The 23 primary races to watch across RI tomorrow – and why

Voters go to the polls Tuesday for primary races across Rhode Island. While the lion’s share of attention has gone to the congressional primary between Democrats David Cicilline and Anthony Gemma, state legislative races may be more important considering the power of the General Assembly.

There are 40 primary races for the legislature, and after consulting with more than half a dozen of Rhode Island’s savviest political insiders, here’s a Nesi’s Notes guide to the 23 hottest contests in the battle for control of Smith Hill – some of which will be decided by fewer votes than your average student council campaign.

Think a race is missing – or should be handicapped differently? Leave your comments below (no registration required). I’ll be live-blogging the results as they come in on starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and we’ll have full TV coverage on WPRI 12, too.

Senate –

Senate 3 (D-Providence): A rumble on Providence’s leafy, liberal East Side. Gayle Goldin is a down-the-line progressive backed by unions and most of the East Side’s political establishment – Angel Taveras, Edie Ajello, Rhoda Perry, Myrth York, Linda Kushner – plus the ground game that comes with them. Maryellen Butke is a well-known charter school supporter who’s got the strong backing of the K-12 reform movement – and the benefit of voters peeved at the retiring Perry’s botched effort to hand off the seat to Goldin. Though Goldin has underwhelmed on the stump – supporters say she’s improved of late – doubts remain about whether Butke can put together enough votes in a district where a big turnout is expected thanks to Cicilline topping the ticket. Some see a nail-biter; others say Goldin has it in the bag. We’ll see.

Senate 5 (D-Providence): Veteran Sen. Paul Jabour is being challenged by political neophyte Maura Kelly, another ed-reform type with ties to Gina Raimondo and Engage Rhode Island. Like most longtime lawmakers, Jabour is at risk if he’s lost touch with his district, and Kelly has positioned herself to his left on the issue of gay marriage. She has money but lacks support from groups like organized labor and Fight Back RI that could help turn out the vote, which could save Jabour.

Senate 9 (D-West Warwick): Sen. Michael Pinga knocked off Senate Finance Committee Chair Stephen Alves back in 2008, and challenger Adam Satchell – another strong supporter of gay marriage who’s gotten a lot of financial support from progressives – would delight Democratic insiders if he gives Pinga a taste of his own medicine this year.

Senate 14 (D-East Providence): Another marquee race, with Senate Finance Committee Chair Dan DaPonte squaring off against Rep. Bob DaSilva. Outsiders have cast this as a fight over pension reform – DaPonte crafted it, DaSilva opposed it – but those on the ground say it’s more about East Providence’s squabbling Democrats and DaSilva’s bitterness over a redistricting plan that blew up his current House District 63. DaPonte has already been on Smith Hill for a long time despite his youth, and is fighting the perception he’s out-of-touch; DaSilva is a friendly fellow who’ll depend heavily on union voters. DaPonte is nervous, but he’s got George Caruolo and EngageRI behind him. This one is going down to the wire.

Senate 24 (D-Woonsocket): A potential sleeper race. Nine-term incumbent Sen. Marc Cote is facing Lewis Pryeor, an experienced former city councilman in Warwick who has the pro-gay-marriage forces on his side. Woonsocket politics can be msyterious – elderly high-rises are of outsized importance, and Democrats there would be Republicans most other places – but more than one observer thinks Cote is vulnerable and ripe for an upset. The outcome of this race could partly be decided by the overlapping races of labor-targeted incumbent Reps. Jon Brien and Lisa Baldelli-Hunt.

Senate 26 (D-Cranston): The race to replace retiring Sen. Bea Lanzi has Frank Lombardi, vice chairman of the Cranston School Committee, battling Gene Dyszlewski, a minister nicknamed “Reverend Gene” who’s an outspoken advocate of gay marriage. Lombardi is the favorite though his campaign has been hit with a “September surprise” in the form of leaked documents. The winner faces Republican Sean Gately, an energetic campaigner in his own right.

Senate 29 (D-Warwick): One of the most closely watched races in the state. Gay-marriage supporters are gunning for Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike McCaffrey, another veteran accused of being out-of-touch with his district. Their candidate is Laura Pisaturo, a self-assured lawyer who’s become the face of Fight Back RI’s push to overthrow the Senate status quo. McCaffrey is clearly in some trouble, but he’s been around for a long time and has union support after sponsoring a bill to give teachers binding arbitration. The ground game will decide his fate, and that’s the strong suit of Pisaturo operative Ray Sullivan; are McCaffrey supporters energized enough to show up, particularly without much else on the ballot?

– House of Representatives –

House 8 (D-Providence): Bizarrely, there’s widespread agreement that incumbent Rep. Mike Tarro will play the role of a spoiler in his own reelection race – the question is whether he takes more votes from Providence political fixture John Lombardi or young progressive newcomer Libby Kimzey. Lombardi starts with a cushion of support on Federal Hill, but Kimzey’s high-energy campaign has made few mistakes. Though Tarro has stepped up his own campaigning in recent days, most see this as a fight between historic Providence (Lombardi) and emerging Providence (Kimzey). Indeed, Kimzey’s coalition is described as the same one that elected Angel Taveras – “Latinos and hipsters.”

House 12 (D-Providence): Believe it or not, there’s still a chance Rep. Leo Medina could hold onto his seat despite getting arrested since he defeated Joe Almeida in a 2010 upset. Now Almeida is back for a rematch and has a lot of people working on his behalf, but Medina could benefit if Hispanics who aren’t familiar with his troubles turn out in large numbers to support Cicilline over Gemma. Watch for lots of hand-wringing if Medina holds on despite his legal troubles.

House 16 (D-Providence): Rep. Peter Palumbo, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, doesn’t even the party’s endorsement – that went to challenger Michelle Bergin, who is well-positioned to take him out.

House 18 (D-Cranston): Stalwart liberal Rep. Art Handy has a real challenge on his hands from Bill McKenna.

House 30 (R-East Greenwich): This three-way race will decide who replaces flame-throwing former GOP leader Rep. Bob Watson. Antonio Giarrusso and Emil Fachon are the frontrunners, but Robert Bolton is on the ballot, too. The winner faces hard-working Democrat Mark Schwager in November.

House 32 (R-North Kingstown): Rep. Larry Ehrhardt surprised and annoyed now-challenger Sharon Gamba when he decided to run for another term after allegedly telling her the seat was hers, setting up this intraparty battle that has become an uphill one for the aging incumbent.

House 34 (R-South Kingstown): Stephen Tetzner is seen as the frontrunner to carry the GOP banner against Rep. Teresa Tanzi in November, partly thanks to his heavy spending. Tetzner is making a heavy play for the David Caprio vote – Tanzi defeated Caprio two years ago – but an upset by fellow Republican Christopher Wilkens can’t be ruled out.

House 35 (D-South Kingstown): In a sign of just how personal this South County race has gotten, Rep. Spencer Dickinson sent an explosive letter to local voters last week alleging an organized campaign against him by House leadership, which he described as high-handed. The teachers unions want to save Dickinson, a no vote on pension reform and an independent liberal voice in the House, but challenger Kathy Fogarty has solid support in the district, as well. Hard to say how this one shakes out.

House 44 (D-Lincoln): A fight between the scions of two prominent Rhode Island families. Rep. Peter Petrarca, no stranger to bad headlines himself, is spending tons of money giving voters an unflattering view of challenger Greg Costantino. (Pot cannoli, anyone?) The incumbent is probably safe.

House 45 (D-Lincoln): Rep. Rene Menard is always seen as vulnerable, then always ekes out a win. (One observer said, “He’s like a vampire.”) This may be the cycle when his luck runs out thanks to a problematic redistricting and a top-tier challenger in Mia Ackerman, a town councilwoman from Cumberland who’s embraced Gina Raimondo and depicts Menard, a no vote on pension reform, as beholden to special interests. Still, nobody wants to rule out Menard when he’s surprised them before – and his fabled luck has already been in evidence again: an opposition mailer went to the wrong voters.

House 49 (D-Woonsocket): Organized labor would dearly love to defeat Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt after she played a lead role in scuttling the supplemental tax city leaders wanted to use to avoid even deeper cuts in cash-strapped Woonsocket. They’ve recruited firefighter Michael Morin to take her on. Baldelli-Hunt is probably more vulnerable than her colleague Rep. Jon Brien., but she still has a number of factors working in her favor – a legendary name in Woonsocket politics and a third challenger, Stuart Gitlow. It’s also unclear whether many primary voters are actually looking to punish someone over the tax contretemps.

House 52 (D-Cumberland): Progressives are hoping Augustus Uht will defeat conservative Rep. Karen MacBeth. He probably won’t.

House 56 (D-Central Falls): A sleeper race and a rematch. Longtime former Rep. Joseph Faria, who held the seat for 16 years, is trying to wrest it back from his successor Agostinho Silva, who was a city councilman when he defeated Faria in 2006.

House 58 (D-Pawtucket): Rep. William San Bento Jr. is in real trouble two years after winning a three-way race with only 42% of the vote. The runner-up in that primary, young activist Carlos Tobon, is back for a two-man rematch and could benefit from the changing demographics of Pawtucket, which has a fast-growing Hispanic population, and refashioned district lines, as well as San Bento’s less-than-energetic campaigning after 20 years in the House. Keep an eye on this one.

House 63 (D-East Providence): Another big race in the political wonderland of East Providence, this district was sharply redrawn to the detriment of Senate candidate Rep. Bob DaSilva. Katherine Kazarian is a newcomer with the party endorsement. Charles Tsonos is the veteran with name recognition and labor backing. Former Chafee staffer Sam Lovett and Rumford businessman Robert Britto are also on the ballot. The smart money is on Tsonos, but don’t underestimate Kazarian.

House 73 (D-Newport): Leadership is crossing its fingers that former Senate Majority Leader David Carlin – author of the book “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” – won’t win this seat and become a thorn in the speaker’s side. But there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for opponent Marvin Abney’s campaign.

Ted Nesi ( ) covers politics and the economy for and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

18 thoughts on “The 23 primary races to watch across RI tomorrow – and why

  1. Ted, I hate to dispute with your insight but your position on District 12 is really a shot at the Hispanic voter as being uninformed or uncaring about who represents them.

  2. Tetzner over Wilkens? Shows how little the author knows about grassroots politics. Tetzner is a pay-to-play lobbyist with deep pockets. He donates money to Fox, Paiva-Weed, Chafee, Kilmartin and claims it’s just how things get done in Rhody. Well, I’ve lived here for 46 years and Steve is right about this. However, tolerance of this palm-greasing is what is destroying our state…what is surprising is that Tetzner is giving Republicans a bad name… usually it’s the Dems who grease palms. I live in Kingston… I’m hoping Spencer wins… he works for the unions but at least he doesn’t bow to the speaker. TIp of the hat to SPencer.

  3. Steve Tetzner is a small businessman and a very hard worker who can actually beat Tanzi in the general election. Perhaps in Narragansett they should learn to welcome people into the GOP who will work hard, have the assets to mount a campaign and actually win. Tetzner has also donated to Republicans and given the nature of the business he is in, it is understandable. I would much rather have someone with his experience and background on the right side of the ticket than the left. No John, you have it wrong, Steve Tetzner is running a professional campaign and is giving Republicans a good name.

  4. Tetzner-Tanzi may be a preview of races in 2014. Tanzi, a Chafee supporter in the last Governor’s race, has now thown in with House leadership, but Tetzner may not be able to win over her original supporter base either. Fortunately for Tanzi, the state GOP has no resources to help her opponent and make her race a competitive one. Nonetheless, she should hope that Tetzner loses his primary.

  5. Sorry Jack, but you clearly aren’t paying attention. You really should do your homework, as the State GOP does have resources and is using them this year!

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