing four challengers in the Democratic primary: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz.
While Kalus described herself Tuesday as a “political outsider,” she has experience in the political arena outside of Rhode Island. She worked on the successful 2014 campaign of former Illinois GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, then served as director of public engagement in his office during the first two years of his term.
Asked which Republican currently in office she admires the most, Kalus called the question “a hard one,” but said she likes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. She also demurred when asked if she thinks former President Donald Trump should run again, saying, “I’m not really focused on that. I don’t even know if he’s running in 2024.”
Kalus is a recent arrival in the Ocean State, having moved to the state last year and registered to vote here in January. She is still listed as having an active voter registration in Monroe County, Florida, with no party affiliation. According to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections, the only time Kalus cast a ballot there was in the November 2020 general election.
Kalus and her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Weinzweig, bought a house in Newport last May, property records show. The couple married in 2009 and have three school-age sons. (Kalus said the pair got engaged in Providence in 2008.)
Weinzweig has an earlier connection to Rhode Island, however, having completed his residency in plastic surgery at Brown University’s medical school. R.I. Department of Health records show he was first issued a physician license in Rhode Island in 1995, and that his license remains active. Weinzweig later worked for the Lahey Clinic before setting up a practice in Chicago, according to online biographies.
“My husband, Jeff, and I originally hoped to start our life and family together in Providence, but the financial crisis hit and opportunity disappeared,” Kalus wrote in an open letter that was also released Tuesday. “With a quarter of a million dollars in student loan debt, we had to leave for better opportunities.”
During the interview, she suggested she was motivated to run in part by the circumstances that kept her from living in Rhode Island until last year.
“I worked so hard to come back, and really wanted to come back,” Kalus said. “And then I was just sort of hit with the reality of the fact that I couldn’t put my children in public school. I felt uncomfortable. And I wasn’t really expecting that. The economic opportunity was still not here, and we had left for a while — I thought it would be better.”
A company owned by Kalus and Weinzweig, Doctors Test Centers, registered to do business in Rhode Island last April. The firm quickly landed two multimillion-dollar pandemic-related contracts from the Department of Health, one for vaccination services and one to manage testing sites.
Kalus’s campaign didn’t mention Doctors Test Centers by name in its news release Tuesday, but said her activities over the last two years had ranged from “setting up a safety-net COVID testing center in Florida, to launching travel testing at O’Hare International Airport, one of the largest airports in the United States.”
The Doctors Test Centers logo was displayed in her campaign launch video, and Kalus indicated the company “conducted over 426,000 tests and delivered over 31,000 vaccines” under its state contract, taking part of the credit for Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate.
“We won our contract based on merit, unlike some other contracts that have been recently given out,” she said.
Early in her career Kalus worked for the consulting firm Accenture, and the campaign said she later “built a surgical practice from the ground up.”
Kalus said she was born in San Diego but moved during middle school to Massachusetts, where she lived on the South Shore with her single mother, who she said struggled financially after her parents’ divorce.
Kalus has degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the London School of Economics and Columbia University, and also mentioned being a New England Golden Gloves boxing champion.
Kalus’s first campaign-finance report isn’t due until early May, so it’s still unclear how much money she will have to get up and running. But, she said, “I am going to raise money and I’m also going to put my own money into the campaign, and I’ll do whatever it takes to be competitive.”
“Rhode Islanders need a fighter — now more than ever,” Kalus said. “The days of ‘I know a guy’ are over.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.