It’s a down-ballot race more than three years away, but politicians are already angling to succeed Ralph Mollis as Rhode Island’s secretary of state when the term-limited incumbent completes his tenure in 2014.
At least three Democrats – Providence City Councilman Terrence Hassett and two state senators, Jamie Doyle of Pawtucket and Juan Pichardo of Providence – are seriously considering a run for the office, WPRI.com confirmed this week.
“I’m not going to say that I am running, and I’m not going to say that I’m not running,” said Doyle, 39, who leads a medical business and is the son of the six-term Pawtucket mayor. “My biggest concern is 2012, which is my Senate election. … That’s the first hurdle.”
Pichardo, 44, a self-employed consultant, also acknowledged eyeing Mollis’ job. “I’m definitely interested,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Hassett, who survived a near-fatal car accident last fall, has already made clear he is likely to run for secretary of state. The councilman considered a bid for the office in 2006, the year Mollis won, and is “as serious as a heart attack” about it this time, a person close to him told WPRI.com.
Hassett, 51, starts out with a sizable financial advantage over Doyle and Pichardo. The councilman’s campaign war chest totaled $33,942 on June 30, while Doyle had $7,088. Pichardo had $3,105 on March 31, the last time he filed a report.
A fourth Democrat whom insiders think may consider entering the race – state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero of Jamestown – demurred but did not rule it out. “It is a long, long way away, and there’s an awful lot of ground to cover in between,” she said. “I’m certainly flattered that my name is being bandied about by people.” Ruggiero had $12,504 on June 30.
The relatively low-profile secretary of state’s job appeals to politicians because it can give them statewide exposure and be a stepping stone to higher office, WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said. Jim Langevin held the office from 1995 until he entered Congress in 2001, and Matt Brown used it as a springboard for his failed attempt to win the U.S. Senate nomination in 2006.
“The thing to keep in mind is it’s early at this point for secretary of state,” Fleming said. “You might see more people after the 2012 elections. You might see a mayor who might decide he wants to run.”
Starting early gives would-be candidates more time to raise money and build name recognition, but it poses a risk for state lawmakers, who first need to get their constituents to reelect them in 2012, Fleming said. Hassett’s current four-year term expires at the end of 2014.
Doyle alluded to that, saying: “My concern right now is the constituents of District 8, as well as the rest of the voters in Rhode Island.” But he has already stepped up his fundraising pace, having held three events so far this year, with another scheduled for next month.
“I’m raising money like a bandit,” Doyle said. “A lot of people, more than ever, are coming to me and saying, hey, we want to do this, we want to do that for you, we appreciate your work in the Senate the last seven years, we want to make sure we keep you there past the next election cycle.”
Pichardo called it “way too early” to seriously discuss the secretary of state’s race, saying he’s currently focused on “making sure I continue to do the right thing and represent my district, which is the most important thing – a lot of stuff needs to be done in the next couple of years.”
Asked about what the secretary of state can do to be effective, both Doyle and Pichardo mentioned increasing voter turnout and streamlining business regulations. Doyle sponsored a law signed last month by Governor Chafee that makes it easier for voters to cast ballots by mail.
Then there is the incumbent.
Mollis barely won a second term as secretary of state last November in the face of a surprisingly robust challenge from Republican Catherine Taylor, who is now a member of the Chafee administration as director of the Division of Elderly Affairs.
It’s unclear what the 50-year-old former mayor of North Providence will do when he leaves office, but a source close to Mollis said: “He continues to see public service in his future.”