Nirva LaFortune wins Democratic primary in Providence Ward 3

From left to right, Ward 3 candidates Nirva Rebecca LaFortune, Dave Lallier, Daniel Chaika and Mark Santow. (Photo credit: Kerry Kohring, Summit Neighborhood Association.)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Nirva Rebecca LaFortune cruised to victory Wednesday in the special Democratic City Council primary in Providence’s Ward 3, according to initial results from the city’s Board of Canvassers.

LaFortune captured 1,147 votes, while runner-up Mark Santow finished with 339 votes and Daniel Chaika came in third place with 223 votes. LaFortune will now take on Republican David Lallier Jr. and independent Chris Reynolds in the general election Aug. 16.

The candidates are running to replace Kevin Jackson, a longtime Democratic councilman who was overwhelmingly recalled by Ward 3 voters May 2. The recall was organized after Jackson was arrested and indicted last year on charges that he embezzled from a youth sports organization he founded in 1978. Jackson is also accused of using his campaign fund to cover personal expenses. He has pleaded not guilty.

All three Democrats appeared to have similar views on the city’s most pressing issues, expressing support for the recently-passed Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA) and opposition to the newly enacted tobacco ban in part of downtown and the privatization of the city’s water supply. Each candidate pitched themselves as someone who could bring the residents of Ward 3 together after watching Jackson removed from the council seats he held for 22 years.

LaFortune, who was born in Haiti and grew up in Providence before attending college in Philadelphia, now works at Brown University. In a candidate survey with Eyewitness News, she pledged to be a “responsive city councilor who will help make city government more accessible and transparent for Ward 3 constituents.”

Santow, a member of the Providence School Board and professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, painted himself as the most experienced candidate in the race, highlighting his role on the school board and his familiarity with urban policy. He said he’s spent much of his career “learning how to listen, to ask good questions, to demand evidence, and to explain complicated issues on paper and in person.”

Chaika, a family attorney who served as vice-chair of the Providence Ethics Commission until he entered the race, framed himself as best positioned to work with everyone on the council to move the city forward. He said his legal background “is extremely helpful for understanding how city government functions and how to solve problems within a legal framework.”

In a statement issued shortly after the polls closed, Santow called the campaign a “remarkable, inspiring experience.” He credited LaFortune with running a “hopeful, inclusive and exciting campaign.”

“I’m excited to get back to the work of the Providence School Board, and to fight for educational equality and for safe and healthy public school buildings,” Santow said. “My hope is that the positive energy my neighbors have mustered for this election will continue, and that we can unite to not only elect Nirva to the Council, but to help her – and all of Ward 3 – succeed after that.  I’ll do my part. Thanks so much to all my neighbors, for your kind words, inviting me into your homes, and sharing your hopes about Providence with me. I share them.”

The race to replace Jackson was high-profile as far as council races go, but only 18% of the Democrats and independents who were eligible to vote in Wednesday’s primary actually voted, according to the board. Only 51 mail ballots were requested, a sign none of the candidates focused on a mail strategy.

Each candidate benefited from a major endorsement in the race, with LaFortune winning the support of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. Santow was backed by the Providence Teachers Union. The trades unions supported Chaika. The group that led the recall of Jackson did not formally endorse a candidate, but it did send a mailer explaining which candidates voted in the May 2 recall.

LaFortune will enter the general election as a strong favorite over Lallier and Reynolds. A Republican hasn’t been elected to the City Council since 1986 and no independent has won a seat since 1990. The new councilperson will join the 15-member legislative body at a time where several councilors are jockeying to become the next president.

Ward 15 Councilwoman Sabina Matos has been the acting president since May following the resignation of Council President Luis Aponte, who was indicted in four charges related to his alleged misuse of campaign funds. Aponte only stepped down from the leadership post. He remains on the council.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan