In perhaps the most spirited and contested East Side primary race in years, two political newcomers went toe-to-toe on a five week, down to the wire showdown that filled our mailboxes with letters, postcards and, in the spirit of new media, resulted in an unprecedented flurry of email, texts and robo-phone messages. In the end, Gayle Goldin, the candidate who had received the support of most of the progressive East Side establishment, the teachers union (NEA) and virtually every major Democratic officeholder from Mayor Taveras on down, defeated her challenger Maryellen Butke by a 2223 (57%) to 1657 (43%) count.
While Goldin was supported by a well-organized, professional campaign effort, Butke also proved to be an able fundraiser and particularly effective presenter in her public debates before neighborhood groups as she mounted an eleventh hour charge in the final days of the campaign. She was also aided by voters who were turned off by the perception that long-time incumbent Rhoda Perry was blatantly trying to “hand-off” her seat to Ms. Goldin. Several well-known East Side good government types, like Buff Chace and Karina Wood, supported the Butke candidacy and made the last days of the campaign quite interesting.
In the end, Goldin was able to present herself as thoughtful and committed to progressive policies in her personal appearances around the East Side. She also clearly benefited by very public support from Mayor Taveras, outgoing Senator Perry and current State Representative Edie Ajello. After receiving notice of her victory, Goldin reflected: “This was an extraordinary experience and I had so many dedicated, thoughtful, smart people helping me along the way. I would like to thank the voters, my supporters, and all of the volunteers who spent countless hours getting this campaign to the finish line. I am honored to represent the East Side.”
The other East Side contested local primary race involved State Representative Chris Blazejewski, who was seeking a second term against Dirk Hennessey. Despite the fact Hennessey expended virtually no funds in his run for office, Blazejewski used the opportunity to walk the district and connect with as many constituents as he could. The results suggest he was quite successful as he won easily with over 87% of the vote, 903 to 128.
The final primary contest was of course the knockdown drag out between Congressman David Cicilline and businessman Anthony Gemma. Radio show host Dan Yorke probably summed up the feeling of most political observers on election day when he noted over the air that Gemma’s campaign had to be one of the most bizarre he has ever seen. “He seemed to spend all his money on hiring a detective agency and ran an almost stealth campaign in terms of paid advertising. To those of us in the media, he’s either got some sort of secret sauce or he’s concentrating in areas outside of Providence.” Based on the results, it would appear he did neither, as Cicilline won by an impressive 62% to 31% margin (with 8% to perennial candidate Chris Young) and wom all but one town in the district.
The Cicilline victory came in part because of a full-court press during the final two weeks of the campaign. Spending heavily during the primary, he raised $1.7 million and used $1.3 of it according to campaign records. In those last days before the election, Cicilline was accompanied by Patrick Kennedy who had held the seat for a decade before retiring two years ago. While Cicilline’s numbers have been historically low for an incumbent, due primarily to the public’s disappointment in the way he misrepresented Providence’s financial situation during his final months in office, his success in the primary suggests he may be gaining momentum as he squares off in an eight-week race to the finish against a well-financed Republican Brendan Doherty. It also suggests he can now expect some out-of-state monies as Democrats nationally fight to regain the House.
Even more surprising than the size of the Cicilline victory over Gemma was the fact that he captured every city and town in the district with the exception of Smithfield. And in some cases – Newport and Middletown, for example, where he captured 79% and 77% of the vote respectively – the percentages were actually higher than in Providence (74%), where he was expected to do well.
Former Attorney General Arlene Violet succinctly framed what we can expect in the campaign going forward: “It was Gemma’s race to lose and he did by becoming a Johnny One-Note. Doherty has to avoid the same fate and not allow the Cicilline campaign to define him as supportive of Republican extremism. We’ll see if he and his advisors are up to the task since Cicilline is a very skillful campaigner and a great debater.”
Ironically, perhaps the candidate who put his reputation most on the line was an office holder not even up for re-election. Mayor Taveras, with only two years under his belt, could have taken the easy route and stayed out of things to avoid making enemies. Instead he went all in on three Providence races, backing newcomer (and Brown ’09 graduate) Libby Kimzey against Federal Hill icon (and former mayor) John Lombardi in District 8; Joseph Almeida in the heavily hispanic District 12 against incumbent Leo Medina; and of course Gayle Goldin here on the East Side. For the record, his candidates won two out of three, as only Lombardi was able to prevail in his race. There are increasing rumors that Taveras is considering a run for higher office (governor perhaps) and is trying to build a team that shares his political views.
Given that neither Goldin nor Blazejewski face an opponent, they obviously are home free in the general election. However, there will also be two other local races on the East Side for us to follow. In District 1 (formerly District 3), longtime State Representative Edie Ajello will face off against a political unknown named Francisco Gonsalves who lives over by the State House, which now has been added to the old district. The majority of the district remains on the East Side and has been represented by Ajello for 20 years.
Potentially more interesting, is the race in Representative District 4. State Majority Leader Gordon Fox will face off against Independent Mark Binder. A writer by trade, Binder has run for political office before and has already launched attacks at Fox’s conflicts of interest and the need for more transparency in government. Expect there will be some fireworks before this one is over.
One additional thing to consider is that this is also a Presidential election year, which means the role of student voters could be a factor. Given the liberal nature of Brown, this could have some impact on both the Senatorial race between Democratic incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse and businessman Barry Hinckley as well as the Cicilline-Doherty race.