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POLITICS

Progressive gains in the Democratic primary raise the prospect of a Senate leadership battle

Senate President Ruggerio has “faith and trust” that senators will return him to his leadership position

Rhode Island state senator Sam Bell campaigned outside the Providence Water Supply polling venue in Providence on Tuesday.
Rhode Island state senator Sam Bell campaigned outside the Providence Water Supply polling venue in Providence on Tuesday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The electoral success by some progressives in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries is prompting at least one senator to say that Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio could soon face a leadership battle.

Senator Samuel W. Bell, a Providence Democrat, received 70 percent of the votes cast at the polls Tuesday – a strong showing against challenger Jo-Ann Ryan, a Providence city councilor who has the support of the Senate leadership.

And although many mail ballots remain to be counted, Bell is already declaring that there will be a contested leadership battle in the Senate, characterizing the conservative leaders as not true Democrats who "will contest the election of a real Democratic Senate president.”

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If the vote total trend holds up when all mail ballots are counted, Ruggerio could be weakened by a poorer-than-expected showing. When the polls closed Tuesday, he was leading with 54 percent of the in-person vote over Leonardo A. Cioe Jr.

“I think that even if Ruggerio hangs on, we need a new Senate president," Bell said. "The people of Rhode Island have spoken. Voters last night sent a clear rejection of the extreme conservatism of Senator Ruggerio and the right-wing machine that has dominated state politics for far too long.”

Bell has long been critical of Ruggerio and other Senate leaders, saying they are too conservative on issues such as gun control, abortion, and “tax cuts for the rich.”

Ruggerio, a North Providence Democratic, has been Senate president since 2017; before that, he was Senate majority leader.

The Ruggerio camp shrugged off any suggestions that his tenure as Senate president could be at risk. “Senator Bell is entitled to take any position he wants," said spokesman Bill Fischer, “but Senator Ruggerio has faith and trust in his colleagues that they will be returning him to the position of Senate president.”

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The Senate contains 38 members, including 33 Democrats and five Republicans. So 17 votes are needed to elect the leader of the Democratic majority.

Definitions vary of which Democrats are considered liberals, and any calculus of progressive power will hinge on the mail ballot count. The Board of Elections does not expect to announce final results until Thursday.

But with vote totals updated on Wednesday with emergency ballots cast, several candidates backed by progressive groups such the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and the Working Families Party were leading.

For example, with seven of eight precincts reporting in Senate District 6 in Providence, progressive Tiara T. Mack led with 59 percent of the vote over Senator Harold M. Metts, who had 41 percent.

With all precincts reporting in Senate District 16 in Central Falls, progressive City Councilman Jonathon Acosta led with 48 percent of the vote over incumbent Senator Elizabeth A. Crowley, with 40 percent, and Leslie Estrada, with 12 percent.

With all precincts reporting in Senate District 18 in East Providence, progressive Cynthia Mendes led with 68 percent of the vote over incumbent Senate Finance Chairman William J. Conley Jr., who had 31.5 percent.

And with all precincts reporting in Senate District 30 in Warwick, Jeanine Calkin, a co-founder of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, held an 35-vote lead over incumbent Senator Mark P. McKenney – 617 to 582.

The general election also will play a role in determining the number of liberal senators. For example, Democrat Jennifer C. Douglas, who is backed by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, is challenging Senator Elaine J. Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, for the Senate District 34 seat.

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But the idea of a progressive Senate leadership team is far from a certainty.

For one thing, it remains unclear who progressives would put forward as their choice for Senate president. The current leadership team will have open slots to lead key committees. And it remains unclear if Democrats would join with Republicans to fend off progressives in a leadership battle.

Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat who is one of the longest-serving progressives in the Senate, did not address questions about a possible leadership battle directly.

But, she said, “one of my biggest takeaways from last night is that even in the pandemic, with so many concerns with being in crowds, people came out to vote, and they voted for progressives. What we have seen is a strong message from the voters of Rhode Island that progressive issues resonate with them.”

Goldin – who sponsored the bill that passed last year to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade – said the newly formed Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus supported Senate and House candidates in Tuesday’s primaries, and women could soon make up a majority of the Senate.

“That would be historic, not only for our state but the entire country,” she said, noting that women make up a majority of the legislature in just one state (Nevada) and the majority of the House chamber in Colorado.

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Goldin said the vote results also reflect a desire for legislative leaders to govern in a transparent way, even during the pandemic. The legislature should be doing more to vote on matters both related and unrelated to the pandemic, and that can be done remotely, providing needed transparency and public engagement, she said.

“It is a progressive wave,” Goldin said, “and it’s a wave that is against politics as usual.”

Some progressive candidates also received support from groups such as Reclaim RI, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence.

The Rhode Island Political Cooperative backed 10 Senate candidates and seven House candidates. Calkin said one of the group’s goals was to give progressives a governing majority in one chamber, so it focused on the 38-member Senate rather than the 75-member House.

So does Calkin expect a Senate leadership battle? “I think we will get a better idea after all the votes are counted,” she said. “But yes, I believe so.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.