With the unexpected decision of Rhoda Perry to retire after 22 years in the State Senate, what was slated to be a predictable race likely dominated by a popular longtime incumbent should now be an interesting primary race between two Democratic newcomers, both of whom have solid political policy backgrounds. Casting a shadow over the candidates, unfortunately, is the way in which the senator chose to resign.
After signing up as a candidate for reelection on a Monday, the first day of the three-day sign up period, it appeared that Perry was preparing for one more two-year lap around the Smith Hill legislative oval. By Wednesday, a couple of relatively unknown Democratic women had submitted their names as well, but that was it. Then, on Thursday, the Democratic State Senatorial Committee, which includes such East Side stalwarts as Linda Kushner, Myrth York and Edie Ajello, endorsed newcomer Gayle Goldin as their candidate in the primary at the request of Senator Perry. On the following Monday, Perry announced she wasn’t going to run after all and retired.
According to one of the candidates, the situation gets even more bizarre. Maryellen Butke had heard that Rhoda might retire and decided to put her name in “just in case.” As she headed toward City Hall she bumped into another current senator and close friend of Rhoda’s. “She tried to discourage me from signing candidacy papers, assuring me Rhoda was running,” Butke says. But in a state like Rhode Island, where the term “political transparency” is an oxymoron, should any of us really be surprised?
All this said, the reality is that the Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 11 will determine who will represent the East Side in the State Senate regardless, so it behooves us all to get to know the two candidates, neither of whom are local household names. Fortunately both seem to know something about public policy, both consider themselves progressives and, more important, both seem to be well-educated, well-motivated and looking to do the right thing.
If there is anything that delineates her from her opponent Maryellen Butke feels it’s practical experience. “I’ve run two businesses; I’ve been a practicing social worker; and I certainly have been a spokesperson for educational reform.”
It is in the latter arena that Butke has made a name for herself. Butke ultimately ran several divisions within the well-regarded Met School, which has been recognized nationally for many of its programs. As director of organizational development, Butke was responsible for strategic planning, fundraising, strategic partnerships and professional development. She went on to become the co-founder of Rhode Island Is Ready, a grassroots educational reform group that played a leadership role in helping to fight for an equitable funding formula for Rhode Island’s public schools.
Butke has made a name for herself recently as the founding executive director of RI-CAN, the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now. Says Butke: “Our group has lobbied to try and make our state a leader in educational innovation and excellence while ensuring the students graduate with the skills they need to succeed.” Most recently the group advocated successfully on behalf of the Achievement First charter school, which will be opening as part of Mayor Taveras’ Mayoral Academy next year.
While clearly Butke’s experience in education is impressive, she has run two successful businesses, the largest of which was a center that housed up to 30 separate operations, mostly women-run. “Having seen things on a firsthand basis, one of my first priorities will be to work on creating a business friendly environment in our state to ensure job creation.”
In terms of overall policies, Butke is proud to call herself progressive as well. “Again, the difference is while my opponent talks about the issues, I actually live them. I came out as gay when I was at PC, but also feel we need to keep extremist policies out of Rhode Island. I am unequivocally committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose, access to family planning and equal rights to all Rhode Islanders.” Interestingly, both candidates have adopted children and have worked together on adoption issues.
Butke lives on Firglade Avenue where she and her partner Josephine are raising their two children. She has a PhD in Social Work from Smith and recently completed the leadership program for state and local leaders at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Though born in Montreal, Gayle Goldin moved with her family to Atlanta when she was seven years old. Ultimately, she went to McGill for college before going on to earn her Masters in Public Policy at Tufts. She sees arriving in Providence as a newcomer in 1998 as a plus. As stated in her campaign literature, “When my husband and I arrived on the East Side 14 years ago, we didn’t know anyone. Today I’m grateful for my experiences of being a newcomer. They taught me that it’s as important to hear as well as to be heard.”
Goldin prides herself on her understanding of public policy. “I know how to do research; I know how to build coalitions, which I feel is applicable to all issues. And I want to hear what my constituents have to say.”
Goldin is proud to call herself a progressive Democrat. She worked with Perry on legislation to allow adopted children access to birth records. As the mother of an adopted child herself, Goldin was determined that all children, regardless of their birth status, have the opportunity for equal access to information and worked with the senator on the successful passage of legislation that in fact made this happen.
Goldin is the Strategic Initiative Officer for the Women’s Fund where she oversees advocacy efforts and runs the Women’s Policy Institute. Previously she has served as a consultant for several non-profit organizations assisting with grassroots advocacy, grant writing and research. She also served as the Director of Community Partnerships for Volunteers in Health Care for eight years.
Already Goldin has amassed an impressive array of progressive supporters, including Mayor Taveras, and hopes to continue the liberal traditions of Senator Perry.
In terms of the issues, Goldin prefers to be cautious. “It’s my background; I prefer to do research before jumping in.”
Married to Jeff Levy, a local attorney, Goldin and her husband live on Brown Street with their two children.