PROVIDENCE — State Senator Samuel Bell isn’t known for playing nice in the sandbox that is Rhode Island politics.
In his first floor speech as an elected official last year, the Democrat delivered a scathing seven-minute rebuke of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio as Ruggerio’s family looked on. Even the colleagues that agree with Bell on progressive issues find his brash approach difficult to defend.
City Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan takes a more subtle public approach to politics, but she’s viewed as cutthroat behind the scenes. Her power – she’s now the council majority leader – comes from her strong grasp of a simple rule in City Hall: Eight votes is all that matters within the 15-member council. While she is known for taking on complex policy issues, other councilors cringe at her attempts to seek credit for every accomplishment.
Neither Bell nor Ryan are likely to win a popularity contest within their respective government bodies. A high-ranking city worker joked that no one wants to take a call from either of them.
But as Ryan seeks to unseat Bell in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, constituents in Senate District 5 say they aren’t as concerned with the candidates’ personalities as they are with their connections to the community and their ability to get things done in the district.
What those voters also might not realize is the outcome of the race will have broader implications in the Rhode Island Senate. A win for Bell would be a blow to Ruggerio and his leadership team, who consider him their top target this election cycle. A Ryan victory would send a message to the Democrats who dare to cross Ruggerio.
“This is the key race for the Senate leadership,” political analyst and pollster Joe Fleming said. “I think Sam Bell has been a thorn in their side, and they’re trying to eliminate the thorn in their side.”
The map of Senate District 5 looks like a Christmas tree with a gaping hole on its right side. Its base runs along Cranston Street and then begins to fill out in the Federal Hill neighborhood before running north to Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst. In decades past, it was comprised mostly of Italian Americans and Irish Catholics, but the district now includes a large Latino presence and left-leaning homeowners who have “Black Lives Matter” signs on their lawns.
The district hasn’t always embraced change among its senators. John Orabona held the seat for 14 years, Frank Caprio Jr. took over for 12 years, and Paul Jabour was in office for another 12 years.
Then came Bell.
A scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Bell was elected in 2018 in a hotly contested three-way primary that saw him upset Jabour. Bell touts himself as an unabashed progressive who believes his number one mission at the State House is to push back against Ruggerio, a pro-life Democrat who enjoys strong support from groups like the National Rifle Association.
As he makes his case for reelection, Bell is warning that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused budget problems similar to what Rhode Island saw in the Great Recession, but he fears that the more conservative leadership in both the Senate and House are going to close the gap by cutting social programs while holding the line on taxes for wealthier residents.
“I think that more than ever before, people are seeing the connection between their lives and what happens at the State House,” Bell said.
He has even won over supporters who don’t always agree with him on politics.
Jennifer Berrio-Ortiz, a hair salon owner who lives on Federal Hill, said she has owned her home for nearly 30 years, and Bell is the first senator who has knocked on her door. She acknowledges that she is more conservative than Bell and she pays enough attention to local politics to know he is not supported by the Senate leadership. But she credits him for always picking up his cell phone when she calls.
“I don’t care who likes him or doesn’t,” Berrio-Ortiz said. “This isn’t high school. Usually those that have the most haters are ruffling the feathers.”
Ryan, a vice president at Customers Bank, was elected to the City Council in 2014 and reelected four years later. She’s the first female majority leader of the council, and serves a chairwoman of the Ordinances Committee and vice chairwoman of the Finance Committee, which oversees the city budget.
She calls herself a “pragmatic progressive” who doesn’t have major policy differences with Bell, but notes that she has a better track record of building coalitions. She points to her successful push to ban plastic bags in Providence as an example of her effectiveness.
“I’m a seasoned legislator and a practiced businesswoman,” Ryan said. “Even my freshman year on the council, I delivered on day one.”
Michael Gazdacko, a District 5 resident, said he agrees with Bell on most issues, but he believes Ryan will be a more effective senator.
“There is a difference between an activist and a legislator, and there is room for both,” Gazdacko said. “But I would rather have an activist rally for causes than be the individual attempting to govern with the same attitude and style.”
The race has gotten increasingly ugly in the weeks leading up the primary.
Bell has pointed to the Senate leadership team’s strong support of Ryan as a sign that she’s part of the Democratic machine, although she maintains she has not committed to supporting Ruggerio beyond this election.
Ryan sent a negative mailer to voters suggesting that Bell has repeatedly voted against supporting Providence schools, while Bell argues that lawmakers haven’t done enough for the city. A fake Twitter account that has since been suspended also caused a stir in the race, antagonizing Bell and other progressives while appearing to promote Ryan. Both Ryan and Bell repeatedly sought to distance themselves from the anonymous user. The two have also traded barbs over mail ballots this week.
As they head into the final weekend, both Bell and Ryan say they believe they’ll win the race, although both acknowledge it’s been a difficult year to handicap the outcome.
There were 3,710 votes in the three-way primary in 2018, and both candidates predict the pandemic will lead to a lower turnout this year. It is likely that there will be between 1,200 and 1,500 mail ballots and emergency ballots, which has forced all campaigns to think differently, according to Fleming.
“You still have to do everything you normally do, but sooner,” Fleming said. “So many people have already voted.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Senator Bell works at Brown University. He left his position in February.