PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ashley Kalus is under fire for sending vulgar and insulting text messages to a Chicago contractor in 2018, but the Republican gubernatorial candidate argues they prove she’s a fighter who “will not be taken advantage of.”

The newly surfaced text messages show Kalus — who is challenging incumbent Democrat Dan McKee — repeatedly tried to insult and emasculate a Chicago general contractor named Michael Gruener by calling him a “pathetic loser,” “Mr. Mom,” “a bottom,” and various off-color phrases.

On Wednesday, Kalus took to the radio to defend the texts, saying she regretted ever doing business with Gruener and that the messages were evidence she wouldn’t allow him to take advantage of her while doing business together.

“I will not be taken advantage of,” Kalus said during an interview with WPRO’s Tara Granahan. (The text messages were first reported by The Boston Globe and independently obtained by Target 12.)

“When I’m governor, nobody’s going to take advantage of the taxpayers either,” she added. “This is unlike Dan McKee, who has allowed that to happen for far too long.”

The text messages stemmed from a 2018 billing issue when Gruener was doing work on the building where Kalus and her husband, Jeffrey Weinzweig, had their plastic surgery business. They became public as part of an ongoing dispute between the couple and Gruener.

When asked about some of language used in the text messages, including the term “Mr. Mom,” Kalus said it had been taken out of context, but added, “I will stand by my assessment of that person.”

In another text, Kalus accused Gruener of trying to extort her, then wrote: “You seem like a bottom mike.” Pressed by Granahan about what she meant by calling Gruener “a bottom,” a term which has a sexual connotation among the LGBTQ community, Kalus insisted she wasn’t using it in that sense.

“I meant it as a bottom feeder — bottom of the barrel — I mean, it’s being entirely mischaracterized,” Kalus said Wednesday on the radio.

“To claim that it’s homophobic in any way is just wrong — I’ve always been an ally to the LGBTQ community,” she added, saying two of her top campaign aides are openly gay.

“They wouldn’t be working for me and with me day in and day out if there was even an ounce of homophobia in me that’s just not what I’m about,” she said.

Kalus also tried to deflect some of the less flattering stories about her past that have emerged in recent weeks, including a Chicago police report first reported by Target 12 which alleged she pushed and kicked a pregnant woman in 2019, as well as a trail of legal disputes in several states.

Kalus tried to turn the focus back on McKee, arguing the state needs new leadership and the Democrat has his own legal issues — including an ongoing FBI investigation into a highly lucrative education contract his administration awarded last year to a politically connected consulting firm ILO Group.

“Dan caves to every special interest that pressures him to do something,” she said. “He gave an education contract to his buddies, which landed him under FBI investigation.”

The newly surfaced text messages, however, evoked sharp criticism from Kalus’s political rivals, including Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos — a Providence Democrat — who took to Twitter to express outrage.

“The only thing more vile than this sexist, classist, and homophobic language from someone running to be our Governor is her response implying that Rhode Islanders should read this as a sign of strength,” Matos tweeted. “Ashley Kalus is an embarrassment.”

On Wednesday, the McKee campaign announced a news conference “to address Ashley Kalus’ pattern of conduct.” Matos spoke, along with state Sens. Valarie Lawson, Melissa Murray and Joshua Miller.

Watch the full news conference below:

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tolly Taylor contributed to this report.