Ocean State: The lay of the land

by John Perilli

Without a doubt, Rhode Island’s two political stories of the summer were the two new verses in the long and meandering Ballad of Gov. Lincoln Chafee. First, in May, Rhode Island’s governor reaffiliated to the Democratic Party, giving Rhode Island its first unified party government since 1995. Then, scarcely three months later, in September, he announced that he would not be running for reelection in 2014. These surprises dramatically shifted the Rhode Island political landscape, sending pundits and operatives alike scrambling to make sense of a totally reinvented race for governor.

But the waters have since calmed, and now the pot has begun to bubble for the midterm elections in 2014. Five statewide offices will be up for election: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, general treasurer, and attorney general, as well as mayor of Providence. So far, only one of these offices has an incumbent that intends to run for reelection, which will make this quadrennial round of high-powered musical chairs especially fun to watch. From 13 months out, the races are by no means set, but are coming into much clearer focus.

Governor

The 2014 race for governor of Rhode Island will likely feature a marquee Democratic primary pitting current Providence Mayor Angel Taveras against current General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. An early poll released by Taveras’ campaign has him ahead 49 to 30 percent among likely primary voters, and he will also enjoy the backing of Rhode Island’s heavy-hitting union coalition, but Raimondo still holds a wide fundraising advantage.

On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, an unlikely GOP hero in an otherwise solidly Democratic city, will most likely be the consensus nominee. However, keep an eye on Moderate Ken Block, a third-party candidate who has considered jumping into the Republican primary. This would force a competitive race for the Republican nomination and could drain the eventual nominee of the funds needed to take on a Democrat in a blue state.

Lieutenant Governor

It’s become quite fashionable in some Rhode Island political circles to call for the abolition of the lieutenant governorship, but despite these sentiments, Rhode Island’s second office will have an election in 2014, as well as a new occupant. Eight-year Democratic incumbent Elizabeth Roberts is term-limited, and candidates old and new are lining up to take her place.

First, there is current Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, who is himself term-limited in his current position and is looking to step into another statewide office. However, he will be challenged by current Mayor of Cumberland Daniel McKee, a long-term municipal incumbent looking to climb the ladder. The Republican field is much more speculative at this point, but current Mayor of Warwick Scott Avedisian, a self-described moderate conservative, has hinted that he might run.

Secretary of State

With incumbent Mollis term-limited, this is another definite opening for 2014. Initially holding the inside track was former Democratic State Representative and State Party Chairman Ed Pacheco, but in a surprising announcement last week, he dropped out of the running.
Now, a potential Democratic primary would pit Newport businessman Guillaume de Ramel, who ran and lost the race for this seat back in 2006, against HousingWorks RI Executive Director Nellie Gorbea. Ramel looks to be the early Democratic favorite – he has strong fundraising chops and a head start in the race for name recognition. However, the Democratic winner cannot take presumptive Republican challenger and state Elderly Affairs Director Catherine Taylor for granted. She gave Ralph Mollis a real scare in 2010, winning more votes than any other Rhode Island Republican in a statewide election that year.

General Treasurer

With incumbent Raimondo expected to run for governor, her office will most likely be vacated for a new challenger. After leaving the treasurer’s post for an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010, Democrat Frank Caprio is looking to execute a Grover Cleveland and regain his former office. He will doubtless be a strong fundraiser, but his political baggage could weigh him down in his run at redemption.

Ostensibly opposing him in a Democratic primary will be former State Auditor General and accounting wizard extraordinaire Ernest Almonte, who decided to take aim at the treasurer’s office rather than follow his original plan to run for governor. A third possible Democratic candidate is Seth Magaziner, the son of former Bill Clinton Administration adviser Ira Magaziner and an up-and-coming public figure in his own right. For the GOP, all is quiet on this front, but expect a Republican candidate to come forward soon.

Attorney General

Of all Rhode Island’s statewide elected offices, the attorney general’s is the only one with an incumbent definitely in the running. Peter Kilmartin has held the office since 2010 and has indicated his intent to run for a second term. No one has thus far come forward to challenge him on either side, but keep a close watch on State Senator Dawson Hodgson, a young, socially moderate Republican who formerly worked for the Office of the Attorney General as a prosecutor and could put in a bid for the top job.

Mayor of Providence

Incumbent Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has all but officially declared his run for Governor in 2014, leaving the race for City Hall wide open. Providence City Council President Michael Solomon is the Democratic establishment candidate and is lining up supporters and funds for a run at Taveras’ job. Solomon will face a strong challenge, though, from Brett Smiley, a campaign finance professional and former chair of the Providence Water Supply Board, as well as former housing court judge and law professor Jorge Elorza. Former candidate for state representative Daniel Harrop is the early Republican favorite, but he will have to win over a divided party that snubbed him for the state GOP chairmanship earlier this year.

However, the field in this race is fluid and could possibly expand to include a number of big names. Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox (D-Providence) has over $150,000 in his campaign account and is well positioned to gain an early advantage should he decide to run. Former City Council Chair and Interim Mayor John J. Lombardi, now a state representative in the Federal Hill area, could also have a go. And who did Lombardi replace during his four months as mayor? The infamous and legendary Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who also has not ruled out a campaign to lead Providence for a third term.

The deadline to file for candidacy in Rhode Island is not until June 2014, so expect the fields to change as candidates drop in and out of competition. Even from this distant vantage point, though, 2014 looks to be entertaining, complete with high-powered clashes and keen competition for both parties. Stay tuned.

 

photo of Angel Taveras by Jef Nickerson