Years before he was head of The Providence Foundation, Cliff Wood was a candidate for City Council to represent Ward 2 on the East Side, one of the most affluent – and deeply blue – neighborhoods in all of Rhode Island.
It was 2006, and like any good candidate, Wood spent a lot of time mulling the issues that voters might care about: think potholes, schools, public safety. So he was caught off guard at a forum when a constituent raised her hand and asked where he stood on the war in Iraq.
Wood was happy to explain that he opposed it, but he also politely reminded the woman that the Providence City Council was unlikely to spend much time on foreign policy (and trust me, we’re all better off for that).
“She said, ‘You might be running for the council now, but you could be running for Congress tomorrow,’” Wood told me recently. (He won that election and served one term on the council.)
That exchange was revealing for two reasons.
First, it showcased the ingrained expectation of success that some voters feel in this influential section of the city. Voters in the North End, for example, aren’t thinking about their councilor getting anywhere close to the nuclear codes.
Second, it highlighted a level of sophistication from the electorate that you don’t always find elsewhere. Whether it’s on the door step or at the Butcher Shop, East Siders tend to treat their conversations with politicians as lifelong job interviews.
Which brings us to the special election in Senate District 3.
That’s the seat that has been vacated by Gayle Goldin, a popular Democrat who resigned to join President Biden’s labor department. The district spans the entire East Side, from Fox Point to the Summit neighborhood with the exception of Mount Hope, which is part of District 6.
Democrats Shirley Francis-Fraser, Hilary Levey Friedman, Bret Jacob, Geena Pham, Ray Rickman, and Sam Zurier will compete in a primary on Oct. 5. The winner will be heavily favored in a matchup with Republican Alex Cannon in the general election Nov. 2.
So what should you watch for in the race? Here’s an overview.
A Democrat will win.
Jeff Levy, a member of the Senatorial District Committee and Goldin’s husband, was quick to remind me that “the East Side is not monolithic.” He’s right. Some voters prefer their coffee from Seven Stars, some choose L’Artisan, and others like Coffee Exchange. What is clear is that 65 percent of voters in District 3 are registered Democrats, compared to 44 percent statewide. That’s the second-highest percentage of Democrats in any Senate district in the state. (That honor belongs to District 6, which covers part of the East Side.) All of the candidates are likely to brand themselves as progressives, with some embracing more radical ideas and others trying to present themselves as more pragmatic.
The elite of the elites live here.
The popular “Crimetown” podcast often said that the East Side is where the doctors and lawyers live. It’s also where the powerful live. District 3 is home to future Supreme Court Justice John J. McConnell Jr., future US House Speaker David Cicilline, and future Governor Seth Magaziner. Future President Gina Raimondo used to live in the district until someone reminded her that it’s awfully difficult to win the Electoral College from Rhode Island. Of course, not every voter in the district is rich. But it’s where the money is. Of the 46 million-dollar home sales in Providence this year, all have occurred in the 02906 zip code.
Quality-of-life issues matter.
The electorate in District 3 tends to gravitate to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (although they all read Providence Monthly), so they might not be as focused on the State House as they are on Washington, D.C. But Councilman John Goncalves, who represents part of the district, said his constituents always like to discuss quality-of-life issues. That will likely force the candidates to discuss a recent uptick in violent crime (there was a shooting in front of Goldin and Levy’s home on Aug. 21) and the seemingly nonstop barrage of ATV and dirt bike riders who illegally and recklessly zip through the city. Wood said he thinks education, especially the state takeover of Providence schools, will likely be another top issue.
Keep an eye on the college students.
District 3 also happens to be home to many students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and some may be voting for the first time. In recent years, those students have become more involved with organizations like Sunrise Movement and Reclaim RI, two progressive groups that are not content with simply electing moderate Democrats to the State House. All of the candidates are going to need to develop strategies for engaging those students.
Now comes the hard part.
The candidates will spend the next month knocking on doors, raising obscene amounts of money for a part-time job that pays only $16,000 a year, sending glossy postcards, and debating (expect so many forums). And then, after a winner is declared on Nov. 2, they’ll start preparing for another reelection campaign next year.
Or maybe they’ll run for Congress.