Looking ahead from RI primaries

David Cicilline

by John Perilli

The last recounts are over, and the results from the Rhode Island Statewide Primary on Sept. 11 are finally official. While most of the competitive races were Democratic, there were a few Republican contests that went down to the last votes as well.

At the federal level, all the incumbents cruised. In District 1, Congressman David Cicilline shook off allegations of voter fraud from opponent Anthony Gemma and trounced him by a 62–30 percent margin. It was a much-needed triumph for Cicilline, who took some flak during his first term for how he handled the City of Providence’s finances as mayor. He will get a charge of momentum heading into the general election against Republican Brendan Doherty, in what will undoubtedly be Rhode Island’s most-watched race this November.

In District 2, incumbent Jim Langevin, running for his seventh term, crushed challenger John Matson to earn the Democratic nomination. He will face Republican Michael Riley, who earned 65.6 percent of the vote in a four-way primary, as well as Independent environmentalist Abel Collins.

Both candidates for Senate — incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and his Republican challenger Barry Hinckley — were uncontested. Whitehouse is heavily favored, but is still campaigning actively in order to lock up the seat by a safe margin.

 The General Assembly

With a wide Democratic majority, the competition in many of Rhode Island’s state-level races has moved to the September rather than the November elections. Even after some tight primary races, though, not all Democrats are in the clear. Here are some of the most significant results from the Rhode Island House and Senate primaries, as well as several races to watch in November.

Some Important Primary Results:

House District 8 – Democrat – Providence – When the dust cleared from the Battle of Federal Hill, prominent former City Councilman and one-time Interim Mayor John J. Lombardi emerged on top, garnering 52.3 percent of the vote after an aggressive advertising push. His name recognition and fundraising strength carried him over progressive upstart Libby Kimzey, who nonetheless ran an efficient door-knocking campaign and won a respectable 35.4 percent. In last place was incumbent Michael Tarro, who finished with a disappointing 12.2 percent. Lombardi is running uncontested in November.

House District 32 – Republican – North Kingstown – Initially, venerable North Kingstown incumbent Laurence Ehrhardt wanted to retire and pass off his seat to Sharon Gamba, but he had a change of heart mid-term. The result was a tight race that showed there is still tension in Rhode Island’s compact Republican caucus, and Ehrhardt won with 50.8 percent of the vote. He will face Democrat Robert Craven in the general election.

House District 44 – Democrat – Lincoln – In one of the most expensive and publicized races in the state, Gregory Costantino defeated incumbent Peter Petrarca by a 59–41 percent margin. Neither candidate shied away from personal attacks, as shown by absurd mailers like this one. Costanino will be up against Republican James Archer in November.

House District 58 – Democrat – Pawtucket – Ten-term incumbent Bill San Bento seemed to be finally losing steam. After winning only a plurality of a three-way primary in 2010, he faced a stiff challenge from activist Carlos Tobon this time around. As the first precincts reported, it appeared Tobon would topple the incumbent, but San Bento roared back and ended up ahead by only three votes. However, there were three provisional ballots (ballots cast by voters without proper ID) still left to count, triggering a long and messy recount process. Eventually, the State Board of Elections declined Tobon’s request for a hand recount, giving San Bento one more term.

Senate District 14 – Democrat – East Providence – This fiercely competitive race divided the City of East Providence along the lines of the pension issue, and between two powerful Democratic insiders. Incumbent Daniel DaPonte, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, was one of the chief authors of the contentious pension reform bill, while his challenger Bob DaSilva voted against it as a member of the House. But union activism could not put DaSilva over the top, as DaPonte edged him out with 50.9 percent of the vote.

Senate District 29 – Democrat – Warwick – Another issue race, this time over marriage equality. The same-sex marriage bill failed last term, in no small part due to the efforts of incumbent Michael McCaffrey, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. But House Speaker Gordon Fox is determined to force a vote again this spring, so influential advocacy groups like Marriage Equality RI threw their support behind progressive challenger Laura Pisaturo. Pisaturo ran a solid grassroots effort, but McCaffrey held onto his seat 53 percent to 47 percent.

Five General Assembly Races to Watch in November:

House District 30 – East Greenwich – After the retirement of House Republican firebrand Bob Watson, his party constituents chose jeweler Antonio Giarrusso to replace him. Giarrusso cuts a quieter figure than his predecessor, but he will still need all the help he can get to defeat a strong Democratic opponent in Mark Schwager, who has more campaign experience.

House District 47 – Burrillville – Incumbent Democratic representative Cale Keable barely defeated Republican Don Fox in 2010, and now Fox is back for another try. Burrillville remains fairly conservative, but Keable may have significant help from the state Democratic Party organization. Its chairman, Edwin Pacheco, once represented this district.

Senate District 19 – Cumberland and Lincoln – This is another part of Rhode Island that leans Republican, but GOP incumbent Beth Moura may be weak. Former Cumberland School Committeeman and Democratic nominee Ryan Pearson is back for a rematch of 2010 and has already pointed out that Moura’s State House attendance record is one of the sparsest in the General Assembly. This was a close race two years ago, and it will certainly be so again this November.

Senate District 21 – Scituate and Coventry – Republican incumbent Nick Kettle became the youngest ever person elected to the Rhode Island State Senate in 2010, when he rode a wave of conservative sympathy to defeat a Republican incumbent in the primary and win the general election at age 20. But this year is a presidential election year, and Rhode Island will likely go blue. Can Democratic challenger and former State Representative Scott Pollard use this, along with his relentless ground game, to change the fortunes of District 21?

Senate District 34 – Exeter and Chariho – Democratic operatives in Washington County are trying to cast Republican incumbent Frank Maher as aloof and unconcerned, but Maher is part of a solid bloc of southern Rhode Island Senate Republicans who will be hard to unseat. Can Democratic challenger Catherine Cool Rumsey, backed by both the progressive and establishment wings of the party, deny Maher a third term?

With 65 out of 75 seats in the House of Representatives belonging to Democrats, as well as 29 out of 38 in the Senate, Rhode Island Republicans will be focused on rolling back the majority. However, they must also cover for themselves: Some Republican seats are weak, and the Democrats will have Barack Obama on the ticket. Expect a bitter and competitive set of races, as both parties try to make a stand during a presidential election year.


photo of Congressman David Cicilline by Medill DC: http://www.flickr.com/photos/medilldc/5529835826/