Taking lessons from the Senate District 3 primary

Posted 10/13/21

STORY OF THE WEEK: With the benefit of hindsight, it became clear that Sam Zurier was the odds-on favorite to win last week's Democratic primary for a vacant state Senate seat in District 3. Zurier, 62, is well-known around the East Side and he's had a

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Taking lessons from the Senate District 3 primary



With the benefit of hindsight, it became clear that Sam Zurier was the odds-on favorite to win last week’s Democratic primary for a vacant state Senate seat in District 3.

Zurier, 62, is well-known around the East Side and he’s had a decades-long association with it. He’s demonstrated an abiding interest in education and Providence. During two terms on the City Council, Zurier’s signature was a weekly email “ward letter” to constituents with updates on key issues.

Still, even as the votes were coming in Tuesday, Zurier – who struck a humble tone in explaining how he won the five-way race with a bit more than 31 percent of the vote – told me he was unsure of the outcome.

For some General Assembly incumbents, the outcome might seem encouraging; if a legislator is well known and responsive to constituents, or so the thinking goes, they have a solid shot of winning reelection next year. However, the two more progressive candidates in District 3, Geena Pham of the RI Political Cooperative and Bret Jacob (backed by the RI Working Families Party), won a combined 1,890 votes, compared with 1,282 for Zurier. In other words, a smaller field may have produced a different winner.

And then there was how Hilary Levey Friedman, considered likely to place near the top of the race, finished a distant fourth. Levey Friedman led in campaign fundraising (as of the most recent filings), she had a top strategist in campaign manager Erich Haslehurst and she was endorsed by the RI AFL-CIO.

In the end, the outcome can be interpreted in any number of ways. On the plus side, the race attracted a lot of public interest, solid voting participation, a good field of candidates, and the focus was mostly on the issues.


For months, Gov. Dan McKee avoided specifics on how Rhode Island should spend more than $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money. Last week, McKee offered details for about 10 percent of the APRA funds. The governor trumpeted this as an investment in workers, small businesses and families.

Just as significant, though, was the timing for this initiative – immediately after two days of House and Senate Oversight hearings on the $5.2 million contract awarded to the ILO Group, which was incorporated two days after McKee took office in early March.


Gov. McKee’s initial proposal for the ARPA money includes areas – supporting small business, affordable housing and child care – where it’s not difficult to see potential common ground with House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. A budget amendment would steer $32 million to small businesses and impacted industries; $13 million to aid the travel, tourism, and events industries; $38.5 million to bolster child care; $29.5 million for housing, and so on. At the same time, Shekarchi and Ruggerio remained guarded about the outlook, offering a perfunctory pledge to review the governor’s proposal. While it’s possible lawmakers could still reconvene before year’s end, 2021 is fast drawing to a close and these spending decisions may well be put off into the future.


As we edge closer to 2022, the candidates seeking to succeed Jorge Elorza are refining their messages and sharpening their points. One key question for Ward 3 City Councilor Nirva LaFortune is whether the city needs another mayor, like Elorza, without previous managerial experience in government. Gonzalo Cuervo and Brett Smiley each have a lot of that experience, in different roles with the city and the state.

During an interview on Political Roundtable last week, LaFortune said care should be taken in defining managerial experience. “Although I have not held a chief of staff position, I’ve been an administrator in higher education for over 15 years,” she said. “I’ve been the assistant director and ran two centers – the Center for Public Policy, the Center for Science, Technology, and Society – at Drexel University. When I moved back to Providence, I oversaw academic programs and student affairs for the School of Engineering, where I had a team. I’ve built initiatives and programs. Although I didn’t have those titles [of Smiley and Cuervo], I do have managerial experiences …”


Some supporters of the RI Political Cooperative cried foul last week after I tweeted a link to Patrick Anderson’s report about how lieutenant governor candidate “and State Sen. Cynthia Mendes is the latest candidate affiliated with the Rhode Island Political Cooperative to face questions about conservative policy views – in this case on abortion – before she got involved in politics.”

The story gave Mendes plenty of space to offer comment and it included context about why this was relevant. This kind of reporting is standard stuff – it’s generally news when an officeholder or candidate takes a stance at odds with what they’ve done or said in the past (or vice versa). This is not a knock on how people change and grow. It is information that the public deserves to know.

That’s why it attracted attention when U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin recently described his own about-face in favor of supporting abortion rights. The difference here is that Langevin disclosed his own change, while the news about Mendes comes amid an approaching election year in which campaign rivals and sources drop dimes to reporters.


Tarshire Battle, the RI Political Cooperative candidate running a primary race against state Rep. Karen Alzate (D-Pawtucket), chair of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said in a tweet that she is ending her run: “Over the past several weeks, I and other Black and brown working-class women in the Co-op have faced relentless attacks against us. I have worked tirelessly to make life better for those in my community and I refuse to allow my life to be weaponized by the political establishment against my work and my movement.”


Chief Hugh Clements has said he’s getting closer to retirement, and it won’t be a surprise if his timetable aligns somewhat with Mayor Elorza’s exit from City Hall. If she succeeds Elorza, Nirva LaFortune said she would place a high priority on choosing a person of color as the next police chief or public safety commissioner.

“We live in a minority-majority city,” LaFortune said on Political Roundtable, “so it’s important that whoever is the leader in public safety looks like the community that they’re serving, but more importantly understands the community. Of course, you need someone who has experience and someone who is going to be able to get the work done, because you can’t just choose someone because of their race, but having someone who looks like the community, who can relate to the community, is going to be an asset.”


Welcome to Rhode Island, Providence Business Journal. PBJ joins PBN as a business-focused news source.


Veteran PR pro Scott Fraser is joining PLDO Strategies, part of Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara LLC, as senior director for Communications and External Affairs … Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller has won the Barbara Sinclair Lecture Award for promoting understanding of Congress and legislative politics … Say hello to Monalisa Dugué, the new chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. A native of Nassau, Bahamas, Dugué was previously deputy chief counsel of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. She was the first African-American woman to serve in that role on the subcommittee.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter@IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email deliver, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.


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