Michael Rulli ‘91 sat in his new state house office in Columbus, Ohio wearing an Emerson sweatshirt on his second day as a state senator.
On Jan. 8, the grocery store operations director, ex-bassist of Red Bliss, and passionate Emerson alumnus laid his left hand on the bible and held his right hand up to swear his duty to his home state. Following the ceremony, Rulli stated his goals for promoting economic development and educational reform in Ohio.
Rulli won as a Republican senator for Ohio’s 33rd district with 52 percent of the vote—unseating nine-year Democratic incumbent Joe Schiavoni. Ohio’s 33rd senatorial district has elected a Democrat in every election since 1951, according to polling data from Ballotpedia.
A once self-proclaimed “raging liberal,” Rulli understands people’s confusion over his political party as an Emerson graduate. He said he identified as a Democrat until the late 1990s.
Rulli attributed his transition to the Republican party to an overexposure of bad politics.
“These Democrats I would be around with were just garbage people,” Rulli said. “They would throw their own staff under the bus, they were constantly trash-talking others… The politicians have a bad reputation for taking bribes.”
Besides the politics, Rulli said the event that determined his party affiliation came shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when he comforted crying customers in the aisles of one of his grocery stores as CNN played on a store TV.
“CNN started saying that we sort of asked for it,” Rulli said. “We have a lot of flaws in our history. We have a lot of dark sides in our history. But, the narrative started going that America was to blame. That America’s imperialism brought on 9/11.”
Rulli said the newscast encouraged him to switch parties.
“I’m in no way, shape, or form an alt-righter. I shun them whenever I have a chance,” Rulli said. “As far as finances go, I’m very conservative.”
Rulli said he studied speech at Emerson, interned for Joe Kennedy Jr., and claims to have started Boston’s first grunge band—MTV music video and all.
“For me, Boston has the fill of a big city, with an accommodating and small-town feel to it,” Rulli said. “I fell in love.”
Rulli described his move from a suburb in Poland, Ohio to the east coast as his attempt to attend the school with the best program for his prime skill—public speaking.
“I did extremely well in speech team. All my teachers in high school were like, ‘You need to go somewhere that’s really strong in communications,’” Rulli said. “I was really interested in politics, too. I’ve always been a political junkie.”
In Boston, Rulli became friends with Brian McGilvary and Michael Carreiro—the two original members of Red Bliss, a local grunge band named after potato salad.
“[Rulli] was kinda crazy. He was very crazy, actually,” McGilvary said.
McGilvary, the band’s drummer, remembered when he met Rulli in the spring of 1988 for a meet-and-greet with rock band The Replacements at the now-defunct record store Strawberries in Kenmore Square.
“Michael walked up, opened his backpack, and put down a 12-pack of cheap beer and gave it to The Replacements. They got a kick out of it,” McGilvary said.
The senator said his family’s century-old grocery store business, Rulli Bros. Markets, and a student loan debt of over $100,000 motivated him to come back to Ohio.
Rulli eventually offered McGilvary a position at one of his family’s grocery stores.
“I remember him talking about politics [in the supermarket],” McGilvary said. “It wasn’t anything too specific. I think I took it as pipe dreams.”
Rulli kick-started his career in public policy in Ohio by spending eight years on the Leetonia School Board, from 2009 to 2017. He said he felt inspired to run for a board seat after discovering the Leetonia Exempted Village School District was half a million dollars in debt.
He won the election for school board president in 2015—earning recognition for the district’s climb into the top hundred school districts in the state by increasing its overall quality. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute classified the school district as “high quality” in 2016.
In 2017, Rulli announced his intent to run for state senate. He ran on a platform of combating population loss, improving public education, and advocating for small businesses.
“When he announced he was running [for state senate] I was shocked as anybody,” McGilvary said. “The Republican thing was kinda disappointing.”
Rulli admitted how accustomed he’s become to his friends and family badgering him for his political affiliation.
“Ninety percent of my friends, 70 percent of my family are Democrats,” Rulli said.
Mahoning County and Columbiana County, where Ohio’s 33rd district resides, are considered two of the most democratic counties in the state.
Rulli said he’s still getting used to hearing people call him “senator,” but his settling in did not prevent him from starting initiatives.
As his first piece of legislation, the senator plans to introduce an amendment to create a transportation corridor that would enable an equal distribution of federal funds to each of Ohio’s 88 counties. This program extends the accessibility of public transportation in the state.
“In some of the rural parts of our counties, [public transportation] just don’t go into their area. We’re developing a dollar for dollar program,” Rulli said.
Looking forward, Rulli strives towards bipartisan goals for his home state.
“I believe in more freedom. I believe that I should be able to say anything I want to say,” Rulli said. “I’m really into criminal justice reform, I’m really pro-gay rights, I’m really for a lot of things that Republicans don’t go for.”
That is the kind of future Rulli said he wants for Ohio.